When the Berlin Wall came down on November 9th, 1989, probably only very few people would have already envisioned the fascinating coming back of the German high-end watchmaking. Yet, only one year and a few days after that historic and dramatic moment, precisely on December 7th, 1990, Walter Lange registered the company Lange Uhren GmbH again – exactly 145 years after its first founding and 49 years after the brand had disappeared in socialist East Germany. Since then places like Glashütte in Saxony or Schramberg in the Black Forest have indeed become globally observed and respected places again for fascinating made timepieces. This to an extent that sometimes the question among worldwide experts and collectors is provoked: Who are the best – the Swiss or Germans?
A way to answer this exciting, yet delicate question is to compare both countries in relation to three topics: historical contributions and mutual influences, market relevance and watch making competency.
Due to the horological impetus from immigrating Huguenots in the 17th century, Switzerland evolved to the epicentre of global watch making – and has undoubtedly defended its position since. Given its high reputation and capabilities, gifted watch makers from all over Europe like the young German Ferdinand Adolph Lange in 1841 (the grand-grandfather of today’s Walter Lange) would travel the Confederation to gain in experience and knowledge. Lange’s most important impression was the Swiss example of how watch making could develop very remote and impoverished regions economically – an example that would prompt him to set up his own workshops in poverty stricken Glashütte.
Over time Switzerland would become a significant supplier of watches, movements and components to Germany – even in times of global wars. And the incredible renaissance especially of the Saxon watch making industry in the last two decades is unthinkable without the given support of the Swiss watch industry. The rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne received considerable funding and enormous entrepreneurial assistance from IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre – until 2000 all three brands belonged to the Schaffhausen based holding LMH Les Manufactures Horlogères.
Before its impressive build-up of own in-house industrial autonomy a brand like Nomos sourced standard movements from ETA over many years – and various others German brands still do so in important numbers, of course. Glashütte Original’s successful internationalisation since 2001 has certainly only been possible through the strong resources of its mother company the Swatch Group. And it needed the Swatch Group again with its very gracious financial donations and logistical advice to make the 2008 re-inaugurated Glashütte’s watch museum possible.
Yet, the believe of a Swiss influence on German watch making as a one way track would be short sighted. Looking at horological contributions of both countries, Germany made the first impact.
Although some doubts exist about the achievements of Peter Henlein from Nuremberg (1479-1542), he is often considered the inventor of the world’s first pocket watch. It was Ferdinand Lange who introduced centuries later the metric system into international watch making. And Glashütte Original’s brand name draws back its roots to the early 20th century when the local industry had to fend off Swiss fakes and their so called “système Glashutte” – Helvetic imitations of the in those days very precise ¾-plate based movements from Saxony. Around the same time and just after World War I, Switzerland denied further component deliveries to Germany. This indirectly initiated efforts to build-up a more independent industrial watchmaking strucures resulting in the founding of highly competitive companies like Ufag and Urofa. For more than a decade – from 1932 to 1945 – Reinhard Straumann paid royalties to A. Lange & Söhne for the right to use a patent on a particular metal alloy that would later become the basis of the Swiss success of accurate modern time keeping – the Nivarox balance spring.
Germans founded or developed Swiss watch brand icons like Rolex or Chopard and left an immense impact on the industry’s well being by outstanding entrepreneurs like Günther Blümlein. Obviously and to give Switzerland the credit, historically she has contributed much more to the universe and glory of watch making than Germany – but its success was founded on the achievements of the English and French geniuses beforehand and has since always been influenced by external factors, too, like Japanese quartz or – just about to come – American smart watches.
A look onto the second topic of comparisons to answer the “who is best” question reveals again a dominating, yet not exclusive Swiss presence: the economic market relevance. In 2014, the Confederation’s exports amounted for 20,9 billon CHF – for watches with an export value of +3.000 CHF the number was 13,8 billion CHF. Exports to Germany accounted for 1,0 billion CHF. German global exports on the other side reached 1,7 billion Euros in the same year – based on historical pre January 2015 exchange rates thus roughly 10% of the Swiss exports. In the 1950s and 60s brands like Junghans or Kienzle belonged to the biggest in the world. In the 70s they contributed technically to the quartz revolution – even Glashütte Original in former East Germany developed and produced its own electronic movements until the 1990s.
Today, as a supplying country Germany exports dials, straps, cases, ébauches, components and high precision machinery like CNC routers – also to Switzerland. In total, some 50 German brands provide timekeepers at all price and quality levels – again a relatively small number in comparison to the more than 1.000 Helvetic brands.
However, the very heart of the question about which country is leading obviously touches less historical or economic considerations but the timepiece and its making. Especially the introduction of A. Lange & Söhne’s Datograph in 1999 lifted Germany’s watch making to the Swiss level of absolute expertise. And since then, German innovation and creativity have repeatedly astonished the publics. Whether it is Lange, Glashütte Original, Nomos, Moritz Grossmann, Lang & Heyne, Lehmann and others: they all offer collectors’ high-class time pieces with in-house developed, manufactured, finished and assembled movements.
Today, among the “semi-industrial” top worldwide manufacturers of expensive watches – those who produce more than 3.000 pieces a year – A. Lange & Söhne probably realises the highest average retail price per piece sold. A brand like Glashütte Original looks back onto more than 165 years of – truly – uninterrupted and almost complete industrial autonomy. The company offers exciting time keepers such as the Grande Cosmopolite consisting of an internal manufacturing value addition of more than 90%. In terms of finishing, German watches are able to provide the finest executions of anglage, blueing screws or polishing tiniest gold châtons.
So who is best? Is German watch making really able to challenge the Patek Philippes, Breguets, Vacheron Constantins or their modern counterparts like Urwerk, Claret or MB&F? An advertising page of A. Lange & Söhne once proclaimed in an archly manner: “The Swiss manufacture the best watches in the world – the Saxons, too!”
So who is the best? Swiss or German?
The purpose of the “who is best” question is not to provide an answer but, indeed, to provoke. In offering an alternative, German luxury watch making delivers customers around the world with more choice. And since its comeback it has stimulated the Swiss industry to push its limits further – and who would argue it has not? And this is necessary. Because the European watch industry as such is facing new challenges: changing global consumer pattern among young people who focus less on classical time keepers but more on smart watches of new market players – if they care at all! The internet is resulting into different and not yet fully understood complex market structures. Concentration processes on all market levels whether they concern suppliers, manufacturers, brands, distributers or retailers may reduce the industry’s historical liveliness – in following the though big, yet increasingly boring car industry. And who knows: Eventually Chinese customers will be able to buy homemade top-end timepieces instead of foreign offerings?
Consumers can only spent their money once and there are more items to purchase than just expensive watches – as incredibly beautiful and astonishing innovative they may be. An unknown engineer like Ferdinand Adolph Lange was allowed to learn his trade in France, England and Switzerland from open-minded geniuses. When he came back to Germany he started his entrepreneurial endeavour in developing a revolutionary movement by inviting competitors like Aßmann, Grossmann and Schneider to join forces and to reach a critical mass of potential production justifying the build-up of a local suppliers’ industry in small Glashütte. Today consumers may follow their individual choices regardless the brand’s origin – for industry decision makers the question is not Swiss or German, the answer is Europe though!