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Made in Germany: Inside Glashütte Original

Inside Glashutte Original’s watchmaking and dial making facilities, with a close look at the impressive new Caliber 36.

Glashütte Original’s introduction of Caliber 36 at the 2016 Baselworld was for many observers a technical highlight. With comparatively little fanfare, the German watchmaker upgraded a serially produced base automatic movement to improve it to a level of stability, winding efficiency, power reserve and ease of service typically only seen well beyond its price range. And since Caliber 36 was placed initially into the classically designed, three-handed Senator Excellence, the caliber didn’t obviously advertise its impressive technical advances.

But a look inside the Senator Excellence, or into either of the two newest Senator Excellence models Glashütte Original launched this past October, reveals an exceptional design made to efficiently power what will surely become an array of watches featuring traditional functions in an elegant 40mm case. The newest Senator Excellence watches add a moonphase (Panorama Date Moon Phase) and big date (Panorama Date) to kick off the series.

Glashütte Original’s Senator Excellence Family

As I learned during a late 2016 visit to Glashütte Original’s manufacturing facility in Glashütte, Germany, the Caliber 36 is just one impressive result of decades of watchmaking experience that traces its roots to 1854 making calibers and just about everything else related to timekeeping as its hometown became Germany’s horological nexus. Today the firm’s four-story manufacture buzzes with activity as 650 watchmakers, designers, engineers and craftsman in this location support the company.

All the firm’s watches are designed, produced and marketed from Glashütte, though the firm’s cases and dials are made in nearby Pforzheim. Since 2013 Glashütte Original has utilized Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb in Pforzheim to craft all its dials (see accompanying sidebar). The high-end dial manufacturer, known then as T.H. Mueller, was purchased by Swatch in 1996 and became Glashütte Original’s sole dial maker in 2013 one year after moving into a new, high-tech facility.

The Manufacture
The four-story Glashütte Original manufacturing facility features a large, glass-topped central atrium that takes full advantage of the sunlight. Visitors can scan ground floor showcases displaying new and historical Glashütte Original timepieces, vintage watchmaking tools and even seasonal displays. Each floor faces both the outside and toward the central atrium, with only a slender walkway between each floor’s full-glass windows and the bright atrium.

On the ground floor visitors will see Glashütte Original’s extensive tool making department, its spark erosion area, a production room for individual components and a measurement room to check each part before its journey upstairs to the various assembly and finishing floors.

Many of the toolmakers here hail from the firm’s own watchmaking school where students are required to learn to make many of their own tools. Many are used on the ground floor, where all the firm’s movement components, levers and springs are cut from brass and steel with CNC machinery. Similarly, skilled hands direct more machinery to mill and drill plates and bridges.

In one area, large movements plates are first cut and drilled, followed by the production of smaller components like bridges and cocks. The air here is heavy with industrial lubricant. Hissing, low-pitched humming and rhythmic banging accompany the metalwork as base metals are cut into smaller and smaller components and then checked for the many precise measurements required for each caliber.

Many operations require frequent operator intervention. A tray of thirty-six movement plates, for example, requires a programmer to select the tools and settings required to perfectly place holes and cutouts in each plate. Processing each side of the movement blanks can take up to six hours. And while the heavy cutting is machined, operators much constantly check them as they are processed. Some baseplates require that sixty-eight different parameters are checked before the next operation can proceed. Quality assurance is the final step in every single department with many checks made manually using magnified projections or via high-tech scanners.

On the second floor (which Europeans call the First Floor) a visitor will find Glashütte Original’s Finishing Department as well as itstooth –cutting, metal turning and hardening departments, sub-group component assembly and galvanization areas. Here a visitor will see metal rods of brass, stainless steel, German silver (copper, nickel and zinc—no silver) or beryllium bronze feeding machines that then exhale gears, pinions, wheels and even tiny screws. One of the very smallest screws made here is a screw that holds the balance wheel. All these basic metal components are then heat hardened. Some parts, especially the screws, are then also heat blued. I watched as swan necks were heated to 900 Celsius the first time and shock cooled, the heated again to 300 degrees, in order to make the springs hard and flexible. Finally, each batch is tested for Vickers hardness.

This floor is also where the movements get their stripes– and here that doesn't mean the Geneva variety. Glashütte stripes, not surprisingly, rule in this center of Germany’s watchmaking industry. Three-quarter plates and rotors are machine-finished with the decoration, which is just bit wider stripe-to-stripe than its Swiss counterpart. Components here are also perled by hand in one of three different (5mm, 3mm or 1.5mm) perling dimensions. Finally, another typical Glashütte decoration, the sunray finish, is applied to the barrels and wheels. Components that then require additional engraving are kicked –carefully—down the road to the Glashütte Original dial manufactory in Pforzheim, where Glashütte Original’s own expert engravers are now stationed.

When the correct grouping of components is assembled, watchmakers will combine them into various caliber subgroups. For instance, ball bearings, screws and rotors become the rotor assembly, which is then finished with its jewels and pins. Did you realize that the ball bearing mechanism for the rotor is first assembled here from eleven tiny parts?

Here rhodium or ruthenium plating is also done using multiple metallic baths for various plating. Two-tones finishes, as seen on the very visible Glashütte Original balance cock where engravings are gold and rhodium, take the most time to create. Likewise, the firm’s emblematic rotor that displays two letter Gs back to back, requires that the technician, using a microscope, to first hand-fill the double G and the recesses of the engravings with a special protective varnish. A second coating with rhodium gives the rotor (or balance cock) its silver hue. Removal of the varnish then allows the double G and engravings to appear in gold.

Up one floor watchmakers assemble these components into movements. The assembly department, with more than fifty watchmakers, is separate from the nearby Atelier where high complications are made. In the assembly department watchmakers work in groups. In the Atelier department one watchmaker will make one watch individually. In Atelier watchmakers make, for example, the Senator Diary, Senator Tourbillon, Luna Tourbillon, the Panomatic Counter and the Grande Cosmopolite Tourbillon (with perpetual calendar), Glashütte Original’s most complicated watch.

Finally the top floor is reserved for polishing all visible parts, including the swan-neck spring, regulator, or screw heads. Polishing is labor intensive and difficult to master. Evenly applied pressure is required as tiny components, held with special tools, are rubbed in a circular motion over polishing papers of differing abrasive qualities. To polish the edges of components at exact 45-degree angles to the black polish standards required for the firm’s high-end pieces takes several hours. Polishing of a single swan-neck spring (including the perimeters and angled edges) takes around 1 hour. This so-called ‘tin flat-polishing’ has a technical as well a visual purpose as it not only creates a brilliant mirror-like surface, but also offers greater protection against oxidation.

Tin flat polishing

Making Dials
Glashütte Original has utilized Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb in Pforzheim to craft all its dials after the Swatch Group purchased it in 1996. The high-end dial manufacturer, known then as T.H. Mueller, became Glashütte Original’s sole dial maker in 2013 one year after moving into a new, high-tech facility. In a logistical coup, Glashütte Original’s case maker is just upstairs.

Michael Baumann, the manager at Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb, explains that the dial maker started as a watch glass company early last century and began making dials in 1922. For many years it made high-end dials for customers all over the world. But during the East German era, the firm began to work with the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), which then became Glashütte Original after German reunification in 1990.

Baumann notes that the dials made at his facility are created using time-tested dial-making processes, but are subject to the highest level of quality standards and controls. Base metals and paints are checked for premium standards. All tolerances are far more stringent than they were during previous years, and newer laser-based welding speeds production.

“You can’t produce with two quality standards,” he explains. “You have to train people for one single high standard. For every dial series we have two people doing final checks. Not for the series, but for each individual dial. Any tiny fault means the dial will not be used.”

One specialty at the factory is hand-silvered dials that are more labor intensive to produce. In addition, dials for all the new Caliber 36 models, which include the new Excellence collection, feature special paints and galvanic treatments.

From one of four basic dial metals (gold, silver, brass and German silver) blanks are stamped and/or hot forged, followed by turning and milling, which places the appropriate cut-outs in the dial where hands and other indicators will be placed later. Dials with large date apertures require a special procedure.

Glashütte Original Senator Excellence white dial, 25cm

“Because these openings are so large here there’s a risk that the edges won’t be perfectly straight, so we hand cut to an absolute ninety degree angle so we can guarantee that the lines around the opening will always appear straight.” A liquid with diamond in it is placed on a disk to polish them, and this is done three times using different pressure each time.

While the latest laser-cutting technology assists with many dial-making processes, reproducing the dial of the Sixties Iconic collection requires using the same technology that created the original dials. This requires a skilled technician to operate a diamond-tipped cutting machine that cuts the dial’s marker slits one by one prior to finishing. Likewise, the sunburst effect on these dials requires an unusualdégradé finish that requires decades-old methods. In this process the dials are galvanized and then subject to multiple layers of lacquer added by hand.

“This was a process from the 60s, but the problem is that then, with their quality standards, it was no problem, but today due to our quality standards you have to paint these dials two or three times,” says Baumann. “The dégradé is painted from the sides at an angle when the dial is turning. There is no exact line between the colors. If you get little paint points on parts of dial, we can’t accept it.”

Smaller subdials, especially moon phase indications, are equally time consuming. These require multiple time-consuming steps where each dial is masked, sandblasted, galvanized and then re-cut. Logos and minute tracks are then printed onto the dials via transfer pad, carefully checked for exact calibration. In the final step of the dial-making chain of operations technicians set all dial markers by hand, electric welding each marker’s tiny feet to the back of the dial.

Baumann says each dial is subject to at least ten quality checks during its production. Once two different inspectors give their approval to each dial, they are shipped to Glashütte for assembly.

In the next issue of International Watch, we’ll present a trip through the German Watch Museum Glashütte. Glashütte Original and the Swatch Group played a founding role to open the impressive timepiece collection that documents the history of German watchmaking. We’ll also peek inside the Glashütte Original Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking.

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