Astronomy and the watchmakers art

The acquisition and expansion of the historic »Urania« observatory in the German town of Glashütte, a watchmaking centre, was the start of a new chapter for Wempe. The company has been manufacturing its own watch collections in this evocative location since 2006.

WEMPE Glashütte
A revived tradition the observatory, which was acquired by Wempe in 2005, is also the site of Germany’s only testing centre for chronometers.

As a young girl in Hamburg, Kim-Eva Wempe often heard her father talking about an observatory far away in a place called Glashütte. On a grey autumn day in 2004 she decided to see this mysterious place with her own eyes. However, doing so turned out to be more difficult than expected. The road from the watchmaking town of Glashütte up to the observatory was so steep and in such poor condition that the car got stuck. And when the small group of travellers finally made it to the top of the »Ochsenkopf«, they were greatly disappointed. The site was so overgrown that it could hardly be seen any more. And the building itself was just a ruin, a mere shadow of what it had once been.

Despite all the obstacles, one thing immediately became clear to Kim-Eva Wempe and the others in the group: »It has to be here! Wempe watches will be made in this observatory, and they’ll be chronometers.

I didn’t want to make just any watch and then put the Wempe name on the deal.

 

says Kim-Eva Wempe. »Nobody at the company would have been proud of that. What our team expected was technical excellence, a watch with a background and a history.« For these reasons, Wempe expanded into the Erzgebirge mountains — and went back to the company’s roots as a clockmaker.

When a jeweller that is renowned for selling the best watches in the world decides to make its own timepieces, there is a lot at stake — above all, its reputation. Wempe certainly possessed expertise in clockmaking — though the company’s experience in manufacturing timepieces dated far back. Before the Second World War, Wempe enjoyed great success producing marine chronometers, a chapter in the company’s history in which the town of Glashütte played an important role — but more about that later.

Anyone visiting the »Urania« observatory today can hardly believe how dilapidated everything was here a couple of years ago. The shimmering white building, with its characteristic dome, shines out of the dark forests that surround it. It’s a landmark that can be seen from a long way off. But it took much hard work to restore it. »In order to inspect the building the first time we came here, I had to climb in through a broken window,« says Gunter Teuscher, the head of Wempe watch production. »One of the first sights that greeted me was rats scurrying through the rooms. The walls had huge cracks, and the wooden floorboards were completely warped.

WEMPE Glashütte
Technical Heart: The CW 3 calibre for the new Chronometerwerke watches has all the typical features of the Glashütte watchmakers’ art and is already the third movement produced by Wempe on its own.
WEMPE Glashütte
Trademark for precision The observatory engraved on the back of Wempe Zeitmeisterwatch cases has become a recognized seal of quality.

That seems like a long time ago. Today, an elegant flat-roofed building that was opened in 2011 is also part of the well-maintained facility. No noise comes up from the valley below. The only sound is the wind rustling the leaves of the surrounding forest. It’s little wonder, then, that Wempe came up with a poetic sales slogan for the watches manufactured at the observatory. »Where could it be easier to measure time than in a place where time seems to stand still?

Undisturbed, the highly skilled artisans can go about their tasks inside the observatory with the greatest concentration. Their work covers a wide spectrum of watchmaking activities — from the assembly and precise fine-tuning of the movements to the engraving of the cases and elaborate quality control procedures. In 2006, Wempe began operations in Glashütte with five people. Today there are over 50 employees. They include the watchmakers in the service department who work at a studio in the town below and a dozen apprentices.

»Our need for skilled specialists is growing,« says Teuscher. Very soon the 18 positions for watchmaker trainees will all be filled — a development that Markus Dressler, the mayor of Glashütte, welcomes. »Wempe’s comprehensive training of a new generation of watchmakers demonstrates a long-term commitment to our town,« he says.

There is no doubt that Wempe has established itself in the world of watches.

Zeitmeister and Chronometerwerke watches are highly sought after by aficionados. Today at Wempe shops, Wempe’s own watches are second only to Rolex in terms of the numbers of watches sold. »We aren’t surprised that our watches are such a success,« says Bernhard Stoll, the member of the WempeExecutive Board who responsible for the watch division. »However, we didn’t expect them to sell so well in all of our shops. They are very popular not only in Hamburg and Munich but also in New York.« This is an amazing achievement, given that the watches from Glashütte have only been on the market since 2006. The Wempe watch production at this location may be quite young; however, the tradition on which the Wempe watches are based is not.

Actually, Wempe more or less had to re-establish its reputation in the world of watches. As already mentioned, the company was a leading manufacturer of marine chronometers before the Second World War. This special area of timekeeping required the highest level of the clockmaker’s art. After all, in bygone days the accurate measurement of time on the high seas sometimes meant the difference between life and death. In fact, safe navigation has only been possible since the beginning of the 18th century, when John Harrison, a Scotsman, invented the ship’s chronometer. With the aide of this timepiece mariners were able to determine their vessel’s exact position in terms of longitude. For a long time, the construction of these high-precision clocks remained the domain of the British. But in 1905, shipowners based in the German city of Hamburg decided to start their own chronometer production. Their goal was to become independent in terms of the accurate measurement of time. Hamburger Chronometerwerke, the company they founded, was eventually taken over by Wempe. Later, at the request of the German navy, Wempe developed the unified chronometer.
WEMPE Glashütte

Glashütte, a small town with a long watchmaking tradition in eastern Germany, was chosen as one of the locations for making these unified chronometers. It was here that Ferdinand Adolph Lange had produced his watches since the mid-19th century.

An exceptional talent, Lange was trained by the royal clockmaker in Dresden. Afterward, during his time as a journeyman, he became acquainted with the Swiss watch industry. When he finally returned to Germany, he had made up his mind to follow the example of the Swiss. That meant not merely building a watch manufactory but also developing an entire town devoted to making watches. The ambitious plan succeeded. Lange was an industrial pioneer. He attracted supplier companies and other watchmakers to this small unassuming town in the Erzgebirge mountains, which became the centre of German watch production.

The decline came after the Second World War, and Glashütte lost its prominent position. During the time of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) the watch in-dustry fell into a deep slumber. But after the reunification of Germany, it began to wake up again. Traditional companies revived, and new watch manufacturers set up shop in this town, which proudly announces on a sign at the city limits, »Hier lebt die Zeit« (»The Home of Time«). Of course marine chronometers have long since lost their importance. These days, satellite navigation is used to determine a ship’s position; GPS has eliminated the need for a mechanical ship’clock. But the expertise of the Glashüttechronometer makers lives on, and that’s why it was clear that Wempe wristwatches should be produced in this town. But why specifically in the old observatory? 

Its location high above the town has a special place in the history of this family of jewellers. Kim-Eva Wempe can remember a picture from her childhood that shows her grandfather Herbert Wempe with Otto Lange, the grandson of the watch pioneer. The picture was taken in front of this very observatory. The two entrepreneurs had big plans at the end of the 1930s. They wanted to convert the observatory into a research and training centre for watchmakers and establish a precision regulation institute there. However, nothing came of these plans because of the outbreak of war.

The observatory was originally built in 1910 through an initiative of the watchmakers’ association »Urania«. The initiators had decided that Glashütte needed its own reference time to set its watches by. Until then, the time signal had been conveyed via telephone from the observatory in Berlin — a method that had not met the precision requirements of the Glashütte manufacturers for a long time. The renovated »Urania« observatory with ist high-tech telescope could easily once again do this task today. However, the telescope is only used by amateur astronomers now. For an accurate reference time, Wempe relies on a radio clock that is connected to the atomic clock in Braunschweig. 

As in the past, a great deal of craftsmanship is housed today under the observatory’s dome. 

One of the people who works here is Sebastian Dohrmann, a trained watchmaker who is at the moment fine-tuning a Wempe Chronometerwerke watch until it is adjusted perfectly. In order to do this, the movement — which is manufactured in collaboration with the Glashütte-based Nomos company — must first be completely disassembled. Then it’s put back together. This task requires one to two days of highly concentrated work. The basic movements for the Zeitmeister brand come from Switzerland, but they are refined in Glashütte with extra components that are added to make fine adjustments at the highest possible level of precision. 

The latest developments at Wempe go even further. The watchmakers at the observatory have collaborated with international experts to develop a new movement from the ground up that will be used exclusively in Wempe watches. Only a few manufacturers can perform such a feat: most watchmakers buy the inner workings for their watches off the rack. Sebastian Dohrmann wears one of the first examples of the new Chronometerwerke watches on his own wrist. In contrast to earlier models, which had a tonneau form, this watch is round. The design of the dial was inspired by the legendary Wempe marine chronometer. You might say it’s a tribute to the company’s own history.

For the watchmakers at the observatory, everything revolves around precision. They strive to extract the highest level of accuracy from the mechanical movements. In one of the brightly lit rooms of the new building, Friedrich Kube, who is responsible for the production of Zeitmeister watches, demonstrates how an existing movement can beequipped with Wempe’s own regulation unit which is made up of a balance cock and a KIF shock absorber. This work is so minute and meticulous that it would astonish a layperson.

 

 

»We create the basic precondition that allows the movement to be very accurately regulated,« says Kube, somewhat prosaically, to describe his work. Concrete and precise to the second — Wempe demands the highest standards, and this is the only way to achieve them. These standards of quality are represented by the polished brass plate at the entrance to the observatory that reads »Deutscher Kalibrierdienst — Außenstelle Chronometerprüfung« (German Calibration Service — Chronometer Testing Branch). »Chronometer« is the designation for especially accurate timepieces. Only a watch that has passed very demanding testing can bear this name. For decades this evaluation was only done by one testing laboratory in Switzerland — and only on watches that were made in Switzerland. As an ambitious German watchmaker, Wempe saw only one solution to this dilemma. »We decided pretty quickly that we would build a testing laboratory, « says Gunter Teuscher. This plan was implemented in cooperation with the departments of calibration and metrology of the German states of Thuringia and Saxony, under whose authority the independent testing lab operates.

Today, not only Wempe watches but also those of other German manufacturers are put through their paces in the cellar of the new building. Special devices move the watches for 15 days under various conditions and at different temperatures. The most important criterion is that the watches don’t exceed the maximum allowable daily deviation of minus six to plus four seconds. On two other points, the German standards are even more stringent than those in Switzerland. Firstly, a chronometer must be adjustable to the second. And secondly, the movement may not be tested separately; it must be mounted in the case. There is still room in the lab under the observatory for further testing cabinets, and in fact an expansion is already being planned. That’s because watch sales are experiencing double-digit growth every year.

The story of Wempe watches is nowhere near its final chapter.

What’s the explanation for this amazing success? Bernhard Stoll says, »We decided to make our own watches because most of the brands have withdrawn from the medium price range and only make luxury watches. Our strategy, which involves also serving smaller budgets, has paid off.« Company head Kim-Eva Wempe has a simpler and even more obvious answer ready: »Our watches are just amazingly attractive! They have a face that immediately appeals to our customers.«

Learn more about Wempe Glashütte

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