A START UP WITH A PAST

Is A. Lange & Söhne 173 years old or 28 years young?

AugustMan (Malaysia) - - Inspiration - WORDS BY SEAN MOSSADEG PHO­TOS BY A. LANGE & SÖHNE

TO BE FRANK, I very much wanted to dis­like the A. Lange & Söhne man­u­fac­ture.

As a jour­nal­ist, one tries to ap­proach ev­ery­thing with ob­jec­tiv­ity be­cause, well, that is the cor­ner­stone of form­ing a true opin­ion. But since I’ve started cov­er­ing time­pieces, that ob­jec­tiv­ity has some­times bowed in favour of cer­tain brands. To an­swer the ques­tion that has of­ten been asked of me ‒ “What is your favourite watch brand?” ‒ I am go­ing to re­veal that it has al­ways been A. Lange & Söhne. The rea­sons are many.

My love for the brand starts with its purist aes­thetic, which is then sup­ported by A. Lange & Söhne’s re­mark­able ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the tech­ni­cal depart­ment of watch­mak­ing. So when AUGUSTMAN was in­vited for a man­u­fac­ture visit, I knew had to re­strain the fan­boy in­side. In sum­mary, it didn’t work.

To en­joy A. Lange & Söhne as a brand is to un­der­stand its tu­mul­tuous his­tory and that of Ger­man watch­mak­ing in gen­eral. When the brand’s founder, Fer­di­nand A. Lange, es­tab­lished his own com­pany in the small Ger­man town of Glashütte in 1845, he did so af­ter the town had won a bid for an in­dus­trial devel­op­ment pro­gramme. Starved of jobs af­ter the sil­ver mines around the area had been tapped out, the lo­cal towns­folk turned to Lange’s watch­mak­ing as a new source of in­come.

Fern­d­i­nand A. Lange has come to be seen as the pa­tri­arch of Glashüt­tian watch­mak­ing and rightly so. In the wake of A. Lange & Söhne’s found­ing, sev­eral other watch­mak­ers and their ap­pren­tices moved into the town, set­ting up their own brands, cre­at­ing a lit­tle watch­mak­ing hub that still main­tains the same crafts­man­ship prac­tices to­day, al­beit up­graded with tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments. But as we know, Ger­man his­tory has had its ups and downs.

“A. LANGE & SÖHNE OPENED UP ITS THIRD BUILD­ING THREE YEARS AGO, PUT­TING ALL PRO­DUC­TION PRO­CESSES UN­DER ONE ROOF”

At the end of World War II, the carv­ing up of Ger­many led to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Ger­man Demo­cratic Repub­lic in East Ger­many, ruled by the So­viet Union. From 1949 to 1989, ev­ery no­table Ger­man watch­mak­ing brand in Glashütte was merged un­der the Glashüt­ter Uhren­be­trieb (GUB) com­pany to mass pro­duce time­pieces.

Imag­ine if Patek Philippe, Vacheron Con­stantin, Rolex and Pi­aget, along­side other Plan-les-Ou­ates watch­mak­ers were stripped of all their in­di­vid­ual brand iden­ti­ties and forced to mass pro­duce time­pieces un­der a

sin­gle brand sig­na­ture for the mass mar­ket. That would give you some idea of the hor­ror that Wal­ter Lange, the great-grand­son of Fer­di­nand A. Lange, ex­pe­ri­enced. He left Glashütte only to come back af­ter the dust had set­tled.

The re-found­ing of the brand is well­recorded his­tory. Fol­low­ing the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many and the fall of the Ber­lin

Wall, Wal­ter Lange and Günter Blüm­lein re­sus­ci­tated A. Lange & Söhne in 1990 un­der the Les Man­u­fac­tures Hor­logère (LMH) group and pro­ceeded to prove that the hal­lowed watch­mak­ing craft in Glashütte could be re­stored once again.

Twenty-eight years on, A. Lange & Söhne has grown tremen­dously. Just three years ago, the brand opened its third com­plex, com­pris­ing two build­ings, with Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel officiating the cer­e­mony. The new com­plex plays home to the en­tire pro­duc­tion process of A.

Lange & Söhne. From com­puter nu­mer­i­cal con­trol (CNC) ma­chines that pro­duce the tiny com­plex parts and base­plates, to the dif­fer­ent de­part­ments for as­sem­bly, fin­ish­ing, and test­ing.

It’s a large un­der­tak­ing for the brand, what with the us­age of a geo­ther­mal en­ergy sys­tem for cli­mate and air con­trol ‒ the ini­tial in­vest­ment was hefty, but pays steady div­i­dends in terms of en­ergy sav­ings. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the brand in­formed us that new com­plex was built to op­er­ate on green elec­tric­ity, mak­ing the man­u­fac­ture a CO₂free fa­cil­ity.

The de­sign depart­ment of A. Lange & Söhne has also re­cently moved back from its for­mer Dres­den of­fice to Glashütte, al­low­ing for ease of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the move­ment de­sign and watch de­sign de­part­ments. An­thony de Haas, the di­rec­tor of prod­uct devel­op­ment who over­sees both th­ese de­part­ments, laughs when we asked if the new fa­cil­ity has made his life bet­ter.

“I don’t have to keep driv­ing back and forth be­tween Dres­den and here so that’s great. And also, it’s eas­ier to be cre­ative and just share ideas without hav­ing to call some­one up, so I think our de­sign depart­ment is hap­pier,” he shared.

We asked de Haas if the in­vest­ments into the new man­u­fac­ture would mean an in­crease in pro­duc­tion num­bers in a mat­ter of off­set­ting the cost but he brushes it off as an im­pos­si­bil­ity for now. “We’re not a small brand but we’re not a crazy large brand. We pro­duce about 5,000 watches a year and our watches are not the eas­i­est to as­sem­ble so even with the build­ing, that num­ber isn’t in­creas­ing,” he ex­plains.

Ac­cord­ing to de Haas, even the higher ups of Richemont (the par­ent com­pany of

A. Lange & Söhne) want to keep things the way they are ‒ clas­si­cal watch­mak­ing with a ten­dency to cre­ate as­tound­ingly com­pli­cated time­pieces. In fact, Jo­hann Ru­pert, the chair­man of Richemont, was re­cently pho­tographed wear­ing an A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk, a bless­ing from above and the high­est com­pli­ment, if you will.

As we walk around the man­u­fac­ture, it be­comes steadily clearer as to why the pro­duc­tion num­bers aren’t in­creas­ing any time soon. At A. Lange & Söhne, sev­eral stages of the pro­duc­tion process don’t nec­es­sar­ily fol­low other man­u­fac­tures, even those at the same level.

Firstly, the fact that the brand utilises Ger­man sil­ver (a nickel, cop­per and zinc al­loy) in­stead of brass means that it’s a harder ma­te­rial to work with. The hon­eyed colour of the Ger­man sil­ver isn’t plated with rhodium or gilt plat­ing so ex­tra care is taken to make sure noth­ing sticks.

It’s one of the rea­sons that A. Lange & Söhne em­ploys a dou­ble as­sem­bly process. This means that when a watch­maker as­sem­bles an en­tire move­ment, it’s tested, then taken apart to be com­pletely fin­ished, cleaned and as­sem­bled again, be­fore fi­nal test­ing is done and the move­ment is cased. This ex­plains why it takes an av­er­age of six to 14 months for a watch to be as­sem­bled. It also puts the price you pay for any A. Lange & Söhne time­piece into proper per­spec­tive.

The fin­ish­ing depart­ment is an­other stop that paints a pic­ture of the Her­culean ef­fort that goes into ev­ery move­ment.

In other man­u­fac­tures, the fin­ish­ing depart­ment usu­ally houses sev­eral ma­chines while A. Lange & Söhne’s is quite evenly split be­tween tra­di­tional man­ual fin­ish­ing and mod­ern ma­chines. Per­son­ally, A. Lange & Söhne’s fin­ish­ing is one of the rea­sons the brand sits so firmly at the top of my list.

There are only a hand­ful of brands that pro­duce time­pieces guar­an­teed to make you gaze in awe when look­ing through the case­back. Whether it’s mir­ror-pol­ish­ing, straight grain­ing, per­lage, con­tour grind­ing or the en­graved bal­ance cock (that’s es­sen­tially a sig­na­ture for the mas­ter en­gravers that worked on the watch), an A. Lange & Söhne move­ment com­bines th­ese var­i­ous fin­ishes to pro­duce a work of art.

It’s a dis­tinc­tion that de Haas knows the brand needs to talk about a lit­tle more. “I think most will agree that we don’t wear watches to just tell the time any more. But it’s the idea of hav­ing a work of art on the wrist. It’s why we’d rather fo­cus on cre­at­ing things like the Triple Split or the Zeitwerk Minute Re­peater than say, a new sil­i­con es­cape­ment or some­thing. Pre­ci­sion is im­por­tant, yes but if you can’t beat quartz, why bother?” he ques­tioned.

It may be a star­tling change for most watch con­nois­seurs. We’re of­ten told that ma­te­rial in­no­va­tion is where watch­mak­ing is go­ing and the race for pre­ci­sion is the one true aim, but a brand like A. Lange & Söhne sits squarely be­tween the old and the new.

In fact, the very pa­ram­e­ters of the brand is set in stone by its long-sto­ried past and de Haas is find­ing new ways ev­ery day to in­no­vate within those pa­ram­e­ters.

As Wil­helm Sch­midt, the CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, has said be­fore, “A. Lange & Söhne may have a long past but it’s also very much a start-up that was re-founded in 1990.” De Haas echoes this sen­ti­ment by ask­ing us if we’ve seen “any el­derly watch­maker hunched over a desk as­sem­bling a watch” like many other brands’ mar­ket­ing would have you be­lieve. The truth is, there were more young watch­mak­ers and it’s a point of pride for the brand.

De Haas him­self un­der­stands what it is to be a young watch­maker. His past ex­pe­ri­ence in Re­naud et Papi, a sup­plier of high-end com­pli­cated move­ments com­pa­ra­ble to some of the most well-known in­de­pen­dent watch­mak­ers to­day, has taught him that the young want to in­no­vate. “Of course, they come in and they’re as­sem­bling the Sax­o­nia and they get bored. But af­ter a while, they come up with ideas and it’s al­ways in­no­va­tive. Whether or not it can be im­ple­mented, well, it’s my job to de­cide.”

At the end of the tour, much as I’d tried to re­strain my­self, I was in full fan­boy mode.

I re­mem­ber a fel­low edi­tor shar­ing with me be­fore that, “A. Lange & Söhne is a hard brand to hate” dur­ing a dis­cus­sion at SIHH and as some­one who firmly be­lieves I sit within their tar­get de­mo­graphic (taste­wise for now; fi­nan­cially, maybe later), that state­ment echoed loudly as we left.

It’s hard to hate a brand at that level when it seems truly self-aware.

A. Lange & Söhne knows it’s priced too far out of the reach of most as­pir­ing col­lec­tors (yours truly in­cluded) but with a his­tory of set­ting trends, it knows that it can’t com­pro­mise and has to sit at the top.

And to be priced at the top, the brand knows that it has to push lim­its while re­spect­ing the past. It’s a tough bal­ance that many tra­di­tional brands haven’t been able to achieve. It’s a good place to be and A. Lange & Söhne knows it. AM

“THE FIN­ISH­ING DEPART­MENT AT A. LANGE & SÖHNE SHOWS THE HER­CULEAN EF­FORT THAT GOES INTO EACH MOVE­MENT”

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