Among the eleven watch companies that call the tiny picturesque German village of Glashütte home, perhaps the most distinctive is Nomos Glashütte.
Founded by Roland Schwertner in January 1990 just two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nomos specializes in manual and automatic in-house movements with useful complications and clean, Bauhaus-inspired dial designs.
What makes this combination of mechanical prowess and fine design even more impressive is that even with the typical Nomos watch made primarily in-house, most of the brand’s watches remain priced between $1,000 and $4,000.
During a recent two-day trip, I visited the Nomos operations in Glashütte and in Berlin, where the company’s watch designs are created.
In Glashütte, Nomos is situated in three low-rise buildings: the company’s main office in a renovated former train station for its business operations, a nearby building dedicated to movement production and the “chronometry” building where the watches are assembled.
In 2014, Nomos unveiled its own in-house escapement, known as the Nomos Swing System. With this invention, the company “declared its independence” from the Swiss watch industry, as it no longer had to purchase its escapements from an outside manufacturer (with the exception of the escapement spring). This new manufacturing facility is how Nomos put this independence into practice.
The one-story facility is specifically designed to take in large bundles of raw materials and turn them into tiny movement parts. It is a machine-based operation with human supervision where lathes, milling tools, drills and other specialized equipment produce about 160 caliber parts for its watches. Among the parts: balance wheels, pinion screws, plates, bridges and the gear train, which was developed with the assistance of the nearby technical university, TU Dresden.
Having an automated movement production facility in house guarantees consistency in the mass production of its calibers, says Uwe Ahrendt, Nomos CEO. He adds that Nomos is by far the largest producer of watches in Glashütte (though the privately held company doesn’t release its figures).
“Having an understanding of the whole production process helps us to stick to our price range,” he says. “It was a huge challenge, especially after investing all the money into the Swing System and all the in-house technology for the movement manufacturer. But it’s something that we wanted to achieve because we don’t want to increase prices.”
Ahrendt adds that Nomos worked with equipment companies to specify machines that meet their needs.
“We don’t just buy a machine but we adapt them to our needs. It has worked really well,” he says. “For now we’re happy that we are completely independent in a technological sense.” He also notes that having in-house production has meant fewer items being returned for servicing. This is yet another way Nomos controls its costs.
Currently, Nomos produces six manual calibers and seven automatic ones for its thirteen watch lines. Ten of the movements are built entirely in house, most with the company’s own Swing System escapement. Those watches have the DUW acronym in its name, which stands for “Deutsche Uhrenwerke” (German Clockworks), underscoring its competencies as an independent caliber producer.
The movements and watches are assembled in a multi-story building. Inside this maze of rooms and stairs, I watched as a watchmaker placed a Swing System escapement inside a movement. Another watchmaker installed the crown, case and sapphire glass.
With nearly everything made in house, Nomos can experiment with metal alloys and adhere to precise calculations even down to the number and angles of teeth for individual wheels. This allows the company to create movements that are thin, accurate and affordable, a rare combination in watchmaking. The company also prides itself in providing useful complications for its movements, such as power reserves, dates and time zone functions.
For example, Nomos’ latest movement is the automatic DUW 6101, Neomatik date. The caliber has a wide 35.2mm diameter but is only 3.6mm high. This thinness is the result of the date mechanism being integrated into the caliber. Nomos Creative Director Thomas Höhnel explained that despite its large size, the date window remains positioned on the edge of the watch, “as it should be.”
Design in Berlin
There are many design options built into the movement, Höhnel said while inside the Berlin office of Nomos’ in-house design agency, Berlinerblau. For example, for the Orion Neomatik 41 date, the date window is positioned at 3 o’clock but for the Ludwig Neomatik 41 date, the window is at 4 o’clock, an unconventional position.
“We wanted to show that we could make our own movement, construct our own date mechanism and put it on the outside, which is technically more pleasing,” Höhnel said. “And that we could go much bigger with the date.”
In a unique design twist for the new Tangente Neomatik 41 date, the date window is replaced with dots around the edge of the watch. Two red dots frame the current date. Michael Paul, another in-house designer, designed this watch.
In collaboration with German furniture designer Werner Aisslinger, Nomos this past year produced the Autobahn Neomatik 41 Date, a new watch designed specifically for the DUW 6101. This four-year project resulted in a watch with a deep, curved dial with a seconds subdial at 6 o’clock and rounded stripes from 4 o’clock to 8 o’clock, echoing the look of a car dashboard. Beneath the seconds subdial is the date window, which is opened to reveal three dates with the proper date in the middle.
“Autobahn stretches our brand identity a little,” Höhnel said. “It’s a little bit sportier and very close to the Nomos core identity. The typography changed by opening up the very narrow numbers. For me it’s a very special watch.”
Berlinerblau is precisely what one would expect a design studio in Berlin to look like. The long narrow space in a pre-war industrial building contains color swatch posters, 3D mood boards and dial designs in draws. The studio is also in line with the clean and reduced style of the Bauhaus esthetic that is very much a part of the brand.
The staff in Berlin designs every part of the watch, including the case and straps. In addition, it creates all the advertising and marketing materials (print and online) and all of the point-of-sales materials, which explains the consistent look for all Nomos marketing materials.
“We started with printing materials fifteen years ago and decided that it’s a good idea to keep all the creative and design work in house and manage it in Berlin,” Höhnel said. “It’s proper to have the office in Berlin with its vibrant culture and art and its international climate.”
It’s this combination of traditional Glashütte watchmaking and modern Berlin design that makes Nomos one of the most original watch brands in the world.