Historic German Watchmaking Town Ravaged by Floods

Glashütte, the historic German watchmaking town, and facilities of several prestigious watch brands located there were ravaged by the torrential rains and floods that devastated eastern Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic in August. News reports said recovery in Germany alone could cost $20 billion, the biggest rebuilding effort since World War II.

Initial estimates of damage to Glashütte’s watch companies totaled at least $1.2 million, according to JCK‘s interviews with various officials. Some companies resumed watch production, though, within a week after the devastation.

Glashütte, a valley town of about 2,500 residents, is south of Dresden, in Saxony. Upscale and luxury watch companies there include Lange & Co., which makes A. Lange & Söhne (owned by the Richemont Group); Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb, which makes Glashütte Original and Union Glashütte (owned by The Swatch Group); Nomos Glashütte; and Mühle Glashütte GmbH.

On Aug. 12, a dam holding back the Müglitz and Priesniz rivers broke, sending floodwaters raging through Glashütte, uprooting trees, washing away bridges, streets, and cars, and knocking down streetlights. By the end of the half-hour cascade, virtually every street was impassable; the telephone, water, and electrical systems were out of order; and the town’s rail lines were destroyed.

“The watchmaker city of Glashütte is cut off from the outside world,” reported the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuericher Zeitung the next day. The German publication Uhren Magazin said the disaster created a “catastrophic situation” for Glashütte. At least two died and 20 were missing. No watch company officials or employees were among the dead or missing, but many of them lost homes and belongings.

Most Glashütte watch companies are in the same area, and all suffered flooded cellars and ground floors, some damage to furniture and equipment, and interrupted production.

The director of SUG-Gehäuse-Fabrik, which makes high-quality watch movements, told Uhren Magazin “everything [was] under water. All machines, all computers, simply everything.”

A spokesperson for The Swatch Group told JCK 10 days after the flood, “We’re still clearing things away [at Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb] and won’t have an estimate of damages for at least a month, though essential electronic equipment wasn’t touched. The important thing is none of our personnel were hurt.”

The Swatch Group promised to financially assist employees who lost homes or suffered heavy losses. It also donated to Glashütte’s recovery fund.

A Lange & Co. spokesman told JCK there was some water damage at the main building and to some technical equipment, and the outside parking area was destroyed. It reopened its historic headquarters (which includes production, after-sales service, finishing, and engraving departments and a watchmaking school) in December 2001, after a $4 million, 18-month renovation.

At Nomos, expensive laser equipment was in its flooded cellar. Some employees had to camp out on the building’s top floors, and the old Glashütte train station, which Nomos recently bought but hadn’t yet renovated, was badly flooded.

Some watch officials told JCK later that the impact on their operations was less than feared. Still, said Roland Schwertner, owner of Nomos, in an Aug. 21 letter to authorized dealers, it was bad enough. “Everyone in town is helping [each other]. We’re all shoveling and wiping. Mud is in every corner and crack. The school, restaurants, most businesses, and workshops are closed. Worst off are people who have lost their homes, furniture, and clothing. As for Glashütte, its economy and the watch business have been badly hurt.”

A fund was set up at Dresdner Bank (in Dresden, Germany) to help Glashütte’s citizens. Its information is: “Spendenhilfe Glashütte, Kontonummer 405 790 900, Kennwort: Flutopfer Glashütte, Dresdner Bank BLZ 850 800 00. For donations outside Germany, add: Swift-Code: SWIFT-BIC:DRES DE FF 850 IBAN: DE 55 8508 0000 0 4057 909 00.

Watchmaking in Glashütte began in 1845. It was a watchmaking center until World War II, when Allied bombs destroyed its factories. What was left was taken over by the Communist East German state in the late 1940s. After Germany’s 1990 reunification, watchmakers returned, and Glashütte again became a producer of fine watches.