A disproportionate number of brands known for their minimalism make their home in the small town of Glashütte, Germany. Among these – A. Lange & Söhne, Nomos, Glashütte Original, to mention a few – there is one that, thanks to a very bold growth strategy, has been quietly and steadily expanding: Wempe Glashütte i/SA (the i/SA, by the way, stands for “in Saxony,” one of Germany’s sixteen federal states, or Länder).
The name Wempe may best be known to watch fans as a successful and global retail purveyor of top-level brands, including the likes of Patek Philippe and Breguet. The company currently operates thirty-two boutiques worldwide, most of them on the opulent thoroughfares of major cities, You’ll find Wempe on Fifth Avenue in New York, Rue Royale/Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, New Bond Street in London, and on and on.
Less known is the fact that the company is also a full-fledged maker of fine watches. For more than ten years, under the wise guidance of Kim-Eva Wempe, the fourth-generation company leader, Wempe has staked its claim in the world of watchmaking with a solid portfolio of products that have attracted quite a following.
Selling watches and making watches is no conflict of interest, Kim-Eva Wempe says. In fact, making watches has been in the family DNA, as it were. “Wempe has been manufacturing ship’s chronometers for more than 100 years and is world market leader in the field of main and secondary clock systems with our Wempe Chronometerwerke Maritime division,” she points out. Anyone cruising with the MS Europa will have arrived at their destination thanks to a Wempe chronometer.
“As a manufacturer we see everything through watchmakers’ glasses,” Wempe adds. “We know the difficulties arising in connection with development, production, and operations. As you see, both sides complement each other perfectly.”
TIME AND SPACE
It was Kim-Eva Wempe who had the clever idea of purchasing the little, quite rundown, observatory in the hills above Glashütte from then-owner Nomos and opening the company’s watch division there. She had seen pictures of her grandfather, Herbert Wempe, together with Otto Lange (grandson of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, founder of A. Lange & Söhne who was essentially the midwife of the Saxon watch industry) in front of the pretty structure, and had heard stories about Glashütte, which, in her youth, was stuck inside East Germany like some Brigadoon.
The observatory itself is not just a cute folly, by the way. It once played a major role in the Glashütte watch industry as a means to set the time according to the stars. Back then, the signals coming from the Berlin observatory were simply not accurate enough, partly due to the haze of pollution in the city air, partly due to the slight delay in the electrical signaling. So an association of watchmakers decided to build a local observatory to do the time calculations themselves. The facility was inaugurated in 1910.
Wempe invested considerable sums restoring the observatory and adding buildings that provide the company’s workers with modern, light-filled work space. It serves as an excellent trademark for the brand, and today the observatory is once again a key player in the watch business. Wempe not only assembles and decorates watches there, but also puts them through their paces according to Germany’s tough industrial norms (DIN 8319).
For fifteen days, the assembled and encased watches are tested in five positions (crown right, up, and left, at different temperatures (8, 23, and 38 °C.) and in about 50% ambient humidity. The watches must not deviate by more than - 4 and + 6 seconds per day. It’s also the place where aspiring watchmakers come to train, thus ensuring a crop of experts for the next generation of watch fans.
When building up its watch division, Wempe opted for a global strategy covering the upper and medium market segments. The more affordable line is called Zeitmeister. These robust timepieces run on reliable Swiss ETA movements that are extensively decorated and reworked at the Wempe workshop in Glashütte. The casebacks are always full metal and screwed down, and embossed with a depiction of the company’s observatory. Several of the models in the series have won prizes for their classic looks and robust workmanship. In 2008, for example, the Zeitmeister Full Calendar Moon Phase picked up one of Germany’s top awards, the “Goldener Unruh” (Golden Balance).
The Zeitmeisters also include stylish, quartz-driven watches for women, like the classic, 31mm, round, gold-plated Zeitmeister Wempe reference that won the Ladies’ Watch of the Year prize in 2007. In 2011, Wempe launched the Manchette collection of sleek rectangular watches that tidily follow the lines of the metal bracelet or leather straps they come on.
The division’s tenth anniversary was celebrated with two of the most complicated watches the company ever made. We are not talking Urwerk or, say, or on the level with the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, but complicated for a ten year- old company that makes quintessential dress watches.
The Zeitmeister Annual Calendar combines an ETA 2892-A2 base with a Dubois Dépraz module and an in-house balance cock with fine regulation system for easy date correction. The day, month and date have been tucked away in subdials at 9, 12, and 3 o’clock respectively. A fourth subdial at 6 o’clock exhibits a moon phase to complete the calendar functions.
The second anniversary Zeitmeister is a fitting extension of the line’s sporty models, which in the past included a ceramic aviator watch with chrono function. The 2016 Sports Diver Chronograph DLC is a virile, black DLC-treated automatic diving watch with a chronograph. The engine inside is an ETA Valjoux 7750, also featuring stop seconds, an in-house balance cock and fine adjustment. The unidirectional bezel is of ceramic, making it a real diving tool that will resist the wear and tear of an active lifestyle. The two models are limited to 100 pieces each.
The company’s other, and perhaps main, source of pride, however, is its second line of watches, which is titled Wempe Chronometerwerke, a name that actually goes back to old company history, when Wempe became involved in manufacturing chronometers for ships. This explains the ship chronometers one finds as decoration in Wempe boutiques.
The timepieces in this family are technically more complex and strong evidence of the Wempe’s readiness to get into the race with the best. Step one was achieving a measure of industrial independence by manufacturing its own calibers, which are artlessly referred to as “CWxx,” with xx standing for the number in sequence.
CW1, which was made in collaboration with Nomos, which provided its manually wound Theta caliber as a basis. The new caliber was designed to fit into an imposing tonneau-shaped watch with seconds in a subdial at 6 o’clock: in other words, a classic, no-nonsense piece of horology, in a fairly thin (11.1 millimeters) case that housed two barrel springs delivering about 80 hours of power reserve.
In contrast to the Zeitmeisters, the wearer of watch from this collection can look through a sapphire crystal case back to admire a host of quintessential Glashütte features, like the three-quarter plate with the famous ribbing, decorated balance cock, the swan-neck fine regulation system and a spangling of gold chatons.
The CW1 was followed by an in-house tourbillon caliber, the CW2, custom-made for another tonneau-shaped case large enough (51 x 40.9 x 13.7 millimeters) to allow for long, salivating gazes at the large tourbillon at 6 o’clock. As for the CW3 movement, it took five years to develop and build. It hailed a new line of round watches, the first of which were in homage to a chronometer designed in collaboration with A. Lange & Söhne and manufactured as of 1942, hence the seriously retro look.
This superb caliber, with, again, all the Glashütte bells and whistles, including a hand-engraved balance cock and Glashütte stopwork, powered the limited edition Chronometerwerke Up/Down with a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock balancing out the small seconds at 6 o’clock.
Finally, for its anniversary celebration in 2016, Wempe Glashütte /i SA came out with its first automatic movement, the CW4, developed together with Soprod, which displays all of the brand’s depth of craft right down to details like the two spring barrels, which are set in ruby bearings to improve torque and delivers up to 92 hours of power reserve. The sunburst-decorated tungsten rotor is located off-center for practical and visual reasons while the balance wheel with variable inertia is another improvement. It is held in place by a hand-decorated bridge.
The CW4 started its career driving the mechanics in a very understated, threehander with date. The future of this movement is promising, and it is bound to find use in a wealth of complicated watches.
“To commemorate the grand opening of our expanded New York store, we also presented a Fifth Avenue Limited Edition of the Zeitmeister Large Date,” Wempe noted. “ This year, the case material will be extraordinary, but I am not going to tell you more just yet… “
What is certain is that whatever Wempe produces, it will not land in the midst of watch fans the way a Hublot-powered meteorite might. That is not the way of Wempe. Rather, the Wempe wow will be subtle, rounded, balanced, logical, and reasonable. Kim-Eva Wempe is not a disrupter, and thankfully so.
Thus, in addition to the watches shown for the division’s tenth anniversary, there was also a large standing clock the company produced in collaboration with Sattler, an outstanding clockmaker near Munich. It is more than a demonstration of ultimate engineering virtuosity. It is also a statement that Wempe, and other watchmakers in the company’s league, do not need to make a lot of noise to attract attention. Fine mechanics and classic elegance are timeless values. These lilies need no gilding.