The nine, long, glass-walled galleries of the Junghans watch company rise in steps up a hillside in the Black Forest, in an elegant convergence of form and function. The building was designed so that workers faced the landscape, constantly swathed in sunlight. It opened in 1918, a year ahead of the Bauhaus school in Weimar. But the institution’s founders might have enjoyed the crisp geometry of the architecture.
In 1961 Junghans produced a watch here that now seems as much a child of the Bauhaus as any other item. It was designed by Max Bill, a Swiss polymath who co-founded the Bauhaus’s successor school in Ulm. His minimalist timepiece reflected the Bauhaus’s emphasis on aesthetic simplicity and the primacy of function over expressive form. It had rounded, sans-serif numerals (the reduced “4”, like a J turned on its side, is particularly exquisite) and tiny dots of yellow luminescence at the quarter hours, minuscule flashes of energy amid minimalist purity.
The sobriety of many such German watch designs sets them apart from Switzerland’s more florid timepieces, says Charlotte Fiell, author of a forthcoming book on German design. “It’s all about being clear and legible. You’re making a statement in favour of simplicity.”
Like much else in Germany, the country’s watchmaking is a story of east and west. In the west, the Black Forest region where Junghans has its headquarters, has been a centre of horology since the 18th century – the cuckoo clock was invented there. In the 19th century, silver ore was mined in Glashütte in Saxony in the east, close to the border with the Czech Republic, and it became a nexus for fine watchmaking. Ferdinand Adolph Lange opened a watch factory there, which later became the firm A. Lange & Söhne. Its success fostered a hub of suppliers and collaborators. Unlike mass-production in western firms, eastern ones concentrated on producing rare and refined pocket watches. Other local companies emerged, specialising in chronometric precision and measuring instruments.
The world wars crushed the German watch industry. The remaining firms in the west largely served the internal market. In the east, Glashütte was heavily bombed. Later the east German government shut down the industry and used such factories for other goods.
This changed only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ferdinand Lange’s great-grandson, Walter Lange, got Swiss backing to restart the old enterprise. Under his leadership, and drawing on the last embers of the skills and knowledge that existed in the town before 1950, A. Lange & Söhne produced its first watches of the modern era in 1994.
Today, A. Lange & Söhne is owned by the Richemont Group, a Swiss luxury conglomerate, and is renowned for its hand-finished movements. The Lange 1, launched in 1994, is the most famous model, notable for its asymmetric dial, with off-centre displays for the hours, minutes, seconds, date and power reserve. “You see the craftsmanship, but you also see and feel the engineering,” says Wilhelm Schmid, chief executive of the company.
Between the two poles of Junghans’ simplicity and A. Lange & Söhne’s high art, a raft of other German brands offer clean, stylish designs that differ from the traditional luxe
of the Swiss. Nomos Glashütte creates watches that also show a Bauhaus influence: its new Tangente Sport, with luminescent hands, is a smart, modernist sports watch. Industrial gauges are the surprising inspiration for design at MeisterSinger, based in the Bavarian city of Münster. Its watches use a single hand that progresses around a 24-hour dial. Sinn, based in Frankfurt, was founded in 1961 and has created watches as technical tools for activities like aviation and diving. These have a more austere look than Swiss varieties.
Were one to look for a manifesto for German watches, it might come from Dietrich Lubs, who designed watches for Braun, an electronic goods company that carried the form-follows-function ethos of the Bauhaus modern households. Its AW10 watch has a clean black dial, grey case and a stand-out yellow second hand. Good design, says Lubs, is about “simplicity of form and comprehensible geometries. No over-interpretations, no cosmetic distractions.” It’s a philosophy that sums up the best of German watch design today.•