If you’re interested in vintage watches and follow the market closely, you’ve likely come across a few models from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), aka former East Germany. The so-called “workers’ and peasants’ state” had a lively watch industry that produced a wide range of different timepieces despite some serious hurdles. A few state-owned conglomerates made everything from wall clocks and table clocks to pocket watches and some unusual wristwatches. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at a few of the most interesting brands and models that came out of East Germany, as well as the history of the watchmaking industry. Discover the origins of the “Made in GDR” legacy.
The History of East German Watchmaking
The traditional watchmaking centers in the east of Germany were more or less kaput in 1945. The towns of Glashütte and Ruhla were hit particularly hard. Nearly all of the machinery that survived WWII intact was transported to Moscow as part of the post-war reparations. Companies like A. Lange & Söhne, UROFA, and Mühle & Sohn were nationalized and reorganized into publicly owned enterprises (in German: Volkseigener Betrieb, or VEB). Despite these difficulties, watches were once again being produced in Glashütte as soon as 1946. It took Ruhla three additional years to recover from the blow and restart production.
In 1951, the companies operating in Glashütte were ordered by the state authorities to unite under a single organization called VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). A year later, a similar demand in Ruhla led to the formation of the VEB Uhren- und Maschinenfabrik (UMF). Some 15 years later, the GUB and UMF joined forces with the VEB Uhrenwerk Weimar to become the conglomerate VEB Uhrenkombinat Ruhla, which was subsequently renamed VEB Uhrenwerke Ruhla (UWR) in 1978.
Following reunification, the individual arms of the larger company were privatized once more. In 1990, GUB became the Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb GmbH, which has been producing watches under the brand Glashütte Original ever since.
The return to privatization wasn’t quite so smooth in Ruhla. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some 40 different companies set up shop in Ruhla, mostly in the engineering, automation, and precision mechanics industries. In terms of watch companies, Gardé Uhren und Feinmechanik GmbH was founded in 1991 and began assembling watches for the PointTec brands Zeppelin, Iron Annie, and Junkers in the late 1990s. Gardé filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but the Thüringische Uhrenwerke Ruhla (TUW), which was founded in 2016, is keeping the watchmaking tradition alive in the town.
The Most Important Models
Both GUB and the Ruhla-based manufacturers primarily produced watches for export. Glashütte was known for producing high-quality, pricey models, while watches from Ruhla were designed for the mass market. The majority of the timepieces were sold to non-socialist countries, while the rest went to Comecon countries (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). Only a fraction of the watches ever ended up in the GDR itself. Glashütte watches, in particular, were nearly impossible to come by in East Germany at the time.
None of this stopped GUB from crafting great timepieces, however. In 1960, they debuted the automatic GUB 67 caliber, which powered the Automat series. GUB also produced a line of chronometer movements, including the 60.3 and 70.1. These movements were built into so-called “Güteuhren,” or “quality watches,” which were marked by a Q1 seal on their dials. The company also produced a number of chronographs. Some were powered by the flyback chronograph caliber 64, based on the UROFA caliber 59, which was continuously improved upon and updated over the years.
The most famous GUB model is the Spezimatic, which was produced between 1965 and 1979 in countless dial and case variations. GUB produced some 3.7 million Spezimatic watches in this time period. The watches were powered by automatic GUB 74 or GUB 75 movements. The Spezichron debuted in 1979 as the successor to the Spezimatic. These watches were fitted with calibers 11-26 and 11-27, but they never achieved the same success as their predecessors despite their improved movements.
Meanwhile in Ruhla, UMF was focused on mass production. The family of caliber 24 movements was the company’s top seller for years. More than 115 million examples of these manually wound movements were produced between 1961 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The movements were built into a wide variety of watch designs, including the 1973 Ruhla Digital, which featured numbered discs in the place of hands. This watch went down in history as the first digital watch of the GDR.
Engineers also developed the GDR’s first electro-mechanical watch in Ruhla, the UMF Electric. It was introduced in 1962 and powered by the 25-XX and 26-XX family of calibers. Many different variations of this watch were produced over the years, and some even featured illuminated dials. Watches in the Electric line were characterized by a lightning bolt on their dial and a crown at 4 o’clock.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Ruhla conglomerate produced primarily quartz watches. Their catalog extended from watches with analog displays to models with LCD displays. The watches relied on both imported Japanese calibers as well as their own. One of these locally manufactured movements, the 28-40, gained historical significance after it accompanied Sigmund Jähn to the Salyut 6 space station in August 1978. The caliber was built into a Ruhla Interkosmos, the first German watch in space.
Eastern Watches in the West
As mentioned, the majority of the watches produced in the GDR headed west. Mail-order companies and department stores, such as Quelle and Woolworth, were some of the biggest customers. The retail chains sold the watches, but often marketed them under different brand names. Quelle, for example, sold the watches with their own Meister Anker logo on the dial. Ruhla watches were sold under names like Champion, Worldtime, Chronelex, Unilectric, Perdial, and Lafayette.
The Legacy of GDR Watches
There are a number of GDR watches available on Chrono24. Among them you’ll find intriguing special editions that were made in honor of party events or the construction of the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, for example. Prices range from 50 to 550 USD, making GDR watches an affordable way to start building a vintage collection.
If you’re a fan of more modern watches, you can still enjoy some East German flair. Watches in the Sixties and Seventies collection by Glashütte Original are reminiscent of the original Spezimatic and Spezichron models, and their diving watch, the Spezialist, is modeled after the first diving watch made by VEB Uhrenkombinat Ruhla. Moreover, TUW Ruhla has a new edition of the iconic Interkosmos on the market.