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Feature: Why Glashütte without A. Lange & Söhne is unthinkable

For a town that’s the epicentre of high-end German watchmaking, Glashütte is an unassuming kind of place. Quaint, low-rise buildings line the dozen or so streets which are surrounded by verdant forested hills that provide a natural shield to the outside world.

An end-to-end stroll through the town, which can hardly be described as bustling, takes no more than 15 minutes, during which you’ll probably pass more watch companies than people.

Orderly, immaculately kept and unencumbered by busy traffic, it’s a place that carries a whiff of understated affluence. Yet this is a town with a turbulent history, one that has gone from teetering at the precipice of financial ruin to producing some of the world’s most coveted¬—and expensive— luxury watches.

Silver In The Hills

The existence of Glashütte was first recorded as early as the mid fifteenth century. Back then the area was awash in silver and iron ore deposits, with around a hundred local mines bringing prosperity to the town. When the silver and iron ran out and the mines shut down, basket-weaving was tried as a substitute economy, but the returns were paltry and by the 19th century Glashütte was facing an existential crisis.

A sketch of Glashütte in the mid-19th century when its watchmaking traditions began

A sketch of Glashütte in the mid-19th century when its watchmaking traditions began

In 1845 watchmaker Ferdinand Adolphe Lange, who grew up in the nearby city of Dresden, persuaded the Saxony government that the town’s fortune could be revived by watchmaking, and he was duly provided with a financial loan to train 15 apprentices in the horological arts.

These former straw weavers, artisans and miners went on to form the bedrock of the watch industry in the town, making all the parts needed to build a timepiece, which in turn attracted many other watchmakers to the area. These included Karl Moritz Grossman who founded a watchmaking school in a building in the centre of the town, now home to a superb state-of-the-art watch museum that lures in aficionados and collectors from around the world.

Ferdinand Adolph Lange, founder of A. Lange & Söhne

Ferdinand Adolph Lange, founder of A. Lange & Söhne

Glashütte quickly became the home of high-level German watch-making, with all the components made within the town’s borders. Such was its reputation that it was even the victim of counterfeiting, with disreputable watchmakers in other countries printing the name ‘Glashütte’ on the dials. This prompted Glashütte-based brands to register the phrase "Original Glashütte" and print it on their dials to distinguish them from the fakes.

Post-war Woes

Glashütte thrived once more until after World War II when the town, lying in the far eastern part of Germany, became part of the Soviet Bloc and was stripped of much of its traditional machinery and tools.

Under the communist East German state, founded in 1949, the only watch company allowed to operate was Glashütte Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), a state-run conglomerate formed by all the Glashütte brands being forcibly combined.

GUB timepieces from the communist era can be found in the town's museum

GUB timepieces from the communist era can be found in the town's museum

GUB’s timepieces were a pale shadow of those produced in the pre-war era. It did, however, ensure that the watchmaking tradition—albeit of an inferior kind—remained alive in Glashütte, even weathering the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Revival

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, Glashütte was finally free to re-establish itself as watchmaking powerhouse.

Fortunately Walter Lange, Ferdinand’s great grandson, who had fled to West Germany as the Wall was being constructed in 1961, had remained in the watch industry and in 1990 returned to Glashütte looking to reclaim the family name and revive the business.

With investment by Günther Blümlein, the CEO of Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH), a group that owned IWC, Walter was able to revive the hallowed name of A. Lange & Söhne, and rightly set his sights on the upper echelons of the industry.

It took A. Lange & Söhne until 1994 to design, manufacture and release its first batch of watches of the post-communist era, which included the Lange 1 and Saxonia models. They were an instant success, and when the Zeitwerk model arrived 15 years later, by which time the company had been acquired by the Richemont Group, it put the company back amongst the vanguard of high-end watchmakers.

 The town of Glashutte is now home to around a dozen watch brands

The town of Glashutte is now home to around a dozen watch brands

Other old Glashütte brands, including Mühle Glashütte and Glashütte Original followed suit, and the town’s watch revival even saw the launch of a brand-new company–Nomos, now Germany’s largest producer of mechanical watches, and seen as an affordable gateway brand to the wallet-draining prices of Lange.

Last year saw the town celebrate an incredible 175 years of watchmaking and it pretty much owes it all to the indomitable, never-never-say-die spirit of Lange, the company that ensured this remarkable town kept on ticking.

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