Creating remarkable timepieces and jewellery requires precision and flair. Horologists demand beautifully made products from brands whose reputation is the result of distinguished heritage, business acumen and attention to detail, while the fine jewellery sector is a crowded marketplace in which local goldsmiths and international brands alike struggle for recognition. German company Wempe has managed to carve out a resounding success story in both these competitive arenas.
Established in 1878 in the small town of Elsfleth in Lower Saxony, Wempe has always striven to connect customers to the world’s most exquisite watches. Its founder, Gerhard Wempe, initiated relationships with key Swiss watchmakers, bonds that strongly contributed to Wempe’s emergence as an expert in horology: Wempe began selling Patek Philippe models in 1927 and became the first German stockist of Rolex watches in 1953. Meehna Goldsmith, founder of the Watch Matchmaker website, sees these historical partnerships as critical to Wempe’s success. ‘Wempe has stood the test of time through its relationships with exclusive companies such as Rolex, Patek Philippe and Lange & Söhne,’ she points out. Working with and learning from the most skilful ateliers in the business, Wempe gained a broad frame of reference on timepiece and jewellery manufacture.
While Gerhard Wempe was keen for his company to produce its own designs, he recognised the need for a team of carefully trained artisan watchmakers to realise his dream. After his death in 1921, his son, Herbert Wempe, steered the brand to develop its expertise in an area where there had previously been little German innovation. Opportunity knocked in the form of the maritime clock. In 1938, Herbert Wempe purchased the Chronometerwerke Hamburg company to create a training centre for the production of chronometers: extremely precise clocks and watches which are tested for accuracy according to a rigorous measuring procedure and can be used to determine longitude at sea. Wempe’s subsequent Chronometerwerke models set the high standards of production the brand has become known for.
In 2000, Herbert’s son Hellmut Wempe, the third generation of the family to run the company, discussed with his daughter Kim-Eva Wempe how the brand’s skills and achievements in the field of chronometers could be applied to more marketable products. ‘As the company had already produced its own watches in limited editions, it was a logical step to manufacture our own chronometer-tested Wempe watch lines,’ explains Kim-Eva. In 2005, Wempe purchased a dilapidated observatory in Glashütte, Saxony, the birthplace of the German watchmaking industry, and rebuilt the ruined site to include a chronometer testing facility. ‘It was here that Otto Lange and Herbert Wempe wanted to establish a research and training centre for young watchmakers as well as a regulating institute before World War II,’ says Kim-Eva. This fusion of history and innovation led to the design of Wempe’s first wristwatch models in 2006: the Wempe Zeitmeister Glashütte i/SA and the Wempe Chronometerwerke Glashütte I/SA.
After creating a chronometer for the modern audience, it was time for Wempe to innovate in the world of jewellery design too. In 2000, Kim-Eva launched her first jewellery range, By Kim. After searching for three days at Munich’s Inhorgenta trade fair for jewellery and watches and finding that nothing available matched her design vision, Kim-Eva decided she would create her own collection. Working alongside French designer Catherine Plouchard, she developed a range of timeless pieces. ‘I was thinking of jewellery that stood out while being discreet. It needed a certain charisma that could hold its own against fashion,’ she explains.
The result was a huge success, so much so that the first piece of By Kim jewellery, the Sunbeam necklace, was re-released to commemorate the line’s 10th anniversary. The designs, which are manufactured at the By Kim workshop in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Baden-Württemberg, have also garnered a string of awards. In 2004, De Beers recognised the By Kim design team with a special prize in the Diamonds: Nature’s Miracle competition.
Kim-Eva took over the management of the brand in 2003 and Wempe’s entrepreneurial spirit is as much alive today as it was in 1878, with plans to expand in Asia. In an interview with Leaders magazine in 2010, Ruediger Albers, president of the American Wempe Corporation, looked to the future and Kim-Eva’s fourth-generation leadership. ‘Like her father, she leaves no doubt that Wempe will remain family-owned and, therefore, every decision is made with a long-term perspective.’ With Kim-Eva’s emphasis on legacy, the future looks bright for Wempe.