A pair of hand-sewn gloves, a jewel-like pen, beautifully coloured mouth-blown glass, a hand-wound wristwatch: These are among the high-quality products handmade in Germany.
Over a week in April together with a group of international journalists, I visited eight "manufactories," in Munich, Nuernberg, Dresden, and Berlin. I saw scarves that look like works of art, artists' brushes, writing instruments, pianos whose predecessors were played by famous composers, audio systems, and fine porcelain.
And I listened to Burmester Audio's superb sound system in the latest Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes. The trip was organised to profile the German Manufactories Initiative - Handmade in Germany, with funding and support from the German Foreign Ministry.
While Germany is well-known for its big-name businesses, especially carmakers, small and medium-size businesses make up 60 per cent of the workforce. They are vital to the nation's economy.
The initiative's chairman, Michael T. Schroeder, calls these businesses "hidden champions" that "play an important role within their regions as providers of employment and economic stimuli."
For German companies to compete successfully against mass-produced items, mostly from Asia, they have to take a different approach.
What makes them successful? And what lessons are there for New Zealand manufacturers?
Of businesses I visited, most were small to medium (except for pencil and pen-maker Faber-Castell); many were family-owned, and all were export focused.
Common to all, these main characteristics stood out:
Social responsibility. Supporting local communities remains important for German businesses. Shedding staff and outsourcing production to cheap-labour countries in Asia and elsewhere, purely to maximise profits, would be unthinkable.
The triple bottom line is financial, social, and environmental.
Businesses do not all have to be located in big cities.
Lamberts Glass and Bechstein Pianos are major employers in small towns. Christine Hutter, who revived the prestigious watch-making company, Moritz Grossmann, has helped the east German town of Glasshuette cement its reputation as a centre for watch-making.
The heads of family-owned businesses think in generations. Glove, bag, and scarf-makers Roeckl, founded in 1839, is still based in Munich, with one other plant in Romania.
Faber-Castell, which has 7500 employees in 10 countries around the world, is still based in Stein, near Nuernberg, where Kaspar Faber founded the company in 1761.
In the mid 19th century the company pioneered a visionary plan for workers. Light and airy factories, a health scheme, a bank, pension fund, housing, financial support for schools, and a day nursery were ahead of their time.
Eighth-generation company head, Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, carries on the tradition. A tall, courteous but quietly determined man, he has won numerous business and civic awards.
"If you treat people well, it comes back. That's something I believe," he says. You have to be profitable. Then you can afford the rest. It always comes from the top. You make clear to people that social responsibility is something you have to keep in mind every day.
"What matters to me as a businessman is not short-term profit, but securing a long-term future for the company."
Sustainability and the environment are also important: the company has planted forests in Brazil.
Piano-maker C. Bechstein is committed to developing the German production facilities.
"Bechstein rejected lucrative takeover offers from Asian groups, because it is clear that the company can only retain its status as a manufacturer of top-flight pianos by remaining true to its European roots," the company says. "Nationalism has nothing to do with it: the company is proud of its multi-ethnic staff. The Bechstein philosophy is about the preservation of a valuable heritage of craftsmanship with deep cultural roots."
Quality. "The best or nothing" is the approach musician Dieter Burmester took when establishing his Berlin-based hi-fi company in 1977. His "pursuit of perfection" has been rewarded with numerous international awards.
"Quality has always been our main thing," says Hermann Meyer, of da Vinci artists' brushes.
For watchmaker Christine Hutter, perfection is an obsession. Her aim is to produce the finest-quality handwound mechanical timepiece possible.
Quality does not come cheap. A bonus, though, is that high-quality products are made to last. Burmester is delighted "products are still working in customers' homes after 30 years because of the quality." Happy customers remain loyal to the company
Are such high-end products luxury items? Some are, with prices to match. (A Moritz Grossmann watch, for example, starts off at the price of a car.)
However, some products (gloves, bags, pencils and pens, brushes, some porcelain) are not excessively expensive.
Some companies produce different lines, including a limited-edition special collector's pieces, as well as more affordable items.
Tradition and craftsmanship. Imagine artisans poring over their workbench, using skills that have taken years to hone. Many still do, and take pride in their work.
Skilled workers are valued as key to the company's success; there are no top-heavy layers of managers and executives.
Glove-makers, brush-makers, glass-makers, and piano-makers all must undergo arduous apprenticeship and training.
Lamberts Glass in Waldsassen is one of the few companies in the world that still produces mouth-blown sheet glass. Company head Hans Reiner Meindl is proud to keep the tradition alive.
The language of watchmaking is full of words like chamfer, escapements, oscillations, jewels, and chatons. The Benu Tourbillon is a masterpiece: "With a flying three-minute tourbillon, its mechanical movement definitely qualifies as a work of art."
Artists at KPM Porcelain in Berlin, founded in 1763 by Frederick the Great, paint and shape each detail by hand.
Glovemaking requires keen eye and deft touch. At Roeckl, one glove may consist of 24 individual pieces and more than 2000 stitches.
However, sixth generation CEO Annette Roeckl says, "Tradition is not worshipping the ashes, but carrying forward the glowing embers." In other words, tradition should be relevant.
Von Faber-Castell: "Ultimately, tradition is what results from making the greatest possible success of the present."
Technology and innovation. German companies may respect tradition, but welcome technological progress if it will help. That does not mean discarding what has worked well. (For example, Roeckl still uses sewing machines whose design has not changed for a century).
Fusing technology with tradition is also a skill. (It is also a characteristic of some Japanese design.)
Bechstein talks of "the happy marriage of tradition and pioneering vision. A harmony between the human senses and high technology."
Burmester says: "From the very beginning the objective has been to create a perfect blend of highest-quality sound, technological innovation and timeless design.
"To achieve absolute sound quality requires the creative interaction of cutting-edge technology, the use of only the finest electronic components and old-fashioned craftsmanship.
"The last and most important test that each component has to pass takes place in our listening studio. There we use only one measuring device: our trained and critical ears."
Simplicity. Some products, like pencils, are simple - but they still meet a need, perhaps more than people realise. Von Faber-Castell says the pencil did not disappear, despite warnings 30 years ago. Somebody can pick up a pencil after years, or centuries, and still use it.
"Doing ordinary things extremely well" is another Faber-Castell goal.
Research has shown that using coloured pencils helps young children develop motor skills and will make them more creative, the count says.
Other handmade products are also simple, but of lasting value. Perhaps the future is not all smartphones, tablets, and high-tech.
Passion and soul. Germans have a reputation for being serious and thorough. They can be, but after reciting a long list of facts and figures I was surprised by the reaction of apparently sober-minded businesspeople when asked why their business matters.
In a word: soul. I discovered that pencils have a "soul." So does Lamberts Glass.
Bechstein's Leonard Duricic is passionate: "You need cultural food for the soul.
"If there is no culture, we are worse than animals."
He says families in Asia share music together, and that is "a very good thing."
Burmester's slogan is "Art for the ear". "In the final analysis, the products are representing the heart and soul of the company."
In German, "fascination" implies real passion for a subject or product.
Making a difference. Quality products made to last that people treasure and value; skilled workers who take pride in their work; companies that support them and their communities: none of these qualities is revolutionary.
Michael Schroeder says in Germany government economic assistance is needed to help manufactories survive and prosper. "It is also important to attract enough young workers so that traditional skills are not lost."
Dr Thomas Prinz, head of the directorate-general for culture and communication at the German Federal Foreign Ministry, says: "The government supports it because it's a wonderful way of transporting the image of Germany handmade."
Many Kiwi companies also produce high-end, top-quality products for export. Their success also deserves celebrating and supporting. Fairfax NZ
- The Press
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