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East German watchmakers revive luxury tradition

December 26, 2005

By James Mackenzie

GLASHUETTE, Germany (Reuters) – Like the intricate,
fabulously complicated watches made by its skilled artisans,
the former mining town of Glashuette in east Germany is a
rarity.

In this picturesque setting, traditional watchmakers make
timepieces so prized by connoisseurs that they can sell for
nearly $500,000 — making Glashuette a rare economic success
story in a region with a jobless rate of about 17 percent.

Glashuette was at the heart of a watchmaking industry that
rivaled Switzerland’s until Russian bombers destroyed its main
workshops on the day World War Two ended in Europe.

Forced nationalization of family-owned firms and 40 years
of communism apparently buried what survived the Russians until
the fall of the Berlin Wall sparked an unexpected revival
fueled by a renaissance in demand for high-quality mechanical
watches.

The gold and platinum watches now made by A. Lange & Soehne
or Glashuette Original, the two top firms in the town near the
Czech border, cost thousands of dollars and vie with Swiss
masters such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron.

“They are really very beautiful watches,” says Christian
Pfeiffer-Belli, editor of specialist publication Klassik Uhren.

The two firms’ success has encouraged others, such as
Nomos, a new company making less-expensive watches with a
distinctive look reminiscent of the 1920s Bauhaus school of
design.

“(Glashuette) is a very, very German name,” Pfeiffer-Belli
says. “And it works very well in Germany because there are a
lot of people who know Lange as a great brand from earlier
times.”

Around 800 people now work in the watchmaking trade in
Glashuette in Saxony, a notable success in a region where large
swathes of manufacturing industry have collapsed since German
reunification in 1990.

And the outlook is healthy: a strengthening global economy,
including an economic revival in brand-conscious Japan, has
fueled demand for luxury goods since the start of this year.

PRICE OF A HOUSE

Glashuette’s's remote location, in a beautiful wooded
valley in the Erzgebirge region outside Dresden, is perfect for
nurturing the special skills of the traditional watchmaker.

“You need to be calm and you need to be able to deal with
very tricky problems,” said Kerstin Richter, as she delicately
turned a minute screw in a half-finished Lange watch.

The fantastic complexity of the clockwork mechanism and the
precision of each tiny component is what attracts enthusiasts
willing to pay the price of a house for a wristwatch that tells
the time no better than a $10 electronic throw-away.

Lange’s most complicated watch, the new Tourbograph, has
over 1,000 components with features like a hair-thin
transmission chain — made of 633 individual parts — to keep
the torque generated by the watch’s mainspring constant as it
unwinds.

That, and the “tourbillon” — a complex rotating component
designed to counter the disruptive effect of gravity on the
clockwork mechanism — are considered the acme of the
watchmaker’s art and go some of the way to explain the
Tourbograph’s $447,500 price tag.

Even cheaper models cost thousands of euros and take months
to complete. Connoisseurs, some now linked through Internet
chat rooms, obsessively ponder their watch’s finish or features
such as the “double rattrapante” or “whiplash index adjuster.”

MYSTIQUE AND HISTORY

As well as fine mechanics, the mystique of firms that
produce only a few thousand watches a year has been decisive —
and that has its roots in the town’s special tradition.

When Ferdinand Adolph Lange, a deeply religious man,
founded Glashuette’s first watchmaking firm in 1845, he trained
local workers including basket weavers and laborers and laid
great stress on fostering development of the then-impoverished
region.

Over the next century, during which time Lange was followed
by several other watchmaking dynasties, the town attained world
renown, typified in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II presented the
Sultan of Turkey with a magnificent jeweled Lange watch now in
the Topkapi museum in Istanbul.

Lange’s great-grandson, Walter Lange, who picked his way
through the rubble of his family’s factory in May, 1945, has
consciously built on the tradition since his return in 1990
with partner Guenter Bluemlein to relaunch the Lange brand.

Much of the success has been down to foreign investors —
both Lange, owned by luxury goods group Richemont and
Glashuette, part of Swatch, are in Swiss hands.

But the technical skill of local craftsmen, kept alive
during the communist era by the nationalized VEB Glashuetter
Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), has also been decisive. GUB, which
included nationalized Lange, sold cheap mechanical watches to
the west for hard currency.

“The key to the revival was the period 1951-90,” says Frank
Mueller, president of Glashuette Original, the company that
emerged when GUB was privatized again in 1990.

While the watchmaking industry in the west was devastated
by the invention of the quartz watch, which allowed more
accurate timekeeping at a fraction of the cost of mechanical
watches, the east German industry was kept alive by state
support.

“It was absolutely decisive that the knowledge and
experience of these watchmakers wasn’t lost,” says Mueller.


Source: reuters



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