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Glashütte Original is a luxury watchmaker founded in 1994, in the wake of the Cold War and at the dawn of German reunification. However, it traces its roots back much further, to the mid-19th Century during the inception of German watchmaking in the eastern German state of Saxony. Here is the story of how Glashütte Original, and the horological pioneers who laid its foundation, persevered through war, social and political upheaval, and economic turmoil to become one of today's most innovative and admired watch brands, along with an introduction to each of its five 21st-Century product families.
The little town of Glashütte, in the Ore Mountains of the German state of Saxony, had fallen on hard times when a watchmaker from nearby Dresden named Ferdinand Adolph Lange set up a watchmaking shop there in 1845. The silver-mining industry that had sustained the region’s inhabitants, and that had given the town its name (“Glass Hut” or “Shiny Hut”), was on the decline after years of war and industrial competition from the New World. The inhabitants of the town were facing poverty and eager for new opportunities to make a living, and Lange, along with others who shared his passion for horology and entrepreneurship, were the visionaries to provide them.
In cooperation with the Royal Saxon government, who had funded the venture, Adolph Lange established A. Lange & Cie. (later A. Lange & Söhne), a manufacturing hub for watchmaking in which apprentices would receive training in his factory and eventually strike out on their own to start other watch businesses in the region. Quickly, the horological trade flourished in Glashütte, with new factories popping up and other master watchmakers making their mark and boosting the local economy. Carl Moritz Grossmann, another Dresdener, arrived in 1854 and established Germany’s first School of Watchmaking in 1878. Julius Assmann (below), an apprentice of Adolphe Lange and eventually also his son-in-law, opened his own atelier in 1852. Lange’s first factory foreman, Adolf Schneider, founded his own factory in 1855. This ambitious, entrepreneurial quartet — Lange, Grossmann, Assmann, and Schneider — are regarded as the founding fathers of Glashütte’s burgeoning watchmaking industry, and led the way for many to follow.
The watchmaking boom ushered in by the founding fathers transformed Glashütte, bringing widespread employment and economic revival to the area and worldwide acclaim for the quality and beauty of the watches being produced there. So renowned were Glashütte timepieces that other, less prestigious and somewhat less principled watch manufacturers outside of the region, many outside of Germany itself, tried to associate their own products with the famous name, putting phrases like “System Glashütte” on the dials. The response from the masters in Saxony was to put the stronger phrase “Glashütte Original” on their own watch dials to proclaim their provenance. This designation of quality would plant the seeds for the modern Glashütte Original brand.
The World Wars and economic disasters of the first half of the 20th Century, however, would put an end to the boom times in Glashütte. Production of gold pocket watches, which represented much of Glashütte’s output, ground to a halt as the German government hoarded gold to pay for the first World War, which began in 1914. Many watch factories shut down during World War I, and for many of them, reopening was a challenge: the neutral Swiss had stepped up as a major provider of watches to the world during wartime and had mastered techniques that made their products more affordable than Germany’s. Also, the era that followed the war ushered in a sea change in the types of watches the public wanted: wristwatches, like those worn by soldiers in the trenches, rather than the pocket watches (above) that had been in fashion previously and which still represented the majority of Glashütte watchmakers’ products. During the Weimar Republic era that spanned the decades between World Wars I and II, which was plagued by hyperinflation and political instability, the watch firms that remained in Glashütte started embracing industrialization and wristwatch production out of economic necessity, consigning much of the traditional Saxon handcrafted techniques to the past.
Just as the nation’s watch industry was getting back on its feet, however, a second World War, even more devastating than the first, broke out in 1939. Watch manufacturers, like other industries, were pressed to devote all of their resources and materials to the war effort; the firms in Glashütte sustained themselves during this difficult time by providing timekeeping and navigational instruments for German army pilots (like the "B-Uhr" model pictured above) and naval officers. But even this brief revival was short-lived. In a cruel historical irony, the town of Glashütte was carpet-bombed by Russian fighter jets on May 8, 1945 — just hours before Germany’s surrender later that same day marked an end to hostilities in Europe. Occupying Red Army troops confiscated all the watchmaking machines, blueprints, and parts they could load onto trucks, and the proud watch factories that had, many decades earlier, revitalized a region and produced timepieces admired by the world, were now reduced to rubble.
What was left of Glashütte, and the state of Saxony, after the ferocious bombing at the end of World War II, came under the control of Russia (then the Soviet Union) in the postwar partitioning of Germany by the victorious Allied powers. The new state that was formed, called the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, was governed in the Communist tradition of Soviet-era Russia, whose tenets included state ownership of formerly privately owned businesses. The inevitable result for the surviving Glashütte watch companies — including A. Lange & Söhne, the grandfather of them all — was that they were all consolidated into a single, nationalized conglomerate, called Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe, or GUB, in 1951. Production of anything that could be called a luxury watch ceased during the long Cold War period that spanned the following decades, but the watchmakers that made up of the GUB persevered by making tool and sport watches, like the Spezimatic and Spezichron, and selling them both domestically and throughout Europe.
The Cold War, and the era of a divided Germany, experienced its momentous and rousing death knell in November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a concrete symbol of Soviet might that had stood since 1961. The German reunification that this event portended finally occurred in October 1990. Shortly thereafter came the first harbingers of a reborn, revitalized German watchmaking industry centered, as per historical tradition, in Glashütte. Walter Lange, great-great grandson of Ferdinand Adolphe Lange, teamed with watch-industry turnaround specialist Günter Blümlein to establish a new iteration of A. Lange & Söhne (learn more about that story here), launching its original four watch models in 1994; entrepreneur Roland Schwertner, who had founded his Nomos brand in January 1990, just months after the Wall fell, released its first watches in 1992 (more on Nomos here). And the GUB, now free from government control in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, became Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe GMBH — a privatized enterprise again, albeit one now possessed of all the aggregated history and institutional expertise of the individual companies that had formed it. In 1994, the name of the company became Glashütte Original, hearkening back to the quality mark of the late 19th Century, when it was acquired by German entrepreneur Heinz W. Pfeifer. In 2000, Switzerland's Swatch Group acquired Glashütte Original, along with a smaller sister brand, Union Glashütte, adding them to the host of historical Swiss watch maisons inside the group, which included Tissot, Longines, Omega, Breguet, and Blancpain.
Since its reinvention as the Swatch Group’s only German high-luxury watchmaker, today’s Glashütte Original has forged a reputation for technical excellence, aesthetic boldness, and a resolute adherence to the historic Saxon watchmaking traditions at its roots. Glashütte Original makes all its movements in-house, and bestows upon those movements many of the hallmarks introduced by Glashütte’s 19th-Century pioneers.
Among these are a three-quarter mainplate made of untreated German silver, larger than most plates used by Swiss watchmakers and theoretically improving stability in the movement’s construction; a “swan’s neck” fine adjustment mechanism that can regulate the rate by changing the effective length of the balance spring; bridges and balance cocks embellished with hand engraving that makes each one unique without interfering with their function; and the decorative “Glashütte ribbing” textured motif (similar to “Geneva waves” but applied at a different angle) that adds visual depth to the movement. As of 2006, Glashütte Original even makes its own dials in-house.
Today, the manufacture makes watches in five distinct collections, each bearing its own signature aesthetics and inspired by different aspects from the 175-year-old history of Saxon horology. We explore each of them below.
Glashütte Original’s Senator collection combines classically timeless Saxon design with a high level of technical sophistication befitting a 21st Century luxury brand. The elegant gents’ collection is impressively diverse in its offerings. The understated beauty of the three-handed Senator Excellence (above), belies the complexity of its inner heart, the automatic Caliber 36, with an antimagnetic silicon balance and a lengthy 100-hour power reserve. The Senator Chronometer (below), offers maritime charm in its recently released white-gold version with a sea-spray-inspired, silver-gray, galvanized dial with bright blue accents. Behind the dial, distinguished by its marine-chronometer layout with symmetrical subdials and Panorama Date, beats the manually wound manufacture Caliber 58-08.
Grand horological complexity also finds a home in the Senator collection, as in the Senator Excellence Perpetual Calendar (below), which sports an assortment of delicately balanced calendar displays, including the day, month, leap-year, and the German watchmaker’s own meticulously engineered moon-phase display and its hallmark Panorama Date. The case has discreetly placed correctors in its sides to make easy adjustments to the weekday, month, and moon-phase, along with a “universal” corrector to set or change the day, date, and month simultaneously. Inside is Caliber 36-02, with an in-house-made perpetual calendar module added to the base caliber.
Also on the upper echelon of complexity is the Senator Cosmopolite (below), a user-friendly world timer with An off-center subdial with its own set of hands allows the wearer to view the time in all 35 of the world’s current time zones rather than the standard 24 indicated by most world-timers. Those 24 zones, which correspond with Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by full hours, are indicated in white, while the rest, differentiated by three-quarter hours or half-hours from GMT, are indicated in light blue. What makes the Cosmopolite further distinct from other world-timers is its use of official three-letter airport codes (i.e., JFK for New York City) to denote the time zones for local and home time in two windows.
The Pano collection, which encompasses both manually wound (Pano) and automatic winding (PanoMatic) in-house movements, takes its name from the Panorama Date, a signature feature of the brand and particularly of the collection. (A larger and more legible version of the standard date display, a Panorama Date uses two date disks (one for the tens numeral and the other for the ones) rather than one, and a double window, with each numeral appearing in its own framed aperture.) The other distinguishing feature of Pano watches is their ingenious use of asymmetrical design for an aesthetic that is nonetheless appealing and visually harmonious. The PanoMaticCalendar, with its user-friendly annual calendar function, and PanoMaticLunar, with its prominent moon-phase, are among the flagships of the collection. The latter (below), lines up its main timekeeping displays — an hours-minutes subdial and the small-seconds subdial that it overlaps, along a vertical axis left of the dial’s center. To the right of that axis are the eponymous Panorama Date near 4 o’clock and above it, spanning the sector between 1 and 2 o’clock, the semicircular aperture for the moon-phase indication that lends the model its name. Glashütte Original’s in-house Caliber 90-02, visible behind a sapphire caseback, beats behind this complex, asymmetrical face at 28,800 vph while amassing a power reserve of 42 hours.
The collection also includes iconoclastic pieces like the PanoInverse and PanoMaticInverse (below), with their eye-catching aesthetic created by essentially “inverting” the back view and front view of the watch by a clever reworking of the movement; and the PanoGraph, with its unconventional chronograph counter consisting of three semicircular 10-minute scales with three separate pointers, along with a flyback function operated by side-mounted pushers and driven by a column wheel embedded in the manually wound movement, Caliber 61-03.
While Saxony’s ancestral watchmaking traditions are on display in other collections, watches in the Spezialist series pay homage to a more recent era of history. Spezialist timepieces channel the look and spirit of the tool-oriented “Spezimatic” watches developed in the 1960s and ‘70s by Glashütte Original’s Cold War-era predecessor, the state-owned GUB.
Leading the collection are the Spezialist SeaQ dive watches, which offer a modern reincarnation of the classic Spezimatic Type RP TS 200. The SeaQ above, in a 39.5mm steel case and a rich “reed green” colorway for both the dial and the bezel’s ceramic dive-scale inlay, is a standout of the collection, whose models all meet the (German) DIN 8306 and (international) ISO 6425 standards for dive watches, and sport solid engraved casebacks protecting the in-house Glashütte Original Caliber 39-11 from water pressures down to 200 meters. Glashütte Original’s most recently established and sportiest product family, the Spezialist also includes a chronograph version of the SeaQ as well as several models with the hallmark Panorama Date display (below).
Two momentous decades with two distinctive design languages find representation in the Vintage collection, whose twin pillars are the Sixties and Seventies sub-families.
Sixties watches feature round cases with small grooved crowns; domed dials with stick-shaped hour and minute hands; and thin hour markers and curvy Arabic numerals at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. In the Chronograph versions, like the Annual Edition with gradient-effect stone-gray lacquered dial pictured above, these retro elements are joined by parallel counters at 3 and 9 o’clock and pump-style chrono pushers on the right side of the case.
Seventies models, like the Seventies Chronograph Panorama Date models with funky “Golden Bay” and “Ocean Beach” bicompax dial variants pictured above, are recognizable for their square “TV” cases with softly rounded corners and sunburst dials with sword-shaped hands. Glashutte developed an entirely new movement for these chronograph-equipped models with Panorama Date displays at 6 o'clock: the automatic Caliber 37-02, which holds a 70-hour power reserve in a single barrel and combines a subtle indicator for that power reserve inside the small seconds subdial at 9 o'clock.
Both the Sixties and Seventies models have expanded to include Panorama Date versions and Chronographs, all with manufacture movements. Some of the brand’s boldest dial colorways can be found in both branches of the Vintage collection, like the burnt-orange hue of this Sixties Panorama Date model (above), which achieves its shade and texture from multiple lacquer and multiple rounds of kiln firing.
Glashütte Original’s Ladies collection is impressively diverse, offering traditionally feminine elements such as understated case sizes, diamond-set bezels, and mother-of-pearl dials. The PanoMatic Luna (above), powered by an in-house movement, hosts a sophisticated moon-phase display on its shimmering mother-of-pearl dial, asymmetrically designed with subdials for the time and date and framed by a diamond-bedecked bezel. Lady Serenade models are elegantly simple, with time displayed on leaf-shaped hands and applied Roman numerals accompanying a small date window.
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