When asked about the countries that produce some of the best luxury watches on the market, people would often think of Switzerland or even present-day Germany. But none of them would imagine the defunct German Democratic Republic (also known back then as East Germany) as a place that makes luxury watches, especially when it used to exist. After all, images of the Berlin Wall would be the first that would come into people’s minds when talking about East Germany.
But little do they know that Glashütte Original, one of the top manufacturers of luxury watches from Germany, had its roots in East Germany, specifically in the town of Glashütte in eastern Germany. But how did Glashütte Original’s history with East Germany affect it as a watch manufacturer? This article seeks to summarize Glashütte Original’s history with GDR as a company.
Humble Beginnings in Glashütte
Before the events that created both West Germany and East Germany, Glashutte Original could trace its roots back in 1845, when a town in Saxony known as Glashütte started to become the center for watchmaking in Germany, along with another town named Ruhla. When World War II ended, both towns suffered from the consequences of the war. And much of the machinery from these two renowned watchmaking towns have been given to the Soviet Union as a form of reparation for the damages that Germany (then ruled by Adolf Hitler) caused during World War II. Despite this, watchmaking in both Glashütte and Ruhla and the German Democratic Republic as a whole started to pick up its pace again after the war had ended, and even during the division of Germany. From that point, several watch manufacturers based in both Glashütte and Ruhla have been under the supervision of the East German government and merged into a single state-owned enterprise.
Incorporation into the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe
In 1951, all of the watch manufacturers in Glashütte that survived the Second World War, including Glashütte Original and A. Lange & Söhne, were forced to merge into a single watchmaking enterprise owned and supervised by the East German government, known as the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe or GUB. The same thing happened for the watch manufacturers based in Ruhla a year later. The relationship between Ruhla, Glashütte, and Glashütte Original may not seem significant for most people who are interested to know about the history of both towns. But the fate of these two German watchmaking towns in the east of what is now Germany has a huge impact on the fate of Glashütte Original as well.
This is because the two large state-owned watchmaking enterprises formed by the East German government, namely the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB) in Glashütte and VEB Uhren-und Maschinenfabrik (UMF) in Ruhla were forced to merge with another state-owned company, VEB Uhrenwerk Weimar, around 15 years after the two enterprises were born. This created the VEB Uhrenwerke Ruhla (UWR) in 1978. These are some of the most popular “Volkseigener Betrieb” in the country, with the term roughly translating to “People’s Company.”
Many of the watches produced in both Glashütte and Ruhla were exported to different countries. Glashütte watches were in high demand both inside and outside the German Democratic Republic. However, the GDR exported most of the watches manufactured in both towns to non-Communist countries, including West Germany. Mail-order companies and department stores in West Germany were some of the biggest buyers of wristwatches made in Glashütte, and this is why Glashütte watches are rarely seen inside the GDR.
Present-day Glashütte Original
While Glashütte Original and other watchmaking companies helped the overall industry and economy of the German Democratic Republic grow, history had a different path set, not just for both East and West Germany. But for the watchmakers in Glashütte and even in Ruhla. In 1990, as many communist regimes in Eastern Europe had fallen, the East German government soon faced pressure from its constituents, and it decided to dissolve itself and join the Federal Republic of Germany. In that same year, the two Germanies were reunified, and this major historical event had an impact on Glashütte Original and other watch manufacturers as well.
Four years after the reunification of Germany, the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe was privatized, and this event re-established Glashütte Original as a separate watch manufacturer. It remained an independent watchmaking company until 2000 when it was acquired by the Swatch Group, which includes many of the world’s leading luxury watch brands such as Tissot and Omega. While Glashütte Original’s present is as promising as ever, its past as a part of a state-owned enterprise in the GDR somehow helped in building the company’s reputation. One of the most popular models created by Glashütte Original during its GDR years is the Spezimatic model, which was produced between 1965 and 1979. Due to its popularity, around 3.7 million Spezimatic watches were made and sold by Glashütte Original from 1965 to 1979. Now, this model is often seen and valued as a vintage classic by many watch users and collectors all over the globe.
Many watch manufacturers have interesting histories and unique reputations that set them apart from each other. Glashütte Original, one of the most renowned and prestigious luxury watch brands that have come from Germany, is no exception to this. However, a few people would ever think that Glashütte Original, a German watch brand famous for its Senator line of watches, had a seemingly Communist past.
Only a few people would ever realize that Glashütte Original, now a part of one of the largest Swiss watch manufacturers in the world, once helped drive the industry and economy of one of the most impoverished countries in Europe during the 20th century. Such colorful and amazing past sets Glashütte Original apart from any other watch manufacturing brands, such as Rolex, Tudor, and Omega.
Nonetheless, this history helped define what Glashütte Original is as a watch manufacturer, and despite the negative connotations people have with East Germany and the Communist state that ruled the country for almost 55 years, Glashütte Original’s roots as a former component of a state-owned watchmaking enterprise is still a past worth celebrating and appreciating.