Late last year, our trusty producer, Will, and I had the joy of traveling to Germany to visit the folks from NOMOS Glashütte – a brand that is no stranger to us at HODINKEE, or you, as readers of HODINKEE. NOMOS is a small independent watch brand of roughly 260 employees based in Berlin and Glashütte with a very simple goal – to make (mostly) in-house, affordable, and well-designed wristwatches. No quartz, just good old-fashioned well-made movements that range in cost, for the majority of the collection, between $1,500 and $4,000 – a noble goal if there ever was one. We know all this, but I wanted to know more, so that in detail, I could answer the questions “who or what is NOMOS?” and “how do they do what they do?”. In this special Inside The Manufacture, I’ll answer this for you. First, check out the video above, and then read on.
The Early Days + Ownership
NOMOS was founded by Roland Schwertner in 1990, which to most of us seems like just a few years ago, but it wasn’t – it was 26 years ago. Scary, I know. In fact, the company was founded a few short months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, not unlike its neighbors across the street, A. Lange & Söhne. Mr. Schwertner, age 62, is a serial entrepreneur and businessman, having worked in a variety of professions prior to starting NOMOS. Schwertner’s own range of strengths speaks to those of NOMOS – he was a photographer for Mode Magazine just as he spent time as IT consultant – two seemingly opposing crafts and skill sets but nonetheless found in the same man. In 1990, Schwertner was set on building a German watch brand and acquired the rights to several then defunct German manufactures, including NOMOS – which was indeed a German watchmaker in the early 1900s, and the word itself spoke to him – it is Greek for “law.”
Schwertner set up shop with just three watchmakers in a rented flat in Glashütte. With the help of German designer Susanne Günther, NOMOS designed and produced their very first four watches after two years of research and development – four models that still exist today.
The first and most important model in the NOMOS line is the Tangente, with thin, faceted lugs, a white dial and large hour markers at 2,4,8, 10, and 12 o’clock.
While the Tangente is most closely associated with NOMOS, the case and dial design are very clearly borrowed from another wristwatch made by a neighboring Glashütte watchmaker – as demonstrated by the picture below. This is not a well-known fact, though NOMOS will certainly not deny the Lange inspiration found in the Tangente, and Lange themselves are actually quite proud for influencing such an admired classic in the Tangente.
While the NOMOS that we know now offers primarily in-house movements, this was not always the case. NOMOS first sourced the majority of its parts from Switzerland, and in fact, neighbors to NOMOS in Glashütte who had more resources were critical of Schwertner’s notion that they would put “Glashütte” on the dial when the majority of components were not locally made. The ETA and Peseux movements that NOMOS used in the early days were purchased from Switzerland, then hand adjusted and assembled in Germany, which allowed it at once to keep prices reasonable and continue to build its legitimacy as a German watchmaker.
It should be noted that the Alpha caliber, as seen in the popular Tangente, is indeed in-house manufactured by NOMOS, but the design is pure Peseux 7001. This brings up a hotly contested question – what is in-house? Does in-house mean simply manufacturing, or does it also include design? If the latter, several calibers that are called in-house and borrow design from earlier calibers would no longer seem quite so special – and while the Alpha-powered Tangente is still a wonderful watch, I am curious how many people know the origins of the movement that powers it.
In 2005, NOMOS released its first fully in-house movement, the Epsilon, featured in the Tangomat model. After the debut of their first in-house movement, NOMOS continued to design, develop, and assemble 95 percent of their movements at the manufacture in Glashütte. However, they still outsource certain parts (specifically the springs, rubies, straps, crystals, and hands), but they are very involved in designing each of the alternative parts. But another thing to note is that NOMOS is incredibly transparent about what they do and do not make in-house, unlike lots and lots of other brands.
It is this overtly honest approach to watchmaking that makes NOMOS so appealing, and they continue to grow rapidly (the demand for NOMOS watches has grown 30 percent worldwide in the last year alone) with distribution now reaching 40 different countries. Currently, they are the largest producer (by volume) of mechanical watches in Germany.
A Visit To Berlinerblau: Where Form Meets Function
NOMOS is a divided company with watchmaking taking place in rural Glashütte and the design taking place in the urban hub of Berlin. The two tenets of NOMOS design are, quite clearly, reduction and functionality. It is often assumed that the NOMOS aesthetic is solely influenced by the Bauhaus, the German design school founded in the 1920s, however this is a misconception, as almost all of German design can be traced back to the Bauhaus.
The design HQ, called Berlinerblau, is located in a pre-War building with large windows and a clean white interior – it is truly one of the most peaceful offices I have ever been to. There are endless mood boards with fabric swatches, magazine clippings, and everyday symbols. Come to think of it, the entire office was one big mood board. It was awesome – brimming with a zen energy found only in truly creative environments.
While I’m guessing many of you know exactly what NOMOS design is about, I would say it borders on fun, sharp, and well, for lack of a better word, German. The design process of the watches themselves is completely organic and done in collaboration with the watchmakers in Glashütte, as both elements greatly influence one another (particularly with dial and hand placement). The team of designers at Berlinerblau, a group of as-cool-as-you-would-expect young Berliners, work together to create mood boards that will later manifest in the collection of watches, and while NOMOS watches are simple, they are purposefully and painfully simple as you can see by the thought that goes into them.
Anything and everything inspires them, from images of vintage Porsches, brass door hooks, and swimming pools to this iMac vs. PC commercial and ice cream spoons (yes, ice cream spoons). In fact, it was the neon orange ice cream spoons from trips to the local ice cream shop that inspired the bright orange accents for the new line of Neomatik watches. This is a true story, and I found it incredibly charming. Here’s that spoon, by the way.
The designers at Berlinerblau labor over different typefaces, hand shapes, and color schemes. They meticulously test different colored dials, shifting the tone of the champagne dial ever so slightly or changing the colors of the hands to a brighter shade of orange (for example). They even showed us their collection of dials that had never been used (there were hundreds) and every color of the rainbow has been tested at some point in time; it’s amazing to see how liberal the thought process of what could be for a NOMOS is while the final output is so considered and definitive. I suppose one goes with the other.
Still, with a full scale manufactory and design team, it’s amazing NOMOS can charge as little as they do for their watches. Well, NOMOS draws inspiration from the Deutsche Werkbund design school, which promotes the concept of high quality products for a “lower” cost. NOMOS achieves this by avoiding much of the “luxury” fluff that their Swiss counterparts deem so important, selling direct to consumers online, and, oh yeah, a little bit of investment from the German government. Now don’t think for a second NOMOS isn’t this cool independent little watchmaker – they are, but they have the distinct benefit of being a recipient of funding for businesses in the former Eastern block. We’ll go deeper into what that means below.
Still, a little state-level assistance doesn’t mean they take anything for granted. For example, instead of making elaborate and over-the-top presentation boxes, NOMOS keeps it simple by creating basic, yet high quality leather carrying cases in colors matching the leather straps used for the watches in them. The same goes for elaborate press releases and celebrity partnerships – NOMOS just doesn’t need all that extra stuff, and you can see that in their watches.
The Glashütte Manufacture And The New DUW 3001 Movement
The NOMOS factory is located in the rolling hills of Glashütte, a three-hour drive south from Berlin. Just to give you some context, Glashütte is tiny. Less than 7,000 people live there permanently and I am pretty sure that 99.999% of its 6,837 strong population work in the watch industry or support it somehow. This tiny town boasts nine (yes nine!) watch companies. Bonus points if you can name them all in the comments below.
NOMOS started in one building – after that rented apartment – and has since expanded and taken over three other smaller buildings within the town. More may come soon. The main office is in part of the old town train station and you can watch the train go by throughout the day (it’s SUPER charming). In addition to housing the HQ offices, this building has a narrow room in the basement, where all the parts are produced. It’s crowded, loud, and smelly, but this is where the literal nuts and bolts are made with NOMOS CNC machines, and such. It’s not the most exciting part of watchmaking, but everyone does it this way. The two other buildings are where the assembly and finishing occurs.
A focal point of our visit was seeing how the new self-winding DUW 3001 movement is made. The significance of the DUW 3001 for NOMOS is significant (yes, it’s significantly significant), as it is one of the thinner mass-produced automatic movements currently on the market and, in addition to the Swing System, it is the biggest thing that NOMOS has produced since its automatic Epsilon movement was released over 10 years ago.
The concept of the DUW 3001 movement was born 10 years ago when NOMOS began the process of creating the new Swing System, but development wasn’t started until three years ago. The end goal of the DUW 3001 was to create an all-in-house movement that was very thin (3.2 mm to be exact), could be produced in high quantities, and boast the “accuracy worthy of a chronometer,” all for the same $3,000 to $5,000 price point. With this in mind, the in-house research and development team was able to create this novel movement for the brand that would eventually cost the brand about €15 million to produce.
The result is a new selection of watches that feature the DUW 3001 movement, including the Tangente, Orion, Ludwig, Metro, and Minimatik. The price points on these watches range from $3,360 to $3,960, which is rather remarkable for any brand that makes 95 percent of its parts in house (with strict design regulations on the remaining elements). And that leads us to the next question – how on earth does NOMOS do it?
Okay, So How Do They Do It?
So the question everyone is likely dying to know is, how do they do it? How does NOMOS produce well-designed, well-made, and well-priced watches, almost all in-house? Well the answer is a combination of things, really. For one, they are efficient. Cutting corners where they can without ruining the integrity of the product, like using a machine to produce a part and then hand-finishing it, for example. A more expensive watch would have the this piece, whatever it might be, produced and finished by hand.
Additionally, NOMOS works closely with the SAB (the central development agency of the Free State of Saxony), which allocates funds to improve local economies. So basically NOMOS puts up a percentage of shares and the SAB grants the rest of the necessary funds for research and development, etc. It is unclear how much the SAB grants NOMOS (they cannot disclose this information) – however it is clear that it enables the brand to maintain its pricing and continue to grow. Now in conversation with other watch industry executives, there has some bemoaning by competitors about NOMOS and all that the company has been able to accomplish. To me, it sounds like competitors crying over someone doing something real, and honest, and authentic, creating a brand that is well considered, and products that are at once respected by collectors and “affordable” by luxury watch standards.
I’ll say that visiting NOMOS was really a fascinating experience, and the entire trip was so dramatically different than any I’ve experienced in Switzerland, with a focus put squarely on output and creativity instead of pomp and tradition. Seeing what NOMOS has been able to create in such a short period of time, not unlike what their cousin, A. Lange & Söhne, has done in a similar timeframe is more than encouraging for us, as real watch lovers. Both brands focus on a different group of consumers, and while Lange is surely more expensive and more finely finished, I would venture to say that what NOMOS has produced and will continue to produce, is just as, if not even more, impressive. Having seen what NOMOS is capable of first hand, I’m more excited than ever for what is to come, and I sincerely think you should be too.
For more on NOMOS Glashütte, click here.
Video/photos: Will Holloway
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