I’ve often wondered about the status of German watch part suppliers. Debates about a watch’s origin are usually centered around the movement and location of final assembly, but few look into where other components originate. The origin of cases, dials, crowns, and bands is seldom discussed. That being said, most watch manufacturers don’t willingly divulge information about their suppliers. This might lead some to assume that the watch industry relies on cheap imports in a hush-hush manner, leaving the customer none the wiser.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case. There are still a number of smaller suppliers that have stuck around “high-wage” Germany and continue to manufacture watch components for quality-conscious clients. They rarely get the attention they deserve, especially considering they make vital contributions to the products we all love. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to meet with the managing director of Aristo-Vollmer, Hansjörg Vollmer, in the company’s production facilities in Pforzheim, Germany.
Aristo-Vollmer is – impressively – both a component manufacturer and independent watch brand. The company has nearly 100 years of history as a metal bracelet manufacturer, beginning with the present owner’s grandfather in 1922.
The site in Pforzheim produces a wide variety of metal bracelets, including Milanese (mesh) bracelets and link bracelets made of stainless steel, titanium, and – their specialty – a carbon fiber composite material referred to simply as Carbon. The company also manufactures and sells watches under the brand names Aristo, Messerschmitt, and Erbprinz.
In the first part of this article, I’ll share some impressions from my visit to the company’s watch band production facility. In the latter portion of the article, I will cover the history of the company and discuss the significance of “Made in Germany” with Mr. Vollmer himself.
Watch Band Production Tour
Upon entering the building, I felt like I’d stepped back in time – in a good way. The space is filled with a charming array of machines with cast iron pieces, workbenches and presses, and even an old-fashioned mechanical time clock.
There is a punching machine on one side that cuts links out of a roll of bracelet material at regular intervals. The company produces both solid and semi-solid bracelets. The former features completely solid links, while the latter’s are hollow inside. Solid links are shaped by a 150-ton press on the ground floor. Semi-solid links, on the other hand, have to be bent and shaped prior to final assembly.
Vollmer also crafts bangle watch bands. These are rigid, 3-mm thick stainless steel bracelets that are shaped to a fixed diameter on a bending machine. This type of band can be adjusted by adding or removing links near the clasp.
The clasps (and case backs of Aristo watches) are adorned with logos and lettering made with manually-operated machines. This and many other production steps require an ample supply of specialist tools, which are kept in the tool storage facility next door. This is also where the raw materials – or semi-finished product, in professional jargon – for bracelet links are stored. The firm primarily uses stainless steel and titanium, but they also have stores of brass, nickel silver, and silver.
The material for mesh bracelets is supplied in continuous strips and then processed further. If you think that sounds straightforward, you’re wrong. The challenges begin when attempting to attach the lugs. You can’t simply drill through a mesh bracelet to accommodate the spring bar; it requires a separate joint to be spot-welded or soldered by hand, depending on the strength of the mesh.
Vollmer’s specialty is undoubtedly their carbon fiber bracelets. They worked for many years on developing carbon composite components for use in both watches and watch bands. The result has now cemented its place in the producer’s line-up.
The semi-finished product for carbon bracelets arrives at the company in tubes of so-called prepregs, i.e., pre-impregnated components. The advantage of prepregs is that they can be processed mechanically, meaning they don’t require complex, in-house material engineering systems. The prepregs are cut and drilled according to their needs. Depending on the client’s wishes, Aristo also crafts bangle-style carbon bracelets featuring curved segments and the option of additional stainless steel links. This offers more freedom of movement, but is also more complex and, thus, more expensive.
Further finishing takes place in a neighboring room with several workbenches. The work here includes soldering, polishing, and satin brushing. Before the bracelets are given a final run on the polishing machine, the components are all demurred in a large drum. The desired finish is achieved by adding abrasive granules with different sizes and properties.
The freehand high-gloss polish or satin finish can also be added to the surface of carbon bracelets, which Mr. Vollmer spontaneously demonstrated with his own watch band.
Aristo: The Brand From Aristo-Vollmer
Following my tour of the watch band production facility, we turned to Aristo watches. The watch manufacture is located on the ground floor of the building. This is where watches from Aristo, Messerschmitt, and Erbprinz are made.
You may be wondering why the company produces both components and its own watches? This is largely due to the successive decline in clients before the turn of the millennium. Vollmer and numerous other component manufacturers were largely dependent on a handful of watch brands. Many of the Pforzheim suppliers lost customers due to competition overseas and the decline of private labels. While established Swiss brands were able to withstand the market changes with successful marketing campaigns and well-known histories, Mr. Vollmer explained that the focus in Pforzheim had always been simply on the manufacture of watches.
Vollmer recognized that creating a company watch brand as a second focal point would secure the purchase of their products and allow the firm to survive as a German supplier. Thus, the entrepreneur decided to acquire the established brand and long-standing customer Aristo in 1998. This was a logical choice seeing as Aristo had been using Vollmer bands since the 1930s. Today, historic, WWII-era Aristo pilot’s watches are coveted collector’s items.
This move is the reason why I was standing in the compact Aristo watch assembly rooms during our chat instead of in front of a shuttered industrial building. There were numerous complete and partially-finished Aristo watches laying around the workshop. There was a pad printing machine for applying logos and lettering to blank dials. Aristo also offers “unbranded” pilot’s watches, i.e., sans logo, which are particularly popular among purist pilot watch fans. If you are looking for an affordable watch with an alternative to an ETA or a Sellita movement, check out Aristo models powered by the relatively young and infrequently used Ronda R150 movement.
The German Watch Supplier Industry: A Conversation with Hansjörg Vollmer
Following the tour, I sat down with Mr. Vollmer in the watch and band showroom to discuss the unique position Aristo-Vollmer occupies as both a supplier and producer. In addition to his role as managing director of Aristo-Vollmer, Mr. Vollmer is the chairman of the Watchparts from Germany (WPG) association, which represents German watch component manufacturers and promotes the “Made in Germany” quality mark. There are few people out there who are more informed about the status of the German watch supplier industry than him.
We began our chat by talking about how attractive watches that are “Made in Germany” are for consumers and how many watch manufacturers are pleased that they can purchase components from German suppliers. Here, we should mention that there isn’t an exact definition of “Made in Germany.” According to Mr. Vollmer, at the very minimum it means “assembling a watch as competently as possible” from individual parts. However, these parts don’t necessarily have to come exclusively from Germany.
He emphasized, however, that almost everything can still be manufactured in Germany – at a cost. There are a number of brands that focus on sourcing all German parts, but this demands customer appreciation for localized sourcing and a willingness to pay for it. On the other hand, there are certain parts that are better suited for production abroad. Things like spring bars and particular types of clasps can only be produced economically in very large numbers.
When it comes to cases, dials, bands, hands, and in some cases, crystal and crowns, however, you can still source what you need in Germany. WPG members produce all of these products. Of course, this raises the question of whether the association could position itself as a full-service provider to the industry. Mr. Vollmer explained that he’s approached some brands in that fashion in the past, and was met with mixed success. After all, some big brands prefer to hand-pick their suppliers.
The case of the Glashütte Original dial manufacturer, which has been in the spotlight in watch media in recent years, is a perfect example of why it can be dangerous to become overly dependent on external sources. The dial manufacturer used to be an independent company, Th. Müller, which supplied VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB) during the time of German division. The business survived privatization and the subsequent takeover by the Swatch Group before being completely integrated into Glasshütte Original. Prior to that, Th. Müller was also a member of the WPG.
A takeover by a major brand offers a lot of opportunities for a medium-sized company, including a steady flow of sales and jobs. The other option for securing sales, of course, is to do what Aristo-Vollmer did and create your own watch brand.
I left Aristo-Vollmer feeling surprised that there were so many mid-sized suppliers left right on our doorstep in Germany, many of which few of us are aware of despite years of interest in the industry. A lot of watch fans fall into the trap of failing to notice anything to do with our watches that isn’t specifically advertised by the big brands. Sadly, this approach fails to recognize the smaller companies that are no less fascinating or charming than the manufacturers themselves. Information about the origin of specific watch components is often missing. Transparency, which for a long time wasn’t valued in the watch industry, is no longer a disadvantage, but rather can be a strong competitive advantage. Young brands, in particular, are sharing more and more information about where they source their parts. This is a welcome change in a time of well-informed consumers and a countless array of often faceless watch brands.
I am convinced there is some untapped potential for the marketing of high-quality watches built from mostly German suppliers. Who knows, maybe these seldom noticed mid-sized suppliers will catch the interest of niche enthusiasts and collectors.