Time for museums.
Exhibition. The watch industry has always proudly presented its products in its own museums. Recently, a few spectacular new collections have been added to the collection to provide special insights. They are not only worth a trip for watch aficionados.
The buildings of the Zenith watch manufactory in Le Locle, Switzerland, are a monument to European industrial history. They were carefully restored years ago when Le Locle and neighbouring La Chaux-des-Fonds were declared World Heritage Sites. This summer, the company has opened a museum in Le Locle to show visitors from all over the world the value of manufactory watchmaking. Zenith is working hand in hand with the Neuchâtel Tourist Board, which is hoping to attract more overnight guests to the austere region and is planning to set up a "Street of Manufactories" for this purpose.
After a very eventful 150-year history, Zenith belongs to the LVMH Group and can point to great technical merits - among other things, the company presented one of the first automatic chronograph calibres, the El Primero, in 1969. In the new museum, Zenith now has something very special to offer: the attic of the manufactory, an almost mythical place for the watchmaking industry, the epitome of its greatest crisis and resurgence.
When Zenith fell into the hands of a US company outside the industry during the quartz crisis of the 1970s and it ordered the destruction of the old means of production, the head of the chronograph studio Charles Vermot resisted. He hid construction drawings, tools and blanks of El Primero under the roof, bricked them in - and only conjured them up when mechanical clocks became a topic again in the 80s. In concrete terms, Rolex was looking for an automatic drive for his Daytona chrono, and Zenith still had something in memory.
This romantic story of the renaissance of precision watchmaking is the focus of the Zenith Museum. It relies on multimedia installations next to well-filled showcases, but fortunately left the attic almost untouched. Somewhat untidy and dusty there are old books of accounts, punching tools and fittings in the twilight. Not only watch fans are gripped by the presence of bygone times there - and see its continuation during the tour through the current production.
In today's large manufactories, development and production are carried out with completely different means than those previously used by museums. Because watchmaking had established itself after the quartz crisis as a purely technical, quasi anti-industrial alternative to the electronic mass product, for a long time the modern machinery was reluctantly presented to visitors to the workshops. Automation was taboo, even though CAD workstations and CNC milling not only guarantee higher quantities, but also greater precision than would be possible with manual production.
A new generation of managers now presents itself differently, proudly showing the equipment with which advanced micromechanics are produced. IWC has just built a new factory in Schaffhausen. It is designed in such a way that several thousand visitors can observe the production process every year. Of course you can see a lot of manual work there - in perfectly insulated clean rooms - but also automatic stone setting machines and robots that set traditional cuts on factory bridges and circuit boards.
The young IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr demonstrates top watchmaking as a high-tech experience. Nearby, at the headquarters of the manufactory, the historian David Seyffer runs the small IWC Museum. He has already accompanied his foundation in 2007 "with the usual friction between architects, scenographers, historians and owners. But they're probably necessary for something remarkable to happen."
The presentation of the more than 200 exhibits is accompanied by an unusual audio guide and installations that make the mechanical character tangible. "We also have to keep up with the times," says Seyffer, "the trend is towards entertainment. And renowned museums show that this does not contradict cultural mediation at all. After all, the British Museum also uses virtual reality. This is the path we will follow as well." So far there are about 7000 visitors per year, but since the opening of the new manufactory the number has been increasing. "And they come up with new questions, want to know what modern production still has to do with classic watchmaking," says Seyffer. "Then we can demonstrate here that automation in particular is in the tradition of the company founder Florentine Jones - and that, on the other hand, there are processes that machines cannot perform at all. This is why we also have a watchmaker's workstation here in the museum, where visitors can observe the work with the tiny parts up close. No matter where we go, the watchmaker stays."
The biggest new museum foundation of the year took place away from the clock hotspots: in the small Black Forest town of Schramberg. This is where Junghans, formerly the world's largest watch manufacturer in terms of number of pieces, is based. 100 years ago, the company had an unusual production facility built, a huge terrace construction, whose window fronts provided hundreds of employees with ideal light for factory assembly and whose staircase structure has something surreal about it.
The listed building was abandoned by the weakening manufacturer and stood empty for many years. It was finally acquired by the Schramberg entrepreneur Hans-Jochem Steim, who now owns Junghans. In two years the house was extensively renovated, equipped with a glass inclined lift and rededicated into a museum. Arkas Förstner accompanied the work as an interior architect - and remained as museum director. He explains how the huge and unusually structured area is used: "There are nine terraces, each 42 metres long, but only 4.50 metres wide. In total, we have almost 2000 square meters at our disposal. The Steim family bought the Engelmann Collection as the basis. It now documents the development of Black Forest clock production on four terraces."
Among the exhibits on display are early vending machines. When John the Baptist is beheaded with one to twelve beats on the hour today, it reflects popular belief as well as technical play instinct. The path continues downwards through the terraces to the extensive Junghans collection. Here you can see not only watches, but also old advertising material of the former world company as well as extraordinary machines.
The terrace building is probably the only clock museum in which even a production line for clock crystals is shown, from the rock crystal to the electronic component. "We're not trying to create a romantically transfigured manufactory picture here. Junghans has always stood for industrial production and not for high-priced precision watchmaking," explains museum director Förstner, "which is why the company is proud of its electric and electronic watches.
1000 to 1500 visitors come per month at the moment. This is of course expandable, but in the end the museum hardly does any advertising. "We still have a lot to do", says Förstner, "we have to carefully inventory the Junghans collection. We want to make scientific work possible here. And in the future, the building itself will also be more strongly thematised." After just a few months, it becomes clear which exhibit fascinates visitors the most: the unique terrace construction.
The German Watch Museum Glashütte also resides in an important historical building: the old watchmaking school that dominates the town centre. But there is nothing electronic to see there. "This is simply not our tradition, we show mechanics," says museum director Reinhard Reichel.
Opened in 2008 as a joint foundation of the Glashütte Original brand and the city, the exhibition includes some 500 Glashütte timepieces, old pocket watches, pieces from GDR times and the products of the ten Glashütte-based brands. "Of course, many collectors and specialist visitors come to us, again and again, just because of the special exhibitions," Reichel explains, "but we can also welcome tourists who are on their way to Prague or are taking a bus tour through Saxon Switzerland. We offer guided tours in five languages."
About 35000 visitors come to the house every year. The museum team feels it has a duty to be a "promoting factor for watchmaking" and has therefore identified a special target group: children. "We completely underestimated the topic at the beginning," recalls Reinhard Reichel. "Now children's programs are a focus of our work. They can create their own watches at our drawing table, we took a flashlight tour through the museum on Halloween - I was very impressed myself how different the gold cases and bearing jewels sparkle. And the older children can try their hand at the work table with a magnifying glass and tweezers."
Reichel does not only want to "offer more experience". He also hopes that some young people will consider turning the old craft into a profession. Museums are working on the future of watchmaking. ®
Worth a time trip.
// Watch manufactory Zenith
Rue de Billodes, CH-2400 Le Locle
Three-hour guided tour (multilingual) through the museum and the current watch production, Fridays, starting at 9 am. Registration required at www.explorewatch.swiss
// Watch manufactory IWC
Baumgartenstrasse 15, CH-8201 Schaffhausen, Germany
Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday 9 to 17:30 o'clock
Saturday 9 to 15:30 o'clock
// Junghans Terrace Building Museum
Lauterbacher road 68, 78713 Schramberg, Germany
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 to 18 o'clock
// German Watch Museum Glashütte
Schillerstrasse 3a, 01768 Glassworks
Monday to Sunday 10 to 17 o'clock (24.12.2018, 08.01. to 12.01. 2019 closed); until 06.01.2019 special exhibition on the history of the Glashütte watchmaker school
Author: Jan Lehmhaus