Aside from eager horology fans coming by each week to learn more about what goes into its watches, the Glashutte Original manufacture does not see many visitors – and that’s not just because it is located in Glashutte, a tiny eastern German town with a population of about 7,000. “We have very few people coming to deliver parts,” says Ulrike Kranz, the brand’s head of public relations, who has met us on a chilly morning in February to take us on a tour of the premises.
The pride in her voice is evident: Glashutte Original, owned by the Swatch Group since 2002, produces its movements and 95 per cent of its watch parts. It also makes its own dials in a facility in Pforzheim, 600km from Glashutte. This production independence can be seen as the proverbial silver lining, when viewed in the historical context of how the brand came to be.
It’s a story that’s interestingly told at the nearby German Watch Museum Glashutte, which was co-founded by the town and Glashutte Original. As silver mining in Glashutte waned in the 19th century, watchmaker and entrepreneur Ferdinand Adolf Lange started the region’s first watch manufacture – A. Lange & Sohne – kick-starting a thriving watchmaking industry.
A few years after East Germany came under communist rule in 1949, eight firms in Glashutte were unified in one state-owned enterprise, the Glashutte Watch Factories. Following German reunification, Glashutte Original was established by the privatisation of the previously nationalised conglomerate.
Which brings us back to the manufacture’s high level of vertical integration today. Explains Kranz: “During East German times, they couldn’t buy what they needed because they didn’t have enough money or couldn’t travel to trade fairs in other major German cities, so they had to make what they needed.”
As we traverse the corridors of the spotlessly white four-storey building, which recently underwent renovation, it is clear that the spirit of tradition lives on within the brand’s high-tech facilities in other ways.
Consider, for instance, the creation of the mainplates. The plates on which watch movements are mounted are milled by CNC machines that perform up to 90 steps on each side of a plate. As the foundation for hundreds of movement parts, every drilled hole on the mainplate has very specific parameters, with a tolerance of just 0.001mm. But the computerised construction process is just one part of it – after being checked, each plate is finished by hand, where they are polished and decorated with a perlage finish.
This careful approach is applied to every component of the brand’s watches, including, of course, its most significant features: the three-quarter plate with its Glashutte stripes, screw-mounted gold chatons, hand-engraved decorations and its swan-neck fine adjustment mechanism. Indeed, such is the quality of the timepieces that a good number of connoisseurs consider the brand highly undervalued.
The Human Touch
Seated in diligent rows in different rooms, coat-clad watchmakers and technicians go about their tasks in glass-walled specialised departments running the gamut from finishing and polishing, to turning and teeth-cutting, and of course movement assembly.
As we look inquisitively at the staff through glass windows, we are struck by their intense concentration – most hardly bat an eyelid even when we stop to goggle. But this is perhaps a prerequisite when you’re working for one of the top brands in the business, and – in the case of the younger generation – have probably undergone rigorous training at the brand’s Alfred Hedwig School of Watchmaking (which is located within the German Watch Museum). Each year, only fifteen applicants, out of hundreds, are admitted to the three-year programme.
Just like its production processes, where tradition and modernity meld seamlessly, young blood and veterans work alongside each other even at advanced levels. The high-complications department house a dozen watchmakers, who can take up to a month to assemble complex movements like that of the Senator Perpetual Calendar. Here, the youngest employee is a fresh-faced 22-year-old hired right out of the Alfred Hedwig School.
Of this watchmaker, who was the school’s top student two years ago, Kranz explains with a smile: “He would otherwise not find it challenging enough.” The young man, we think, is in just the right place.