History of the Ruhla brand: The first watch to be mass-produced and the first German watch in space. 124 years in 24 images.
Do you wonder what the first mass-produced watch looked like? Or when did wristwatches overtake pocket watches? What effect did WW II have on the German watch industry? — If these questions sound interesting to you, then this post is for you.
In this album I’d like to tell you about the history of the Ruhla brand. It is little known outside of its place of origin in East Germany, but it’s responsible for a number of significant “firsts” in the worldwide watch industry.
As is the case with Glashütte, the name “Ruhla” comes from the name of the town where the watch brand was born. The town of Ruhla is located in the midst of dense forests and steep hills in central Germany. The challenging topography of the region made agricultural work impractical, but the nearby mountains provided the metal ore to make Ruhla a blacksmiths’ town. The first recorded mention of this city is in 1355.
The beginnings of Ruhla’s watch industry are usually pinned to the year 1862. This is the founding year of the company Gebrüder Thiel GmbH. This company started out with the mass production of door hinges and gradually moved on to producing smaller, finer mechanical components. In 1874 the company produced its first musical box. In 1892 — the world’s first mass manufactured pocket watch.
The world’s first mass-produced watches 1892–1914
The development of Ruhla’s first pocket started in the late 1880s and lasted for several years. In 1892 the company Gebrüder Thiel (now lead by the sons of one of the original founders) was ready to mass-manufacture its first pocket watch, the “Fearless”. This watch was inexpensive, accurate and reliable. It was mostly sold on the North American market, where it became a huge success. Already in 1897, 1000 factory workers would produce 4000 Fearless watches every day. That’s 1.46 million watches a year.
The handwound mechanism of the Fearless would last for up to 18 hours. This meant that the watch needed to be wound twice daily in order to keep going. The design of the Fearless was improved over the years. The models from 1897 could function for up to 30 hours until needing to be wound.
In 1908, the Thiel Factory released their first wristwatches. They were based on the successful ladies’ pocket watch models “Darling” and “Divina”. The world’s first mass-produced wristwatches were also intended to be worn by ladies. It is worth noting that it was fashion, not technology, which was the limiting factor for the spread of wristwatches worldwide.
The triangular pattern, which you see on the back of this early model became the logo of Ruhla watches only in the 1960s. Its three tips represent the three major centres of the German watchmaking industry: Ruhla, Weimar and Glashütte. All three cities are located in relative proximity to one another in Eastern Germany.
From the very beginning the business model of the Thiel company had been to reduce cost using economies of scale — and then pass these savings on to the consumer. This allowed them to establish and dominate the low-cost watch market in Germany and the US. In a short time, the build-quality and longevity of Ruhla watches also increased drastically. Pictured here is the Thiel Invincible Pocket Alarm Clock. Its production started in 1911.
The effect of the World Wars on the German watch industry
The outbreak of the First World War negatively affected the Thiel company, since most of its production was intended for export. Instead of “Made in Germany”, the watches were simply labeled as “Foreign” and the Thiel logo was removed altogether. Quite often the watches were sold through intermediaries, such as the British watch retailer Ingersoll.
In the 1930s the watches produced by Gebrüder Thiel became much more similar to what we are used to today. These watches still operated on manual (hand-wound) movements, but they were much smaller than their counterparts from just a decade earlier. In 1920 wristwatches accounted for only 10% of the sales of the Thiel Company. This figure increased to 45% in 1938.
Between 1946 and 1952, the Thiel watch factory was under the control of the Soviet state manufacturing conglomerate “Avtovelo”. At first the factory suffered from a severe lack of skilled personnel, as there were only 3 trained watchmakers among the factory’s 1500 employees. In addition, most of the watches and watchmaking machines it produced were sent to the USSR as war reparations. Despite these setbacks, watch production returned to pre-war levels already in 1949.
Ruhla watches during the DDR-era (1952–1991)
In May 1952, ownership of the Thiel watch factory was returned to the German people and the factory was renamed to Uhren und Maschinenfabrik Ruhla — watch and machine factory Ruhla — or UMF Ruhla for short.
In 1963 UMF Ruhla introduced their now-famous “ruhla” logo. It was used for those watches, which were intended for the East German market. Other brand names were used for watches which were exported. The movements created by UMF Ruhla were another popular export item. Click here to see the list of brands, which carried Ruhla-made movements.
In 1978 Sigmund Jähn became the first German astronaut. On his mission he carried four Ruhla watches with him. Three of them were intended as presents to his Russian colleagues. Thus Ruhla watches also became the first German watches in space.
Sigmund Jähn is currently 79 years old and he still has his watch from his space mission. He lives in Strausberg, 30km East of Berlin.
Ruhla in the 1980s — the biggest watch factory in the world
In the 1980s Ruhla’s watchmaking industry had reached its peak. It employed over 8000 people in the design and manufacture of watches, watch movements as well as watch production machinery. Such a degree of vertical integration was not possible anywhere else in the world, so Ruhla quite likely became the world’s largest watchmaking plant.
German Reunification & the dissapearance of Ruhla watches (1991–2015)
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited in 1990. What followed was an abrupt transition from a planned economy to a free market economy. Due to its sheer size and scale, the Ruhla watchmaking factory was forced to close down. What started as short-term insolvency became permanent closure. Many of the Ruhla watch factory buildings were demolished or left for vandalism. The last Ruhla watch was produced in 1991.
A new start for the Ruhla watch industry
Gunther Beck and Alexander Lange are two Thüringen-born entrepreneurs who started out by creating an online watch store back in 2006. Ruhla watches had been ubiquitous in Thüringen during their childhood but they have since disappeared from the market completely. Three years ago, the success of their watch store finally allowed them to take matters in their own hands and bring back the Ruhla brand.
Thüringer Uhren Werke (TUW) Ruhla stands for Thuringian Watchworks Ruhla. For the two founders of TUW Ruhla, it was not only important to bring back the Ruhla name, but also the Ruhla watches. Their new collection is heavily inspired by the Ruhla watches from the 1950s — onwards. It attempts to bridge the gap between Ruhla’s classic designs and the 21st centuy.
The new Ruhla collection will be assembled in Ruhla in March and April 2016. The production will take place under the oversight of Mr. Uwe W. — one of the watchmakers who worked in the original Ruhla factory in the 1980s and also studied for his watch making diploma there.
After 25 years, Ruhla watches are ready to return to the market. However, Gunther and Alexander are still falling short of their € 25,000 funding goal on Kickstarter.
Please support their endeavor by backing their project and sharing this story with your friends. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1859408531/tuw-ruhla-watches-comeback-of-a-legend