German watchmaker Mühle Glashütte turned 150 years old in 2019, looking back on five generations of family stewardship through turbulent times for both Germany and the watch industry. In this feature from the WatchTime archives, we explore the company’s history of time measurement, from instruments to wristwatches.
The final day of hostilities between the Allies and Germany in World War II would also come to be remembered for the turning point that it wrought, in tragically ironic fashion, to Germany’s proud and historical watch industry. It was on May 8, 1945, shortly after Adolf Hitler had surrendered to Allied forces to bring an end to the European conflict, that Russian planes dropped bombs on the town of Glashütte, in the German state of Saxony near Dresden, leveling many of the watch factories that were, at the time, producing timekeeping devices for military usage. The embattled nation’s watch manufacturers would essentially cease to exist in their current states for several decades to come, with many in that industry profoundly affected by the hard times ahead. Few, however, had as much history on the line as did the Mühle family.
Mühle Glashütte, which marks its 150th anniversary in 2019, is nevertheless regarded as a relative newcomer to the watchmaking game: it did, after all, only produce its first wristwatch in 1996, and doesn’t claim a long lineage of making personal timekeepers like other German companies such as A. Lange & Söhne, Tutima and the various companies that merged to form today’s Glashütte Original. It does, however, boast a rich tradition of expertise in producing precision instruments, including timepieces. Owned and operated by five generations of the Mühle family, the company is currently the only Glashütte-based watch manufacturer still owned by a local family, one established in the region for more than 700 years, dating back to the 1300s and the Kingdom of Bohemia.
The Mühle family crest was established in 1629, and emblazoned with the Latin phrase “Nec Spe, Nec Metu,” meaning “Without hope, without fear” – a testament to the family’s history of facing life’s toughest challenges with resolute courage and a dose of pragmatic realism. Inevitably, the centuries to come would offer many such obstacles to overcome.
Robert Mühle, born in the Saxon town of Lauenstein in 1841, was destined from an early age to establish his family’s beachhead in timekeeping. In 1860, he completed an apprenticeship with legendary watchmaker Moritz Grossmann as a precision toolmaker for pocketwatches. (Grossmann, of course, would go on to be regarded, along with Ferdinand Adolph Lange and Julius Assmann, as one of the pioneers of Saxon watchmaking, and would have his name resurrected for a modern luxury watch brand.)
The entrepreneurial Robert, descendant of barons, pastors and musical directors, charted a new path for his family line when he established his own company in April 1869. During these heady times for the Glashütte watch industry, the “Robert Mühle Glashütte i.Sa” company was the sole manufacturer of measuring instruments for Glashütte’s watchmaking workshops as well as for the German School of Watchmaking. In 1896, Robert was recognized for his achievement, receiving the Gold Medal of the city of Dresden, joining a group of entrepreneurial pioneers who helped cement Glashütte’s reputation as the cradle of German horology.
As the 20th century dawned, the family toolmaking business, now called R. Mühle & Sohn upon the ascension of Robert’s sons Paul, Alfred and Max as co-owners in 1905, was flourishing, despite Europe’s eventual plunge into the quagmire of World War I. In addition to producing precision measuring instruments and gauges, the business expanded to another growing industrial field in 1918, making speedometers, rev counters and dashboard clocks for early automobiles, counting among its clients Saxon-based carmakers such as Horch and DKW. Eventually, the firm also branched out into making speedometers for motorcycles; Mühle speedometers – whose faces were inscribed with the image of a windmill, the English translation of the name “Mühle” – were found on early 20th-century motorbikes from such historically important producers as BMW and Triumph. R. Mühle & Sohn produced the very first speedometer used on a BMW Motorcycle; an example of one of these early devices is on display at the Glashütte Watchmaking Museum.
The expansion and diversification of its manufacturing business helped R. Mühle & Sohn survive the tumultuous times ushered in by the Great Depression. While other Glashütte companies were forced out of business by the dire economic straits of the 1930s, Mühle continued supplying car clocks, speedometers and other time measurement devices to its broadening roster of vehicle-manufacturing clients, and eventually, with a second World War on the horizon, turned out increasing numbers of on-board clocks for military use. But the most trying times for the family, the company and the nation were still to come.
The bombing of Glashütte at the end of World War II, and the subsequent postwar partitioning of Germany into East and West, with the watchmaking East under the thumb of Soviet Russia – effectively put a hard stop to the operations of Saxony’s once-thriving watch manufacturers, including R. Mühle & Sohn, which had at that point been in business, and in family hands, for more than 75 years. But the third generation was determined to ensure that the Mühle name – unlike other prestigious names like Lange, Grossmann, Assmann, and Hellwig, all of which were absorbed into the state-owned Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB) conglomerate – would not spend the Cold War years in corporate limbo.
Hans Mühle (1903-1970), the son of Paul and Elisabeth Mühle, was born in 1903 with precision timing in his blood, from both his mother’s and father’s sides. His mother hailed from the Stübner family, which made its name in Germany as a respected producer of chronometers used for the lighting of beacons. In 1945, with what remained of the original company’s assets incorporated into the GUB, Hans founded a new company, “Ing. Hans Mühle,” which built upon Mühle’s longstanding reputation for precision by specializing in measuring equipment for the photography and cinema industries as well as pressure and temperature gauges. Perhaps because of this company’s great success in these fields, Ing. Hans Mühle was able to maintain its independence as a privately owned company in the Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) until the early 1970s.
After Hans’s death in 1970, his son Hans-Jürgen Mühle, born in 1941, took over the business, only to see it expropriated by the East German government in 1972, renamed “VEB Feinmechanik Glashütte” (“Glashütte Precision Engineering”) and, by 1980, finally absorbed into the GUB, which had, of course, gobbled up many of its contemporaries and competitors decades earlier. Hans-Jürgen stayed aboard as plant manager and, eventually, as Managing Director for the GUB itself, responsible for global sales of the country’s marine chronometers and European sales and distribution of GUB-produced wristwatches.
Only a decade later, however, the windmill of history began turning furiously again, bringing profound changes to Germany and its watch manufacturers. The end of the Cold War and its most seismic and symbolic event, the fall of the Berlin Wall that heralded the reunification of Germany, offered a new lease on life to Glashütte’s historical watch companies, and an opportunity for the Mühle family to once again take the reins of its own corporate destiny.
Hence the founding, in 1994, of “Mühle-Glashütte GmbH Nautische Instrumente und Feinmechanik,” (abbreviated as Mühle-Glashütte)” headed by Hans-Jürgen, who had exited his post at the GUB but maintained his contacts – many of them former marine chronometer customers – in the world of shipping and boat manufacturing. Demand for precise nautical timepieces, which were no longer being produced by the now economically hobbled GUB, was huge, and a new company with the trusted Mühle name, which began operations on April 1, 1994, with only two employees, was ably positioned to fill it.
One year later, a request from one of Mühle’s shipyard customers for “robust, water-resistant wristwatches” to be used on its ships ushered in a new era for the fourth-generation firm. With the release of its first wristwatch in 1996, an unnamed divers’ piece engineered for use on ships, Mühle joined a small but growing fraternity of privately owned watchmakers either resurrected or newly established in the wake of reunification – A. Lange & Söhne, co-founded by a descendant of the legendary Ferdinand A. Lange; Glashütte Original, the Swatch Group-owned successor to the GUB; and Nomos Glashütte, a Bauhaus-inspired brand founded two months after the Wall fell, among them – though it had been operated by a single family longer than any of them.
With luxury mechanical watches coming back into vogue after the 1970s -’80s Quartz Crisis had run its course, Mühle-Glashütte committed more and more resources to its wrist- watch business, and by the turn of the millennium, would welcome the fifth generation of the Mühle family into the fold. Hans-Jürgen’s son Thilo Mühle, born in 1968, came on board as the head of product development for this new and vital product segment in 2000, joining his father as a Managing Director in 2004, and taking on sole management responsibility in 2007. During his tenure, the company has not only grown and expanded its product lineup but has also taken steps toward vertical integration of its production process.
It was during this era of father-son management that perhaps the most iconic Mühle Glashütte wristwatch, which hearkened back to the company’s history of providing instruments to military divers, emerged. The first S.A.R. Rescue Timers were designed in cooperation with the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (S.A.R. stands for “Search and Rescue”) and made their debut in 2002. The watch, equipped with a Sellita SW200-1 self-winding movement housed in a 42-mm, 100-meter water-resistant steel case, remains in ongoing use on German Maritime SAR vessels to this day. Mühle has since expanded its military-designed lineup to include the SAR Flieger Chronograph, used by German rescue pilots to calculate flight speeds, and the Seebattalion GMT, a tactical watch for the German Navy.
A company that can look back on 150 years of history has surely experienced highs and lows, and Mühle-Glashütte did experience some growing pains in its early years. One of its neighbors and competitors, Nomos, sued the company in the early 2000s over its use of “Made in Glashütte” on the dials; legally, 50 percent of the movement’s value must be produced in Glashütte to use the designation, and Nomos claimed that the Swiss-made ébauches Muhle used for its movements didn’t meet the standard. The case ended with Mühle-Glashütte restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy and to a commitment by the company’s leadership, under Thilo, to produce more movement parts in-house.
The most noteworthy of these is the “woodpecker neck” regulator now incorporated into Mühle calibers, developed as an evolution of, and Mühle might say, improvement upon, the traditional swan’s neck regulator used in other Glashütte-made movements. Its special shape, for which Mühle has received a patent, is designed for greater shockproofing.
Mühle followed up this innovation in 2008 with its own variation on the classical three-quarter plate, another hallmark of traditional Saxon watchmaking. This plate – so named because it covers approximately three-quarters of the movement’s back side, more than do the mainplates of most Swiss-made movements – was notable for its removable escape wheel bridge and was first incorporated, along with the woodpecker neck regulation, into the base ETA 7750 chronograph movement and altered it so significantly that Mühle felt obliged to rename it Caliber MU 9408. This movement now powers Mühle’s ProMare Chronograph models.
In 2011, Mühle ascended the next rung up the ladder of manufacture status, releasing the first movement to be fully designed in-house from scratch. The hand-wound Caliber MU 9411, with a three-quarter plate, adjusted in six positions and bearing a crown wheel and ratchet wheel mounted in a visible position, made its debut in the Teutonia III Handaufzug, an elegantly styled, historically inspired model in a vintage-look case with a coin-edged bezel and a crisp white dial with black Arabic numerals, railway track minutes ring and Breguet hands.
More so than any of its contemporaries in Glashütte – it is literally one of nine watch companies occupying two streets in the center of town – Mühle is known for its tough, accurate sports watches and tool watches, many of them directly influenced by the company’s deep roots in the maritime and automobile industries. The former is represented by robust undersea dwellers such as the ProMare Go (loosely translated as “for the sea”), a 300-meter water-resistant diver with a nautical blue color scheme; the Rasmus 2000, named for the patron saint of sailors, developed in collaboration with research divers at Germany’s University of Rostock, and boasting a hefty 2,000-meter water resistance; and the recently introduced Yacht Timer, whose 44-mm case is constructed of bronze, a material with a long pedigree in the shipping industry and very au courant in today’s watch world.
The latter’s influence is felt in the Teutonia Sport I Chronograph, with its racing-inspired, bidirectional tachymeter bezel that can be used in concert with the stopwatch function to time speeds over distances up to 1,000 miles. Military aviation also gets a nod, from Mühle’s Terrasport collection, inspired by historical pilots’ models, which includes chronograph and GMT versions. Mühle’s popular 29er collection, named after a class of sailing dinghies piloted in competitions for the German Sailing Association, takes its cues from the sporty side of nautical navigation rather than the military.
For the company’s 145th anniversary in 2014, however, Thilo Mühle opted to pay tribute to his ancestor with a more elegant series of timepieces, and to equip them with entirely new movements. Caliber RMK 01 and RMK 02 are both manual-winding calibers, designed in the classical Glashütte style, with stylistic hallmarks such as engraved balance cocks and screwed gold chatons, as well as the now-rare three-fifths mainplate and, of course, the woodpecker neck regulator.
Caliber RMK 01 powers the Robert Mühle Auf/Ab, offered in steel and in a rose-gold limited edition. Its stark white dial, coated in several layers of varnish that mimic the look of enamel, recalls the era of Glashütte pocketwatches, with a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock and an “Auf/Ab” (“Up/Down”) power-reserve display at 12 o’clock. The Robert Mühle Kleine Sekunde, limited to 145 pieces in steel, contains Caliber RMK 02, which is slightly thinner than Caliber RMK 01, owing to the absence of the power-reserve indicator module. The watch’s case uses the same finely notched bezel as the Auf/Ab models, while the silvered dial offers a more traditional small-seconds (“kleine sekunde”) subdial at 6 o’clock. Rounding out the family, collectively dubbed the R. Mühle Manufacturing series, is the recently released Zeigerdatum model, which adds a classical pointer date to the power reserve and small seconds displays.
Through wars, political struggles, legal battles and economic headwinds, Mühle Glashütte has been an enduring and indefatigable presence on Germany’s precision timekeeping scene, and an essential part of the country’s generations-spanning watch industry saga. The brand’s growing and diverse portfolio, with its embrace of new technologies, innovative materials and a healthy respect for its past, would seem to indicate that this windmill has no intention of slowing down.