On The Road Again: Mühle Glashuette – A Family Affair

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My wife and I had a memorable time with family and friends in Prague this summer.  We decided to make a short drive to Dresden and spend the night there before continuing on to Berlin the next evening.  Dresden has a special place in my heart – a city I visited very often when I lived in Prague as an expat.  The beautiful Semper Opera, romantic castles and museums on the banks of Elbe river, and a sensory overload of watches.  Dresden used to be known as the Florence of Elbe (Elbflorenz).

Dreden Semper Opera with Thilo Muhle
Dresden Semper Opera with Thilo Muhle

During the JCK Couture event in Las Vegas, my wife and I met with Thilo Mühle, the fifth generation owner of Mühle Glashütte.  I seldom come across CEO’s with such down-to-earth personality and a pragmatic attitude.  We promised Thilo that we will visit him on our way to Berlin.  So as we bid adieu to Dresden, we set course to Glashütte – a very familiar short drive through several villages.

Mühle Glashütte Factory
Mühle Glashütte Factory

Mühle factory stands out compared to all the other watch factories in Glashütte.  It stands out for a good reason – it is not a tall and modern building covered with glistening glass; it is a modest building which cannot be mistaken for anything other than a factory.  It was not built with cash inflow from large groups or investors.  It is a family owned-and-operated business.  Thilo’s dad, wife, and extended family – all have a role in this business.  There is no big or small role, it a truly a team effort.  I met Mühle’s CFO, Thomas Nitzschner, carrying few hundred nautical clocks, getting ready to go to Hamburg for installation on a large Malaysian cruise ship.

Dials being prepared for clocks to be installed on a Malaysian cruise ship
Dials being prepared for clocks to be installed on a Malaysian cruise ship

Thilo took us to the CNC room where he can now produce eight thousand watches annually.  He proudly states that these new efficient CNC machines are capable of producing much more than the current annual production.  They are also paid for which keeps his overhead low.  While the big brands are spending lavishly yet laying-off workers, Mühle is frugal and is able to retain entire staff with year-round production.  I met his marketing manager, Marie Felgner, at the inventory station helping out since the inventory manager is on holidays.  Marie said it is great for her to learn and appreciate this part of business.

CNC machine at work
CNC machine at work
Bezels being cut out with CNC machine
Bezels being cut out with CNC machine
Finishing of the rotor
Finishing off the rotor
Polished and finished rotor in comparison to an unfinished rotor
Polished and finished rotor in comparison to an unfinished rotor
Various types of Mühle rotors
Various types of Mühle rotors

Mühle has a real history with the manufacturing of the nautical clocks and instruments.  The first marine chronometer I witnessed as I entered the exhibition in the Glashütte museum was that of Mühle.  Even though it is currently less than 10% of the overall business, it is an important one.  This afternoon Thilo was driving to Hamburg to meet with ship and yacht manufacturers.  This was the core business from first Mühle generation.  Advent of quartz and GPS technology has changed the marine clock business significantly.  Even though mechanical marine chronometer manufacturing is great for continuing a dying tradition, it is simply not practical.  Imagine if a boat is stranded in middle of the ocean with no GPS or clock and trying to figure out the mechanical sextant.

Mühle’s CFO, Thomas Nitzschner, explaining complication of using a sextant
Mühle’s CFO, Thomas Nitzschner, explaining the complications of using a sextant
Modern and practical quartz movement in marine chronometer
Modern and practical quartz movement in marine chronometer
Various marine chronometer clocks
Various marine chronometer clocks
Mühle marine chronometer at the Glashütte museum
Mühle marine chronometer at the Glashütte museum

Majority of the watches being assembled by the watchmakers are the tool watches we guys passionately discuss on the forums.  There were also watches produced for corporate customers like Audi, with whom Mühle has a good relationship.  Audi presents these watches as a gift to employees when they reach 40-year milestone of their employment.  I am sure some of Audi’s best customers also receive special watches from them.  Thilo has recently begun to diversify his offerings with the Robert Mühle and ProMare series. But ultimately, Mühle produces no-frills, well-made sports watches giving us “bang-for-your-buck” satisfaction.

Watch assembly
Watch assembly
Testing for accuracy
Testing for accuracy
Manufacturing for Audi - A special watch presented on employee's 40th employment anniv.
Manufacturing for Audi – A special watch presented on employee’s 40th employment anniversary.

My favorite watch in the current collection is the 29er Zeigerdatum (pointer-date).  I would gladly part with my money to pair it with casual jeans and a t-shirt.  I had recommended this watch as one of the top 5 watches to wear this summer.  Mühle design team got everything right about this watch – from bushed/polished case, to dial with white, blue, red color combination, and the navy blue fabric strap.

Mühle 29er Zeigerdatum
Mühle 29er Zeigerdatum
Mühle social media and marketing manager, Marc Werner
Mühle Social Media and Marketing Manager, Marc Werner
Thilo Mühle, Managing Director,  showing the new campaign for ProMare series
Thilo Mühle, Managing Director, showing the new campaign for the ProMare series

As we ended the factory tour and sat in the modest conference room to wrap up, I asked Thilo what are his lunch plans, to which Thilo replied with a smile “I brought my lunch with me”.

The watch industry needs brands like Mühle to keep the rest of them honest – in making an honest watch, at a modest price, and taking care of its’ employees in a cyclical business.

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