View all articles

Feature: D. Dornblüth & Sohn

Three quarter plate; hand-engraved balance cock with swan-neck regulator; classic Gothic dial design—I know the brand you think I’m talking about, but actually I’m not. This is D. Dornblüth & Sohn, the German watchmaker that’s started a quiet revolution and is one of the best-kept secrets in all of watchmaking.

Over half a century ago, in the German watchmaking state of Saxony, watchmaker Dieter Dornblüth set about repairing a pocket watch. It wasn’t the first he’d repair, and it most certainly wouldn’t be the last, but this particular pocket watch just so happened to catch his eye. The design was stark, clear, refined, the movement exquisitely decorated; it was to Dieter, the perfect watch. Eventually, the repair work was complete, and with some sorrow, the watch was returned to its owner.

Unable to clear his mind of that watch, Dieter sat down that same evening, put pen to paper, and designed a wristwatch based on that very pocket watch. But business came first, and those plans, tucked away in a drawer, were eventually forgotten.

That is until the turn of the century, when Dieter’s son, Dirk, now too a fully-fledged watchmaker, presented his father with a gift for his 60th birthday: a watch he had himself made. Dieter, understandably, was overcome, and he revealed to Dirk his abandoned dream of decades before. But the dream would not be forgotten again; together, as father and son, the Dornblüths built that watch, the watch that would become the basis of the 99 series we have here today.

“But hang on,” you’re probably wondering, “how did these two men just build a watch?” You’re right to question it; a modern watchmaker today requires extensive and expensive milling machinery to produce the quality and quantity required, a slew of high-powered computers to design and simulate every last wheel and screw.

Don’t forget, though, that we’re talking about modern watchmaking here. Before computers, before automated technology, watchmakers built watches with their hands. It’s slow and it’s steady, but they did it. And that’s how it’s done at D. Dornblüth & Sohn. Everything the business needed to repair pocket watches—which quite often requires the careful fabrication of unique parts in low or even sometimes single quantities—was what was needed to make wristwatches. It was simply a matter of time.

As such, it takes a long time to make a Dornblüth watch. There aren’t teams of people, banks of machines, bustling marketing departments and chains of stores—it’s father, son, a few close friends and a room full of tools that have been on this Earth at least as long as Dieter himself. The company completes just a few watches per month; that’s why you won’t see them in jeweller’s windows, or glitzy ad campaigns. The only place you’ll find them is in the collections of some of the luckiest owners on the planet.

What this means is that when you order a watch from D. Dornblüth & Sohn, that watch isn’t pulled out of an inventory of stock, it’s made just for you. And because it’s made just for you, there is an abundance of options you can choose from to make the watch entirely unique. Not a limited run of a thousand or even a hundred—a one-off piece that you and only you will own.

Let’s start with the front, the bit you read. Dornblüth dials are made in the workshop, starting as blanks ground by hand. For any sub-dials, the recess isn’t just engraved into the metal, but cut out completely with the sub-dial layered underneath as another piece of brass to make it extra-crisp. The brass is traditionally coated in a silver finish, although you can have whatever colour you like.

You can even choose from different materials, including mother-of-pearl and even ceramic. Produced in the workshop from a hand-mixed ceramic powder, a ceramic dial offers a modern, sturdy alternative to enamel that can be finished with either a matte or glossy surface.

But it gets even better. You can choose to have printed or applied markers—whatever colour sir likes, of course—but like the pocket watches of old, there’s a rather special option you can spec instead. Using a pantograph, an 800% scaled up version of the dial connected by a series of levers to an engraving tool over a dial blank, the Dornblüths hand engrave every single number, letter and line that would otherwise be printed into the dial. These engravings are then hand-filled, creating a deep, crisp finish that you just don’t see in watchmaking at all anymore.

But Dornblüth wouldn’t be a proper watchmaker without a proper movement, and the calibre 99.1 we see inside the self-titled watch is clearly something special. Perhaps, then, it might surprise you to learn that it is in fact based on an ETA 6498? That might seem most unexpected because it looks absolutely nothing like one, and there’s a reason it doesn’t—because Dornblüth throws most of it away.

All that remains is the core structure of the original calibre, with everything else fashioned with traditional tools within the four walls of the workshop. The movement gets a new three-quarter plate, striped, bevelled and finished in rose gold; a remodelled, hand-engraved balance cock, set with a pentagraph-machined and hand burnished swan-neck regulator; screwed gold chatons for the setting and adjustment of the jewels; and a completely reworked winding system, repositioned to include a beautifully elegant, hand-polished ratchet spring and double sunburst finished crown wheels.

The balance is screwed and slowed down to a traditional 18,000vph, polished on the rim and blasted in the middle. The screws are blued by hand on a slab of metal with a blowtorch, a treatment you can also request on the hands and applied markers if you pick them. This is proper, old-world watchmaking, free of technology, free of automated machinery—what you see, you get from the hands of craftspeople.

And hey, don’t like the idea of the movement being based on something else? Well, being watchmakers, of course Dieter and Dirk wanted to make their own movement from scratch, and so the Q-2010.1 Klassik provides exactly that. And it’s not just a slight reworking of the 99.1 with all new parts; it gets a double barrel setup with an indirect drive Maltese cross spring to evenly feed the torque to the movement, as well as a short anchor escapement that allows you to see more of what’s going on.

“Very nice, you’re probably thinking, “but of course they’re nice, they probably cost tens of thousands.” Well, I’ve saved perhaps the best bit until last, because no, they don’t. The 99.1 starts at four-and-a-half thousand Euro, or a thousand more with the engraved dial shown here. The fully in-house Q-2010.1 Klassik is 8,790 Euro. Let that sink in as we fade to black.

Watchmaking is big business for a lot of companies, and that’s understandable. They have a brand to maintain, big bills to pay, supply chains to feed. Not so for D. Dornblüth & Sohn. It’s like another world, detached from the rigours of modern life, where what can be admired and appreciated for such skill and expertise, can live on without the shadow of overheads, margins and general business weight following it around. Dornblüth is watchmaking at its most pure, most traditional, without costing the Earth—and is perhaps the last and only of its kind.