History in Watchmaking: Glashütte

The Humble Beginnings of Glashütte

Glashütte is a small, unassuming town in Saxony, Germany. Centuries ago, it was just a sleepy farming village. Today, it’s much more: Glashütte is the birthplace of German watchmaking.

PHOTO CREDIT WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The industry first shifted in Glashütte in the early 1500’s. The discovery of a silver ore mine transformed the agricultural center into a mining town. The village boomed and blossomed with economic growth for hundreds of years. However, by the early 1800’s, the exhaustion of the mines had an impact on the surrounding economy. As a result, unemployment rates started to spike and the town began to struggle.

Putting Glashütte on the Map

The government of Saxony intervened, encouraging companies to establish in Glashütte and help rebuild the once-thriving economy. One important businessman answered the call. Watchmaker Adolf Lange submitted a proposal to develop a watch industry in the region. He based his plan off the Swiss model in the Vallée de Joux. This system had made Switzerland the epitome of watchmaking for years. It brought numerous jobs and immense wealth both to the region and the country as a whole. The Saxony government accepted Lange’s proposal and granted him a loan in addition to train fifteen former farmers as apprentices. In 1845, he officially established his namesake workshop, A. Lange & Söhne.

PHOTO CREDIT WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In just three short years, Lange received a special opportunity. In 1848, he became the Mayor of Glashütte. During his tenure of nearly two decades, he began transforming the once-desperate town. It started to become the thriving industrial center for watchmaking we know today. Lange’s plan succeeded and his vision became a reality. His apprentices became independent watchmakers or suppliers of parts. As a result, other manufactures started flocking to the region. By 1878, just three years after Lange’s tragic passing, the town had its own educational facility. The German Watching School in Glashütte opened its doors.

Twentieth Century Setbacks to the Watch Industry

The city of Glashütte and its watchmaking culture faced challenges yet again toward the beginning of the twentieth century. The manufacturers in Glashütte specialized in high-end, complicated pocket watches. However, the onset of WWI spurred the mass production and popularization of the wristwatch for men. There wasn’t sufficient equipment in Glashütte for the watchmakers to keep up with the shifting demands of the market’s industrialization. This in combination with the Great Depression following the war brought strife to the region once again. Many of the watchmaking businesses there didn’t survive. A. Lange & Söhne is one of few brands who persisted. They were able to weather this difficult time for the town of Glashütte.

glashutte

PHOTO CREDIT WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By WWII, the watchmakers who remained in the region had started to produce wristwatches. Many of them developed timepieces specifically for military forces. Just as things were starting to look up for the region, tragedy struck again. In the final months of the war, Glashütte was bombed and numerous workshops were destroyed, including, Lange & Söhne. By 1948, families in the region, including the Langes, were expropriated, and the Soviet administration nationalized the remaining properties. Consequently, for the next 45 years iconic names like A. Lange and Söhne that had once anchored the region disappeared.

The Revival and Exclusivity of Glashütte

history of glashutte

It was not until the Reunification of Germany in 1990 that the city could revive its culture of watchmaking. Pillars of the region like Walter Lange, Adolf Lange’s great-grandson, returned to the town to continue the tradition of watchmaking. Within four years, brands like Lange & Söhne began presenting their first watches in nearly half a century. These timepieces were distinguished with the coveted marking, Glashütte Original. Today, watches are only awarded this esteemed distinction if they meet the strict quality standards set within the region. Watchmakers must create at least 50% of the watch’s caliber in Glashütte. Then and only then can they receive the coveted title of being a true Glashütte watch.

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