Dubai Watch Week remembers one of the great visionaries of the modern watch industry.
Perhaps it’s because of watch companies’ tendency to redact (or even revise) their histories, or perhaps it’s because of his untimely death that meant others have since taken centre stage, or perhaps it’s because he was German rather than Swiss – whatever the reason, Günter Blümlein is not remembered nearly as often in watch circles as he should be. The man was uniquely visionary, blessed with uncommon drive and a singular appetite for mechanical watchmaking.
In the years after the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Blümlein was one of the lead characters in the story of the watch industry’s revival. He was behind the resuscitation of IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre, and in the 1990s he masterminded the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne, reclaiming it after it had been appropriated by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War.
Mr Blümlein was a mechanical engineer by training, but also a hugely talented manager and marketeer. He began his career at Diehl, which in the 1970s owned Junghans, then one of the world’s largest watch brands. There he worked in marketing, distribution and quality control. In the early 1980s, he began working for the German automotive group VDO and there established Les Manufactures Horologères (LMH) as a parent for the two dying watch brands VDO had bought up – IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Mr Blümlein first set about restoring IWC, picking up on its engineering history and inspiring the company’s move to developing watches using materials such as titanium and ceramic, including those made in partnership with Porsche Design. He also drove the development of the perpetual calendar movement that played such a big part in propelling IWC back into the big time, dubbing its master watchmaker creator Kurt Klaus the ‘Einstein from Schaffhausen’.
In the mid-1980s, he was given strategic and then operative control of Jaeger-LeCoultre where he singled out the Reverso as a hero in the brand’s archive, and introduced the Master collection. Today, that famous duo spearhead the brand’s sales.
“Mr Blümlein was one of the lead characters in the story of the watch industry’s revival.”
In 2000, after VDO had been first bought out by Mannesmann and then by Vodafone, LMH was bought for more than CHF 3 billion by Richemont, the conglomerate that today also counts Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Panerai and Baume et Mercier among its portfolio of watch brands. That astonishing figure was no doubt due in part to Richemont boss Johann Rupert’s belief in Mr Blümlein’s abilities. After the sale, Mr Blümlein had been expected to lead Richemont’s watch business, but in 2001 he died unexpectedly after a short illness, aged just 58.
These days, with IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Lange all in rude health, few would argue that Mr Blümlein is anything other than one of the key architects of the watch industry revival. The late Walter Lange, great-grandson of his company’s founder, lauded Mr Blümlein after his death, saying: ‘He was a universal genius. There have been two luminary experts in the Swiss watchmaking industry (of the modern age): one was Nicolas G. Hayek (founder of the Swatch Group), and the other was Günter Blümlein.’