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Tick Talk

Introducing NOMOS Glashütte

Solid engineering, great design. Are these the best-value watches out there? We think so

What if you could buy a beautifully designed and cleverly engineered mechanical watch, with an in-house movement, that didn’t cost silly money?

As common perceptions of luxury wristwatches have it, that watch doesn’t exist. Forgetting design, quality and even brand for a moment, if you want a watch with an in-house movement, you have to pay serious money for it.

When you do, you’re paying for two things. First, you’re paying the watch company back for the investment it’s put into building a manufacturing plant that can produce a watch movement from the ground up. That’s a crippling expense, usually millions in R&D alone, which is why most don’t bother, and instead buy movements in from third party suppliers. (Swiss companies ETA and Sellita are the leaders in that particular field.)

Second, you’re paying for kudos. Historically, the Swiss watch industry was anything but verticalised – watch houses would source parts from specialist case makers, dial makers and movement makers and then bolt them together. Établisseurs, they’re called – assemblers. Hardly any brought all the watchmaking disciplines under one roof. That gave those that did – and survived – a certain scarcity value. And in watchmaking, that pushes prices up.

But. There are one or two rare exceptions, one of which is NOMOS Glashütte, a watch company that makes its watches in-house and yet sells them at the kind of prices you’d expect of the humdrum établisseurs.

The question this always provokes is “how?” The answer lies in the story of the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation, a movement founded by German businesses, artists and architects in the early 20th century. The principle behind the Werkbund was that by combining industrial manufacturing techniques with hand-craftsmanship, you could deliver high-quality products at affordable (not cheap) prices. Not only does NOMOS (as it’s known) adhere to the same proposition, it’s a member of the Werkbund as it is in its 21st-century guise.

NOMOS isn’t 100-plus years old, though. It’s based in the town of Glashütte, formerly in East Germany, and was born out of the ashes of the GDR in the early 1990s. Glashütte is recognised by aficionados as the epicentre of German watchmaking, and home to A Lange & Söhne, which makes stunning, low-volume, high-tariff timepieces.

It launched its first collections 25 years ago and today adds 95 per cent of the value of its watches in Glashütte, more than enough for it to boast in-house status. It even makes its own escapements, the beating heart of a watch, but in its own quirky way (it has a creative hub in Berlin), it calls its creation a “Swing System”.

Stylistically, its watches are sometimes lumped in with the Bauhaus movement, but as I was told the first time I went to the factory (which is a converted railway station) some years ago, the Deutscher Werkbund was the precursor to Bauhaus, and the company prefers to consider its watches by those terms. As the case may be, NOMOS watches are defined aesthetically by their minimalism and by a clear relationship between form and function. We’re talking restrained dial designs, an absence of unnecessary flourishes, slender steel cases and clear, legible watches that do the job for which they’re intended faultlessly – telling the time. This quintet proves the point.

Tangente 38 Datum

NOMOS’ signature watch – it often refers to it as its logo – has been in the collection for 25 years (to celebrate, the company sent out boxes of cake mix to bake in the shape of a Tangente). Much of what makes it work is that there’s so little to it: a simple, round, flat case, a white dial with pencil-thin, blued-steel hands, condensed numerals, a small seconds and a date window. The case back is sapphire crystal, through which you can see the DUW 4101 in-house, hand-wound movement.

At Work Tangente Neomatik 39

One of NOMOS’ latest schemes is the “At Work” collection, intended to kit out a new generation of stylish but modest white-collar workers. It’s a Tangente at heart, but with a “silvercut” dial that’s brushed horizontally, and an automatic movement. This is as good an example as any of the thinness NOMOS gives its watches, another sign of watchmaking prowess. The DUW 3001 calibre is just 3.2mm in height, a fraction thicker than the outgoing British pound coin.

At Work Metro Neomatik 39

Another of the At Work collection and also powered by the DUW 3001 automatic, but in the more full-bodied Metro case. This time, the brushed dial is decorated with red and black dots that serve as hour markers, Arabic numerals on a minutes track running around the outside of the dial, a small seconds with a red hand, and two sinewy syringe-shaped central hands. Despite all the detail, it still feels balanced and pared back, the sign of a company in total control of its design codes. 

At Work Orion Neomatik 39

I’ve always felt I could recommend the Orion 39mm to anyone. Ostensibly it’s a round-cased watch measuring 39mm across, a very versatile, wearable size for all but the broadest or narrowest of wrists. It’s got conventional swept lugs and a simple dial design, complemented by elongated gold hour markers and blued-steel hands – and that’s about it. Flip it over and there’s the DUW 3001 automatic calibre again.

Zürich Weltzeit

As a rule, NOMOS doesn’t really do complications or haute horlogerie, but the notable exception is this world timer. It can show any of the globe’s 24 time zones and is easily adjusted by pressing the button at two o’clock. Home time all the while stays unmoved on the disc at three o’clock. As with every watch on this shortlist, the Zürich Weltzeit comes on a black strap made of Horween Genuine Shell Cordovan, a very durable material made from horse hide.

The NOMOS Glashütte collection

  • NOMOS Glashütte Metro Datum Gangreserve 37mm Stainless Steel and Leather Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte Lambda 42mm 18-Karat Rose Gold and Leather Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte Ahoi Atlantik Datum Automatic 40mm Stainless Steel and Nylon Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte Club Automat Automatic 40mm Stainless Steel and Cordovan Leather Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte At Work Metro Neomatik Automatic 39mm Stainless Steel and Leather Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte Ahoi Automatic 40mm Stainless Steel and Nylon Watch

  • NOMOS Glashütte Tangomat Automatic 38mm Ruthenium, Stainless Steel and Cordovan Leather Watch