When Wempe introduced its new watch line Iron Walker two years ago, it aroused our curiosity. Until then, our main interest had steadfastly been in precision mechanics from Swiss manufactures, but with the steel Iron Walker and its integrated straps, an extremely attractive and contemporary German-made line entered the market. What’s more, it came from Wempe, one of the largest and most renowned watch and jewellery retailers in the world. Yet Wempe’s history and expertise in manufacturing such watches goes back a long way. This year, Wempe launched a series of new Iron Walker timepieces and once again, their striking design and attractive price point caught our attention. We took a closer look at the collection and its history.
Wempe Chronometerwerke Hamburg
Before we get to know the Iron Walker, it is important to look at Wempe’s watchmaking heritage. A peek into the past takes us back to a time when maritime chronometers were the tools on on everyone’s lips, with production also taking off in Germany. Until the middle of the 19th century, many German shipowners had their ships built in England and were accordingly equipped with English chronometers. Thus, the business with maritime chronometers was not originally overly lucrative for German watchmakers. It was not until the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 that interest and support for shipping began to grow – and it was Hamburg that played a decisive role in this. In 1875, the Deutsche Seewarte (German Naval Observatory) was founded in Hamburg, in order to become competitive and independent of foreign countries. A real competition began among chronometer manufactures in Germany, and from 1877 onwards, annual chronometer competitions were held with considerable cash prizes. Among the later participants was the Chronometerwerke Hamburg (or Hamburg Chronometer Factory in English), which was founded in 1905 by Hanseatic shipowners, headed first by Ferdinand Dencker, and a short time later by Ernst William Meier, who remained managing director until his death in 1929. If you are interested in the historical details, do read Manfred Lux’s book Alte Uhren und moderne Zeitmessung (Old Clocks and Modern Timekeeping).
Founder of the family business: Gerhard D. Wempe
It was Herbert Wempe, grandfather of Kim-Eva Wempe who still runs the company today, who then took over the Chronometerwerke Hamburg in 1938. Herbert Wempe not only continued the legacy of his predecessors, but also made a special effort to train watchmakers. Later, Wempe’s watchmaking apprentices won first place in performance competitions. Incidentally, there is still a national league of watchmakers in Germany and even today, the best come from Wempe’s Glashütte workshops.
Chronometer production at Wempe in Hamburg
Shortly after Herbert Wempe took over, World War II broke out and the demand for marine chronometers further increased. The Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium (Ministry of Aviation) as well as the High Command of the German Navy commissioned all chronometer manufacturers in Germany to band together and complete the base movement newly developed by the Wempe Chronometerwerke. A total of eight chronometer manufacturers produced the so-called Einheitschronometer using Wempe’s base movement. It was not until ten years after the end of the war, in 1955, that Wempe Chronometerwerke again produced its own chronometers. Today, modern navigation and time systems have replaced the marine chronometer, but Wempe still produces small special series for enthusiasts. Incidentally, the marine chronometers were always been built in Hamburg. However, since 2017, their production has been relocated to Glashütte in Saxony.
Two visionaries of German watchmaking, Herbert Wempe and Otto Lange (former co-owner of A. Lange & Söhne), had the dream of establishing a research and training centre for young watchmakers as well as a ‘Reglage Institute’ in Glashütte. In 1939, they founded the ‘Glashütte Observatory’ working group. However, the Second World War promptly put an end to their plans – at the end of the 1940s, the observatory was declared municipal property.
Otto Lange and Herbert Wempe
Over time, the observatory fell into ruin. Yet Wempe never gave up the dream for a ‘sanctuary of precise time’, as Herbert Wempe and Otto Lange described their plans. On January 24, 2005, the Hamburg family business acquired the 620 square metre site with the observatory and invested around 1.5 million euros into its renovation. The observatory is home to Germany’s only chronometer testing centre, which is operated independently by the Thuringian State Office for Consumer Protection and the Saxon State Office for Metrology and Verification. They carry out the chronometer test according to ISO 3159; only after passing the test are the watches allowed to call themselves ‘chronometers’.
Wempe employs around 40 people in Glashütte and produces around 5,000 watches a year. That makes it almost a microbrand. 16 watchmakers are currently being trained in the company’s own training institute. Another floor is already being planned so that 24 watchmakers can then be trained at the same time.
Wristwatches from Wempe Glashütte I/SA
In 2006, Wempe launched its own wristwatches for the first time under the brand name Wempe Glashütte I/SA. Within the two collections Wempe Chronometerwerke and Wempe Zeitmeister, 11 references were launched. From then on, new models were added every year. As a homage to the marine chronometers, the Glashütte manufacture wanted to produce its own movements again. Thus, the Wempe Chronometerwerke collection includes in-house calibres that are assembled and finished in Glashütte. Depending on the calibre, the bridges and main plates are manufactured, or the balance wheel is replaced, in Glashütte. Even the balance cocks are hand-engraved onsite. The engraver currently in charge of this work learned her trade at A. Lange & Söhne and was the state winner of the Watchmakers’ National League.
“When 51 percent of the added value comes from companies in Glashütte, the watches are allowed to bear the name ‘Made in Glashütte’. Wempe’s chronometer movements easily meet these requirements,” says Bernhard Stoll, CEO of the Watch Division at Wempe.
In 2020, Wempe Glashütte I/SA then presented the new Iron Walker collection with ETA and, in the meantime, Sellita movements, which are finely regulated in the Glashütte manufacture according to the requirements of the testing body.
As that historical excursion proves, Wempe is a serious player in the circle of mechanical watch manufactures. What the COSC certification is for fans of Swiss watches is nothing less at Wempe than the chronometer certification according to ISO 3159, which exists exclusively in Germany. After assembly and fine adjustment, each watch undergoes a test lasting several days in five different positions. Afterwards, the average rate deviation may be a maximum of between -4 and +6 seconds. The difference to the COSC is that the movements are tested enclosed in the watch cases – instead of separately – which corresponds more to the conditions in everyday life.
In 2020, Wempe launched the Iron Walker. Wempe had already patented the name for the collection in 2010. The idea came from the head of Germany, Bernhard Stoll, himself a trained watchmaker, after he saw a documentary about the steel workers in New York, the so-called Iron Walkers, who balanced unsecured on the narrow steel scaffolding at dizzying heights. “Without these Iron Walkers, a skyscraper would never have been built,” Stoll enthuses. “We had long wanted a watch made entirely of steel, and the story of the daredevil Iron Walkers was a perfect fit.”
After more than 2 years of development and countless ideas, 16 versions of the steel Iron Walker confidently created their place in the Wempe Glashütte I/SA assortment. The Wempe Zeitmeister Sport was removed from the portfolio. In the meantime, there are 19 model variations of the Iron Walker with mechanical movements, ranging from classic three-hand dress watches with date and chronographs to diver’s watches. There are also quartz models and special editions. The dress watches are available in 36 mm and 40 mm with black, blue and silver dials. 36 mm is designated as a ladies’ watch, but the model looks exceptionally good on men with slender wrists, too. The chronographs, GMT models and diving watches have a case diameter of 42 mm, but look narrower on the wrist. This year, an XL Chrono in 44 mm and (for the first time) a rubber strap was added.
Even though sporty steel watches with integrated straps are in vogue amongst manufacturers and customers alike, Wempe has managed to give its Iron Walker creations its own distinctive look. The GMT, diver’s and tide watches stand out in particular because their respective additional functions are indicated by an internal altitude ring. In the case of the automatic GMT, it is available in black/white as well as black/orange, which looks quite harmonious and stylish in combination with the black dial and the orange accents on the crown and hour hand. Well-made height rings have the advantage of making even larger watches look more compact, as the dial appears more small-dimensional. Everything is impeccably finished. The altitude ring is bevelled at the perfect angle, which says a lot about the aesthetics of a watch.
Wempe uses the high-quality 316L stainless steel, which has been matted on the surface and polished for the edges. The flank protection, which can be seen on all models, is elegantly designed, as well as another indication of an independent sports watch’s DNA. Another nice detail that watch enthusiasts often rub shoulders with is the date disc, which here has been colour-coordinated with the dial. The date can be set independently of the time display via the crown. If you are interested in the new, larger XL Chronographs in 44 mm, you should know that the blue dial is shinier due to the sunburst finish, unlike the blue used on the other model variants. There is also an alternative version with a matt black dial.
Swiss movements, refined in Glashütte
Unlike the Wempe chronometer movements, the watchmakers use ETA (7753 & 2892-A2) and Sellita movements (330-2 & 500) for the Iron Walker. However, they are assembled in Glashütte and equipped with their own balance cocks and shock protection. The in-house fine adjustment enables chronometer certification according to ISO 3159, and the inscription Made in Germany can then be found on the dials of all Wempe Glashütte I/SA watches. Anyone who is interested in movement mechanics knows how proven and reliable the movements from ETA and Sellita are in any case. It remains to be seen whether the Iron Walker will also be equipped with manufacture movements from Wempe in the future.
ETA 7753 (left) & ETA 2892-A2 (right)
As briefly mentioned, the workmanship of the watches is impeccable; case, indices, bezel, hands, date display, pushers and dials. The wearability is just as good, as the dimensions of the watches, from case to lugs, have been thoughtfully measured. The 40 mm three-hand automatic Walker with date has a height of just 9.75 mm and thus lies surprisingly flat on the wrist. But even the chronographs with 13.95 mm are rather flat. The 42 mm looks like 40 mm on the wrist.
With the Iron Walker, Wempe Glashütte I/SA offers a lot of watches in the entry-level segment for an almost unbeatably moderate price. The Iron Walker Automatic starts at 2,495 euros with a 36 mm case (2,595 euros in 40 mm). The diving watches cost 3,275 euros, the Tidal watch 20 euros more and the Iron Walker Automatic GMT 3,495 euros. The Iron Walker Chronograph in 42 mm is available for 3,995 euros and the new Chronograph XL with 44 mm costs 4,395 euros.
The Iron Walker watches are fashionable all-rounders. The inspiration may come from the daredevil steelworkers high up on the skyscrapers – but they are worn by the men down in the metropolis. By managers in suits, jet-setters, jeans and sneaker wearers, young professionals and gentlemen in the endless urban jungle. It almost doesn’t matter which model they wear: this is one versatile collection.