The origins of the Heraeus family business date back to the 17th century. In October 1660, Isaac Heraeus (1636-1676, son of Dr. Johannes Heraeus, M.D.) took over the then Faucque Pharmacy in Hanau-Neustadt. In 1668 he opened his own pharmacy on the market square in Hanau-Neustadt under the name "Zum weißen Einhorn." The legendary Einhorn Pharmacy thus found its final place in Hanau, and Heraeus is now considered one of the oldest dynasties of pharmacists and entrepreneurs in Germany. The building itself no longer exists, as it fell victim to the Allied air raids on Hanau in World War II. However, a commemorative plaque of the city of Hanau today marks this milestone in German industrial history.
Franz Heraeus (1661-1707), the eldest son of Isaac Heraeus, ran his father's pharmacy from 1683 to 1707 and had the company’s first contact with precious metals. An old document shows that Franz Heraeus was already involved with gold in 1694, when he supplied fine gold for the gilding of letters, knobs, and cockerels to the French church in Hanau. The Einhorn Pharmacy was run exclusively as a count's court pharmacy for six generations until the middle of the 19th century.
In 1851 Wilhelm Carl Heraeus (1827-1904) took over the Einhorn Pharmacy from his father Esay Heraeus (1785-1830) and developed it into one of the most important family businesses worldwide. The pharmacist and chemist became aware of the platinum problem through the goldsmith's art located in Hanau. The precious metal had in great demand in jewelry production, but there was a lack of industrially usable quantities. Until then, platinum could only be forged and pressed in a white-hot state because it is extremely tough and has a very high melting point (1769 °C). Wilhelm Carl Heraeus found a solution for generating high temperatures. After lengthy experiments, he succeeded in 1856 in melting two kilograms of platinum in an oxyhydrogen gas blower he developed himself (oxyhydrogen gas is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen).
The "First German Platinum Smelter" is born and a stone is set in motion. The young company, W. C. Heraeus, soon had customers all over the world: goldsmith workshops, jewelry factories, dental factories, chemical laboratories, and numerous other industries. By 1870, Heraeus was producing 20 to 50 kilograms of pure platinum annually. Between 1875 and 1879, up to 400 kilograms were sold annually, and in 1888, over 900 kilograms were sold. Wilhelm Carl Heraeus continued to experiment and constantly found new applications, including crucibles and dishes made of platinum and platinum alloys, which are still valued in laboratories around the world today.
The sons of the company's founder, Dr. Wilhelm (1860-1948) and Heinrich Heraeus (1861-1910), continued to manage the company from 1889 onwards, profiting from the dawning industrial age and global industrialization. The chemical industry, the steel industry, the newly emerging light bulb industry, and dentistry required large quantities of platinum. At the end of the 19th century, Heraeus processed 1,000 kilograms of platinum annually and moved its 40 employees to new factory premises at the gates of the city of Hanau, the company's current headquarters. The two brothers drive research and development forward, and in 1890 they take a school friend on board: Dr. Richard Küch (1860-1915). With numerous innovations, the physicist and chemist laid the foundation for many of the business areas that still continue in the company today. Since 1896, Heraeus has been refining glass and ceramic surfaces with ceramic colors such as bright gold and bright platinum. In 1899, the company produced bubble-free quartz glass of high purity for the first time by melting rock crystal in an oxyhydrogen blower at 2000 °C. Today, this translucent and high-purity high-tech material is indispensable as a material for glass fibers for fast Internet access. With the Original Hanau® Höhensonne (1904), Heraeus is considered the inventor of the UV high-pressure lamp and pioneer of body irradiation with artificial light sources for medical light therapy.
Heraeus also breaks new ground in business. Beginning in 1889, the USA becomes an important sales market for platinum and platinum products. Every year, several hundred kilograms of the precious metal are shipped overseas from Hanau. Charles Engelhard (1867-1950) played a major role in this success. In 1896, the brother-in-law of the two Heraeus brothers emigrated from Hanau to the United States and became a leading representative of the Group.
In 1902 he founded the Engelhard Corporation, a company for refining platinum, gold, and silver.
In 1909 Heraeus is converted from a general partnership into W. C. Heraeus GmbH. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the former Hof Pharmacy has become the largest platinum smelter in the world with over 400 employees, ten times more than the next largest smelter in the marketplace.
After the end of the First World War, Heraeus' platinum business is idle, mainly due to the loss of business in the Americas. Platinum stocks are almost exhausted, and new material is difficult to obtain. Despite the global economic crisis, the urge to explore and discover continues. New business areas are being opened up and alternative precious metal alloys are developed, such as cost-effective prosthetic and filling alternatives for gold and platinum in dentistry. One of the major innovations is the melting of metallic materials under vacuum. The physicist Dr. Wilhelm Rohn (1887-1943) introduced vacuum metallurgy at Heraeus in 1919. In electric resistance furnaces, refractory base metals are melted under vacuum on a ton scale and completely new alloys are produced: e.g. chrome-nickel alloys as an alternative to platinum wires in thermocouples.
In the 1920s, the next generation takes over management of the company: Dr. Wilhelm Heinrich Heraeus (1900-1985), son of Wilhelm Heraeus, is responsible for technical management of the company for nearly 40 years, while his cousin Dr. Reinhard Heraeus (1903-1985) takes care of commercial matters for nearly as long. The family business continues to grow and develops into a multi-product group. While the workforce had been cut in half to nearly 400 during the great economic crisis (1928-1932), Heraeus once again employed more than 1,000 people in 1939, with annual revenues of 20 million marks. This growth came to an end at the beginning of the Second World War. During the war years, Heraeus, like many companies during this period, switches its production to the manufacture of armaments-related goods and also employs forced laborers from seven countries. In 1944 and 1945, the production facilities in Hanau are almost completely destroyed in Allied bombing raids. In the 1990s, Heraeus had the Chair of Modern History at the University of Frankfurt conduct an independent scientific study of the company's role in the Third Reich. In 1999, Heraeus joins the fund of the Stifterinitiative der deutschen Wirtschaft "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" for compensation of forced laborers.
After the end of the war, Heraeus initially produced consumer goods such as cooking pots, hot plates, and immersion heaters. In 1946, the company again manufactured laboratory equipment and platinum catalyst gauzes for industry. At the beginning of the 1950s, Heraeus employs more than 1,200 people, and production volume nearly reaches pre-war levels. In the course of the economic rebirth, the company grows continuously. During this period, the expansion of production facilities and the intensification of research activities lay the foundation for product diversity at W. C. Heraeus. Production focuses on high-vacuum technology and contact technology. In 1969 Hanauer Quarzglas even made it to the moon. The Apollo 11 mission leaves behind a laser reflector on the surface to determine the exact distance between the Earth and the Moon. The space-stable quartz glass for the still-functional reflector comes from Heraeus.
In the 1950s to 1970s, Heraeus focused on diversification and expanded through in-house development, materials expertise and acquisitions, and the establishment of new international markets. In 1958, the first foreign sales company is founded in France. This is followed by foreign subsidiaries and holdings in Italy, the USA, England, Switzerland and Japan, among others, as well as production facilities in Korea and the Philippines. At the end of 1964, Wilhelm Heinrich Heraeus retires from the Board of Management after almost 40 years.
In 1970 Reinhard Heraeus moved to the supervisory board after almost 40 years as managing director. A new Board of Management under the chairmanship of Helmut Gruber (1919-1989) drives the internationalization of the Group and in 1974 establishes the first sales office for precious metals in Hong Kong. Further plants in Chinese mainland and Taiwan follow. In 1979, foreign sales exceed domestic sales for the first time. At the beginning of the 1980s, Heraeus grew enormously due to a variety of diversification processes and was economically relatively insensitive to market fluctuations in individual product areas.
In 1983 Dr. Jürgen Heraeus (born 1936, son of Reinhard Heraeus), the fourth generation since Wilhelm Carl Heraeus (and the tenth generation since Isaac Heraeus), takes over the management of the company. He has been a member of the Board of Management since 1970. Under his leadership, the transformation to a globally active technology group takes place. In 1985, he founded Heraeus Holding GmbH as a strategic management holding company and structured the operating business into five decentralized, independently operating management companies. The company's core competencies, which enable high profitability, lie in the new business areas of precious metals/metals, sensors, dental and medical products, quartz glass, and specialty lighting sources. This sustained restructuring and focusing will make the company fit for the new millennium.
Heraeus remains innovative: The development of the platinum resistance thermometer in thin-film technology represents a milestone in the optimization of temperature sensors. The company continues to expand precious metal recycling and becomes the world leader in recovering valuable precious metals from spent catalysts, electronic scrap, and production waste. For Heraeus Quarzglas, 1991 is doubly historic: In Hanau, a hydrogen tank explodes and destroys large parts of the factory premises. In Bitterfeld (Saxony-Anhalt), the foundation stone is laid for the largest factory for the production of synthetic quartz glass after reunification. This will be used to produce millions of kilometers of optical fibers for fast Internet every year.
At the beginning of 2000, Dr. Jürgen Heraeus takes over as Chairman of the Supervisory Board. For Heraeus, the new millennium begins for the first time with a Board of Management in which no family member sits. 2001, in the 150th anniversary year since Wilhelm Carl Heraeus took over the Einhorn Pharmacy, the technology group has over 9100 employees and revenues of nearly 7 billion euros. The company relies on a broad product portfolio and focuses on key markets that are characterized by high barriers to market entry and sustained growth. The focus is on the environment, health, mobility, communication and energy. After the financial crisis of 2008, Heraeus, under the leadership of Dr. Frank Heinricht and CFO Jan Rinnert (son-in-law of Dr. Jürgen Heraeus), achieved revenue records several times in a row, e.g. in 2011 with record product revenues of EUR 4.8 billion. Precious metals trading revenues exceed the EUR 20 billion mark for the first time. Key industries, including automotive and communication electronics, medicine, steel, semiconductors, environmental technology, and photovoltaics contribute significantly to this success.
Innovations remain a key to business success. Among the top developments is a long-term stable, self-healing quartz glass generation for lens systems for microlithography for the production of microchips. And thanks to a special process that allows thousands of kilometers of glass fibers to be drawn in one piece directly from large quartz glass cylinders for telecommunications, Heraeus is still one of the market leaders in this field today. Since 2010, the Group has been producing conductive polymers that are used as electrical functional layers on flexible touchscreens in smartphones and tablet PCs.
With Jan Rinnert at the helm of the Executive Board from July 2013, a member of the shareholder family is leading for the first time since 2000. The 2010s were characterized by significant organizational changes. In 2013, Heraeus sold its dental product business to the Japanese chemical group Mitsui. In 2015, the group underwent restructuring of its previous six business segments into eleven more agile Operating Companies (OpCo). The company is focusing on above-average growth, both organically and through acquisitions, and is establishing itself in market-oriented business segments under the umbrella of Heraeus Holding.
In 2017, Heraeus fully acquired the Swiss precious metals processor, Argor-Heraeus, and became the largest provider of precious metals services worldwide. In 2018, the Group opened the world's most advanced precious metals factory in Nanjing, China, further solidifying its leading position in precious metals trading, recycling, and processing in China, Asia, and around the world. In the same year, Heraeus expanded its sales channels in Germany, and launched the online platform Heraeus-Gold.de for private customers, in cooperation with the precious metals dealer, Ophirum GmbH.
Additionally, several start-ups are tackling new markets and business models. To increase agility, Heraeus fosters innovative business ideas independent of the OpCos, for instance, for amorphous metals, printed electronics, high-performance batteries, and high-performance aerosol coatings.
The 2020s are marked by acquisitions. In 2021, Heraeus acquired US-based Norwood Medical, a manufacturer of medical instruments with more than 1,100 employees. It is the largest acquisition in the company's history. With the purchase of US companies Mo-Sci Corporation and ETS Technologies, Heraeus expanded its medical technology expertise in the areas of medical and special glass, as well as wound care.
Heraeus invested in the external startup Forciot, a developer of pressure and tension sensors, and secured a majority stake in the leading PET recycler, revalyu, formerly known as perPETual Technologies. In 2022, Heraeus established an equal-share joint venture with the chemical group BASF, called BASF Heraeus Metal Resource. This venture focuses on recovering precious metals from spent automotive catalysts. The Group also invest in various startup funds in Switzerland and China. By becoming the largest shareholder in the Berlin-based startup Smart Steel Technologies, Heraeus is expanding its expertise in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-based process optimization.
In 2023, Heraeus sold its platinum temperature sensor business to Yageo, an electronic components company. Through targeted investments at the Hanau site, the Group was able to expand its precious metals recycling capacities, and further establish its market-leading status in Europe.
Today, the Heraeus Group is a globally diverse, leading technology group and family business, with over 17,000 employees worldwide.