Modern high horology is no longer solely the domain of the prestigious Swiss houses. Clearly now, the Germans have arrived and they have a style and aesthetic all their own. The Saxon watchmaking tradition in Glashütte dates to about 1845, but much of it suffered an interruption of nearly 50 years by communism before being resurrected in the 1990s. Only the modern day Glashuette Original, previously operated as G.U.B. during its days as a state combine, has a contiguous operating history throughout this period, in the region. While mostly known for what can be called basic, workman like quality signed timepieces, it is a little known fact that GUB also continued to produce "fine mechanical movements for the western part of Germany (wheel works and marine chronometers.) This fact enabled us to continue producing high quality watches again after the re-unification," according to the company.
Seeking to re-establish themselves as competitive brands in the world of high horology, A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original have taken a fresh approach to design and manufacturing unhindered by the scars of the quartz revolution or the baggage of fifty years of continual development in high horology.
Basically re-entering the luxury watch market from scratch, designers from Germany were able to carefully re-evaluate what high horology means in the aftermath of the quartz scare and set about redefining it in their own terms. If the reputation these Saxon upstarts have garnered in just over a decade is any indication, they have been very successful.
While still important, accuracy is no longer the over-riding raison d’etre of mechanical horology. There was a time (not so long ago) when a fine watch was not only more expensive, more finely made and longer lasting than a lesser timepiece, but it actually kept better time. Advancements in the areas of metallurgy and manufacturing, coupled with continual refinement of our understanding and analysis of isochronism and positional performance, have resulted in the ability to mass produce mechanical watches of startling precision and consistency without the need for extensive (and expensive) hand adjusting.
The notion that you could put a laser-poised, Glucydur balance with a Nivarox 1 hairspring on a wind-up toy and get a chronometer certificate is only a bit of an exaggeration. More to the point, a quartz watch found in a Happy Meal is a better timekeeper than anything the world of mechanical horology has to offer. The fact is, a mechanical watch represents entirely different priorities and goals than it did before 1969 and only needs now to be accurate enough for daily use. It is no longer necessarily true that a fine watch keeps better time than a less expensive one, nor should it be.
If accuracy is no longer the goal of mechanical horology, then what is? Or, to phrase the question differently, what is the point of making a mechanical watch if an impossibly inexpensive quartz watch is inherently superior in the realm of time keeping? The answer that the designers in Glashütte came up with can be summed up in three words: tradition, artistry and craft. While these may sound like idealistic goals, the methods with which they are pursued are honed by a scrupulous pragmatism.
There is nothing particularly novel about the idea that fine watchmaking is the embodiment of tradition, artistry and craft. Indeed the ad copy from every corner of the watch world seeks to dazzle us with the artistry of the timepieces offered while simultaneously convincing us that it is the result of a time honored craft, steeped in history and tradition. What is novel about the new German approach is how pragmatically and creatively they embody these qualities in their watches and, perhaps more importantly, make them apparent through their display backs. It would be unfair to compare the Union Glashütte Julius Bergter Small-seconds (which retails for under $3,000) to the top tier offerings from Glashütte. Still, a careful examination of the watch and its calibre 30 movement reveals many of the same priorities and design cues that set the Saxon tradition apart.
Available only in Germany, Austria and a few shops in Switzerland for the moment, Union Glashütte is the little sister of Glashütte Original and, as such, enjoys some splendid hand-me-downs. The UG calibre 30 movement is one case in point. The 24 jewel handwind movement, designated cal. 49 when used by Glashutte Original, is being phased out of the GO lineup but will continue to be used in a variety of different configurations by wholly owned subsidiary, Union Glashütte. The movement is currently available in a variety of limited edition models in stainless steel with a pointer date, a power reserve and moonphase, a perpetual calendar or this model with small seconds.
The Case, Dial and Hands
At 39 mm across (without the crown) and just over 12 mm thick, the Julius Bergter case is almost perfectly proportioned. It is a classic design that is large enough to suit modern tastes while small enough to be unassuming and appropriately dressy. The large, simple dial makes the small-seconds model look slightly larger than it is, and its thickness relates well to its diameter. The high polished steel of the bezel and back offers a nice contrast to the vertically brushed sides while the lugs have brushed sides and tops, separated by a polished chamfer. The knurled, cylindrical crown, while a little small, gives the overall package a modern, slightly industrial appearance.
Under the slightly domed sapphire crystal, the coarsely frosted grey dial reinforces the all-business look of the watch. The exact texture of the dial is impossible to capture in photos and, while I was not immediately taken with it, I have grown quite fond of it and cannot imagine it being different than it is. The classic combination of arabic numerals, tasteful minute chapter and blued-steel, alpha-shaped hands offers a traditionalism that is perfectly in balance with the modern touches, a balancing act that permeates the design and execution of the movement as well. The only writing on the dial is the Union logo, which incorporates the words "Glashütte/SA", and "Made in Germany" along the bottom.
The screwed-in back features a large sapphire display window. It shows off the gorgeous calibre 30 movement nicely, which fits into the case without the need for a spacer ring. Engraved around the display window are the markings: "Union, Sachsen (Saxony), 3 ATM, xxx/100, St. Steel, Glashütte." The black strap is handstitched "Louisiana Alligator" with a signed stainless steel tang buckle. It attaches to the case by way of pleasantly curving lugs that help to balance out the thickness of the case when worn. The only complaint I have about the exterior of the watch is that the crown is a little small and is set too close to the back of the case (well below the centerline of the caseband). Given the placement of the crown in relation to the caseband, a larger crown would be uncomfortable and, given the architecture of the movement (as we shall soon see), placing the crown more central to the caseband is not a possibility either.
With the back removed, it can be observed that the bezel is secured to the caseband with five screws. Underneath the bezel is a sizable, clear, rubber gasket that helps to insure the 3 ATM water resistance. Upon removing the stem and crown (by way of a push-button style release) and releasing the two case screws, the movement, with dial and hands attached, can be removed from the case.
Under the Dial
After removing the hands and dial, the thickness of the movement, and the reason for the location of the crown and stem can be understood. The UG cal. 30 was originally designed as a simple center seconds movement that could support a number of different modules. The exterior simplicity of the Julius Bergter Small-seconds is achieved through an overbuilt sub-seconds module that originally also supported a small hour hand at 12 o’clock (regulator dial). The added thickness of the module dictates the position of the crown and stem close to the top of movement (the back of the watch). Modularity is a modern convention in movement design and in this case ensures that the traditional appearance of the top-plate remains intact across a variety of different implementations.
The sub-seconds module is nicely perlaged except for the portion where the intermediate wheel and auxiliary hour wheel for the regulator dial would have been. There it has a nicely executed matte finish but in this example, there was also a partial fingerprint. Many years down the road the fingerprint might have become permanently etched in the metal, an embarrassing eventuality fresh from the manufacturer. The pressfit jewels with unpolished countersinks of the sub-seconds module are a stark contrast to the decorative polished chatons on the top plate.
The auxiliary hour wheel section of the module has an unused 25th jewel that is thankfully not included in the jewel count of this incarnation. True to its definition, the sub-seconds module can be removed as a whole unit, sandwiched between a full sized plate and a smaller bridge for the drive pinion, intermediate wheel and sub-seconds pinion. The drive pinion meshes with the third wheel in the power train and the upper pivot of the sub-seconds pinion rides against a thin copper spring to eliminate any stutter in the indirect drive motion.
Under the sub-seconds module, the bottom plate has a matte finish. There is another unused recess on the bottom plate, presumably for a date drive wheel, begging the question of what happened to the center seconds simple date version of this movement? It is interesting that it was designed for maximum flexibility with the addition of modules but the most basic implementation was (to my knowledge) never used.
The peculiar, double hour wheel has a smaller gear attached near the middle to drive the intermediate wheel and auxiliary hour wheel that would’ve been present in the regulator dial version. The top of the minute wheel and the bottom of the hour wheel were covered in oil. I can’t fathom the reason for the excess of oil here and can only assume it was an accident.
The keyless levers of the UG cal. 30 movement are stamped, folded and tumble polished with a cursory graining applied to their visible surfaces. While they are comparable to the keyless levers of ETA movements (remarkably similar in fact) and perfectly functional, they are quite a letdown compared to the rest of the components. It is telling that the exhibition of craft found elsewhere in the movement is missing from these parts which are not visible through the display back. The winding and setting action is superior to most ETAs I’ve experienced while expectedly not as fine as more expensive manual wind watches.
The 3/4 Plate
The UG cal. 30 movement is a ¾ plate design with a screwed balance, swan neck regulator and gold chaton jewel settings. This layout has come to represent the Saxon/Glashütte style in modern wristwatches. There is nothing modern about this look except it’s recent occurrence in wristwatches, as it was not commonly used (outside of pocket watches) before the 1990s revival in Glashütte. It is in fact an homage to the Saxon pocket watch style from the latter portion of the 19th century that has been embraced by the new-German design school as a means of separating themselves from the Swiss/Genevan modality. While there is no practical benefit to a ¾ plate design, nor certainly to the gold jewel settings, they evoke a sense of German classicism that is immediately identifiable and, to many, quite beautiful.
The top plate is decorated with coarsely applied decorative striping (delightfully, the Germans call it decorative "grinding"), and machine perfect anglage. One of the refinements missing, different from Glashütte Original’s implementation of this same base movement, is the hand applied finishing. Union's machine finishing, while obviously not as fine or lavish as GO’s, is still quite attractive and not at all inappropriate for a watch in this price range. Another traditional touch found in the GO cal. 49 but missing from this movement are the screws securing the chatons. The cal. 30 only has two screws securing the central (fourth wheel) jewel setting. They appear almost an afterthought, but an attractive one nonetheless.
A closer examination of the top plate reveals that there are five jewelled pivots between the barrel and the pallet fork, where most watches typically only have four. If this movement had an extended power reserve, the extra wheel in the train would be necessary for additional reduction of the gearing but this movement only has a power reserve of 40 hours. As it’s impossible to ascertain what the extra wheel is for with the top plate in place, we’ll leave it as a mystery for the moment.
The top plate is secured with beautiful heat-blued screws that have bevelled heads and unchamfered slots. While the bevelling around the screw heads is nice, a chamfered slot would keep the screwheads looking like new after repeated tightening and loosening with a screwdriver. A chamfered slot might also have instilled the assemblers at Union with the confidence to tighten down the bridge screws sufficiently. I found all the screws in the movement to be quite loose and a screw that rattles loose over time can cause significant damage to the movement.
The twin crown wheels and ratchet wheel are nicely snailed and the click spring is a solid, beautifully formed piece of high polished steel. It is designed such that when the click is moved out of the way of the ratchet wheel when releasing the power from the mainspring, the click spring holds the click in the released position to facilitate the procedure. A nice touch that was no doubt engineered by a watchmaker for the sake of watchmakers. It is telling that the click spring, while similar in material, form and function to the keyless levers, is very nicely made and well polished because of its highly visible location.
The Balance and Escapement
The balance cock has an elegantly formed and highly polished swan’s neck fine regulator that, unlike many such fine regulation devices, can actually be used while the movement is in the case. The screw for fine regulation faces outward and is sufficiently exposed with the case back removed to allow one to adjust the rate with ease. This is a refreshing change from the many Swiss designs where the fine regulation screw is all but completely inaccessible.
The 28,800 vph gilded nickel-silver balance is supported by Incabloc shock protection, has a flat Nivarox hairspring, and hacks when setting the hands. The hairspring is attached to the staff by a crimped, Greiner style collet and is cemented into a groove in the stud. This is a completely modern method of hairspring attachment. Fully functional from a performance standpoint, it is also less expensive than most other techniques. The balance also features poising screws, adding to the old-world appearance of the movement.
With the balance removed, the beautiful execution of the mainplate begins to be revealed. Notice the three different types of decorative finishing applied to the different levels. Something else is also revealed when the balance is turned over. The roller jewel is placed at a seemingly random angle in relation to the arms of the balance. Traditionally, the roller jewel is placed perfectly perpendicular to the balance arms. This can simplify the process of putting the balance in beat (without the aid of a timing machine) as the arms of the balance can be used to roughly gauge the location of the roller jewel in relation to the pallet fork.
In the UG cal. 30 movement, the roller jewel has been placed so that the balance arms are perfectly perpendicular to the balance cock when the balance is at rest. The result is an increased sense of symmetry when the balance is at rest after the movement has run down. The first time I've ever seen this, it is but another subtle indicator of the importance placed on the visual appearance of the movement, even when fully unwound.
The pallet bridge is plain looking compared to other bridges in the movement but at least it is secured to the mainplate with two of those wonderful blued screws. The pallet fork and escape wheel are entirely ordinary and typical of modern high-grade watches (which is to say: nicely made but without any real elaboration or exhibition of craft). Although GO/Union reportedly make the entire escapement in-house, it is indistinguishable from those supplied by Nivarox-Far.
The Barrel and Power Train
Before removing the main plate, I noticed an imperfection in the train wheel jewel closest to the barrel. Under a microscope, it appeared almost as if the jewel was cracked. After removing the plate, it became apparent that a fibre had landed on the jewel and had seeped some of the oil away from the pivot[21&22]. Over time, this one errant fibre could have leeched all the oil out of the bearing and resulted in considerable wear. It could also have worked itself free and fallen into the hairspring or escapement where it would surely have effected the performance of the watch or stopped it completely.
The mystery of the fifth wheel was also solved by removing the main plate. Because of the desired layout of the gear train, an intermediate wheel with no pinion was placed between the first intermediate wheel and the third wheel. The barrel drives the pinion of the first intermediate wheel, which directly engages with the second intermediate wheel, which in turn drives the third wheel pinion. This design requires that the teeth of the first and second intermediate wheels have involute profiles for the smooth transfer of power while the rest of the train has traditional, epicycloidal gearing.
This unconventional power train layout is apparently employed to ensure that the third wheel need not overlap the barrel (which would increase the thickness of the movement) while allowing the fourth wheel to occupy the center of the movement (which would facilitate a center seconds hand). While this design makes a certain amount of sense for a movement intended for varied implementations, the irony of the exotic train layout in a watch with an indirectly driven sub-seconds hand was not lost on me.
The teeth and spokes of the wheels are nicely formed and the wheels and barrel are decorated with circular graining. The inside of the barrel is satin finished on top and bottom and the barrel arbor is of the smallish variety now favored by the industry to maximize mainspring potential given the greater elasticity of modern mainspring alloys. While I can’t get behind adding a wheel (and the additional friction) to the power train simply for the sake of giving the movement a certain look (smaller wheels in a less glamorous layout would’ve accomplished the same thing), the general execution of the barrel and power train is perfectly clean and there is something refreshing about the novelty of the approach.
The Union Glashütte Julius Bergter Small-seconds is at once classical and modern, industrial and refined. And that’s only on the outside. It is instantly recognizable for its Saxon austerity, clean lines and distilled simplicity. Massive without appearing exaggerated and utterly to-the-point, it is perfectly legible in most lighting situations and purely functional while handsome and well-made.
The movement is simultaneously extravagant (gold chatons, swan-neck fine regulator) and pragmatic (modular) with unconventional methods employed to give it a traditional appearance. While in another watch, this combination of conflicting signals might result in an incoherent mess, all the elements come together nicely in this instance.
The extra wheel in the power train for the sake of a harmonious ¾ plate design is particularly telling. It indicates a willingness to make engineering allowances at the most fundamental levels for the sake of an aesthetic vision. The gold chatons (although only present where visible) are an extravagance in the same fashion, as are the blued screws, swan’s neck regulator and balance wheel screws. Subtle touches like the "mis-aligned" roller jewel add to the effect of a painstakingly sculpted whole, thought-out from the beginning with a display back in mind. In this particular model, the presence of a full-plate module to reposition the seconds hand seems a fitting additional elaboration: a lot of hardware for the sake of aesthetics.
All of these elaborations might seem cynical if they were not so cleanly designed and executed. Other than the cheaply made keyless works, all of the components are well crafted and at times overbuilt. With the addition of the sub-seconds module and the vestigial signs of the regulator dial and date mechanisms, this is not the purist implementation of the cal. 30 movement. The end result, though, is the appearance of utter simplicity of design in a high quality timepiece that genuinely represents an excellent value in the modern marketplace. It is also beautifully representative of the new-German approach to watchmaking as embodied by Glashütte Original/Union. Artistic and well-crafted, it is a simulacrum of a German traditionalism that might've been, realized now through the creative application of technology and design.