Four generations of Wempe

A family-owned company discovers the threefold path to success: reliability, exclusivity and continuity.

1878 - 1921 Gerhard Diedrich Wempe: The Pioneer

drawing Gerhard Diedrich Wempe
He was a simple watchmaker, and his start-up capital amounted to exactly 80 marks. But Gerhard Diedrich Wilhelm Wempe also had a number of good ideas when he opened his first modest shop on 5 May 1878 in the town of Elsfleth an der Weser. This was a small watch workshop that also sold watches, and it was located in the house owned by his Aunt Caroline. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Elsfleth. That’s because Wempe was aligning his business with the special needs of his customers. At that time, the local economy was stagnating. The main industry in Elsfleth had been the construction of sailing ships, but now the era of steamships was beginning. As a result, Wempe initially focused his business on the trade in used watches. His approach was successful, and it wasn’t long before the locals were calling him “Gülden Gerd” (Golden Gerd). He invested his profits immediately — and this innovation was to become a hallmark of his family-owned company. Gerhard Diedrich Wempe also spent a great deal of time and money on the design of his shop windows. No other shop had such appealing displays, and no other shop attracted so many customers. Wempe was defining the formula that would carry the company through the severe crises of the following decades: his shops offered the best quality, the broadest range of products and the highest level of customer care.
portrait Gerhard D. Wempe

1878 – Gerhard D. Wempe establishes himself in Elsfleth, Germany

On 5 May 1878, when 21-year-old certified watchmaker Gerhard Diedrich Wilhelm Wempe founded his own company with a starting capital of 80 deutsche marks, no one could foresee that this company would grow into a large international business. The foundations of the modern German state were laid during the same period: 1878 marked the formulation of the anti-Socialist laws by Otto Bismarck. Konrad Adenauer, the man who would lead Germany to economic revitalisation after World War II, was born in 1876.

As things turned out, Gerhard Wempe had a special talent in marketing and merchandising, displaying his watches on velvet-covered trays that he had built himself. He constructed large shop windows and display cases which effectively turned his aunt’s living room into a jewellery showroom.

Exterior view of the second branch in Oldenburg

1894 — Gerhard Wempe founds a quickly expanding business in Oldenburg, Germany.

After 16 years, he made his next move: he set up a second branch in the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Here too, his business concept put him above and beyond the competition. In order to expand his product range in the top price category, he traveled to Switzerland with his 12-year-old son Herbert. There he made many contacts with the local watch workshops — contacts that would be very useful for his company later on. For now, the fine timepieces from Switzerland lent further glamour to his two shops.

exterior view of the first store in Hamburg

1907 – The opening of the first store on Schulterblatt, Hamburg.

Another milestone was reached in 1907, when Wempe opened a shop on the avenue called Schulterblatt in the Hanseatic city of Hamburg. His business philosophy was also a huge success in the big city. In its very first year, the shop had a turnover of 100,000 marks. However, this success didn’t go to Wempe’s head. He continued to manage his profits just as carefully as he had done when he started out in his small-town shop. When his son Herbert delivered orders to customers, he traveled by tram. And Gerhard Diedrich Wilhelm Wempe continued to invest his profits in the company. He was Hamburg’s first watch and Jewellery dealer to build up a small network of local shops. In 1914 he had already set up four additional branches in Hamburg. His ambition was to have a branch in every section of the city — but the World War I brought his plans to an abrupt halt.

1921 - 1963: Herbert Wempe: Age of Chronometerwerke

 Drawing Herbert Wempe
At the age of 31, Herbert Wempe now bore the sole responsibility for the family company. True to his father’s maxims, Herbert Wempe boldly invested in the company’s future. All of his branches received a uniform shop design both inside and out. Today this approach is known as “building a corporate identity”, but in the 1920s it was still not a common practice. In this way, Wempe ensured that his customers would always be able to recognize one of his shops and would always feel at home there. This has remained a hallmark of Wempe shops down to the present day. Another unique selling point introduced by Herbert Wempe was its expanded customer services. Wempe repaired all watches, including those from the famous Swiss brands. All of these measures proved to be successful. When the global economic crisis bore down on Germany, the company’s financial strength enabled it to survive the severe recession. The company’s next major investment was made in 1938. Wempe bought Hamburger Chronometerwerke GmbH from shipbuilders based in Hamburg and Bremen. Through this purchase, Wempe laid the foundations of the company’s own internationally competitive chronometer workshop, which also served as a training facility for talented watchmakers.
Exterior view of the Wempe headquarter

1923 – New Wempe headquarters on Steinstrasse, Hamburg.

Herbert Wempe bought a building on Hamburg’s fashionable Steinstrasse in 1923. Popularly known as “Gülden Gerd,” it became the company’s headquarters.

Interior view of the Chronometerwerke

1938 – Chronometerwerke Hamburg: The aesthetics of precision.

The company’s next major investment was made in 1938. Wempe bought Hamburger Chronometerwerke GmbH from shipbuilders based in Hamburg and Bremen. This company, which had been founded in 1905, produced highly precise marine chronometers under the management of the renowned chronometer maker Ferdinand Denker. Through this purchase, Wempe laid the foundations of the company’s own internationally competitive chronometer workshop, which also served as a training facility for talented watchmakers. Just a short time after that, a fruitful collaboration began in Glashütte between Herbert Wempe and Otto Lange, the grandson of the founder of the Ferdinand Adolph Lange watch company in Saxony. Together, the two men established the cooperative enterprise Sternwarte Glashütte as an institute for research and advanced training for young watchmakers, as well as the precise regulation of clocks and watches.

1945 – The business is turned over to a fiduciary.

However, once again a war devastated all of their plans. In 1939 the Wempe company lost its independence and was incorporated into the Ministry of Aviation and the Navy. By 1945 Hamburg was a pile of ruins, and the Wempe branches had also been destroyed. The oldest son, Herbert Wempe Jr., who had been designated to continue managing the company, did not return from the war. A difficult phase of rebuilding began.

1963 - 2003: Hellmut Wempe: International Expansion

Drawing Helmut Wempe

The youngest son, Hellmut Wempe, took on his first set of responsibilities for the company as a 13-year-old and joined the company in 1950 at the age of 18. The new beginning was successful. The first branch that Hellmut Wempe managed independently was located in the Barmbek district of Hamburg. In the period until the early 1960s, the company established ten branches throughout Hamburg. The German “economic miracle” made it possible — and the Wempes took advantage of this opportunity. Herbert Wempe died in 1963 and Hellmut took over the management of the company. Altogether, Hellmut Wempe expanded the family empire to include 29 branches throughout the world.

photo of Hellmut Wempe

1963 – Takeover of the management of the company.

After the death of Herbert Wempes Hellmut Wempe takes over the management of the company.

branch interior view

1967 – Wempe expands further.

A bolder leader than his predecessors, he took the risk of moving beyond Hamburg’s city limits and established a branch in Lübeck. This was followed by a branch in Bremen in 1967. At yearly intervals, he established branches in Berlin, Hanover, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich, as well as another shop on the fashionable Jungfernstieg in Hamburg. By 1979 the company consisted of more than ten branches.

exterior view of the branch New York

1980 – The kick-off for international expansion.

In 1980 the decision was made to open the company’s first branch abroad, and the city of choice was New York. True to the philosophy of his predecessors, the grandson of the company’s founder believed that only a top location was worthy of consideration. That is why the final choice was obvious: a spot on Fifth Avenue. The first years of the new shop were not easy, but eventually Wempe established itself in New York as well. That generated fresh momentum. The next branches were established in Paris, Vienna, London and Madrid. Hellmut Wempe developed the locally operating family-owned company into an international firm. Today Wempe even operates a boutique on the cruise ship MS Europa.

Since 2003 - Kim-Eva Wempe: The road to the future 

Drawing Kim-Eva Wempe

Kim-Eva Wempe’s predecessors were watchmakers with an unerring business sense. Conversely, she studied business management — and as a businesswoman she has demonstrated, down to the present day, that she too has inherited the family’s love of fine timepieces and jewellery. In several steps, she has strategically guided the company’s development in new directions, thus laying the foundation for further Expansion. It all began at the turn of the millennium with a line of jewelry. Together with her colleagues, Kim-Eva Wempe developed her own signature in the field of jewelry design through the BY KIM brand. The pieces in these collections are voluminous, yet transparent. They are cosmopolitan — for women who follow fashion and are in tune with the spirit of the times. The rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches BY KIM soon acquired an international following. BY KIM became a success, and today it is the company’s segment with the second-largest turnover. In just a few years, Kim-Eva Wempe has significantly expanded the family-owned company. Formerly a dealer of fine timepieces and jewelry, it is now also a brand of fine timepieces and jewelry — pieces created in innovative workshops that belong to the company. Under Kim-Eva’s aegis, Wempe’s turnover increased from 167 million euros in 2003 to 441 million euros in 2012 and the number of its employees augmented considerably. “Our employees are the capital with which my children will create value in their turn,” says Kim-Eva Wempe today. Her daughter Chiara is interested in jewelry design, and her son Scott already has some ideas of his own for the company. The Wempe tradition is continuing — in the next generation.

photo of Kim-Eva und Hellmut Wempe

2003 – Acquisition of management.

On the company’s 125th anniversary on May 5, 2003, Kim-Eva Wempe took over the responsibility for the company’s day-to-day business operations from her father Hellmut. At the time, he admitted that letting go of the reins was no easy matter, yet he knew that under his daughter’s care the Wempe tradition would be in good hands. Kim-Eva Wempe has repaid the trust that was placed in her by initiating a period of active expansion. She is forging ahead with innovations such as her line of jewelry and filling her predecessors’ ideas with new life.

exterior view of the Wempe observatory

2005 - The Observatory.

In 2005 Kim-Eva Wempe bought the completely derelict observatory in Glashütte, for which her grandfather had once developed ambitious plans. Under her initiative, the observatory has experienced a renaissance — as an institution where scientific research and the watchmaker’s craft are working together as a training institute for young watchmakers and an incubator for future ideas. Since 2006, wristwatches have been produced in the former observatory. The watch lines Wempe Chronometerwerke Glashütte i/SA and Wempe Zeitmeister Glashütte i/SA proudly bear the family name. They are tested and certified by the first German testing centre for chronometers, which is located in the observatory. And together with watches of all the major brands, they are repaired and receive regular maintenance checks in the affiliated watch workshop, which is Europe’s largest workshop operated by a retail dealer. Wempe watches also quickly became successful. As early as 2011, the company built an extension of the facility in Glashütte that expanded its production and service capacity many times over.

Interior view of the Wempe jewellery studio Schwäbisch Gmünd

2007 – The Wempe Atelier L. C. Köhler

In 2007 Wempe acquired 50 percent of the shares in the tradition-rich jewelry manufacture L.C. Köhler located in Schwäbisch Gmünd and made it the center of Wempe’s jewelry production under the name Wempe Atelier L. C. Köhler. In fact, the exclusive BY KIM jewelry line has been manufactured here since the year 2000. Furthermore, custom-made and redesigned jewelry items are also created with masterful craftsmanship and greatest passion in Schwäbisch Gmünd. General manager Alfred Baumhauer, Petra Forinton, Kim-Eva Wempe and creative director Catherine Plouchard work together with a highly qualified and specialized team of more than 50 goldsmiths, setters, casters and polishers to design and manufacture creative jewelry items. Their work is marked by innovation and tradition and in this scope loving attention is also paid to remodeling and customized new creations.

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