Germany is one of the top 5 watch exporters worldwide. Compared to export giants such as Switzerland (the largest exporter in terms of value) or China (the largest exporter in terms of volume), the German watchmaking industry is quite small, but still offers a great variety and moving history. The German watch industry can look back on a history of several hundred years and the major part of the German watch production still takes place today in the historic centers. In this article we take a short journey through time to the beginnings of the watch industry in the gold town of Pforzheim, the Black Forest and Glashütte.

One of the most important German watch industries: Glashütte, Saxony

In 1845 Ferdinand Adolph Lange became the first master watchmaker in Glashütte. With a loan from the Saxon government, he founded the watch factory Ferdinand Adolph Lange & Cie. A new employer was welcomed in the poverty-stricken Müglitztal – and so Ferdinand Adolph Lange began to train citizens of Glashütte as watchmakers.

The concept worked: the watchmaking industry in Glashütte flourished, numerous other watchmakers settled and founded businesses. In 1878, the German watchmaker school Glashütte was founded on the initiative of the watch manufacturer Karl Moritz Großmann. The curriculum included important subjects such as mathematics and geometry for watchmakers.

Unterrichtsplan Deutsche Uhrmacherschule zu Glashütte

Glashütte has become famous for high-precision pocket watches over the decades. In the 1940s, for example, the production of marine chronometers and the well-known pilot watches in the so-called observation watch design also took place there.

Kaiser Wilhelm II. Taschenuhr Lange & Söhne
Schiffschronometer A. Lange & Söhne

After the end of the Second World War, almost all production facilities were dismantled as reparations and brought to the Soviet Union. From then on, the Soviets also had their watchmakers trained in Glashütte. At the same time, most of the watch manufacturers from Glashütte were expropriated by the occupying troops and from 1951 they were combined in the people’s company Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB).

The high-quality small series production with which Glashütte had become famous came to an end temporarily: Industrial mass production moved into the small town, up to 2500 employees worked in the production of GUB.

Uhren Massenfertigung GUB Glashütte

After reunification, various entrepreneurs, including the great-grandson of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, brought about another change in the course of the Glashütte watchmaking industry, back to the finest watchmaking. In addition to Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, the legal successor to GUB, was also instrumental in this development.

The plan worked: Today, watches with the finest mechanics from manufacturers such as Lange & Söhne or Glashütte Original can be found in the high-priced luxury segment – in certain cases, the price tag of a watch even exceeds the millions …

Deutsches Uhrenmuseum Glashütte

German watch industry in the southwest: The gold town of Pforzheim and the Black Forest

Margrave Karl-Friedrich von Baden founded the watch and jewelry industry in Pforzheim in 1767 – long before the watch industry in Glashütte grew. With the support of a Swiss-French watchmaker duo, a watch factory was set up in the local orphanage to keep the orphans busy. A little later, the factory was expanded to produce jewelry, whereupon the focus of production shifted over the coming years.

From 1920, however, the manufacture of watches in Pforzheim experienced a renaissance: the city on the northern edge of the Black Forest became one of the most important centers of the German watch industry and jewelry manufacturing worldwide, to which the nickname Goldstadt (gold town) refers. With respect, people abroad also spoke of “Little Geneva”.

During this time, numerous factories emerged, including the Pforzheimer Uhren-Rohwerke GmbH (PUW), founded by master watchmaker Rudolf Wehner in 1933, which produced and successfully sold in-house-developed mechanical movements, already one year after its founding. Thanks to the long-lasting quality and accuracy, the movements also enjoyed an excellent reputation internationally.

Uhrenindustrie Pforzheim

As in Glashütte, the post-war years in Pforzheim were extremely difficult – many factories were destroyed, production facilities were dismantled by the victorious powers. However, many entrepreneurs such as PUW founder Rudolf Wehner braved the adverse circumstances and rebuilt the city and the manufacturing facilities.

The effort was worth it: Many Pforzheim-based watch factories became more successful than ever in the post-war years. In the 1970s, just under 30,000 people were employed in the Pforzheim watchmaking industry in order to produce mechanical watches efficiently and with high quality in large series. Just like in the rest of the Black Forest, many companies and jobs in the watch industry also disappeared in Pforzheim due to the rise of quartz watches and the associated quartz crisis.

Today, however, numerous traditional and young microbrands are again active in Pforzheim and the surrounding area. In the Goldstadt you can still find excellent conditions to build high-quality watches “Made in Germany”, including case and dial manufacturers. In Pforzheim you will also find a goldsmith and watchmaker school, the Federal Association for Watches and Jewelry, and the Technical Museum of the Pforzheim jewelry and watch industry.

In keeping with the Pforzheim tradition, the prices for watches from the Goldstadt are usually relatively affordable today and thus offer an excellent entry into the world of high-quality watches made in Germany.

Watch industry in the Black Forest

Wooden clocks had been produced in large numbers in many small workshops in the Baden part of the Black Forest since the second half of the 18th century. Thanks to the early division of labor and simplified construction, the alarm clocks, grandfather clocks and wall clocks from the Black Forest were internationally successful due to their low prices and high quality. The basis was the cheap and easy-to-use raw material wood, which was available in large quantities almost in front of the door. Wooden clockmaking was a free trade that anyone could do. The production of metal clocks, however, was subject to the guild rules and was limited exclusively to urban watchmakers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the alarm clock in a sheet metal housing became the flagship product of the Black Forest watch industry, which could be efficiently and in high quality produced in large-scale industrial production based on the American model.

Watch industry in Schwenningen

Schwenningen, which was once known as the largest watch city in the world, was particularly influential for the watch industry in the Black Forest. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, Schwenningen traded clocks and manufactured its own clocks in metal housings in small factories. In 1900 the state school of precision engineering, which still exists today, was founded in Schwenningen as the royal Württemberg school for precision mechanics, electromechanics and watchmaking. The watch industry in Schwenningen was extremely successful – on the peak, from 1954 to 1963, there were well over 200 companies that were active in the Schwenningen watch industry.

After the two world wars and the quartz crisis, however, the Black Forest watch industry did not regain its former strength. Nevertheless, there are still numerous manufacturers of large clocks and mechanical movements in the Black Forest.