Time Pieces Part 1

Time Pieces 1               

Diving In – crash course in watchmaking

 

a.  Hypnosis – Glashütte pilgrimage
b.  Genesis – no Grossmann, no Glashütte
c.  Pardon – learning German
d.  Prototype – designing the first BENU

 

1.a  Hypnosis – Glashütte pilgrimage

December 2016.  I was in the process of leaving a big job that had been driving me nuts.  To clear my head, I took a few days skiing in Zermatt with some Swiss friends, including an entrepreneur called Theo Staub.

One evening at apero time, Theo was at his laptop looking at a picture of a weird looking watch. The conversation went like this:

Robin 
Theo
“What are you doing?” “Prepping for Basel World”
“What’s that?” “The biggest watch trade fair in the world”
“What’s your interest in watches?” “I just became Chairman of a watchmaking company”
“Oh.  Where are they based?” “Glashütte”
“And where in Switzerland is that?” “Germany”
“Ah.  I didn’t know they make watches in Germany” “They have a longer watch making history than the Swiss”
“I didn’t know that either.  What’s the company called?” “Moritz Grossmann”
“What’s special about them? “We hand make the most beautiful timepieces in Germany”
“Can I see one?” “Sure, look at this…….” 
(takes watch from wrist and presents caseback)
“…………………………………..  wow”  

 

Benu Power Reserve caseback

Having some time on my hands, I offered Theo some help with his business.  If I wanted to help out then step one, he said, was for me to visit Moritz Grossmann in Glashütte.

I might as well have got a one way ticket.

If you don’t know Glashütte, it is a tiny town tucked away in beautiful Saxon hills, near Dresden in eastern Germany.  7,000 people live there, yet it is home to ten high-end watch brands, including A. Lange & Sohne, Glashütte Original, Mühle, Tutima and Nomos.

My itinerary was to visit the Moritz Grossmann factory to see the production process; then poke around the museum; last see the collection.  I wasn’t expecting it to lead to an obsession.  But that’s what happened.

Here’s why.

First, the factory building grabs your imagination as soon as you see it.  Sitting low on a hill on the ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ from the other factories in town, the building is long and slim with a prow that makes it look like a super yacht.  Sculptures in the lobby, paintings on the walls all repeat that this is not an ordinary factory.

Is it a super-yacht?  The manufactory beside the Müglitz river and the railroad track

Glashütte seen from the panoramic top-floor showroom window at Moritz Grossmann

But it’s the manufacturing process that makes your head spin.  I used to visit aerospace factories all around the world, so I’m no stranger to amazing machinery that produces precision parts.  But I’d never seen people spending hours hand polishing pieces of metal to precise tolerances and exquisitely beautiful finishes.

Sets of hands take a full day to make.  The 12-piece assembly that makes up the index adjuster takes another three days.  The three band snailing pattern on the ratchet has a step between each ring about one micron deep – applied by hand.  The black polished crown wheel is done, by hand, with a small wooden tool that itself is handmade.  The balance wheel is balanced by making microscopic adjustments to the angle of the chamfers in tiny holes in the circumference – again done by hand.

The best I can do to explain the extreme finishing effort is describe the head on the micrometer screw that plays the key role in the index adjuster.  Have a look at the collage below.

Extreme polishing – minuscule index adjuster chamfers meet in a perfect triangular pyramid

Bottom right you can see the factory drawing of the head of the screw.  Bottom left, with my little finger nail for scale, you can see it’s tiny.  Top right you can see where it fits in the mechanism.  Top left, you can see that the mirror polished facet on the screw reflects light pretty effectively.  What you have to be told (and you can’t believe it) is that the chamfers on the edges of the screw head are hand polished  until the corner of the cube makes a perfect triangular pyramid.  Only when Jana has checked this in microscopic detail on all four corners does she know she’s finished.

I’d never seen anything like it, and, truthfully, I got a bit tearful.

Hypnotic.

I was screwed.

The museum trip put me further under.  The story of Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s exodus from Dresden to rescue a destitute former mining town is enthralling.  After the town’s mines were exhausted, they fell back on basket weaving.  And it didn’t go well.  A generation and a half later, they had learnt watchmaking so well that Kaiser Willhelm was commissioning pieces for visiting heads of state.

Year one of a 19th century apprenticeship: “make screws”

Glashütte’s fascinating museum: where Grossmann built the German School of Watchmaking

It’s an amazing story of social regeneration that I really didn’t expect.  Two world wars, a spell behind the iron curtain and the shock of sudden re-unification only hardened the town’s spirit – like heating steel.

Then back up the hill to see a sparkling collection of watches retailing between €10k and €200k.  I’d never had a day like it.  And was powerless to resist.

Deal clincher: a Tefnut caseback.  Could you pick a Calatrava instead?

Three years on, I have bought five pieces and have become Moritz Grossmann’s UK agent.  I still wear my Ebel for gardening.

One of the things that I’ve learnt is that getting beyond admiring a watch to picking a watch for your collection needs people to make an emotional connection.  To know the spirit that lives inside the watch.  To feel the heartbeat of the people that have helped bring that piece’s own heartbeat alive.

That’s what I’m trying to share here.

So that some of your soul can go back into the soul of this special town.

 

1.b. Genesis – no Grossmann, no Glashütte

Glashütte is an extraordinary town with a special place in horology.  I maintain that today’s vibrant Glashütte watch industry couldn’t exist without the contribution that Karl Moritz Grossmann made so many years ago.

Antique Grossmann pocket watches look over Glashütte from Moritz Grossmann’s boardroom

All today’s brands have sprung (back) to life since reunification – Lange & Söhne are maybe the best known.  Glashütte Original carry the name of the town.  Nomos are the value-fashion brand.  Mühle has the strongest family line all the way through to today’s charming CEO, Thilo.  And Moritz Grossmann are the newest, – founded 2008 – and I would say most exclusive.

For all the activity since reunification, Glashütte’s watchmaking history goes way back.

F.A. Lange got the support of the Saxon court to move his watch business from Dresden to Glashütte in 1845.  And, in doing so, he saved the former mining town from destitution. Lange persuaded three of his close friends – Julius Aasmann, Adolf Schneider and Moritz Grossmann to follow him.  Grossmann had been Lange’s apprentice in Dresden.

Together, the four friends built a world-renowned industry within a generation.  All four were prolific technical innovators and exquisite watchmakers.  So why do I say no Grossmann, no Glashütte?

He provided the social glue.  He saw that for a town to thrive, it needed more than merely work.  So he ran the social club; he ran the sports club; he led the choir; he started the fire brigade – he even had the railway built so that people could travel easily to and from Dresden as the town’s success grew.

But his master-stroke was to start the German School of Watchmaking in 1878.  This one act secured the pipeline of talent to enable the town to be entirely self-sufficient.

Portrait of Grossmann – plus a corner of the roll of honour of watchmaking graduates

And it won him many hearts.  When you visit today, the Watch Museum is housed in Grossmann’s old school building.  When I first visited, my guide Julia almost cried when describing how Grossmann died too young, leaving a widow, a two year old son and a legacy – but no on-going business.

Julia shows me the apprenticeship room – note the huge role of honour around the walls

The museum has a very rare Grossmann pocket watch with a 7.5 minute repeater, chiming eight times per hour.  I guess he made it because he achieved eight times more each day than any normal person could imagine.

7.5 minute ….  Prices for a new one on application!

In the lobby, the museum also houses an astonishing tour de force – the astronomical clock made by School Graduate Herman Goertz.  Hand-made over 33 years, it is one of the most astonishing pieces of horology in the world.  Today, my friend Andreas Gelbrich is trusted to maintain this magnificent clock alongside his work as Moritz Grossmann’s lead prototyper.

Goertz’s masterpiece

Jaw-dropping stats

I believe that neither Goertz’s clock, nor Andreas’s job would exist today if Grossmann hadn’t put so much of himself into building a town that would survive him, survive two World Wars and then outlast the Iron Curtain.

Lange had the vision.  Grossmann added the soul.  Today’s Moritz Grossmann pieces bring that soul back to life.

Bringing a soul back to life – Grossmann’s 19th Century design for an index adjuster reborn in a 21st Century wristwatch movement  (photo MG)

 

1.c. Pardon? – learning German

My German should be functional by now.  It isn’t.

But I have learned some key words:  starting with these three.

Schönstes deutsches Handwerk

This is Moritz Grossmann’s strap line.

Taking a lead from Audi (Vorsprung durch Technik), I persuaded our marketing folk that a German language phrase “Schoenstes deutsches Handwerk” was a brand promise that described what we do truthfully, and that also gave people, worldwide, good reasons to want to buy from us.  Here’s why:

  • Schönstes”: “the absolutely most beautiful”  (from ‘schoen’ as in ‘bitte schoen’ – pretty please – easier to remember now, right?)
  • deutsches”: German (we all know; you just have to get used to writing it in lower case, adjective)
  • Handwerk”: handwork – or in this context ‘artisanship’ (upper case, noun!)

Schoenstes deutsches Handwerk.  Agreed?

The absolutely most beautiful German artisanship really says

  • We’re not Swiss – we’re far more interesting than that. More unusual, more discerning, longer history, more practical and – if the truth were told – better engineered with a solid, stable 2/3 plate and an outsize balance wheel.
  • We’re hand crafted, low volume, exclusive – and although we’re expensive, you’re paying for our workforce’s dedicated, skilled work, not our marketing budget.
  • We’re better finished than almost any other watch – local or otherwise. I won’t spell it out further than to say that Philippe Dufour is our benchmark.
Gangräderdurchschläge

Gear wheel template.

The first German compound word that I came across.  This box of ancient wheels is in the museum.

Say that again?

The word made me think German would always be too tough to learn.  But it gave me an idea……

Armbanduhrenpräzisionshandaufzugsmechanismus

Precision, hand operated adjustment mechanism for a wrist watch.  Or “pusher system”.

Our time setting mechanism is specially engineered to allow you to set the time to the second.  The buttons to stop the mechanism and to restart it are different.  There can be no sudden half minute jump at the restart.  People love this feature.  But ‘pusher system’ I thought was far too dull a name.  So communications manager Sandra Behrens and I made up the new word for it.  It was fun.  And I can say it out loud, though it took practise.

Mechanics of the pusher system are normally hidden, but can be seen here through the Backpage casebook

Crown to stop the mechanism and set the time, little pusher button to restart

Armbandührenpräzisionshandaufzugsmechanismus in action

Dreifachgestufter Sonnenschliff

Triple step sunburst polish.  Or three band snailing.  This is a crucial part of the appearance of a Moritz Grossmann case back – whether on one of his antique pieces or one of our modern wristwatches.

Grossmann always shared his manufacturing techniques.  His passion was raising the quality of watchmaking worldwide.  But he never left the instructions for how he achieved to optical illusion of his version of three band snailing – presumably because he thought it trivial embellishment.  It took Christine’s team four months of trial and error before they were able to reproduce, by hand, a finish that resembles his.  It was worth it.

Steps are about 1 micron deep – done by the back of Patrick’s hand

Toilettenbürstenbenutzungsanweisung

“Toilet brush use instructions”.  Seen in the gents at Glashütte.

All wrong; wrong; nearly right; right

Who ever said that German sense of humour is no laughing matter?

 

1.d. Prototype – designing the first BENU

When Christine Hutter chose to build Moritz Grossmann from scratch, question one was “what is our first watch going to look like?”

Design principles were clear

  1. It had to be true to Grossmann’s twin obsessions: simplicity and mechanical perfection.
  2. 19th century design features had to be presented in a 21st century style, respecting but not copying Grossmann’s lead.
  3. Only the finest, hand finished quality would do.

Turning these principles into the BENU started with the case.  It took an unusual shape, with smooth lugs folding comfortably on the wrist and a super-thin bezel next to a prominent crown which was easy to pull.

The first BENU……

…. white gold….. 

….. rose gold …..

……or platinum.  Tough choice.  (Photos MG)

The thin bezel left dial space for a conscious homage to Moritz Grossmann. The very finest, needle-sharp, hand-made BENU hands were designed to point to a wide minute scale with tiny sub-divisions all of which sat outside the numerals.  The look imitated the precision measuring instruments that Grossmann once made alongside his timepieces.  But the BENU hands were annealed to brown violet – not traditional blue – which is far harder to produce but uniquely stylish.

Lustrous brown-violet BENU hands – seen here on a rose gold Power reserve

Three styles of hour markers were mocked up:  indices, Roman numerals and Arabic numerals.  More classic Roman was preferred until Christine awoke one day just knowing this felt wrong.  So Arabic font gave a 21st century twist.

The balance was designed as oversize – another Grossmann hallmark – because it is elegant, it can be made fractionally more accurate and it has a slower pulse – like a heartbeat.  Back to the face of the watch, the second sub-dial was designed to be as big as the balance.  An unseen symmetry.

The classic ⅔ plate in German silver gave the movement stability and gravitas.  The arc cut in the plate revealed the whole balance and provided the inspiration for the logo.

A cantilevered balance cock was used just as Grossmann would have done to accommodate his oversized balance.  Sitting on this, the index adjuster featured the Grossmann micrometer screw – simple to use, if fiendish to make.  The whole assembly was designed to be awash with hand engraving.

Calibre 100_0 – exquisite design and finishing.  Note balance screws on the wheel.  Absent from later movements where final balancing is done by polishing material off the wheel in a series of chamfered holes.

Hand-engraving was then the obvious choice for the lettering.  To allow full appreciation of the engraver’s skill, gold plating was rejected, leaving subtle writing.  That in turn dictated broad Glashütte stripes so the writing could be seen easily.  Only white sapphires seemed to match this simple, quiet aesthetic so to make the stones pop, they were set in raised gold chatons with prominent brown violet screws.

Hand engraving.  Shhhhhh..  Mindfulness in progress.

Lastly, the wheels were designed with the ultimate embellishments: black polishing on the crown wheel, three-band snailing similar to one of Grossmann’s patterns on the ratchet wheel and hand polishing between every single tooth.

This whole process took about 18 months and mostly happened at Christine’s kitchen table in Dresden, then later on Hauptstrasse, where Grossmann had his Glashütte atelier.

And the name, BENU, is borrowed from a mythical Egyptian symbol of rebirth.

I wish I had been there for the celebration when the first prototype finished its long gestation.  Christine wore it often for the next eight years.

It was sold at auction at Christie’s in December 2018.  I should have bought it, but I didn’t.  Idiot!

The very first BENU – ready for sale at Christie’s on MG’s tenth Anniversary