All You Need to Know About German Watches
What do we usually associate Germany with? Cars? Beer? While these two are best not combined, I can’t blame you for the association.
To some, the word “Germany” brings to mind the agile and timeless BMW 5-series E34, or the rock-solid Mercedes W123 and W124. The 530i with a 3-liter V8 was probably the best car I ever had the opportunity to drive, beating modern Beemers to it… but I digress.
To some, it’s all about munching currywurst and drinking local beer at a Biergarten in the young and vibrant East Berlin, where street art meets Ostalgia.
But how many of you associate it with watches?
Germany has a long tradition in horology, dating back to the 16th century. However, we’re talking about…clocks. This still goes on.
Who hasn’t seen the cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest, from the wonders of woodworking to the downright cheesy? Owning two German clocks, a Hamburg American and a Le Roi a Paris by Kienzle, I can confirm that these things are rock-solid.
But what about watches?
The English connection
Regarding the design of movements, it appears that German watchmaking has a lot in common with England.
Ever since the English makers mostly stopped using the old verge-fusee, they adopted a very familiar concept. Yes, most English pocket watches with various types of the lever escapement use the so-very-German 3/4 plate. The entire wheel train is covered by a single plate, leaving only the balance cock as a separate part.
However, before that, the German movements looked nothing like this.
The German watch industry is often associated with the Saxony region with its primary hub, Glashütte. Unsurprisingly, the town owes its name to the production of glass. However, in the 19th century, it became ground zero for watchmaking. Still, some might be surprised, that it wasn’t Glashütte, where the best watches were made.
One of the best manufacturers in Germany, the company of the Eppner Brothers, was based way further south, in the now-Polish Silesia. They had their factories in Lähn (now Wleń) and Silberberg (Srebrna Góra).
The Eppners started their business the easy way, if not the easiest way. They settled for generic Lepine layouts, rolling out from the French and Swiss factories by the thousand.
By the 1860s, the Eppner movements have evolved. A radial layout of train cocks gave way to a single plate, now and then with a separate cock for the escape wheel, but this was the step towards the 3/4 plate.
Top-grade Eppner movements were chronometer-grade and had state-of-the-art balance assemblies. The movements scored brilliantly in tests at the Wilhelmshaven Observatory.
Soon, in addition to watches, the company also offered deck chronometers.
The predecessor to today’s A.Lange & Sohne was founded in 1845 in Glashütte. Up until the end of World War II, the company made some of the finest “System Glashütte” (3/4 plate) movements. In a way, these movements were similar to ones by Eppner. While the plates featured a simple, frosted finish, the details that matter were finished wonderfully.
In the 1930s, at the time when they took up the contract for the Beobachtungsuhr (observer’s watch) for the Luftwaffe, Lange introduced an indirectly driven sweep second to their standard “System Glashütte” movement.
The company was active until 1948. Following the post-war settlements, the entire region of Saxony was incorporated into the communist German Democratic Republic. All major industries were nationalized, effectively ending the existence of the companies that owned them. This included watch factories.
All things Swiss
With all its excellence, the Swiss watch industry had an unfortunate tendency. Swiss manufacturers loved to copy the design of movements made elsewhere.
They copied the design of English movements, to compete in the British market. It was the same with a lot of movements intended for the American market. Germany wasn’t spared, either.
To please German clients, the ebaucheries did the same. A 3/4 plate and a redesigned balance cock. These were often marketed as System Glashütte, though they didn’t have anything to do with the place. They had the right to do so. It wasn’t a registered trademark, after all.
If you find a German pocket watch with a movement with a 3/4 plate, it’s a good idea to check the movement for any markings. It’s very likely, that although the whole thing could have been assembled and sold in Germany, the movement was imported.
The practice of German manufacturers and dealers using Swiss movements still happens today.
20th Century, until 1945
The Good, The Really Bad, and the Really Ugly
The vast majority of German wristwatch movements made until the end of World War II wasn’t a role model for German solidity. This becomes obvious if you think about Kienzle, for example.
Kienzle made decent clocks, but even today, nobody wants to buy the watches they used to make. Their non-jeweled pin-lever wonders were as uninteresting and appalling as a movement could ever get. They weren’t reliable either.
The interwar period has seen the rise of some companies based in what would later become West Germany. Back in the 1930s, the ebaucheries like PUW or Durowe seemed to specialize mostly in then-popular Formwerke, i.e., tonneau-shaped movements.
While these were mostly made to fit rectangular wristwatches, the use of them in round watches wasn’t unheard of. Round movements, while decent, often did not differ much from Swiss ebauches of the period.
Durowe movements of the 1930s were oddly similar to ebauches by A.Schild and FHF.
The Brands – 1945 and on
The companies based in the areas of the American, British and French occupation zones have survived and thrived.
PUW and Durowe continued the production of movements and supplied them to a variety of brands, including Bulova. Bulova, in addition to using German movements, had a fair amount of their watches cased and assembled in West Germany.
Some of the brands might not be what they used to be anymore. Still, many of them have survived, in one way or another.
Founded in 1900, Bifora was once a respected brand. It’s mostly known for its 1951 launch of the very first automatic movement to be designed and produced in Germany.
Unfortunately, at the very beginning of the Quartz Crisis, the company went bankrupt. The name was revived a few years ago. However, the company and its watches have nothing to do with the original Bifora.
Founded by Walter Storz in 1927 in Hornberg. After their first successes, the company moved to another hub of German industry (not only watchmaking) – Pforzheim.
While the B-Uhr for the Luftwaffe is undoubtedly the most famous watch that Stowa ever made, the company was never about tool watches.
From the 1930s on, Stowa primarily made dress watches. This included then-popular tank-style pieces, as well as round dress watches in Bauhaus style. Throughout the years after the war, Stowa has retained its scope as a producer of quality dress watches.
The company, which still exists, produces mostly variations of the B-Uhr design, as well as dress watches in the spirit of Bauhaus and a few dive watches.
Back in the day, Stowa used movements from German suppliers. Currently, their watches are equipped with movements by ETA.
Junghans should theoretically have been listed earlier in this article. However, it wasn’t until after the war that Junghans gained the popularity it enjoys today.
Founded in 1861, Junghans produced not only watches of their own. They also supplied their movements to other manufacturers, notably Alpina.
A considerable part of the company’s products were clocks. Junghans made everything from a small table or travel clocks up to wall and mantel ones. The clocks were sold under a variety of trademarks, often depending on the intended market.
In 1949, Junghans designed its own chronograph movement – the J88. They became one of the very, very few German companies to have achieved that.
While Junghans mostly used movements of its own, their current watches are equipped with Swiss ebauches, mostly by ETA and Sellita.
However, Junghans’ true popularity started when the company teamed up with the artist Max Bill in 1956. The watches designed by Bill were a huge success. The reissues of the “Max Bill,” like their predecessors from the 1950s and 1960s, remain wildly popular.
Founded in 1961 by Helmut Sinn, a pilot, and flying instructor. Most manufacturers of tool watches weren’t established oriented on this particular kind of timepieces, but Sinn wasn’t one of them.
From the very beginning, the company’s scope was cockpit instruments and tool watches for pilots. Only about a decade later, Sinn, along with Heuer, produced flyback chronographs for the Bundeswehr.
Nowadays, the company has luxury watches with in-house movements in its offer. However, the bulk of their line-up still consists of tool watches. Most of them have some manner of certification qualifying them to be used for their intended purpose.
A modern brand, founded in 1994. It’s the second (after Sinn) German brand focusing on tool watches.
While the majority of Damasko watches uses ETA movements, the company also developed movements of its own.
GUB and Glashütte Original
The predecessor of the Glashutte Original brand that we all know today was Glashütte Uhrenbetriebe (GUB).
GUB was a state-owned consortium formed in 1951 from the nationalized production plants in Glashütte. As far as watches from behind the Iron Curtain go, GUB had decent quality. And it doesn’t apply only to the Q1 chronometer-grade models.
While the finishing was industrial, the movements were thin. Their design aimed at using a balance wheel as large as possible to enhance their accuracy.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, GUB was privatized, and transformed into Glashutte Original, high-end manufacture. The company kept its old logo, and its line-up features pieces reinterpreting GUB’s designs from the 1960s and 1970s.
At the moment, Glashütte Original is owned by the Swatch Group.
D.Dornblüth & Sohn
A relatively young brand, founded in 1999. And it’s yet another example of the use of System Glashütte layout.
The watches use extensively modified Unitas movements. Well, it’s not fair to say that. There’s hardly any Unitas left in these watches.
The movements have the essential 3/4 plate, combined with top-notch finishing.
A. Lange & Sohne
Another “great return,” and perhaps the most spectacular one.
The company, after being nationalized and effectively removed from existence in 1948, was rebuilt in 1994. From the start, the focus was high-end watches to rival the biggest players in the market. As a result of the work of the late Walter Lange, the company’s direct competition is the Big Three (Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet) in Switzerland, and Credor in Japan.
If you look at Lange movements, one thing stands out. Yes, it’s the very same System Glashütte layout with the 3/4 plate. And, just like in Lange movements from the 19th century, the balance cock has the same style of ornaments.
Founded in 1882, Hanhart specialized in stopwatches and chronographs. In that respect, it was uncommon among German watch manufacturers. Most seemed to focus on time-only watches, rarely (if ever) with any complications.
Meanwhile, Hanhart went a step further and used in-house chronograph movements. This, if not for Junghans, was almost unheard of.
The company still exists. While they don’t use their own movements anymore, the watches themselves enjoy a good reputation in the collectors’ community.
German watchmaking has a long and interesting history. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something I’ve overlooked. There are a lot of German watch companies which I haven’t mentioned that perhaps should’ve made the cut. NOMOS, Guinand, Lang & Heyne, MeisterSinger, and many others.
If there’s a conclusion to be made, it’s that every year the German watch industry proves, that you’d be crazy to underestimate it. It covers every price range. It has something to offer in every category, from budget sports watches to all things high-end.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s on the rise. And I hope it stays that way.
What do you think of German watches? Do you have one in your collection? Let me know in the comments below.