Trailblazers: German Independent WatchmakersBy Bhanu Chopra
There is no denying that independent watchmakers are popular right now. Looking at any major auction results or pre-owned market sales, you will see the jaw-dropping prices of F.P. Journe and Philippe Dufour watches. New projects announced by MB&F or Vianney Halter are sold out immediately. But while Swiss independent watchmakers are enjoying the spotlight, German indies, too, are experiencing a similar resurgence despite their lower profile.
Your first visit to a German independent watchmaker is likely to be challenging. The car GPS might place you in proximity but not exactly at their atelier, which in my case led to mistakenly knocking on their neighbors’ door. Unlike their Swiss counterparts, German independents tend to reside in smaller villages, sometimes far from the city and, most of the time, the house they live in is their atelier. You will not only meet the watchmaker, but also his family, who play an integral role in the family-owned business. Of the many I have met, I find them to be humble, very conscious of the value they are offering and uncompromising in their work.
Jochen Benzinger has made a name for himself with his work in engraving and skeletonized timepieces that draw upon almost forgotten practices from long ago. Based in the Black Forest town of Pforzheim, Germany, he uses tools almost a century old that bring a sense of historical accuracy to his work, and produces custom, one-of-a-kind pieces for each client.
Benzinger makes around 100 unique watches each year using his truly made-by-hand techniques. He specializes in engine-turned engraving. Benzinger explains, “Engine turning actually is a specific technique of engraving. The difference: when the engine turns, it’s the workpiece that rotates; when engraving, it’s the engraver making the necessary movement. Unfortunately, this old craft no longer exists in Germany as a teaching profession since the 1960s. Gradually, it has been assigned to the job description of engravers and is only taught in a rudimentary way today — and just when a corresponding machine is available! This also has to do with the fact that, in the past, pieces of jewelry that are now simply out of fashion, often were guillochéd. In fact, this technique can today be found in the field of watches.”
A visit to the Benzinger atelier is a trip into the past, replete with historical watchmaking equipment in full array. The only electric powered object is the light! The old engraving and tool-making machines are rarely manufactured nowadays since not many watchmakers know how to operate them anymore. Some of Benzinger’s machines are over 100 years old but are still used by him every day.
Benzinger’s Regulator models feature three swooping, overlapping dials of hand-skeletonized sterling silver to display the hour, minute and seconds hands in three different sectors. This creates a visually interesting dial that comes in a variety of colorways and finishes. The rear of the case reveals a stunning view of the hand-winding caliber based on the ETA 6498. The movement is heavily skeletonized and guillochéd by hand for an intricate design.
His Subscription models include hour and minute indexes that are offset on the dial and read separately from the seconds dial. The watches are available with a variety of colors and finishes, including a charming Art Deco-inspired design that feels like something from another era. The hands are Breguet style and come in several colors and finishes, including polished steel and blued steel. The movement is again the redesigned ETA 6498 that has been guillochéd and skeletonized by hand.
A fifth generation watchmaker, Marco Lang learned from watching his father Rolf Lang restore clocks and scientific instruments in the Dresden Art Chamber in the late 1970s and early ’80s. After completing his apprenticeship in 1989 as a precision mechanic, he went on a two-decade-long journey that included milestones such as working and learning with master watchmaker Ihno Flessner, partnering with Mirko Heyne to create the Lang & Heyne manufacture, and growing Uhren-Werke-Dresden into a recognized and respected independent movement supplier.
Over the past 18 years, Marco has developed and constructed nine different movements and a collection of eight watch models and their variants. However, in 2019, Marco made the decision to pivot back to his first passion and love of haute horlogerie, rather than be a brand evangelist and travel constantly. He left Lang & Heyne to start a new atelier under his own name and worked meticulously to create his first watch, Zweigesicht-1. As the name indicates (it literally translates to “two face”), the timepiece is a duo-face concept, giving the wearer the choice to display the traditional dial or the movement and time display with a simple change of the strap attachment.
The first dial is a modern and minimalistic three-part layout with painted minute track and gold applique five-minute markers in an outer ring, white silver-plated dial featuring painted Roman numeral hour indexes, and a recessed center of clous de Paris guilloché with the rose gold applied Marco Lang logo. It is elegant, classic and true to traditional Saxon design.
The second dial is quite a different story. Usually, the skeletonized movement is relegated to the rear of the case, keeping the intricate and ornate beauty of the mechanicals as a hidden treasure for the wearer. The Zweigesicht-1 allows the exquisitely finished movement to be turned around via removable lugs and reversible strap. A second timekeeping dial has been integrated on top of the mechanicals with an openworked solid silver dial filled with blue grand feu enamel and blued steel cathedral hands. Here is where Lang’s incredible skill shines, with every handmade piece finished with deliberate attention to detail. The movement is an impressive piece of haute horlogerie with a thoughtful colorway of gold, blued steel and silver.
Marco reflects on his solo venture, “I am a watchmaker so I want to leave something lasting, and I still have many ideas that I would like to implement. The interest of watch collectors in my work, which was surprising to me, proves me right. Just one day after the official presentation, the whole series was sold out. It now takes me four to five years to deliver all 18 watches.”
Stefan Kudoke doesn’t come from a watchmaking pedigree, but his passion and hard work have earned him a reputation as a skilled watchmaker from a young age, especially his next-level work in skeletonization. He began his career with Glashütte Original and then honed his prowess for mechanicals by servicing prestige brands like Breguet, Blancpain and Omega in a service center in New York. By the age of 22, he’d achieved the Master Craftsman Certificate and soon was exploring the path of independent design by creating his own watches under the Kudoke brand. Stefan and his wife, Ev Kudoke, live in the small town of Weifa, close to the Czech border and about an hour away from Dresden.
In 2019, Stefan went outside his comfort zone of skeletonized watches to showcase two watches with simple, eloquent dials, each with a brilliantly constructed movement inspired by English pocket watches. That year, he became the first independent watchmaker from Germany to be awarded the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (otherwise known as the Oscars of watchmaking), in the Petite Aiguille category for the Kudoke 2 watch. Winning the award brought them instant recognition within the watch community. When I visited Stefan and Ev Kudoke in late 2019, they had just welcomed their first watchmaker to help Stefan with the fast-growing order book. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, they hired a second watchmaker, a young mother from their neighborhood, to help keep up with the demand.
Kudoke’s Handwerk collection — which means “handcraft” in German — begins with the Kaliber 1 movement and includes two models. The Kudoke 1 is a marvel of simplicity. The dial is a frosted white two-layer design with Roman numerals and dots in a clean outer chapter and elegant blued steel hands with the infinity sign worked into the shape. A small seconds subdial with its own mimicking chapter ring is balanced beautifully by the substantial Kudoke logo plate. The aesthetic is minimal and crisp with a highly polished 39mm stainless steel case and onion crown. Turning it over, the Kaliber 1 movement is revealed in a rich gold and silver palette that features a hand engraved balance cock that reveals another infinity sign. The Kudoke 2 updates the Kaliber 1 movement by replacing the small seconds with a unique and beautiful 24-hour indication: a rotating domed sky disk hand engraved with a golden sun and silver moon and stars design.
Kudoke’s Kunstwerk collection is for the more artistically inclined client. The imaginative timepieces in this line feature ornate and unique designs accomplished through Kudoke’s famed hand skeletonized artistry and highly engraved mechanicals. The movements glimpsed behind the artwork add to the complexity and beauty of the finished pieces. The watches found in this collection feature flights of fantasy with skulls, octopuses and flowers as well as more abstract and intricate designs.
Ev Kudoke emphasizes the involvement of their client: “Kudoke is a unique piece developed in a creative process between the watchmaker and the client, so that every timepiece is an individual entity with the tastes, preferences and style of the customer at its heart.”
D. Dornblüth & Sohn
In 1959, Dieter Dornblüth was tasked with what looked like a lost cause — repairing an eccentric old pocket watch. It took some time, but he was able to get the timepiece back in working order. In the meantime, he realized that he’d fallen for the finicky watch. It was hard for Dornblüth to turn it over to the owner when the job was finished. He was so inspired by the pocket watch that he sketched out his own design based on it, but life called him to another path before he could make his movement. Forty years later, in 1999, his son, Dirk — a master watchmaker himself — presented Dieter with a steel wristwatch that he’d created himself for his father’s 60th birthday. This gift recalled the memory of his own long-lost design, and the two got to work creating the plans for a new timepiece based on the old design.
Another two decades have passed since that momentous birthday, and Dornblüth & Sohn have come a long way in establishing their reputation in traditional German handmade watchmaking. In a remote workshop in the village of Kalbe, they use vintage and manual machines to craft dials, hands and movement parts by hand. Approximately 80 percent of the parts used to complete a Dornblüth timepiece are made in their workshop. The movements in the Quintus collection have 95 percent of the parts manufactured in-house.
The outcome of having the work done in the workshop is their ability to create a highly customized watch for each customer. Their work with ceramic dials has earned a stellar reputation for their meticulous hand milling processes, the engraving and polishing work that is accomplished without a computerized machine in sight, and their ability to deliver ceramic dials in almost any color with a high color stability.
Dials are usually printed using a tampon or stamping process known as pad printing, whereby the dial’s markings are stamped by a hand-driven machine, resulting in a flat finish. In contrast, Dornblüth makes engraved dials that are hand-milled with a special cutting machine to create deeper, more defined impressions before they are finished and painted by hand.
The Dornblüth collection includes several movement configurations including, but not limited to, oversized sub-seconds, central seconds, moon phase, second time zone and big date. For example, the 99.0 movement with oversized sub-seconds is a highly reworked version of the Unitas manual wind caliber. It features a rose gold plated three-quarter plate with yellow gold hand engraving, Côtes de Genève finish, retracting ratchet, double sunburst finish on the crown wheels and heat-blued screws. The movement is as lavish as the dial is simple and traditional.
A masterwork of painstaking hand assembly and attention to horological detail, the Dornblüth timepiece brandishes an old world charm that will pass its way through generations to come.