The German region of Saxony has shaken off the shackles of communist rule to establish itself as a manufacturing centre for top-of-the-range, quality brands – from cars to clocks to clothing. But can Dresden become as synonymous with luxury shopping as Paris and Milan?
Think of German luxury goods, and Porsche and BMW spring to mind. But, in March, when the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche published its annual top 100 of German luxury brands, Porsche was only fourth. At No. 1 was the Saxony watch manufacturer A Lange & Söhne, while another east German clock maker, Glashütte Original, was at No. 3 and porcelain maker Meissen came in at 10.
With these brands in the top tier, Dresden and its outlying areas are becoming a hotbed for precision-crafted luxury goods. It’s quite a reversal of fortunes for an area that, for 40 years, was under communist rule.
“Since the fall of the Wall, it is unbelievable how quickly Saxony has succeeded in re-establishing industries that were destroyed during the Second World War. Industries that, previously, had taken centuries to develop,” says Martin Roth, director of the federal art collections of Saxony, which include Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault Museum), the art collection that Saxony’s rulers such as August der Starke, accumulated over the centuries.
According to Fritz Straub, director of Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau, a firm in Dresden that produces interiors for luxury yachts and villas, the Saxon revival is linked to the old aristocracy’s passion for splendour. “They wanted total luxury and spent a lot of money on achieving it,” he says. “Over centuries, Saxony lured the country’s best clock and cabinet makers, goldsmiths, scientists and artists to the area, and this legacy lives on today.”
Other Saxon companies, making everything from wines to fabrics, have also achieved top-ranking status in the international market. Even the BMWs, Porsches and Volkswagens made in the region are assembled in spectacular factories, as if pieces of modern art.
In Saxony, as in France, the roots of the luxury goods industry lie in the Baroque period. In the 17th century, when Louis XIV governed Paris and kitted out Versailles as a status symbol, August der Starke spent an enormous amount of money keeping up with his French counterpart’s lavishness. Sometimes, he succeeded. His scientists deciphered the secret of white porcelain and, in 1708, August der Starke founded Meissen, Europe’s first porcelain manufacturer.
For the Schatzkammer (art treasury) and Wunderkammer (curiosity cabinet), the most precious objects in the collection contained in the Grünes Gewölbe, the king and his descendants bought the most expensive wares they could find; furniture, jewellery and exotic natural phenomena, such as Coco de Mer from the Seychelles. The Baroque kings were also obsessed with mother-of-pearl, porcelain and ostrich eggs.
Last autumn, the Schatzkammer was reopened to the public after a €45m renovation project. “Tickets are already sold out until November. It really is unbelievable,” says Roth, who employed New York architect Peter Marino for his latest project – arranging the huge porcelain collection in the new East Asia gallery.
Marino has designed interiors for the biggest luxury brands in the world, including the Louis Vuitton flagship store on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, and it was a good sign that he also collected porcelain. “The pieces should attract the visitor, not be hidden behind glass. I thought if someone can make a display of handbags look erotic, they will be able to do the same thing with this fabulous porcelain,” says Roth. “Marino did the work on a pro bono basis, which is good because that was expensive enough.”
For Saxony today, the ideal tourist is, perhaps, someone who flies in on a Challenger from Taipei to the miniscule Dresden-Klotzsche airport and takes the Baroque suite at the Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, an exact replica of a palace destroyed during the Second World War that belonged to August der Starke’s mistress, Countess Cosel. Opposite, in Grünes Gewölbe, the visitor will get a private guided tour before ordering a €120,000 porcelain centrepiece at Meissen and a bespoke watch at Glashütte. He’ll then travel to Leipzig, where he’ll buy a car from the Zaha Hadid-designed BMW factory before an appointment with gallery owner Gerd Harry Lybke to buy a Neo Rauch, Tim Eitel or Matthias Weischer.
Sadly, Germans still associate Saxony with nothing more than an unattractive dialect – and, internationally, luxury goods are still linked with places such as Paris rather than Dresden. What this region needs is good marketing. La Chambre Syndicale, in France, and Alta Gamma, in Italy, promote their country’s top brands with panache. Germany lacks an equivalent organisation – but Saxony is reason enough to create one.
Sometimes, luxury is the only option, as Fritz Straub, manager of Deutsche Werkstätten (DWH), in Dresden’s Hellerau neighbourhood, can confirm. He has turned DWH into one of the world’s finest centres for the finishing of privately-owned luxury yachts, the favourite toys of the super-rich.
Straub was a marketing specialist with a pharmaceutical company when he fell in love with Hellerau’s atmosphere during a casual visit in 1990. At that time, DWH was an upscale, but bankrupt, furniture factory with 1,000 employees. Sixteen years later, a tenth of the former workforce produces 20-times the turnover in a brand-new factory.
“We fulfil the dreams of architects,” says Ulrich Kühnhold, who runs the company with Straub, who is inspired by the same aspirations that led to the foundation of the garden city of Hellerau in 1909 — a vision of combining nature, work and art in handicraft.
DWH is currently in the process of opening a branch in Istanbul for the growing yacht market in the Middle East, while the Moscow branch secures orders for oligarchs’ villas.
When wealthy Muslim families gather at parties, wedding receptions or for holidays in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, they pay close attention to who is wearing the most beautiful “boubou”.
Twelve to 15 metres of fabric are required to make one of these traditional outfits, which consists of shirt, trousers, and shawl, and when you rub two pieces of the cloth together, they must gleam and rustle in a certain way. The sound they make represents wealth.
The Saxony mill Ertex is the market leader in the Cote D’Ivoire and other West African countries and its fabrics rustle the best.
“We service the rich people there,” says manager Karl-Heinz Hauke, who purchases the finest Italian cotton yarn to create fabrics that are thick, yet very soft. “They are the best to wear,” adds the taciturn weaver. And the secret of the rustle? He keeps schtum.
Recently, the company has launched into a second market, closer to home: high-performance fabrics for the interior linings of luxurious campers and recreational vehicles.
Winemaker Schloss Proschwitz has a history going back 800 years. But the past 16 have been the most interesting. In 1990, Georg Prince zur Lippe, bought back the property of his forefathers from the Wilhelm Pieck (first president of East Germany) collective farm and founded a premier vineyard, cultivated in an environmentally-friendly way. Today, Schloss Proschwitz is, according to the influential restaurant guide Gault-Millau, “the best winegrowing business in the east” and sells 300,000 bottles a year.
Schloss Proschwitz is the only winery in Saxony admitted to the VDP organisation for quality wineries and Germany’s leading gourmet magazine, Der Feinschmecker, recommends its barrel-aged red Dornfelder. The Riesling, Pinot Gris and sparkling wine also have a lot to offer, while vintner Martin Schwarz has bought several more vineyards, including in Radebeul, just outside of Dresden, where he creates Müller-Thurgau and Cuvées.
Saxony, one of the more northern wine-growing regions, will benefit from global warming – perhaps that’s why Georg Prince zur Lippe has bought more vineyards here.
In most luxury watch firms, once a chronograph works perfectly, it can be sold. At A Lange & Söhne, however, every watch is then taken apart again, examined a final time, polished and lubricated, until everyone agrees it is perfect. Because of these high standards, theirs has become one of the most sought-after watch brands for collectors.
Following the reunification of Germany and the revival of the company as a luxury watch firm, its 350 specialists have redeveloped 24 different types of watch movement – an achievement that prompted the Financial Times Deutschland to present the firm with the MX Award for product innovation in 2006. In 2001, the luxury brand group Richemont bought the company, making it the only German watch brand in a portfolio that includes Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC. Since then, the company has had to learn to cope with intense demand.
Lange’s customers are fascinated by mechanics, such as chain transmissions – normally only found in pocket watches, but used in wristwatches for the first time. Or fusée winding systems, for which sheet metal has to be rolled to a thickness of 100 nanometres, which, normally, could only be achieved by specialist manufacturers but, at Lange, is done in-house.
Collectors will pay any price for a limited edition Tourbillion or Tourbograph Pour Le Mérite, of which only 101 will be made, and Lange will be issuing its new Saxonia this year.
The old-fashioned studio on the first floor of porcelain manufacturer Meissen looks like something from the Biedermeier period. It is hard to tell who has been here longer – the furniture or the three men who paint visions of Italy on porcelain vases; vases that, one day, will be displayed in the villas of Malaysian millionaires, the offices of Russian oligarchs or Japanese stores.
Three hundred years ago, August der Starke gave the order to discover how to manufacture white porcelain. In 1708, Meissen became the first company to manufacture it in Europe and has remained a popular purchase for wealthy collectors.
The company’s crossed-swords emblem is, perhaps, the world’s oldest logo and you can have it on the base of more than 180,000 different designs. “Individual pieces with an imperial look are bestsellers at Moscow’s Millionaire Fair,” says Meissen’s director of exports, Liane Werner. But it’s not only the super-rich who buy Meissen: couples treat themselves to a pair of large teacups with Ming dragon patterns and delight in them each day.
After the fall of communism, Meissen quickly adjusted to the demands of a new international market, largely because of the work of Thomas Kuball and Peter Kempe, advisers brought in from Hamburg. Traditional designs are now also available in modern, restrained versions: less decoration, more white. “Chefs in trendy restaurants want to decorate plates with food – baroque patterns disrupt this,” says PR manager Gundela Corso.