WALTER LANGE A Personal Tribute
Our editorial director pays tribute to the impact the late Walter Lange had on the watchmaking industry, and on his personal journey as a collector and editor
As I continued my rounds on the second day at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, I came across a friend who asked whether I had heard the news about Walter Lange; sadly, he had passed away that morning. Although the illustrious man was at an advanced age, the shockwaves of his passing could be felt throughout the Palexpo that week, and particularly that evening, when Lange hosted a dinner for collectors and media alike.
There was certainly a sense of sadness that night, but those in attendance all had a close link to the brand, and it turned into a celebration of Walter Lange’s life, and the impact that he ultimately had on all of us. Today’s A. Lange & Söhne is, inarguably, one of the most prestigious brands in the entire watch industry. Its hand finishing is truly legendary, and it continues to impress with its technical achievements year on year. What we tend to forget though is that Lange is, in effect, fairly young for the watch industry, having returned to the watchmaking scene just under 23 years ago. The house that Walter Lange’s great grandfather, Ferdinand Adolph Lange built may have its roots in 1845, but world events saw that it lived on only in spirit after the second World War, and the establishment of an East Germany. In 1948, just 24 years old, Walter Lange fled to the west. Three years later, the original manufacture was absorbed into what would become the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe, or GUB, the conglomerate of all the watchmaking brands that were based in Glashütte. The work that Lange’s forefathers had done to build up not only the Lange manufacture, but also their influence on the watchmaking tradition that had been established in the town, all but vanished. He continued through various companies to work in watchmaking, but the industry across the world would eventually get swept up in advent of quartz watches. Given that the Swiss industry experienced a crisis it had never seen before, and saw a drastic downturn, Walter Lange decided to retire in 1986.
Three years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and suddenly, East and West Germany were reunited. Today, it’s easy to forget how different those two worlds were, one having benefited from decades of trade and development with its neighboring countries, and around the world, the other being almost kept in a time capsule, experiencing little of that progress. Nevertheless, this is when the seeds of the new A. Lange & Söhne would be planted. They started with the legendary Gunter Blümlein, who was already leading Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH), a subsidiary of a German company called VDO, which specializes in automotive electronics and instruments. The LMH subsidiary owned IWC Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Blümlein saw an opportunity as soon as the Wall fell to seek out the GUB and see how they could work together to bring back the fine watchmaking culture to Glashütte. However, in those early days, the cultures were still much too different. Blümlein and his associates didn’t give up though, their German heritage making them well aware of A. Lange & Söhne’s historical place; they also knew of Walter Lange’s involvement in the watch industry, and sought him out in 1990. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. With the help of the watchmaking knowledge that LMH could bring from its two existing brands, the first new collection for A. Lange & Söhne was proudly presented on October 24th, 1994.
I became aware of the brand just under 10 years later. I remember clearly seeing an advertisement for a Datograph in a local newspaper, and remembering how beautiful I found the piece. By chance, I met the brand’s management at the time, at one of my first collectors’ dinners, and he suggested I come visit the manufacture in Glashütte. As I had a trip planned to France, I decided to take him up on his offer, and extended my trip to include a stop in Germany. What was my first visit to a watch manufacture, even before Revolution itself was launched, has ultimately led me to where I am today, personally and professionally.
Landing in Dresden in 2004 was quite different than today. Quite a few Trabants still roamed the
streets, and the landmark Dresden Frauenkirche still lay in the same ruins it was left in since the war. It was a grey day in November, and cold, not helped by the fact that the housekeeper at my hotel had left a window open in my room. I did briefly question why I had even made the trip, and I can only imagine what it would’ve been like in the early 1990s, when Blümlein and Lange went to Glashütte to give the brand its new life.
In sharp contrast was the warmth and pride I could immediately sense as I made the short trip by car to Glashütte, and into the Lange manufacture, which occupied part of the original buildings. Since then, I’ve made the trip a few more times, seeing the buildings evolve over the years, but with the same sense of pride and satisfaction that I sensed back in 2004.
I was fortunate to meet Walter Lange on a few occasions as well. Although I couldn’t surmount the language barrier – I wouldn’t want to use the few select German words I know in front of such a gentleman – that same pride was immediately palpable. I have to admit being particularly moved when, as a member of the jury for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, we were able to award Mr. Lange the special prize, for his life’s achievements. Here he was, just over 20 years after unveiling the first modern Lange collection, ever so humbly going on stage in front of the who’s who of the watch industry to accept the prize, having seized the opportunity with Blümlein to rebuild the shining star of the German watch industry, and in less than two decades, placing it firmly in the very highest echelons of watchmaking, not only in Germany, but in the world.
I truly don’t know whether I would be writing these words if it hadn’t been for that first visit I made to Glashütte in 2004. It opened my eyes to a world that I find absolutely fascinating, and that has inspired me over the past eight years in my professional life at Revolution. For that, I can only thank the late Walter Lange, for the vision and courage that he and Günter Blümlein had in building today’s manufacture, and the spectacular timepieces it continues to amaze us with.
Receiving the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from German president Joachim Gauck Gunter Blümlein & Walter Lange in Glashütte in 1991 With German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel at the inauguration of the new manufacture
Gunter Blümlein, Walter Lange and Hartmut Knothe at the 1994 presentation of the new collection