The Terroir of Time: Glashütte, Germany – Part 1
Presented in two parts, the first article in this new series about how a location affects watchmaking, we explore the provenance of brands like A. Lange & Söhne, Moritz Grossman, and Tutima.
If you are into wine and fine dining, you know all about terroir. If not, it describes how the natural environment of a region in which a particular food or beverage is produced influences its flavor. It’s similar to the Italian DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta a.k.a. Protected Designation of Origin), which certifies that foods are locally grown and packaged by local farmers and artisans using traditional methods.
Timepieces, too, are affected by the local traditions of their makers. Watchonista wanted to investigate how geography and history have influenced your favorite brands. And there’s no better place to start this series than in the village of Glashütte in Germany, home to A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, NOMOS, Mühle, Moritz Grossman, and Tutima.
Glashütte is so prolific, in fact, that we have to tell this tale in two parts, beginning with the origin story.
In terroir, factors such as the soil, topography, and climate all affect the characteristics, taste, and flavor of a wine. The location has had a profound effect on the industry of Glashütte as well.
Glashütte sits in a valley in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge). When you drive down the Autobahn toward Glashütte, the road is surrounded by steep hillsides and lush forests. Suddenly, like a Saxon Brigadoon, the village pops up out of nowhere. With a population of around 7,000, it’s an unimposing place with traditional architecture, a kebab restaurant, and a smattering of shops.
Originally, farming and mining were the major occupations in Glashütte. But by the 19th century, the mines were tapped out, and the town floundered.
In 1845, businessman Adolph Lange proposed starting up a watch industry in Glashütte. The goal was to keep wealth within the region by increasing local production of high-end watches and, in turn, scaling back imports from Switzerland. Lange was granted a government loan to turn former farmers and miners into fine watchmakers.
Of course, no trip to Glashütte is complete without a visit to the German Watch Museum. And it is there that one can lose a day examining old drawings, tools, and timepieces to get a better sense of what makes Glashütte different.
When I first visited the museum in 2015, I was treated to a tour by director Reinhard Reichel. He explained that because most of these artisans passed through Lange’s watchmaking school at some point, they also adopted his signatures – namely the three-quarter plate, an improvement to the traditional rigid movement.
Reichel also dropped this bit of knowledge: Even though watchmaking in Glashütte dates back to the mid-19th-century, the brands, in their current forms, are less than 30 years old.
The Same, But Different
Let’s talk about the Glashütte gang: A Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, NOMOS Glashütte, Mühle, Moritz Grossman, and Tutima.
While each has a unique point of view, they share a common tradition of engineering excellence. Plus, there are regional signatures like a swan neck-shaped steel spring used for regulation, Côtes de Glashütte decoration on the plates (engraved freehand and wider than Côtes de Genève), and the use of screw-mounted gold chatons (tiny protective rings) on the three-quarter plate to hold the rubies put in place at friction points to reduce wear.
To carry that coveted proof of origin and meet the Glashütte regulation, most of the watch must be produced locally. And although the rules have not been made official, the regulation is considered binding and demands a minimum of 50 percent value creation onsite. This requirement prevents plagiarism and protects and strengthens the Glashütte tradition and the value of their local seal.
They also share the expertise and values of the community. Approximately 1,000 of Glashütte’s 7,000 inhabitants are engineers and designers, toolmakers and precision mechanics, polishers and re-fitters, finishers and engravers, and of course, watchmakers.
This small army of artisans also allows brands to carry the vaunted “Glasshütte” label on the dial.
A. Lange & Söhne
The biggest advantage of having access to such a pool of talent is the region can cater to every kind of collector. For example, most haute horology enthusiasts will agree that A. Lange & Söhne can hold its own against the Swiss Big Three.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. With the reunification of Germany came a reorganization of Glashütte’s watch industry. Lange’s great-grandson, Walter Lange, who had gone to West Germany after the Second World War, returned to reclaim his family’s name and registered a new company – A Lange & Söhne.
Since its first new-era collection in 1994, A. Lange & Söhne has been celebrated for its limited edition masterworks. Most recently, the brand introduced an updated version of the A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk, a watch that exemplifies the manufacturer’s instantly recognizable design aesthetic. I recently spotted one in the wild, and its owner told me he is tempted to wear it upside down so he can admire the movement.
First launched in 2009, this timepiece was the brand’s first to boast a mechanical jumping digital display of the hours and the minutes on a bold but balanced dial. Thanks to its propriety constant force escapement, this award-winning watch is also incredibly precise.
These handcrafted timepieces personify the Glashütte tradition, producing some of the most polished and beautiful mechanical movements ever created. These watches also reflect their Teutonic heritage with their unfussy dials and thoughtful use of luxurious materials.
After setting up his manufacture at Glashütte, Adolph Lange’s son Ferdinand Adolph brought his friend Carl Moritz Grossmann to the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) and encouraged him to open a workshop.
Grossmann’s specialties were precision instruments, fine pocket watches, pendulum clocks, and sea chronometers. He also co-founded the German Watchmaking School (die Deutsche Uhrmacherschule), passing his knowledge on to future generations.
The fact that he not only set up shop but planted roots in the Ore Mountains is telling. So, we asked Sandra Bergen, director of Marketing and Communication at Moritz Grossmann, what is it about Glashütte’s location that makes it so appealing.
“It’s very quiet,” said Bergen. The small population and geographic footprint offer few distractions other than its physical beauty. This quiet, she explained, “is a boon to watchmakers who need laser-like focus to make precision instruments.”
Despite the insular nature of Moritz Grossman’s artisans, we also admire their ability to paint a big picture. Case in point: the Universalzeit.
A world-timer with a modular movement that builds on the innovations of past GMTs to indicate seven time zones, it’s also a tribute to Moritz Grossman, who was one of the first watchmakers to address the concept of “universal time” and the challenges of a globalized society.
Watchmaking in the town of Glashütte had a very good run until the late 1920s. But just as the quartz crisis of the 1970s signaled a downturn in horological fortunes, the manufactures placed their bets on the pocket watch just as wristwatches became de rigueur.
Dr. Ernst Kurtz, Tutima’s founder, first came to Glashütte to work as a lawyer at the Saxon Girozentrale in the mid-1920s. At the time, the watchmaking industry was in a sharp decline. Tasked with finding ways to overcome the economic crisis, Kurtz brought the region’s independent watchmakers together under the umbrella of the Uhren-Rohwerke-Fabrik (UROFA) and Uhrenfabrik Glashütte AG (UFAG) and built Germany’s first factory dedicated to wristwatches. The most prestigious watches created in these bore the label “Tutima,” a neologism derived from the Latin word tutus, which means “safe” and “protected.”
Kurtz’s other major contribution to watchmaking in the region was to make the industry independent from Swiss suppliers and machinery, making it possible for production in Glashütte to be entirely self-sufficient.
Tutima carries on this tradition of functionality with its classic dive watch, the M2 Seven Seas S-PVD, which connects many of the elements of the made-in-Glashütte philosophy. It boasts a vibrant yellow dégradé dial and premium 2.5mm thick sapphire crystal, rated at 9 Mohs – only diamonds are harder! And thanks to the precisely crafted screw-in crown, the piece boasts 500 meters of water resistance, enough protection for the most daring dives.
Stay tuned to Watchonista for Part 2!
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)