A START UP WITH A PAST
Is A. Lange & Söhne 173 years old or 28 years young?
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”