The Saxon Order

by Carlos Perez

September 8, 2001

The great diversity of wristwatch design is the product of many cultural influences and aesthetic philosophies. For the most part, the dominant themes of our day would appear to be descended primarily from French and French-Swiss sources: The seminal works of Louis Cartier, the eternally renewed style of Abraham-Louis Breguet, the Calatrava-precursors of Patek Philippe, and countless others. Often overlooked but omnipresent are the Germanic influences in wristwatch design, and there is much more to this influence in watchmaking than external aesthetics. Many of the smaller watchmaking traditions still lie forgotten, particularly those bastions of the Teutonic spirit. The German watchmaking heritage is one of the oldest, if never the largest or the most important, and German watchmaking has often followed its own unique vision, pursuing a different ideal from whichever nations were horologically dominant at the time, be it France and England, America and Switzerland, or Japan.

While the arts and crafts of Germany spent a few centuries under the influence of France much like the rest of Europe, this Gallic influence was always given an unmistakably Teutonic reinterpretation: The ornate flamboyance of the German Baroque, the histrionics of Romanticism, and the rigid formality of Neoclassicism, are now mostly overlooked stages of Germany’s aesthetic development. The overbuilt simplicity which we now think to be characteristically German is in large part the modern product of the new Germanic industrial ethos of the last century, and Functionalist engineering and design philosophies like the Bauhaus school. The appellation Made in Germany originally forced to be printed on German export products by protectionist legislation was thus undermined by the quality of the product being exported. German craftsmanship is now an institutionalized idea of the pursuit of a specific view of perfection, always included in marketing copy, and Made in Germany is now a prized mark of distinction.

While the watchmaking heritage of Germany reaches back to the 15th century, beginning in Nuremburg, the watchmaking industry of Saxony is the youngest branch of the tree. After the conquest of Saxony by Napoleon (1806), the German duchy became an independent kingdom albeit allied to Imperial France. Internationally trained watchmaker and Dresden native, Ferdinand Adolph Lange would found his own manufacture in the young kingdom in 1845, establishing the craft and industry of watchmaking in Glashtte much in the same way that Daniel JeanRichard brought watchmaking to Neuchtel in Switzerland. Glashtte joined the world of watchmaking at the close of the handicraft era, and at the zenith of a romantic, or idealized Classicism in aesthetics. The only two extant manufactures in Germany can both claim direct descent from the founding of A. Lange & Cie, and both attempt to carry on the classical Saxon watchmaking tradition established in the 19th century.

Most prominent of the rival offspring is the re-established brand of A. Lange & Shne, a name which first appeared in 1868 when F. Adolf Lange’s son Richard joined the company. It was Walter Lange, great-grandson of F. Adolf Lange and formerly a watchmaker in the original company during the 1940s, who registered the revived trademark in 1990, and with the technical aid of IWC in Schaffhausen and the financial backing of LMH, Lange Uhren GmbH began the development of its first watch and in-house calibre. In scarcely more than 10 years the reborn A. Lange & Shne has produced three basic simple hand-wound calibres, a double-barrel hand-wind with and without tourbillon, a basic automatic, a peerless high-grade chronograph, an unprecedented hand-wound tourbillion wristwatch with fusee, and just recently a perpetual calendar. But beyond this technical achievement, they have also brought a new presence, a weighty intensity that has won adherents away from the former monopoly on fine watchmaking by Geneva and the vallee de Joux.

Rather than the thinness and delicacy which is so characteristic of the Swiss-French tradition of fine watchmaking, Lange Uhren introduced a much more robust interpretation of the gentlemen’s wristwatch, in both case and movement design. More heavily cased in precious metal than their Swiss counterparts, A. Lange & Shne wristwatches convey the weightier, denser feel that many instinctively equate with quality even their buckles are overbuilt to an unprecedented standard. Moreover, their use of colour is a comprehensive and consistent theme throughout their collection, from the purely classical usage of silver dials and gold cases, to dials of a stygian blue matched to icy white gold or the natural warmth of yellow gold (shown above), black dials contrasted with white metals or red gold, and the pure monochrome of rhodium-plated dials paired with platinum. While a few specimens cased in steel have left Lange Uhren’s factory, the manufacture has since put a moratorium on steel cases, only working now in alloys of gold or in 950 platinum. As the original A. Lange & Shne of the pre-WW2 era never produced wristwatches based on movements of its own design (the early Lange wristwatches used imported Swiss ebauches), it can be said that these are the first to truly represent and continue the tradition established by F. Adolf Lange.

While Lange Uhren attempts to revive a single manufacturer of great significance, the other manufacture of Glashtte – GUB – attempts to represent all of the great Glashtte manufactures of the past, and the many significant Saxon horologists produced in the 100 years of the original industry’s operation (18451945), for as a watch manufacturing infrastructure built up around A. Lange & Cie/ Shne in the late 19th century, so too did a watchmaking school and a number of other manufactures. As elsewhere, Glashtte’s manufacturers began closing because of the Great Depression and the advent of wristwatches, or consolidating to survive, but the cruelest blow came on the final day of WW2 in 1945, when Glashtte was bombed — destroying most of the surviving watchmaking facilities, including A. Lange & Shne. The years of rebuilding which followed led to an unforeseen fate.

From 1948 to 1951, what remained of the of the seven extant Glashtte manufacturers (A. Lange & Shne, Felix Estler, Metechnik, Liwos, Feintechnik, Uhren-Rohwerke-Fabrik Glashtte, and Uhrenfabrik Glashtte) were nationalized and merged under the new communist regime, becoming VEB Glashtter Uhrenbetriebe, also known as GUB. In 1952 Saxony ceased to be a free state as it was wholly absorbed into East Germany. After the end of communist rule in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, VEB Glashtter Uhrenbetriebe dropped the peoples owned prefix and became Glashtter Uhrenbetrieb GmbH, and was finally privatized in 1994.The wristwatches currently produced by GUB are now branded under the Glashtte Original and Union Glashtte trademarks. Union is a brand taken from Johannes Drrstein’s Glashtter Uhrenfabrik Union (1893-1926). With the recent purchase of GUB by the Swatch Group, the last independent German manufacture has nominally become a part of the Swiss industry. Whether this bodes well or ill remains to be seen.

Representing a totality rather than a singular vision, the movements and watch designs of GUB are divided into distinct collections, each of which offers a different aspect of the Saxon watchmaking heritage. To support this large portfolio, GUB has created three basic hand-wound movements two available with tourbillon regulators (one in two different flying tourbillon versions), one basic automatic (also used with a modular chronograph), an original hand-wound chronograph with countdown timer, and a number of perpetual calendars. These movements are shared by both GUB brands, but the ebauches are fitted and finished differently for each, and the finished movements are given respectively different calibre designations. As the fine watchmaking brand, Glashtte Original movements are given a luxury finish with Glashtte ribbing, anglage, gold-rimmed skeletonized rotors, and most have swan-neck regulators. Union Glashtte follows the dependable, basic watch philosophy of its namesake, with simpler finishing and index regulators on most of its movements.

In terms of style and presence, there can be no confusing the products from GUB and Lange Uhren. More complex and less monolithic, the case work of Glashtte Original watches include Rococo touches like coin edged bezels, the Teutonic reinterpretations of classic French designs in their “1845″ collection which contrasts with the reductionist clarity of their “Senator” collection, and the faceted geometry of their “Sport” series. Most Glashtte Original watches are offered in steel in addition to their standard use of red gold, while silver dials and white dials appear to be near universal throughout the collections excepting the black dialed military style pieces. Outside of this strictly limited palette lie a few limited editions named after historical figures: The 1845 Alfred Helwig flying tourbillon, named after the Glashtte watchmaker who invented the flying tourbillon; the Jules Assmann perpetual calendar with flying tourbillon; and others. Union Glashtte’s watches are offered solely in steel, except for a few limited editions cased in gold, and only with white or black dials. While the heritage of the Union name lies primarily in the production good quality basic timekeepers, the historical Union factory also produced small numbers of fine watches. This has inspired the creation of Union Glashtte’s Johannes Drrstein series of limited edition wristwatches. Using classic gold “cushion” cases, the series so far includes a simple hand-wind (No. 1), a perpetual calendar (No. 2), and a flying tourbillon (No. 3) all limited to 50 pieces each.

Going beyond merely superficial differences, we find that the Germanic ideals of movement design also contrast with the now dominant Swiss-French tradition. Unfortunately Lange Uhren and GUB are the sole surviving representatives of this alternate view at least in that most classical archetype, the plate hand-wound movement. The perception that plates are innately archaic within the already anachronistic context of mechanical wristwatches is erroneous. In fact the plate architecture originates some 100 years after the development of fully-bridged calibres by Jean-Antoine Lepine in the 1750s, would seem to indicate that it reflects different watchmaking values. The virtues of the plate lie in its greater simplicity and stability trading some ease of serviceability for greater mechanical robustness. I don’t know if it could be claimed that this alternative architecture is native to Germany, as it probably originated in England, but it does reflect the Teutonic sensibility of craftsmanship, in its solidity, durability, and strength.

Another difference is the use of maillechort, or nickel silver, as the basic construction material for movement plates and bridges — which also appears to be popular with independent watchmakers the world over. Akin to the brass used by the Swiss industry, it is also an alloy of copper and zinc, but with nickel as an additional ingredient. This gives maillechort the appearance of sterling silver without the cost or other drawbacks of real silver. Traditionally these movements would have been given a matte surface finish and then gilt to protect the maillechort from stains and corrosion, as shown right on a vintage A. Lange & Shne pocket watch, though the more self-conscious Genevois style used today by Lange Uhren and GUB is also grounded in history. According to Peter Chong, there were “two levels of finishing in old Langes for the domestic market, even ALS Grade 1A (the top grade made then: characterized by gold chatons, diamond endstones) had a gilt finish. Those meant for the export market, primarily to the US and to South America had the Glashutte ribbing you see in the modern watches.”

Many have fallen before the hypnotic glow of the highly-finished maillechort plate, yet to a degree I wish that Lange had followed the simpler and more pragmatic gilt style — and I expect that I am alone in this preference. Seen in the context of this vintage pocket watch movement, the gold chatons seem more functional than ornamental as they blend into the whole, and even the engraving on the balance cock — which I normally object to — appears fitting here. I am pleased to note that Union Glashtte follows this style for its hand-wound plate calibre 40.

Today most German and Germanic watches are heavily dependent upon the Swiss watchmaking industry, based on Swiss movements, or are even wholly Swiss Made. These two extant representatives of Saxon watchmaking cannot claim complete independence either, but enough independence to provide us with a different ethos of watchmaking, and the pursuit of a different kind of quality than that which is typically demonstrated by the Swiss: Stolidity, conservatism, “Rich, not gaudy” — the cool indefinable presence of precision engineering, dramatic simplicity, and the silent competence and authenticity of fine instruments. An underlying unity of purism in the knives from Solingen, the automobiles from Stuttgart, and the watches from Glashtte.



Image Credits:

A Prince of Saxony (1517) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

A. Lange & Shne Lange 1, Glashtte Original 1845 Klassik Regulateur and Senator Klassik Navigator by Jing H. Goh

Union Glashtte Gangereserve courtesy of Glashtter Uhrenbetrieb GmbH

A. Lange & Shne calibre L943.1 by Michael Sandler

A. Lange & Shne pocket watch calibre by Larry Seiden


Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2001
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