Remaining relevant in an industry dominated by the Swiss
The town of Glashutte is the centre of German watchmaking, but lacks the presence suggested by its status. Located near the German-Czech border 45 minutes away from Dresden, the capital of Saxony, the sleepy town has only one hotel. “You wouldn’t want to stay here,” says our guide and spokesperson from watch brand Glashutte Original, which was hosting the trip. “There’s nothing to do. No restaurants, cinemas or bars. You will be very bored!” And so, as most visitors to Glashutte choose to do, we stayed in Dresden and made a drive down instead.
The headquarters of Glashutte Original is a modern glass-clad building that, at four storeys, is double the height of most of the buildings in a town dominated by quaint red-roofed cottages. The 8,500sqm facility is spotless, all-white and flooded with daylight from the glass ceiling that tops the central atrium. The welcoming interior must be credited to the renovations made between early 2013 and 2014 to make the building more visitor-friendly. The brand gets an average of 7,000 requests to visit from collectors every year; to put the number in perspective, if all 7,000 requests were accepted, the number of visitors walking through the workshop would match the population of Glashutte.
Indeed, the town would probably cease to exist if not for the dozen or so watchmakers who have steadfastly stayed put through the decades. The founding of Glashutte Original cannot be attributed to one man, but is the work of the circumstances of its time. The story of Glashutte watchmaking began 170 years ago, when Ferdinand Adolph Lange, equipped with a loan from the Saxony government, brought his love for watchmaking to the town by building its first watch firm. The move quickly prompted more great watchmakers to move to Glashutte and in the 1850s the town was home to big names such as Adolph Schneider, Moritz Grossmann and Julius Assmann.
The rapid growth of this new industry needed the support of qualified craftsmen – something Glashutte lacked because its main trade then was silver ore mining. In hope of discovering new talents, Grossmann established the German School of Watchmaking Glashutte on 1 May 1878. With the foundations set, watchmaking thrived in Glashutte for almost a century. For Glashutte Original, this period of boom was marked by two significant events. The first was in 1916, when a watchmaker, Karl W Hohnel, came up with the Original Glashutte trademark, which he stamped on his pendulum clocks as proof of their origin. This evolved into the first ladies’ watch in 1927 carrying the Glashutte Original imprint, which is still used today.
Then, tragedy befell the company at the end of World War II. On 8 May 1945, Soviet fighter pilots bombed the town, destroying residences and several watchmaking workshops. To rub salt into the wound, with East Germany under Soviet rule after the war, machinery and watchmaking equipment were seized as state property. Several watchmaking firms were merged to form the state-owned Volkseigener Betrieb Glashutter Uhrenbetriebe (VEB GUB). It was only in 1994, after the Berlin Wall fell, that VEB GUB was allowed to go private. German entrepreneur Heinz W Pfeifer took over the company and renamed it Glashutte Original.
Back in the present, we made our way around the atrium, which holds a mini exhibition of some of Glashutte Original’s most important vintage pieces, before moving on to what the firm calls the ‘learning path’. This is the corridor outside the ateliers, which have glass walls so visitors can observe the craftsmen at work. Following this path would take the visitor to every department in the building. The experience is complete with 13 glass display cases and 10 educational videos installed outside some of the ateliers.
The brand takes on average three to four years to launch each product after conceptualisation. For high complication pieces, such as the Grande Cosmopolite Tourbillon, development can take up to six years. To supply its workshop with enough talent to create these timepieces, Glashutte Original took over the building that once housed Grossmann’s German School of Watchmaking for its own school. Named the Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking, it pays tribute to Alfred Helwig, a former student of the German School of Watchmaking who went on to become a well-loved teacher and gained renown as the developer of the flying tourbillon. The school attracts about 300 eager applicants per year, but only 24 applicants will pass muster to become full-fledged employees at Glashutte Original.
The presence of watchmaking giants such as Glashutte Original, its equally popular neighbour A Lange & Sohne, and Nomos Glashutte is what keeps the town alive. “In the 90s, after the Berlin Wall fell, no young people wanted to stay in Glashutte,” explains our host. “They were leaving for West Germany, where wages were higher and which was seen as the way to success.” However, the dogged determination of the aforementioned watchmakers to keep the heart of German watchmaking in Glashutte soon encouraged the youth to move back. “Now, they realise that they have a future here because there are a few watchmaking schools (A Lange & Sohne has its own institution in the town as well) and many employment opportunities. Glashutte is the place to be if you know that watchmaking is what you want to do and you enjoy a peaceful existence in a small town.”