Some hobbies are pretty solitary, never requiring you to leave your proverbial armchair. Luckily for horology enthusiasts, watchmaking has a history that ranges across the global map, and destinations worth jetting to. Case in point: the epicenter of German watchmaking, Glashütte. Located in the Free State of Saxony in Germany, Glashütte is home to storied watch brand A. Lange & Sohne and respected newcomers like Nomos, and it offers visitors a view into the history of precision watchmaking past and present.
It’s a destination that sparks passion in Senior Director of Fine Jewelry & Watches Michael Groffenberger. “If you’re talking about German watchmaking, there’s only one town that matters, and that’s Glashütte,” he says. His admiration for German watchmaking runs deep, and having experienced Glashütte firsthand, we asked him to share the not-to-miss manufactory tours, historical sites and restaurants to experience true German food. Read on for his guide, in his own words.
Setting The German Watchmaking Scene
German watchmaking is all about form following function — it’s very Bauhaus in terms of the way they think about the aesthetic. Just like with German cars, it’s all about precision engineering and making it the way it should be made regardless of how visible that is. For example, A. Lange & Sohne takes the finishing of a watch to an absolutely ridiculous level. They polish every single component of their watches by hand, even though 70% of those components you’ll never see.
Another thing that’s common in German watchmaking is the ¾ plate, which is all about making the watch more sturdy. If you had a criticism of German watches, it could be that they’re a bit cold. They’re not as warm as the French watchmakers in Geneva where you get a lot more romantic influence, like at Patek Phillipe and Vacheron Constantin. German watches are much more stoic. It’s about sturdiness, durability and dependability.
They build their watches to last forever — even the finest watches. I would put a $100,000 Lange up against a $500 watch from any other company in terms of durability. They’re just built to last forever, and they’re built with true passion. They’re designed to be the best time-keeping machines on the planet. Other watch brands talk about tolerances or acceptable levels of variation, and if you talk to watchmakers in Lange’s factory, they don’t know what that means — there are no acceptable levels of variation. They’re making hand-made things to absolute exacting precision.
Watch Factory Tours
You can’t go to Glashütte without visiting A. Lange & Söhne. Ferdinand Adolph Lange basically founded the town of Glashütte. He got a grant from the Saxon government to build his watchmaking factory in this little town, and if it hadn’t been for him, there would be no watchmaking in Glashütte. Today they’re the finest German watchmakers — they make my favorite watches.
During the Soviet era, when Glashütte was under the control of the Soviet Union, the factories there were actually used to make military watches. Many different factories were built then, and they all broke off and became different companies. For example, the original Lange factory turned into a mass market watch brand, and so when Walter Lange, the great-grandson of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, brought back the brand in 1990, he actually didn’t buy the original company from the Soviet government, he actually just reconstituted his own company.
So the original company, which had really gotten away from what the original Lange company was doing, ceased to exist in 1946 and became Glashütte, the brand that shares the name with the town. Glashütte makes fantastic watches at a more accessible price point than Lange. They’re not as exclusive, but they’re still absolutely terrific timepieces, so you should try to visit that factory as well. They also run The German Watch Museum Glashütte where they go through the 160 years of watchmaking history in the town.
Finally, I would recommend visiting Nomos. Nomos is a super cool brand, and they’re making watches that most people can buy. As a matter of fact, when I visited the Lange factory, I can tell you that there are a lot of watchmakers at Lange that wear Nomos watches. It’s a very respected brand in the community because it’s this little watchmaker that’s really making a big name for itself in a small town. You can buy a watch that is completely fabricated in their small-town factory that’s $2,500 – $3,000, whereas a Lange is $25,000 – $250,000. So it’s a much more accessible piece of terrific German watchmaking heritage.
Around Glashütte: Dresden
If you’re looking for entertaining things to do when you’re not perusing the watchmaking factories, you’re 45 minutes outside of Dresden, which for a history buff is a really cool city. A lot of people who read Slaughterhouse-Five know that it was firebombed at the end of the war by the British. It used to be one of the wealthiest cities in Europe back when there were Saxon kings who ruled from Dresden and oversaw Eastern Germany and all the wealth that came from the Ore mountains.
One of the things you absolutely have to see in Dresden is the Green Vault. It’s the castle of Augustus the Strong, and there are watches to see, as well as art collections. There’s the Dresden Green which is this great natural green diamond. It’s massive. You can’t even take a picture of it. It’s in a vault where you can walk up and see it, but there’s constant security. It’s really cool. He had also collected all these intricate models and sets of cities done in enamel work. Miessen porcelain is also from Dresden, which is some of the highest quality porcelain in the world.
The city is not very big, so walking around it is fun. The Semper Opera House is really cool. Ferdinand Adolph Lange actually made the clock for it. He and the man who trained him, Johann Gutkaes, worked out of this clock tower in Dresden and they built a five-minute clock in the Semper Opera House. It was really the first mechanical digital clock ever made and it was made 170 years ago. Today unfortunately it’s quartz, but back then it was mechanical and had the hand of one of the greatest watchmakers of all time in it.
Right next to the Semper Opera House is the Zwinger Palace, which was featured in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s right in the city square and super cool to walk around. Like the Semper Opera House, it was destroyed in the bombing, but they were both restored, and the Zwinger houses an impressive art collection.
Where To Eat
I wouldn’t say that Dresden is the best place to go for fine dining, but there are some really cool places to have great German food. In the basement of the Green Vault there’s a really awesome German restaurant. You can get roasted pigs on a spit, and sauerkraut and big steins of beer. And it’s not kitschy like if it were in Berlin. This is in the basement of a castle that was built 400 years ago — there are real suits of armor. It’s not Medieval Times. Even out of some of the best restaurants in Europe, this is one the most unique and definitely a favorite of mine — it’s something you can really only get in Germany.