When German Emperor of Kaiser Wilhelm II gifted an exquisite pocket watch to Sultan Abdul Hamid of Constantinople, little was known how the watch brand would emerge again to rule the luxe market of horology. While the pocket watch is still on display in Turkey’s museum, the brand A Lange & Sohne saw much tumult before emerging as a leader.
When it comes to fine watchmaking, it pays to look beyond the usual suspects in Switzerland or even Pforzheim in southwest Germany’s Black Forest area. One cannot avoid Glashutte and its distinctive style and intricate craftsmanship for brands like A Lange & Sohne, from the stables of Richemont SA.
The quaint town has played an indispensable role in Germany’s horological history ever since founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange first set shop in Glashutte way back in 1845. Others followed and soon the town became watchmaker’s paradise with many big brands flourishing.
But everything changed post Word War II. A Lange - the brand that has been a watch collector’s dream for ages disappeared for 40 years after being expropriated by Soviet forces in 1951. The whole watch industry in Glashutte merged to become VEB Glashutter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB) mainly to manufacture cheap watches and precision instruments, overstaffed with employees. Post reunification East German factories survived the transition to a market economy only through draconian job cuts.
As one traverses through the bygone days and the rubbles of post World War II era, one can barely deny stealing a glance at the exquisite craftsmanship and the way this place has risen to its past glory – the cradle of horology - fighting all odds.
To the watchmakers, Glashütte’s total focus on the craftsmanship is what makes connoisseurs spend even tens of thousands of euros.
A. Lange & Söhne, has the longest tradition in Glashütte, and the largest revenue in monetary terms because of the high net worth its watches command.
Despite many ups and downs, the town still thrives.
In 1990 the brand re-emerged like a phoenix from its ashes. Walter Lange, great grandson of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange, who was forced to flee, taking refuge to the Federal Republic in the West for survival, came back to Glashutte after his retirement and reunification of Germany, along with a partner and industry stalwart Gunter Blumlein to restart the brand.
The first set of watches – iconic Lange 1 – was presented only in 1994. It took them four years to train and come out with exclusive high-end watches, in a market, which was in shambles post socialist regime. People had little faith in luxury brands.
As Walter Lange penned down in his memoirs “We had succeeded in reviving a grand tradition, filling it with life and continuing it. That’s why I think, the line – ‘the economy in Germany’s East begins to tick differently: A. Lange & Sohne is back – the legend has come home’ – in our advertising was not exaggerated.”
Lange’s ad campaign in October 1994 announced of its second-coming.
As Lange recalled, “We needed to be different from the Swiss luxury watches. We needed to create sole position characteristics that would characterise a Lange watch in every way. Thus it was that the outsize date typical of Lange was created, now recognised throughout the world due to its unique design and function. Another design innovation is the off-centre hour display of Lange1 with its subsidiary seconds and power reserve indicator. Reinhard Meis and his creative team that received much applaud.”
The timeless fascination blended with the colour blue prompted A. Lange & Söhne to endow two manually wound, two self-winding models from the collection with four new watches in deep-blue galvanised dials in solid silver. Paired with white-gold cases, the design of the Lange1, Lange1 Daymatic, Saxonia and Saxonia Automatic is nothing less than captivating. Moreover, the latest exclusive Handwerkskunst edition demonstrates how artisanal virtuosity becomes a grand art. The dial and the hinged cuvette of the new 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calender Handwerkskunst is made of blue enamelled white gold with elaborate relief engravings. The movement stands out with the rare and fascinating combination of a split-seconds chronograph and a perpetual calendar with a moon-phase display.
For A Lange & Sohne's CEO Wilhelm Schmid, it is this attention to detail that sets the brand apart. At the end of the day it's a package; it’s not one single thing but the combination. And that’s the backbone.
Even as globally the luxury watch industry has faced many difficult times this village in the hilly corner of east Germany, with an economy dependant on watchmaking for the last 170 years, is still flourishing.
According to Walter Lange the brand name underwent a renaissance in Germany after a Munich exhibition of A Lange’s historical watches from collectors ignited a new Glashutte fever. “We would profit from it 14 years later when we began rebuilding the company.”
Rebuilding the manufactory from scratch was a mammoth task. Today the company employs 650 people, many of whom were taken from GUB and trained to fine watchmaking, it maintains.
Only a decade ago it introduced exclusive boutiques to sell its masterpieces, coming away from wholesale marketing through jewellers. They have 17 boutiques and many retailers. According to Arnd Einhorn, director Press and Public Relations at Lange Uhren GmbH, it is a product driven company with craftmanship in its DNA – linked to its old tradition.
As he puts it, “A Lange1 is our signature iconic timepiece. When we revived Lange in Germany, Lange 1‘s asymmetric face was something new gained much appreciation and attention. We have movements, which are completely filling the case and makes us stand out. Being a technical brand we have so far developed 59 different movements since 1994.”
A development of a movement can take several years based on how complicated the movement is – ideally 5-7 years to develop and produce. According to him the brand is very much parallel to Germany’s story – its revolutionary movement.
The other iconic watch has been the Grand Complication.
“We presented the Grand Complication in 2013 – the most complicated watch ever produced in Germany. We only produced a limited edition of 6 pieces. And it was worth ¤1.92 million. We are still producing it. We have two people working on it,” he quips.
The sophisticated timepiece combines a split-seconds chronograph with a perpetual calendar and moon-phase display.
“Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China have emerged as key markets in Asia, while the US, Germany, Italy and Switzerland are our main markets. Middle East too has grown very well over the time,” he adds. India is still seen as a nascent market, which is yet to mature.
Every year collectors seeking out the finest of the fine Handwerkskunst line from the brand that see the culmination of the watchmaker's high-complication pieces with superlative decorative techniques.
The sixth in the line –
1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar Handwerkskunst, is a worthy addition to this tradition with a stunning blue enamel dial in full-blown starry night motif. For the dial, the master artisans selected solid white gold, as a perfect subsurface against the deep blue enamel. The four recessed subsidiary dials for the added calendar and chronograph information are silver argente’ colored white gold. Sporting a half-hunter hinged case that protects the sapphire crystal caseback beneath it, the new timepiece displays a meticulously tremblage and relieve engraved image of the goddess Luna, personifying the moon.
However, for the brand Lange1 is still remains the iconic signature watch.
As Walter Lange wrote “Lange designs the watch movements, designs the watches, produces the plates, bridges and other elementary components from raw materials, decorates the individual parts, makes the terminal curves of the balance spring, assembles the watch movements in vintage Glashutte style and finally mounts them in watch cases made of gold or platinum.”
One can see this whole process in the Glashutte manufactory in perfect precision. Most of the work is done by master watchmakers hunched over tables with miniature components, wearing magnifying eyepieces, or peering through microscopes as they finish and assemble the mechanical movements by hand. The engravers with fine craftsmanship etch designs.
The company also runs a professional school, which offers a three-year curriculum in watchmaking, toolmaking and engraving techniques. Most of its workforce is inducted from its school.
Until 2000 Lange Uhren GmbH was a company of LMH (les Manufactures Horlogeres), a subsidiary of VDO Adolf Schnidling AG, later taken over by Mannesmann. In 1999 Vodafone took over Mannesmann and declared to separate its business. LMH with brands like IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and A Lange & Sohne were finally taken over by Swiss Richemont Group or the Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA, founded in 1988 by the South African billionaire Anton Rupert.
Glashutte’s focus on watchmaking is impossible to overlook. The narrow corridors are lined with factory facades. However, no sound emanates, making the town a peaceful abode for master watchmakers.