Union Glashütte Belisar Chronograph Moon Phase Watch Review
This won’t come as much of a surprise to any of you that read Fratello regularly, but I have more than a soft spot for watches that originate in Germany. Some of my favorite brands (A. Lange & Söhne, NOMOS Glashütte, Lang & Heyne, for example) hail from this part of the world. One brand that doesn’t get anywhere near the airtime of the big hitters that call Glashütte home, is Union. Today, I’m taking an honest look at the Union Glashütte Belisar Chronograph Moon Phase to establish whether or not that needs to change.
What do I love about German watchmaking? I love the way that form so clearly follows function. German watches tend not to be as glitzy, glamorous, or mind-blowingly complicated for the sake of it as Swiss watches can occasionally be. There is not really a German equivalent for Hublot, Jacob & Co., or, say, MB&F. I think most people would regard A. Lange & Söhne as the pinnacle of German watchmaking and the most extravagant Lange gets was using a smoked sapphire dial and a lot of lume.
Make no mistake, though: that was a shock to the system. It was an amazing shock and a wonderful treat but it was decidedly bonkers for a brand that tends to be the very definition of German watchmaking and the custodian of a rich and significant history. So I love that German brands tend to place the execution of, well, everything over its embellishment. That’s not to say German brands aren’t ambitious across the board, it’s just that the focus is clearly quality.
I’m also a fan of creative, minimalist design. Now, minimalism doesn’t so much mean the absence of things, but rather their elegant refinement to a point at which they not only seem to just exist but also seem to have always existed. Furthermore, if you get it right, excellent design leaves you with a product that seems too perfect to have even been made.
Coming down from outer space
Now, I get it: that’s all a bit wooly for a standard hands-on watch review, but I’m approaching my analysis of this piece from that angle because it is imperative to understand the yardstick against which I am measuring this model and this brand’s success. Union Glashütte sits about 200 meters away from A. Lange & Söhne. It is even closer to NOMOS Glashütte and the Lange parking garage. It literally calls Glashütte Original its neighbor. This brand exists in esteemed company. The bar is, therefore, very high. The competition? Immense.
Price bracket bloodbath
Union Glashütte competes in a ridiculously competitive price bracket globally, which is one thing. Another key point is that even within the thematic context of German watchmaking, Union has its hands full with NOMOS, Tutima, and Mühle in Glashütte alone, with Sinn targeting a similar customer base all the way from Frankfurt am Main.
Simply put, Union’s got its work cut out.
There is no margin of error for a brand in this segment. Brands need to do everything right. First, the communication strategy must be engaging and clear. It must tell the story of the brand in an instant. A. Lange & Söhne manages this well. Glashütte Original is closing the gap. NOMOS? Well, the plucky and approachable independent is probably the best of the bunch when it comes to communication strategy. Simply put, Union’s got its work cut out.
Secondly, the product has to come up smelling of roses every time. Get that wrong and while a superb comms strategy might get you sale number one, a disgruntled customer that fails to bond with the watch on their wrist won’t be singing the brand’s praises and definitely won’t be coming back for more. So now I’ve asked the big questions (613 words in), let’s answer them.
I started this article by saying Union Glashütte doesn’t get as much airtime as its rivals. Well, surprise, surprise, there’s a reason for that. The brand seems to have a solid audience (otherwise it seems impossible it would still exist), but there seems to be little inclination to grow beyond that. We (journalists) don’t hear a huge amount coming out of this small Saxon company and that makes it difficult for us to cover it with glory.
I will say that the problem doesn’t seem to be with personnel. In fact, having worked with the majority of luxury watch brands directly, I will say this: the people working at Union Glashütte are some of the most efficient and diligent I’ve encountered. They seem to know what they want and stay on top of proceedings to ensure they get it. My assessment, therefore, is perhaps they are being told they want the wrong thing.
Conservatism has its limits
Nothing moves quickly in watchmaking. Nor should it. There is no need to rush around like little maniacs in an industry that has existed for centuries, albeit in ever-shifting guises. However, some brands have a tendency to be too conservative and to view any kind of success (however small) as an indication that they are doing things right. Simply surviving is not really enough for a brand bigger than a cottage industry label. Brands need to evolve constantly or risk suddenly being old hat. Union’s customer base is established — fine — but will it be there in ten years? Are young people buying these watches? In my opinion, that seems unlikely.
For me, therefore, the product, which I began by saying underpins my love of German watchmaking, is everything.
The website is decent. The photography is actually pretty darn good. It looks like the brand has spent the right amount of money getting something that works. But the watches themselves and the whole feeling around the brand is a little quiet. There are corollaries of every major watch genre you can think of (dress, sports, dive, ladies, all accounted for), but it either feels derivative or directionless. For me, therefore, the product, which I began by saying underpins my love of German watchmaking, is everything. Does it pull me back in and embrace me? Do I feel that this is a brand that can sell by word of mouth alone?
A top-down approach
To me, the aesthetic of the Union Glashütte Belisar Chronograph Moon Phase is a miss. I’ve been totally over dial-side skeletonization for a while and the only time I want to see the movement when I look at the watch I’m wearing is through a smoked sapphire and only then if it is really, really worth seeing. What I will say about this mesh design is that it is at least “an idea”. I think this could appeal to some people, perhaps those in an earlier stage of their collecting career when that kind of dial-side view is still interesting. And, in fairness, Swatch Group (Union Glashütte’s parent company — we’ll get to that in a moment) has positioned this brand in the kind of price bracket that matches up with that customer profile.
However, while many of the brand’s models do align with that entry-level customer notion, this one does not. This is a €3,200 timepiece, which places it right in the midst of some crushingly powerful competition. To survive in this arena, you need an extremely, extremely refined watch. And I have to say that in comparison to those heavy-hitting peers, the Union Glashütte Belisar Chronograph Moon Phase does not fare all that well, in my opinion.
It is a strangely blockish watch that sits tall on the wrist. I know that for some people, this feeling of, shall we say, robustness indicates quality, but for my money, I want to see something thoughtfully designed and brilliantly executed if I’m going to have my head turned away from something like a Tudor Pelagos at roughly the same price. Here, the finishing comes off as neither elegant nor utilitarian, leaving me somewhat unsure as to what this watch thinks it is.
There are a lot of fine elements to this Union Glashütte but they feel like they came together from different watches. When you put them together, they don’t mesh tight enough (figuratively speaking). The design thus leaves too many gaps through which any kind of cohesive character the watch might have enjoyed bleeds out through them.
The Swatch Group and Glashütte
By German law, watches may only bear the Glashütte name if 50% of their value is added in Glashütte. Now, the keyword there is “value”. It isn’t a metric based on the number of components or their importance to the watch: it is based entirely on assessed value. And, as we know, how brands (especially vertical manufacturers like the Swatch Group) choose to assess the value of their own components and processes is up for debate.
…some of the modifications are indeed extensive enough for me to give those movements a pass on the Glashütte front, and one or two are simply gorgeous.
At their core, Union Glashütte movements are ETA calibers, heavily modified by Union’s watchmakers in Glashütte. I have to say that some of the modifications are indeed extensive enough for me to give those movements a pass on the Glashütte front, and one or two are simply gorgeous. After all the work done on them and the custom bridges, balance cocks, and finishing applied, they look nothing like their original counterparts.
Credit where credit is due
For this, Union Glashütte should be lauded, but of course with a pinch of salt. These are very good movements with the reliability of an ETA and the elegance of a true German movement, but given I’d prefer total transparency of this front, there is still a little work to be done to get me fully on side. Whenever you find yourself reading through brand websites and you stumble across vagaries like “designed by our watchmakers” you should ask yourself why some brands don’t say exactly what it seems like they mean.
Union Glashütte is far from the only brand that does this. In fact, most brands obscure some of their practices with well-crafted marketing smoke. My point for raising it is not to vilify the brand, but rather to make that point that in this day and age when customers need more than ever to know what goes into the product they’re buying, why not give that information to them? I actually don’t think there’s any shame in these production practices, and by normalizing them in the minds of consumers we might be able to flush away a bit of the negativity towards brands when they get called out for doing it.
Own your story
The thing is, Union Glashütte is not A. Lange & Söhne. But it doesn’t need to be. German refined movements of Swiss origin provide a strong enough story to build a character around. One of the things that puts off buyers more than anything is their own skepticism when they feel something is not quite right. By simply laying those concerns to rest, I think many more people would be interested in the brand.
…there is significant work done in Germany’s capital of watchmaking…
The brand would surely then receive questions such as, “well exactly what do you do in Glashütte.” It is patently clear from the look of the movements alone that there is significant work done in Germany’s capital of watchmaking and I for one would be fascinated to see more of it. I’d love to see those beautiful three-quarter plates of the UNG-58.SI being manufactured and the seriously cool central bridge on the manually wound chronograph UNG-59.SI.
The majority of Union Glashütte’s timepieces are very affordable entry-level options should you wish to add a German watch to your collection. I’m a huge fan of pretty much anything hand-wound from the catalog and would definitely recommend going in that direction. For some, the Belisar Moon Phase Chronograph that formed the basis of what became an overarching brand analysis will be the way to go, and if you love the aesthetic and the feeling of the watch on your wrist, I understand that.
Not everyone has to like everything, and not everything needs to be liked.
I think the expectation from a lot of long-time readers of watch magazines is that we always skew positive. I don’t so much see the value in that for us, for you, or the brands we’re talking about. Not everyone has to like everything, and not everything needs to be liked. There is a lot of good work to be found from Union Glashütte and in the industry in general. I’m seeking it out for myself constantly and I encourage you to take a good look at the brand’s official website here and make up your own mind about it.
Let us know what you think of this model and the others in the Union Glashütte collection below. Together, let’s continue to make Fratello the place where these tough but illuminating discussions can be had, for the good of our community and for the brands that wish to speak to it.