Nomos this year celebrates 25 years since being founded on the Wild East frontier created by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Company founder Roland Schwertner was the first on the scene in the traditional centre of German watch-making after the fall of the wall and has led the way in reviving the fortunes of Glashütte.
It’s clear that the historical division of Germany didn’t affect the spirit of human enterprise during the 28 years that the Berlin Wall was in place, at least for those living west of the wall. Roland Schwertner arrived in Glashütte just three months after the fall of the wall and saw opportunity in the German town renowned for watch-making.
Today Glashütte Original sits next to A. Lange & Sohne, across the road from Nomos, a short drive from Muhle- Glashütte and Union Glashütte among others. But this concentration of craft has been a long time in the making.
The small tranquil town outside of Dresden had been a centre of watch-making since Ferdinand Adolph Lange first arrived in 1845, tasked by royal decree to foster industry and create new jobs to replace those lost in the exhausted silver mines of the surrounding hills.
Lange’s pocket watches were a success and he soon had a staff of 100, who he encouraged to branch out as entrepreneurs in their own right and establish the infrastructure of tooling and manufacturing necessary to create a sustainable supply chain for watch-making.
Soon news of the burgeoning watch-making hub of Glashütte began to attract watchmakers from across Germany and the final piece clicked into place when Carl Moritz Grossman established the German School of Watchmaking Glashütte in 1878. Watch-making in the town even developed its own characteristic style with screwed gold chatons for the jewels, a hand-engraved balance cock, swan neck regulator and even its own variation of Côtes de Genève decoration, Glashütte ribbing.
But the town’s success was shortlived. The First World War saw demand for luxury watches diminish while the Second World War saw many of the workforce drafted into service and those that were not were required to create aircraft instruments or bomb fuses. On the final day of the war Allied bomber scored a direct hit on Lange’s factory. After that what was left of watch-making in Glashütte was dismantled by the Russians who first shipped the bulk of the town’s machinery to Moscow as war reparations and then began to appropriate businesses, land and talent. What remained was formed into the state-owned VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB) to produce fairly unremarkable watches for the next four decades. The GUB would later be privatised and eventually become the Swatch Group-owned Glashütte Original.
After the fall of The Berlin Wall, 25 years ago last month, a new Wild East frontier presented itself to ambitious individuals as often happens in time of political and social upheaval. Schwertner was one of the most prescient of these individuals and just a month after arriving in Glashütte he had founded Nomos, from the Greek for law, order and regularity, with three watch-making colleagues. Working from a three-room apartment Schwertner’s Nomos released its first watch, the Tangente, in 1992. Designed in the Deutscher Werkbund style, Nomos’ watches exhibit a clean, practical aesthetic with maximum legibility in mind.
It’s a look that is nurtured and developed at Nomos’ Berlinerblau design studio, far from the tranquillity of Glashütte in Kreuzberg, Berlin. The company’s strategy of separating design and manufacturing is a logical one; while Glashütte might be the perfect locale for watch-making it may well be too quiet to inspire the company’s design team. Berlinerblau is everything you might expect of a German creative agency, white walls punctuated with colourful mantras, Frank Gehry lighting and Philippe Starck furniture. It is here that every single aspect of the Nomos aesthetic is created; from exhibition displays to advertising campaigns, from brochures to promotional gifts and of course watches too.
Nomos’ in-house creatives are incredibly fastidious in their approach to creating products that sit comfortably with the Nomos universe. Typefaces are magnified and dissected, dials produced in a 100 different shades of the same colour and 3D printed models pored over.
Given the strength of the Berlinerblau team it is perhaps surprising to learn that Nomos turned to furniture designer Mark Braun for its most important watch in years, the Metro.
The Metro, unveiled at BaselWorld this year, is the first watch to feature Nomos’ Swing System escapement contained within a brand new DUW 4401 movement. For while Nomos has been producing watches solely featuring its own movements since 2005 it has still been reliant on escapements produced by a supplier. That changed when the company decided it wanted greater independence and decided to develop its own escapement.
Nomos dedicated seven years in partnership with the Technical University of Dresden to reverse engineer the traditional Swiss Lever Escapement and record the physics involved; without this detailed understanding of the mechanism it would have been impossible to manufacture. The project is thought to have cost Nomos several million Euros.
Arriving in Glashütte, the parallels to Swiss watch-making towns are obvious; it’s quiet, secluded and free from distractions; the perfect setting for a watchmaker, who requires concentration and focus at the bench. During the day the town also appears almost entirely unpopulated, everyone is at work inside one of the town’s many world-famous brands.
Nomos’ presence in Glashütte has grown over the years, doubling the size of its team since 2010 to more than 200 people. The company sold its original building splitting its operation in the town in two. Nomos’ unimpeachable logic prevailed once again with the delicate bench work of assembly carried out in the hills overlooking Glashütte at the company’s Chronometry while machining, research and development and management are performed in a location that befits Nomos’ own particular brand of quirk.
In 2005 Nomos moved into Glashütte’s railway station. The line connecting the watch-making enclave to nearby Dresden is still in use today, but it had been decided that a town without a single hotel perhaps didn’t require such a large station. The platform is still in place and Nomos employees are known to nip outside to take in the glorious country air. The company’s watch-making operation, for a relatively young brand, is truly impressive. There is a comfortable, coherent flow between components being precision-crafted on modern machinery before being decorated using the traditional expertise of the company’s crafts men and women.
This skill needed a showcase beyond Nomos’ core collection and last year the brand introduced the Lux and Lambda, watches three times more expensive than anything else it had produced before. These solid gold-cased watches ably demonstrate what Nomos are capable of with those signature Glashütte traits of screwed gold chatons, Glashütte ribbing decoration, snaw-neck regulator and balance cock hand-engraved with the message ‘Lovingly crafted in Glashütte’. While these standout pieces highlight what the brand is capable of, production is limited to no more than two each week with no plans to increase those numbers.
Elsewhere Nomos, which is now independently owned by five partners, has some very ambitious expansion plans. It aims to double the size of the business in the next three years. Evidence of those plans is already apparent at the Chronometry, which has recently been extended to allow for the company’s growing workforce.
Just 25 years after its founding Nomos today lays claim to producing more mechanical watches bearing the words ‘Made in Germany’ than any other manufacturer. The company is a true commercial success story and has paved the way for a watch-making revival in Glashütte.
The company has certainly struck a chord with domestic customers; Germany remains Nomos’ biggest market with 300 retailers on home turf. Elsewhere the brand distributes watches through a further 500 retailers in 42 countries. With a growing collection of awards for its designs and increasing international recognition you wouldn’t find many prepared to bet against Nomos achieving its latest goal.