Writer: Ken Kessler
As comebacks go, this one’s the horological equivalent of Sinatra’s or Presley’s – Lange & Söhne represents the pinnacle of German watchmaking and their half-century in the wilderness has only whetted enthusiasts’ appetites for more.
Like every other unfortunate German manufacturer or business that found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after WWII, the East German watch industry fell into the hands of the Communists, anti-champions of anything high-end, which of course included watchmaking. And Lange.
As with so much in life, it was all about location. Pre-war, Germany’s watch industry was centred in Glashütte, the fatherland’s horological equivalent of what Detroit once was to American car manufacturing. While the East Germans kept the factories going, production consisted primarily of undistinguished timepieces for mass consumption in the new Proletarian Paradise. Luckily, when Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited Europe in the late 1980s, the region was still home to enough seasoned watchmakers to be able to exploit the new freedoms.
Fast-forward to today and the company we now know as A. Lange & Söhne is a subsidiary of Richemont SA, one of the world’s largest luxury groups and its siblings include IWC, Cartier, Montblanc, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and other prestige watch houses. As a result the watches made by Lange & Söhne – or simply ‘Lange’, as aficionados call it – compete with some of the finest timepieces that the world has to offer. That it succeeds is because the company is upholding a tradition established by its founder for excellence without compromise.
Indeed, some would say that Ferdinand Adolph Lange didn’t merely create the brand that bears his name but that he is arguably responsible for making Glashütte, a town near Dresden in the eastern state of Saxony, the seat of German watchmaking when he founded his company there in 1845. Lange’s credentials were impeccable. He had studied as an apprentice to the Saxonian Court’s master watchmaker, followed by another apprenticeship in Paris with Josef Winnerl, a student of the watchmaking legend, Abraham-Louis Breguet. With this in the company’s DNA, there can be no question of a pedigree of the highest calibre.
Upon returning to Dresden, Lange was moved by the poverty he saw in the former mining region and chose to remedy this by providing employment, starting his company with a number of apprentice watchmakers. In recognition of his efforts, he was elected mayor of Glashütte and eventually was made a deputy in Saxonia’s parliament.
Thanks to Lange’s integrity and vision, he managed not only to create a great house that manufactured watches of his own design but also to plant the seeds of the German watch industry, as his students and apprentices went on to open their own ateliers in the town. Still, while a number of companies can trace their roots back to Ferdinand, only A. Lange & Söhne can boast a direct descendant on its board.
Following his death in 1875 at the age of just 60, Lange’s sons Emil and Richard maintained the company’s fortunes, with Emil serving as chief executive for 46 years. The company produced sophisticated pocket watches offering many complications and eventually ended its time as an independent house in the mid-20th century by making special models for use by German airmen in World War II. Now much coveted, these watches command enormous sums at auction. A fine example in a recent sale fetched 31,500 USD, three times its initial estimate.
In 1948, the post-war Soviet administration commandeered the company’s property, thus ending Lange’s century-long existence. It was absorbed into the state-run morass typical of communist regimes, with a concomitant loss of prestige and skilled workers. The larger conglomerate of which it became a part produced large quantities of both civilian and military watches, wall and table clocks and other instruments, both mechanical and electronic, so the Lange tradition didn’t entirely die.
To everyone’s astonishment, the company was ‘liberated’ from the Soviet malaise in 1990, following the collapse of the East German government in a story worthy of Hollywood, were Tinseltown ever to return to making films with happy endings.
Walter Lange, the founder’s great-grandson and a qualified master watchmaker himself, together with watch industry executive Günter Blümlein, were able to restore the company to its former glory – actually, beyond its former glory – with the assistance of several Swiss manufacturers. These included IWC and Jaeger Le Coultre, now part of the same family due to ownership by the Richemont group.
The revival was spectacular. Relaunched as A. Lange and Söhne, the firm unveiled its new models in 1994, with what is now a modern icon: the Lange I. It embodied all the virtues that distinguish the German school of thought from the Swiss, with heavier cases and parts than the Swiss were then employing, faultless finishing and what is best described as ‘over-engineering’.
Additionally, the Lange I showed that the revived firm was committed to innovation. The watch contained a feature that has been one of the most-copied functions to emerge in the past 30 years: the signature ‘big date’. Equally distinctive was the dial’s asymmetric layout, though other models have been more conventionally symmetrical.
Alongside the Lange I developing into a family of models, the company itself evolved into full ‘manufacture’ status. This term describes a company’s ability to produce its own movements, in Lange’s case, to standards admired throughout the industry thanks to its zero-compromise attitude. The company has embraced the modern watch connoisseur’s love for complications, whether tourbillons, world-timers, calendars, or other rarefied functions and is also responsible for creating a wristwatch with a fuse-and-chain movement, the highly coveted Pour Le Mérite.
All Lange watches are mechanical rather than quartz, and all feature cases made from gold or platinum, with only a few exceptions for special editions. While every Lange movement is clearly proprietary, designed and executed in-house, the company further distinguishes them from mass-produced movements by highlighting the human element. All of the engraving that decorates a Lange is the work of an individual, whose distinctive technique renders no two alike.
Their latest statement watch, the manually wound Zeitwerk, revives a semi-obscure system called the ‘jump hour’, ironically the first technique used to show the time in digital form but using mechanical technology that predates quartz and electronic. Popular with the likes of Cartier in the 1920s, the jump hour displays the hours and minutes numerically in their own window, with a conventional hand in its own sub-dial for the seconds.
As any watchmaker will tell you upon seeing a Lange movement, the house’s design and decoration are distinctively Germanic eschewing Swiss practices like multiple bridges, cocks and the traditional Geneva ‘wave’ decoration for three-quarter plates, ‘Glashütte stripes’, hand-engraved balance cocks and screwed gold chatons. Lange movements are made from ‘German Silver’, an alloy of copper and nickel, instead of the more common plated brass.
To own a Lange & Söhne timepiece is to acquire an example of fine watchmaking at its most elevated. Rarity, exclusivity and sheer excellence are a given but where Lange enhance the experience of ownership is less expected for they are, regardless of their complexity, ineffably discreet. As traits go, that may not necessarily be very German, but it is very, very Lange.