Interview: Behind-the-Scenes at the Manufacture with Glashütte Original CEO Roland von Keith
Come with us on a walk-and-talk tour of the German brand’s manufacture in Glashütte, Germany.
Usually, when journalists talk to a CEO, the story begins with something like, “We sat down with the industry player to talk about the future of timekeeping.” However, there wasn’t much time for sitting during Watchonista’s recent visit to Germany.
While we were there, the CEO of Glashütte Original, Roland von Keith, walked us, along with some fellow journalists, through the brand’s manufacture to give us a better sense of how the company’s past is part of its investment in its future growth.
But the standout display showcases the new PanoInverse Limited Edition, which feature an engraving of a cityscape on the three-quarter plate visible from the front and via the sapphire caseback. Fun Fact: This intricate engraving holds many hidden Easter Eggs, including a kitten sitting in a window.
As we admired the artistry of the collections of dials, designs, and embellishments, von Keith explained how a big part of the Glashütte Original plan is investing in human creativity, saying, “Watchmaking is tradition, but it’s also finding new ways to express ourselves.”
However, considering our current culture is run by algorithms and obsessed with artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to mimic creativity, you could be excused for thinking this plan of putting the brand’s faith into traditional watchmaking and human ingenuity sounds a bit counterintuitive.
But for Glashütte Original, this strategy makes perfect sense. “First of all, it’s a question of control,” explained von Keith.
As a high-end manufacture, Glashütte Original is not mass-producing millions of watches. What the brand is interested in is being able to consistently deliver high-quality timepieces that buyers can trust to provide reliable precision and service. This goal sounds simple enough, but until you actually visit a manufacture for yourself, you don’t appreciate how many people it takes to get a watch on your wrist.
For instance, Glashütte Original manufactures roughly 95% of each watch in-house. But in order to do so, the brand’s headquarters in Glashütte, Germany, employs everyone from people who make the tools that make the components of every timepiece to testing, assembling, and finishing the final product. That’s a lot of skilled labor. “There are also designers, social media teams and marketers, precision mechanics, and cleaners,” added von Keith. That’s a lot of skilled labor.
However, before we go any further into the brand’s plans for its future, let’s discuss its past. After all, one of Glashütte Original’s signatures is its double G logo, with one consonant looking forward while the other looks backward.
I won’t lie: Getting the occasional peek behind the curtain of watchmaking is one of the great perks of my job. But this trip was a little different. Not only did we get to ogle the brand’s gorgeous watches, but we also got a deeper understanding of the challenges and changes in contemporary horology from a company that has survived more social upheaval in the past than most.
We’ve written about Glashütte Original’s origin story before, of course. But basically, the brand was born from a scheme to bring an alternative industry (watchmaking) to Glashütte, a then-impoverished part of Saxony in the 1880s. The plan was a success, and the area became a cradle of excellence, with makers such as A. Lange & Söhne, Maurice Grossman, Tutima, and NOMOS Glashütte (among many others) setting up shop in the valley.
Business was good. Generations of local families found work in the ateliers. The atmosphere was so convivial that brothers and sisters would find themselves working for different watchmakers. So, some signatures, such as including the swan neck fine-adjustment in the movement, were shared among the houses. And even to this day, despite the competition among the various companies in the area, the so-called rivalries are friendly and consider themselves “DNeighbours.”
But there was also a lot of external disruption (i.e., World War I, a devastating depression, World War II, the split between East and West Germany, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, to name a few). Throughout it all, von Keith told me, Glashütte Original has managed to be resilient. And for the CEO, there is no shame in talking about the past because building back from scratch did more than make the brand stronger when it returned to the luxury market after years behind forced behind the Iron Curtain.
In truth, the word “stronger” is wholly insufficient when describing the consequences of Glashütte Original’s rebuild after the fall of the Berlin Wall because decision made when the brand was in that “back to square one“ moment led to Glashütte Original becoming an early adopter of vertical integration. “It makes us more independent,” added von Keith.
When Glashütte Original re-emerged from Cold War as a luxury brand, they relied on the skills and memories of generations of watchmakers to rebuild. It was a difficult road but worth it because its prowess in luxury finishes is no longer the only thing that makes the brand a true original. Today, Glashütte Original is also rightly celebrated for its precision movements and incredible dials.
Due to its storied past, explained von Keith, the brand determined to both preserve traditional skills while pushing watchmaking ahead. How can von Keith accomplish this? “We’re trying to foster young watchmakers,” he answered like it was the simplest thing in the world.
Indeed, the brand’s biggest investment these days is in its future – specifically in its technicians and watchmakers because competition for talent amongst the maisons of Glashütte is tough. Luckily, for von Keith and the brand, Glashütte Original has a few advantages.
Namely, the brand sponsors a watchmaking school, and (because the brand is part of the Swatch Group behemoth) employees can move around to different countries and companies if wanderlust hits. “Welcoming young people to the industry also allows the brand to attract young enthusiasts,” said von Keith.
And a happy employee is much more likely to come up with an idea that will turn into the next great movement or design. During our visit, von Keith and his team also previewed many embargoed 2023 releases. And while we can’t share them yet, we know you will be impressed!
For most of us, purchasing a luxury watch is not always savvy financially, but it’s emotionally satisfying. But since returning from Glashütte, I’ve been ruminating over my conversations with von Keith, and I’ve also been thinking that not all investments can or should be measured in money. And by supporting the next generation of watchmakers and technicians, Glashütte Original is showcasing another side of its originality.