Monday, March 16, 2009

A Visit to the Fairytale Forest: Fricker GmbH & Co. K.G.

The Black Forest. Schwartzwald. The location of cherry chocolate cake, Little Red Riding Hood, and intensive bombing during the Second World War. Mannheim, Karlsruhe and Pforzheim were all hit hard. The first was Mannheim in December, 1940, part of the British raid in retaliation for the bombing of Coventry Cathedral. In Septebmer 1944 Karlsruhe was bombed, completely destroying the 18th century palace. Finally, in February 1945 Pforzheim was hit by 367 RAF Lancaster bombers, dropping almost half a million high explosive and incendiary bombs. Pforzheim was targeted because it was a center for the manufacture of jewelry and watch components. Certain watch components were essential in the creation of bomb detonators. Before and during the war, the industry was highly decentralized. An Allied report issued in August 1944 stated that "almost every house in this town centre is a small workshop." The results of the bombing were one of the most devastating of the war, comparable only to Dresden. 83% of the city was destroyed in 20 minutes, including one-third of the population and the entire Medieval center. Earlier strategic bombing reports rated Pforzheim's military significance very low, leading one historian to note: "...Pforzheim, [was] selected primarily because [it was] easy for the bombers to find and destroy. Because [it] had a medieval centre, [it was] expected to be particularly vulnerable to fire attack."

I arrived in Pforzheim on a dreary day in December. I had spent the night before in the charming historical town of Heidelberg. In contrast, Pforzheim was a shock. The downtown was completely devoid of character, full of square featureless 1950's modern construction, and all a little shabby. I had lived for a time in Münster, up in Northern Germany. As a garrison town, Münster was also completely destroyed by allied bombing. However, after the war, the citizens of Münster made the then controversial decision to rebuild the town center exactly as it looked before the war. In Münster, one can easily forget the ravages of the Second World War; in Pforzheim it is impossible.

Although lacking charm, Pforzheim has an abundance of excellent watch-related companies. They are no longer the cottage industries they were before the war. They are not run by elven craftsmen in leiderhosen. They are compact, modern operations with highly skilled technicians running state-of-the-art computer controlled machinery. Pforzheim is the home to Hermann Staib GmbH and Aristo Vollmer GmbH , both of which make excellent watch bracelets, and of course, the famous casemakers and watch assemblers Fricker GmbH .

My destination was Fricker. The headquarters were located in a newish industrial block, actually rather stylish. I arrived early in the morning, and did not leave until fairly late in the evening. I got the impression that 12 hour days are the norm here.

My contact during the previous six months of my relationship with the company had been Bernhard Weidmann, "Bernie" for short. Bernie was in his mid-40's with a big smile and quite good English. He occupied a large modern office space in the front of the factory, decorated with large Kremke and Korsbek Watch Company posters. The posters featured lithe, half-naked female models sporting these Fricker-made watches. Bernie noted that Fricker has their own photo studio and ad agency for the use of their clients. The results were impressive, and certainly eye-catching.

First a few observations on doing business with the Germans. You absolutely must visit them and meet in person. Germans are like old-school American businessmen. Personal relationships are important for getting the best service and for mutual understanding. First, we were served coffee, obligatory as part of the European business ritual. By the time I came to Germany, we were already well along in the design process. Fricker had interpreted my many CAD drawings and photographs into a complete set of engineering drawings. It is one thing to design a wristwatch case. It is quite another to engineer one. We had previously rejected an early design with a complete Faraday cage for extreme anti-magnetism. It added over 2mm in thickness, making the watch just too thick. I was determined to make the first Corvus offering -- the Bradley Dive Watch -- very close to the original U.S. Navy specs and blueprint drawings. Plus, modern watch movements already have considerable anti-magnetism built into the movement, so in a dive watch, such extreme anti-magnetism was really unnecessary. A pilot's watch, on the other hand, may well benefit from this and I'm sure in the future I will incorporate this in a watch.

After a while, Walter Fricker came in to meet me. Now, finally, someone who nearly meets the stereotype of the master watchmaker! Walter is an older man, probably in his late 60's, but looks much younger. Luckily my college German came back to me, and I was able to carry on a decent conversation with him. He called in Bich, one of the engineers, and proceeded to study the drawings with the eye of a master. After a long time, he noted an error. Although the plans had been changed to delete the Faraday cage, they still called for an extra-thick dial. He pointed out to me that, counter-intuitively, a thick dial without a Faraday cage actually can cause a movement to become slightly magnified after 5 or 6 years. The design was quickly changed. Herr Fricker is really quite an amazing man. He was partners in the Sinn company for many years, but split over a business dispute involving another joint venture. It involved a factory that flooded -- long story. I doubt there is anyone in Europe with more skill and experience than Walter Fricker.

Next, I was given a tour of the production floor. A row of shiny new CNC machines were working away at small pieces of stainless steel, and stacks of rough milled cases waiting to have finishes applied. The machines were demonstrated by milling one of my casebacks. It took a surprisingly long time, just to engrave a single caseback. Bernie also explained that the programming of the machine also takes considerable time. As robotic as the milling machines are, there is a lot of skill and time involved in making catch cases. As my caseback was the first one, Walter rejected it. The engraving was slightly deeper on one side than the other. I could barely see it. These guys are perfectionists. I commented about a certain caseback with a cartoon of a seal on it. The engineer working the machine said yes, he got very sick of looking at it after a week of engraving them for a former Fricker client.

I also saw the other various machinery and stations on the production floor, the various polishing drums and other ancient looking devices. Bernie pointed out that every process needed to make any part of a watch can be done on premises (except the movement). He also noted that on occasion a special project might require the use of the antique machinery. He said that when they are busy, the run close to 24 hours utilizing two or three shifts.

Upstairs I met the back office staff. Frau Fricker personally does the quality control on every fricker product. Nothing leaves the factory without her having carefully examined it and having been given her seal of approval.

After a fine lunch at a local restaurant (I had the seasonal wild boar, tender and delicious), we returned to the offices for more coffee and conversation. Bernie and I examined the Kolsterised test cases that had come back from the Bodycote company in Holland. Since I was the first customer to specify this feature, Fricker had no experience with it. The test cases were amazing. There were no dimensional changes at all, only a very subtle greying of the surface after the process. I liked the color a lot, although this is probably only apparent on a matt case.

We tried to scratch the cases using a variety of implements, including a stainless steel Swiss Army knife. After these attempts, there was a slight mark where the sharp edge tried to scratch the Kolsterised steel. Upon examination, the mark was the material that had come off the knife blade! The matt Kolsterised steel had acted like a mill file and dulled the knife blade, leaving the remnants on the case. A wipe with the finger removed the mark. There was absolutely no indentation or scratch whatsoever! Kolsterising is certainly not scratch-proof. Hardened steel would scratch it, as would certain rocks. But it is really astonishing stuff!

We spent the next three hours working out many of the smaller details of the Bradley Dive Watch, as well as three other forthcoming projects. Each of the next three planned Corvus watches present unique engineering problems. The third planned watch is a bi-compax chronograph with subdials at 12 and 6 and a co-axial single pusher, a reproduction of a very rare military watch. After much discussion, we overcame the movement problems, and focussed our attention to the case. Walter scratched his head, and gave Bich an order. Five minutes later, Bich returned with a case that had been used before that was similar to what I had in mind. I was amazed again. Fricker had already solved the engineering problem in another project years ago. It was then that I realized these guys can do anything.

Another interesting thing is that Fricker has a subsidiary in Switzerland that specializes in limited edition watches using restored vintage movements. This allows us to offer this forthcoming chronograph in a limited edition with a vintage Valjoux 61 movement.

Our fourth watch involves a very unusual and complicated case design. After describing it to Walter, he said it would be no problem, but it would be helpful for him to see the original. Luckily I own one. Again, nothing seems to deter these guys. I am probably one of their more difficult clients, but they seem to enjoy the challenges of making something new and unusual.

Finally, I declined Bernie's offer to go out for drinks (it was now 8:00 p.m.), and returned to my hotel. I am certain I could not have found better partners than the people at Fricker to help realize my vision for the Corvus Watch Company.


  1. Thank you for the report Cam. Great to hear about the engineering side of the Bradley and the forthcoming models.

  2. I'm always interested to know where my watches come from. I'm glad to know that the Fricker team is making sure the Bradley and future projects are superior quality watches.

  3. Excellent story. Corvus is an honest and transparent company which doesn't hide things. I trust Corvus, the philosophy, ideas and thought that goes into the watch makes it a Corvus. Fricker's manufacturing skill is a good backup to all that! EXCELLENT!