German Watches History And The Best German Watch Manufacturers
German Watches History And The Best German Watch ManufacturersRafael Dominguez2023-04-24T12:23:42-04:00
More commonly associated with fast cars and room-temperature beers, Germany possesses a rich watchmaking heritage. Despite interruptions and setbacks due to global conflicts, the watch industry in Germany persevered.
In this guide, we will explore the world of German mechanical watches via the following categories:
The history of watchmaking in Germany traces back to the 18th century and the town of Pforzheim. At that time, various watchmaking schools were established with the hopes of creating jobs and stimulating a new industry.
Stowa Building In Pforzheim. Image: Stowa.de
As a result, many talented watchmakers would become formed in Pforzheim, leading to a boom in the trade. It’s no surprise that the time-tested Stowa watch brand made this city their home in 1935.
An even bigger step forward was taken when the Durowe movement factory was established there. Henceforth, German watch companies could buy movements nationally instead of looking to international watch manufacturers, namely those in Switzerland.
Additionally, the German’s inclination for accuracy and precision provided fertile grounds for such a scrupulous industry to flourish.
Origins Of Watchmaking In Glashutte
Like Pforzheim, the town of Glashütte would be blessed by Ferdinand Adolph Lange. Not long after watchmaking took root in Pforzheim, Lange was searching for a place to settle and establish a watch company.
Financial motivation from the Saxon government helped Lange decide on Glashütte, a small town that had been left desolate by failed mining operations. Coupled with the global demand for timepieces, Glashütte would soon become a hub of fine watchmaking.
Lange’s watchmaking education allowed him to establish a reputation of technical prowess that attracted other watchmakers to the town. Equally important was his implementation of task specialization in his shop, which significantly increased output.
Even though the German watch industry enjoyed many decades of success, World War II brought with it much devastation. Many factories were bombed and destroyed, thereupon being forced to move or close permanently.
When the war ceased, much of what was left was taken over and transformed into state-run operations. On the positive end, this allowed some companies to stay afloat. Alternatively, state-run businesses don’t tend to be the most innovative, even if they continued churning out timepieces.
Watchmaking Rebirth In A Unified Germany
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought many changes, including to the practice of watchmaking. Entrepreneurs could see how Swiss brands were thriving after the quartz crisis, and the Germans took note.
Vintage Glashutte Original Models On Display. Image: glashuette-original.com
Swiss brands like Rolex and Omega had remained successful through the hardest of times, and the Saxons emulated their marketing tactics. In a digital world, watches were no longer tools but accessories and art to be worn.
Subsequently, the German watch brands got to work on expressing themselves through horology, lending us the contemporary watch brands of the present day.
What Does The Glashütte I/SA Marquee Mean?
The “Glashütte I/SA” hallmark encountered on some German-made watches is a carefully protected designation. In fact, for a watch to be able to tout this mark, which essentially states that it’s certified by the town of Glashütte itself, it must meet the following criteria:
50% or more of the watch movement value must be produced in Glashütte.
The bridge plate must be a three-quarter bridge plate.
The balance must have a “swan’s neck” regulator.
Screws must be heat blued with gold chaton settings.
Other types of movement decoration, such as perlage, ribbing, and sunburst effects must be present.
Next up, we dive into some of the best German watches you can find at this moment.
Best German Watch Brands
NOMOS Glashütte Minimalist / Bauhaus Watches
While we stand behind all of the brands we present in this guide, NOMOS Glashütte ranks first. This is not by sheer coincidence, given that NOMOS also stands at the top of the podium as the largest producer of mechanical timepieces in Germany.
In spite of its voluminous output, the brand prides itself on the amount of manual input involved in each and every timepiece. It also goes without saying that this practice ensures their quality is second to none, a characteristic easy to appreciate when handling their watches.
Plates, bridges, and wheels are milled by hand. Screws are blued in the same manner. Likewise, the beveling of the movement, along with the individual regulation of each caliber, is performed by individual watchmakers.
Speaking of movements – 2014 saw the brand introduce their proprietary escapement, which they call the NOMOS swing system. Consequent to this feat, they were able to become truly independent in the manufacture of all movement parts.
While the brand had been producing movements under its own roof since 2005, there were still critical components that required outsourcing. Since the groundbreaking announcement, NOMOS has gradually introduced this new technology throughout most model lines.
Year after year, the brand continues on the path to a 100% Glashütte-produced timepiece.
Luckily, the numerous design and technical awards earned have in no way dulled NOMOS’ hunger for betterment. They continue to innovate, introducing new calibers and inventive designs on an ongoing basis.
Stowa was originally founded in 1927 by Storz Walter (STOrz WAlter, if you were wondering) in Hornberg, Germany. Less than a decade later, the fledgling company relocated to Pforzheim, from where they would operate for almost 2 decades.
In the early days, Stowa was a pioneer in the space with their Bauhaus timepieces. Soon after, the age of flight brought with it the need for timepieces geared for pilots. As a result, Stowa answered the call with the Baumuster A, and later the Baumuster B, their big pilot watches (B-Uhr).
At first, Stowa’s movement ébauches were sourced from Switzerland. Later on, they began purchasing movements from Durowe, a local manufacturer whose movements could also be found in Laco watches.
When the movement factory was destroyed by bombings in 1945, the brand would once more relocate and revive, this time in Rheinfelden. Taking into account the fact that Stowa & others were supplying the German Wehrmacht with timekeepers of all types, it’s reasonable to assume that the factory was a target rather than a casualty.
The Stowa Flieger Verus
In the post-war era and beyond, Stowa would build a reputation for producing high-quality timepieces that stands to this day. Their model lines would grow to include diver watches and other nautical instruments along with classically styled timepieces, chronographs, and more.
Never discarding their heritage, Stowa’s Flieger models remain their most popular offerings. A sports version of their pilot, the Flieger Verus 40, was awarded the Red Dot Design award in 2019.
Sinn Military German Watch Brand
Sinn Spezialuhren emerged in the early 1960s as a manufacturer of pilot chronographs and navigation clocks. The watches were made to founder Helmut Sinn’s specifications, though they were initially produced in Switzerland and sold out of the Frankfurt HQ.
Even in the early days, the business practiced a direct-to-consumer model that bypassed retailers and ensured competitive pricing. Not surprisingly. their motto “the best possible watch for the best possible price” sheds some light on the thinking behind the tactic.
Fast-forward to the ’90s, when Mr. Sinn’s sale of the company to Lothar Schmidt saw the birth of the modern brand. The demanding quality standards remain, as does the value proposition, to the delight of watch aficionados the world over.
Since the acquisition, the brand has presented technological advancements of all kinds. Anti-fogging technology for diver crystals, a lubricant-free escapement, and hardened steel cases are just some of their innovations.
Today, the brand’s watch offerings retain the military influence almost throughout. Indeed, they do offer some dress and ladies’ pieces, but military sports watches is where they shine. Like Stowa, Sinn also received a Red Dot Product Design Award in 2019 for its EZM 12 model.
A. Lange & Sohne – German Made Luxury
To some extent, the history of A. Lange & Sohne can be considered the history of modern German watchmaking itself. Indeed, both began with Adolph Lange, who, having previously studied and perfected the watchmaking craft, was determined to establish his own manufacture.
Persistence and an entrepreneurial spirit led Lange to obtain a loan from the Royal Saxon Ministry of the Interior. With this financial support secured, Lange gathered 15 apprentices and started one of the first watchmaking centers in a then-impoverished Glashutte.
Lange would become Mayor of Glashütte after only a few years. During his time at the helm, along with growing a successful watch company, he also helped re-structure the failing town around the watchmaking industry. After 18 years in office, the town of Glashütte flourished, and the foundation had been laid for it to become a watchmaking hub.
Unfortunately, much of this heritage and craftsmanship would be lost during WWII and thereafter. Nothing had been heard of the brand name until the ’90s when Walter Lange and Günter Blümlein enlisted the help of IWC and JLC in reviving the brand.
Lange & Gunter Blumlein presenting the first post-reboot A. Lange & Sohne Models
The road ahead was long and paved with difficulties, as the rebirth of ALS was essentially from scratch. Nevertheless, the dream was clear: create timepieces with precision, readability, and operability as their pillars while exhibiting Glashütte’s watchmaking traditions.
Since then, the A. Lange & Sohne brand has become synonymous with remarkable quality and luxury, even with its humble beginnings. Now a part of the Richemont conglomerate, A. Lange & Sohne still produces and assembles all their timepieces completely in-house.
Glashütte Original’s history is as intricately linked with A. Lange & Sohne as it is complex. What is known today as the Glashütte Original luxury brand only came to be in 1994, yet the foundation and history traces back to the apprentices in Alfred Lange’s first shop.
By the early 20th century, various movement companies were established in Glashütte to meet the growing demand for wristwatches. Post-war, in 1951, eight of these local companies would come together under a state-owned group.
Although weighed down by the political situation, the group would continue thriving and developing its watches. Expressly, the second half of the 20th century saw them improving watch movements, producing new calibers, new complications, and even surviving the Quartz crisis.
Thereafter, the group would continue manufacturing watches until 1990. It was at this time, after the reunification of Germany, that the parent company would get its modern name, Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb GmbH.
The Glashütte Original brand, officially re-established in 1994, would go on to become part of another watch giant, the Swatch Group. Fortunately, its commercialization has not seen the brand’s essence diminished. All watches are still designed, constructed, and assembled under their roof and held to Glashütte standards.
Junghans got its start as a clockmaker in the 1860s. The founder, Erhard Junghans, had observed the application of industrialization methods to watchmaking in America and worked to replicate it.
As a matter of fact, he may have even perfected it. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Junghans was the number one clockmaker in the world in 1903.
By 1936, the Junghans brand was designing and producing their own watch movements. During war times, their in-house J88 chronograph movement would become of service to German forces.
Similarly, their chronometers would become equally successful. By 1957, Junghans would become the third largest chronometer manufacturer in the world while also producing the first automatic chronometer movement.
The 1960s would bring designs to match the high mechanical grade and define the brand eternally. Swiss designer Max Bill would bring in the Bauhaus element that embodies the model collection by the same name. Moreover, his input would establish one of the most attractive and iconic models offered in the history of Junghans.
The Most Expensive German Watch To Date
The A. Lange & Sohne Grand Complications
As we mentioned a bit earlier, A. Lange & Sohne is known for some truly remarkable timepieces. Naturally, these timepieces come with an equally exceptional price tag. Specifically, in the case of the A. Lange & Sohne Grand Complications, you’re looking at a retail price of $2.6 million at the time of release.
This incredibly complicated wristwatch will have a production run of only six timepieces. The case is 50mm of 18K pink gold with a white enamel dial. As far as complications, we’ll list them here for impact (not that it’s necessary):
Split-Second Monopusher Chrono with Flying Seconds
These kinds of Haute Horlogerie pieces aren’t all about the price tag, though. When brands venture out in these extreme directions, they are able to push themselves into new areas. Whereas Lange never had in-house chiming complications, this project allowed them to pursue those for future applications.
Truthfully, it’s very likely that the production cost of each of these will not be covered by the sale price. But again, the point here is not this individual timepiece. More specifically, it’s about how producing this one will impact future models, and the brand itself, looking forward.
When players like A. Lange & Sohne release these unattainable pieces, aside from playing the highest price tag game, they also keep modern watchmaking alive. Indeed, many of these releases glorify tradition, yet they’re employing modern technology to push the boundaries like never before.
And that’s what makes it exciting and truly should make watch fans enthusiastic about what’s to come.
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What did you think of our top German watch brands? Are there any at the top of your list that we missed? Let us know in the comments below! Also, check out our other watch content: