In the world of luxury watchmaking, Swiss timepieces may be the most famous, yet there’s also a flourishing horology scene in Germany. With esteemed watch brands such as A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, Sinn, and NOMOS leading the way, Germany is a watchmaking cradle worth a closer look.
The History Behind Swiss and German Watchmaking Industries
During the late 16th century and early 17th century, groups of Huguenot refugees escaping persecution in their native France settled in Geneva and brought their watchmaking savoir-faire with them. This was the start of the watchmaking business in the city, which eventually spread throughout the country. Today, after many ups and downs, Switzerland remains the heart of haute horology.
Given that, it may come as a surprise that Germany’s watchmaking history stretches back even earlier than Switzerland’s. In fact, it was German inventor Peter Henlein who is often credited (but sometimes refuted) as the inventor of the first pocket watch in the early 16th century. Centuries later, in 1845, Ferdinand Adolph Lange founded his company, A. Lange & Söhne, in the impoverished city of Glashütte—laying the foundation of what would become one of the centers of German watchmaking.
From the 1920s onward, Germany’s watchmaking industry boomed. That thriving culture was destroyed during World War II when watchmaking factories suffered immense destruction and plundering of essential equipment. During communist rule in East Germany, the remaining watch companies of Glashütte were nationalized into one entity named the Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 sparked the resurgence of high-end watchmaking in Germany through private independent watchmakers.
These days, there’s plenty of crossover between the watch industries in Germany and Switzerland. For instance, German-made watch brand Glashütte Original is owned by Swiss conglomerate Swatch Group, while German company Porsche Design Group owns Swiss-made Porsche Design Timepieces. Furthermore, several German watch companies equip their timepieces with Swiss-made mechanical movements—mostly from ETA—while some Swiss watch movements use German-made components.
So what’s the difference?
German watches run the gamut from the inexpensive to the exorbitant, but regardless of their price, German watches all share a similar aesthetic. Germans are known for their precision, attention to detail, engineering mastery, and appreciation for utility. These traits are evident not only in their automobile production but also in their watch manufacturing. Timepieces from Germany lean towards understatement, with many companies adhering to the Bauhaus philosophy of functionality over decoration. Unlike many Swiss high-end watches that are fanciful and whimsical, German timepieces are generally more restrained with an emphasis on technical prowess and straightforward design.
Aside from aesthetics, the movements within German timepieces also differ from Swiss ones. Most notably, German watchmakers prefer to use “German silver” (a nickel and copper alloy) rather than rhodium-plated brass in their watch movements. German silver lends a softer sheen than the much brighter rhodium look of Swiss caliber components. Additionally, German movements typically use three-quarter sized base plates made famous by Ferdinand Adolph Lange.
Notable German Watch Brands
Among the various top German watch companies, three stand out for producing their own in-house mechanical movements: NOMOS, Glashütte Original, and A. Lange & Söhne. All based in Glashütte, Saxony, these three watch manufactures offer tasteful timepieces at different price points.
An often-overlooked segment of the luxury watch market, Germany has been producing top-tier timepieces for a long time. Despite not being as mainstream as their Swiss counterparts, German watches merit some serious attention.