By Klaus Meyer.
Watchmaker Nomos is very much in the news – with award-winning products, superb engineering, astonishing growth rates and political statements. How do the company’s two totally different sites – one in the town of Glashütte in Saxony, the other in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district – shape the hip brand?
Two roads lead to Nomos. One leads to the adventurous heart of Berlin-Kreuzberg, the other to Glashütte in Saxony, half an hour’s drive south of Dresden; set in the picturesque Müglitz Valley, the little town is world-famous as the hub of German horology. If you want to know more about the company’s beautifully designed watch faces, straps made of vegetable-tanned cordovan, designer branding, corporate culture and corporate responsibility, you’ll make your way to Paul-Lincke-Ufer, which runs along the capital’s Landwehr Canal, and visit Berlinerblau, the Nomos subsidiary responsible for design and branding. On the other hand, if it’s the swing system, caliber and complications you’re interested in, you’ll set off for Glashütte, where the manufacturer runs three sites.
So which is it to be? At Nomos, aesthetics and rationality, design and technology, a cosmopolitan attitude and a sense of tradition, Berlin hipness and Saxon ingenuity all work incredibly well together. It’s a complex brand, born under a lucky star, a combination of yin and yang. Consequently, if you really want to understand the company, its history and its legend, the only way to get there is to make both journeys.
It all started over a chip shop
Let’s begin in Glashütte: founded in 1990, boutique watchmaking company Nomos Glashütte/SA currently employs around 300 people and, by its own account, dominates the German market for mechanical timepieces. Production started at a chip shop by the name of Heidi’s Imbiss in 1992 – or to be more precise, in a little room above it. It was there that three local watchmakers assembled the four original models Tangente, Ludwig, Orion and Tetra, while Nomos founder Roland Schwertner was responsible for sales (as he still is today).
The Düsseldorf IT expert and fashion photographer would probably never have got into the watch business if his great aunt hadn’t been in Glashütte. During a visit soon after the fall of the Berlin wall, Schwertner recognised the huge potential that lay dormant in the sleepy town in the Eastern Ore Mountains. The 2,000-strong community harboured a special treasure: its inhabitants – many of whom were highly specialised micromechanics and often fourth-generation watchmakers.
The first generation of these experts owed its training to Dresden watchmaker Ferdinand Adolf Lange, who founded the A. Lange & Cie watchmaking company in Glashütte in 1845. Lange had received 7,800 thalers from the Royal Saxon Ministry of the Interior for the investment, which included the cost of training 15 apprentices – a business development venture that eventually bore fruit, even if it took a while: after becoming impoverished since the decline of silver mining, the region evolved into a centre of the watchmaking industry in the second half of the 19th century, producing timepieces that could easily withstand comparison with the finest products from Switzerland.
By the turn of the century, Glashütte’s reputation among watch dandies was every bit as good as that of Biel, La Chaux-de-Fonds or Le Locle. But first and foremost, it was the timepieces by A. Lange & Söhne that brought the town worldwide fame. And in 1990, after reunification, it was one of Ferdinand Adolf’s great grandsons who returned to Glashütte after years of exile in Pforzheim to revamp the watchmaking town’s image, which had lost some of its shine over the intervening years. Walter Lange founded Lange Uhren GmbH, purchased the trademark rights for A. Lange & Söhne from the Treuhand privatisation agency and commenced production with former employees of the VEB GUB, the state-owned Glashütte watchmaking conglomerate during GDR times.
Understated and functional
Meanwhile, Roland Schwertner was doing his own thing, but Nomos’s gradual ascent during the 1990s is also partly based on the achievements of Glashütte’s old-established brand: in 1990, a model from A. Lange & Söhne’s prewar catalogue inspired graphic designer Susanne Günther to create Tangente, a watch that has long since been regarded as a classic and remains Nomos’s best-performing product. With its slender numerals, fine hands, ultra-thin lines and the fuss-free logo designed by Michael Margos, Tangente looks so rational, understated and functional that it’s often mentioned in the same breath as the Bauhaus. And that’s music to the ears of Judith Borowski, the company’s head of branding: “We feel very much at home with the Bauhaus, the Deutscher Werkbund and Ulm School of Design.”
Talking of Judith Borowski: she represents the Berlin branch of Nomos like nobody else. A journalist by trade, she joined the company in the late 1990s as the result of a rather unconventional “application”. She called Roland Schwertner and, without beating around the bush, asked if he could give her a good price on a Tetra if she wrote a few catalogue texts for Nomos in return. He agreed to the deal, and the occasional copywriting assignment soon turned into a full-time job; Judith Borowski proved so good at it that, in 2001, she was promoted to head of the Berlinerblau agency. In 2003 she took over half the shares that mail order company Manufactum had held in Nomos and has been a co-partner ever since.
Her counterpart in Saxony is Uwe Ahrendt. Nomos’s technical trailblazer comes from a Glashütte watchmaking family. After an apprenticeship at the state-owned conglomerate, he studied engineering and economics and started his career at IWC in Switzerland before switching to A. Lange & Söhne as a production manager. In 2000, he moved across the road to Nomos; after three years as a senior executive, he became CEO and bought the other half of the Manufactum shares. Borowski, Ahrendt and Schwertner have been in charge of the company’s fortunes ever since.
From then on, the firm developed at breathtaking pace. Since April 2005, Nomos has only been using its own movements in its watches, with complications – i.e. additional functions – ranging from a date display, power reserve indicator and world time function all the way to an automatic movement with date window. This technical offensive has been consistently accompanied and underpinned by an ever-expanding range of models. The most important new additions over the years have included the entry-level model Club (2007), the dignified Zürich design by Hannes Wettstein (2009), the waterproof Ahoi watch (2013), the luxury Lambda and Lux models by Simon Husslein (2013) and Mark Braun’s Metro (2014).
Swing breaks the monopoly
At its presentation during the Baselworld fair, the latter model created a huge stir – not just thanks to its smart appearance but because of its inner workings too: the watch contains a new assembly called the Swing System, and the news hit the industry like a bolt from the blue. “Nomos Glashütte breaks the Swatch monopoly,” proclaimed German newspaper F.A.Z. Judith Borowski was ecstatic: “For us, it felt as if we’d landed on the moon,” she says.
On course for growth
All the excitement is understandable when you consider that, up until then, almost all watchmakers had been dependent on a single supplier: Swatch subsidiary Nivarox was the only firm capable of producing what’s known as the escapement, the tiny system of minute parts that regulates the release of stored energy in any mechanical timepiece. With the Swing System, the escapement Nomos developed in collaboration with TU Dresden, the Glashütte firm achieved its independence from the Swiss monopolist and – perhaps even more importantly – created the conditions necessary for continued growth.
Nomos has been achieving annual growth rates of around 30% ever since. However, that’s not just due to its technical, business and design prowess: the spirit of the times has lent a helping hand as well. As compared to the ubiquitous digital devices that overwhelm us with their magical functionality, a mechanical watch gives wearers the pleasant feeling that they understand what’s going on. Although we stand in awe of the extremely complicated mechanism, it’s also comprehensible, which is why such a timepiece fl atters the human intellect. It’s therefore hardly surprising that even the new smartwatches have had no impact on the success of these chronometers, which are strictly speaking obsolete. On the contrary, in fact. “The Apple Watch has focused attention on the wrist as the rightful place for a timepiece,” says Judith Borowski.
Enterprise with attitude
The chief branding offi cer takes a relatively relaxed view of the future. The product portfolio has just been extended by the addition of Werner Aisslinger’s extremely sporty Autobahn model, new technical developments are on the threshold of production and a sales offi ce in New York is set to boost turnover in the New World. The only thing that worries Judith Borowski is the increase in radical rightwing forces in Saxony, and particularly in Glashütte, where the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) got 35.5% of the vote in the last general election.
Since the beginning of this year, Nomos has been organising workshops to counter the “climate of racism and intolerance” in the company. The aim is to teach staff how to deal with antidemocrats. What’s more, since the recent riots in Chemnitz, Judith Borowski has repeatedly taken a public stand against the right. She believes it’s her duty as both a citizen and an entrepreneur to adopt a clear position.
“We got a lot of mail about it,” she says. “Our customers want to know whether a Nazi has had anything to do with making their watch.” At the end of the day, the stability of something that’s part of Nomos’s DNA is what the brand manager is concerned about. “Made in Germany” is written on every single Nomos watch, and that stands for precision, reliability and top quality – as well as fair working conditions in a democratic country. If that promise starts to sound hollow, it could well be that not even Berlin hipness and Saxon ingenuity are enough to straighten things out again.
First published in the designreport edition 06/2018. Pictures © NOMOS Glashütte