Made In Glashütte With Love: An Insider’s Peek Into The Makings Of A NOMOS Watch
Like finding a golden ticket in a chocolate bar, Watchonista goes inside the old-world independent in a cross-country exploration to the heart of the brand.
The year 2020 marks the 175th anniversary of watchmaking in Glashütte. The quiet Saxon town between Dresden and the Czech border is tucked inside a long, narrow valley - so narrow, in fact, that Glashütte has actually run out of space for new buildings. Were you to look for a hotel to stay in during your visit, you’d have to trek one town over because there’s no more room here.
Glashütte is the undisputed watchmaking capital of Germany with nearly a dozen brands operating in a town of only 7,000 people. One of these brands is the Bauhaus-inspired NOMOS Glashütte, known for its clean lines and everyman prices. NOMOS takes up residence in a few buildings across the town with its main headquarters in the former train station just up from where the valley’s two rivers, Müglitz and Priessnitz, converge.
The brand began just over 30 years ago at the same time the wall fell in Berlin. In those three decades, it has won over 150 awards for design, technology, and sustainability and has earned the respect of the creative class and critics alike. Although the privately-owned brand doesn’t post detailed financial figures, the company has been growing by as much as 25% year-over-year with plans to expand internationally in the near future.
And what makes NOMOS so successful is not only the clean-as-can-be design language or their in-house Swing System (more on those later), but also the brand’s insistence on doing things their own way. NOMOS is both aware of and unburdened by the strict structures of the industry and the culture it operates in. Simply put, it’s German sensibility depressurized.
“In minimalism, you see every mistake.”
Watchonista’s tour of NOMOS begins not in Glashütte but in Berlin at their design studio, Berlinerblau. The surrounding neighborhood of Kreuzberg falls into the category of “up-and-coming”, a bohemian hangout with equal parts street art and artisanal food.
The NOMOS design department is led by Thomas Höhnel and Michael Paul. These two, however, would be the first to tell you that the hierarchy within the department, and the company as a whole, is decidedly flat. A key result of this is that any visual changes are made slowly and deliberately, largely unencumbered by the often harsh schedules of the industry’s trade shows. Some new designs, Hohnel tells us, can take six months, a year, two years, or really however long it takes to feel complete.
Just outside the airy conference room, Höhnel pulls open a drawer from the folio cabinet, wide and flat. Inside are what must be a hundred variations of NOMOS dials tucked neatly into a black velvet grid. We see special editions like the gingham “picnic dial,” the Tokyo edition with Kanji numerals and a rising sun sub-seconds, and a double-printed Tangente that started as a mistake from the producer and ended as a special anniversary “duplette” edition for a German newspaper.
Among these special editions are iridescent purples, optical-illusion linework, woodgrain, classical guilloché, etched golds, and a kaleidoscope of tangerine, cyan, mint, and jaune. This chocolate box of sorts is part greatest hits and part reject pile, and the line between the two is delightfully subjective. What could’ve fueled a dozen collections at a different brand are contentedly kept to NOMOS’s cutting room floor.
Burning Down The Bauhaus
This unhurried independence is seemingly everywhere at Berlinerblau. The veteran designer Michael Paul, for example, has actually been freelancing for NOMOS for over fifteen years. And even with the tentpole of NOMOS’s design approach, Bauhaus, the brand shows that nothing should be taken too seriously.
“Tradition is not very important for us,” Paul admits. Because although the institution of a century ago remains a focal point in design studies to this day, the team at NOMOS is more concerned with the contemporary - the sights, smells, and sensations that their customers feel in everyday life. As such, NOMOS watches are often injected with playful colors, handmade fonts, and even tiny whales etched into the water-resistant cases.
We see this when NOMOS discusses its sports watches such as the Ahoi, Club Sport, and Tangente Sport. Contrary to the industry standard of a deep-diving military timepiece, Höhnel and team decided instead to focus on the much more probable application of the modern waterproof watch. “Maybe it’s for someone who has a houseboat on the River Spree on the outskirts of Berlin and needs an everyday watch,” he explains, “This is much closer in mind for us than making something that can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.”
All Aboard To Glashütte
The following morning, we catch the early train to Glashütte. And because this is Germany and not New York, the train is impeccably punctual. The sun rises over the Brandenburg countryside as we whiz past small villages and quaint cottages. We step off in Dresden to meet Steffen Sturm, NOMOS’s Technical Product Manager and our ride to Glashütte. Sturm is a special mix of heavy metal drummer and new dad energy, and he sure knows how to whip a Peugeot through a winding mountain pass.
Inside NOMOS’s Glashütte headquarters, we sit briefly with Sturm in a large room of gridded glass. We chat about his 10 years with the brand, moving from Quality Control to Product Development, and about his job of liaising between the design and production wings of the company.
As we sip our coffees, he pulls out an example of the first metal bracelet made by NOMOS, now found on models like the Club Campus Neomatik. Unlike the typical series of interconnected links, this bracelet is made from a thin metal ribbon wrapped tightly around a mesh interior. “This was actually inspired by a flea market find.”
Big Machines, Small Parts, Infinite Quality Control
During our tour of NOMOS’s watchmaking facilities, we get a step-by-step look at the process of building a NOMOS caliber. And like a traditional German waltz, there are a lot of steps. We bounce from one room to the next, "wiping" our feet on sticky, dust-trapping mats each time we enter.
Over 160 parts are made in NOMOS’s watchmaking facility, and we begin with the base of the in-house movements, the mainplate. A large machine about the size of two refrigerators uses over 200 tools to sculpt each mainplate, removing 63 layers of metal to make room for the smaller parts to come. When fully stocked with magazines of blank mainplates, this machine can run for four days uninterrupted.
We move onwards from plates and screws to the more complex moving parts. In the balance wheel room, we watch as highly-trained technicians hunch over microscopes, removing dust size pieces of metal one by one, oscillating the small wheels between operations to check the rhythm. From here, these small parts with the tiniest of nuances are grouped into forty separate classes to be matched with equally tiny, nuanced, and categorized springs.
In a later room, we see three artisans carefully grinding the sunburst finishing into the wheels. Although these three have achieved a zen-like consistency to their patterns day-in and day-out, our guides tell us they can still pick out their wheels years down the line.
Each movement is paper-thin - just 3.2mm for their automatic DUW 3001 - or about 10 postage stamps in layman’s terms. After production, assembly, and innumerable rounds of testing, the movements are ready in approximately about one month from start to finish. And should you choose to purchase a higher-value gold timepiece such as the Lambda, your watch will be entirely assembled by one watchmaker.
“You can’t buy books on this.”
At the heart of NOMOS is their famed Swing System. The proprietary escapement was a collaborative effort between the watch brand and the Technical University of Dresden beginning in 2007. Over the following seven years of research and development, the two entities created multi-layered, computerized machine simulations from scratch and spent nearly 11 million euros in the process. After all, movement suppliers like ETA or Sellita fueling much of the watch industry don't publish their trade secrets, and as NOMOS’s Head of Design Engineering told us, “You can’t buy books on this.”
In 2014, NOMOS quietly, secretly released their new Swing System out into the world with 10,000 movements distributed inside their Metro watches. The strategy here? If all goes well, no one will notice a difference.
As the day draws to a close and the sun sinks closer toward the mountain ridge, we look out onto two neighboring facilities perched just across the street. One is a Swatch Group brand and the other is owned by luxury goods company, Richemont. However, it’s NOMOS that only belongs to NOMOS.
With the success of the Swing System comfortably established, NOMOS can now operate free from constrictions of outside suppliers. They can make adjustments quickly since they know the ins and outs of their movements and they’re largely immune to stock shortages or price increases. At each step of the manufacture tour, with each conversation with a brand representative, this independence was held with the highest esteem - a Glashütte watch through and through.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)