The World's Best Watch Company Isn't in Switzerland
Timekeeping | Through the Looking Glass: A Visit To A. Lange & Söhne
While peering through a magnifying lens, counting 184 tiny faces carved on a cherry pit, I started to understand what sets the German watch company, A. Lange & Söhne, apart. I was in the “Green Vault” of the Residenzschloss in Dresden, the historic palace of Saxon royalty, where a staggering collection of opulent knick-knacks is on display. Room after room was filled with priceless artifacts created for kings and dukes with more money than they knew what to do with. There’s a two-foot tall frigate carved entirely out of ivory, from the billowing wafer-thin sails to the tiny men climbing the rigging. There’s a jewel-encrusted solid gold tea set coated with enamel, never drunk from for fear of burned lips. In the next room, there’s a decorative porcelain fireplace that never saw a log. “Toys for rich boys,” remarked Christian Engelbrecht, PR manager for Lange and my host for the week.
The parallels between carved cherry pits and six figure wristwatches may not be instantly discernible. But both represent a handcrafted attention to detail on an almost microscopic level that people with means have always been willing to pay for. It’s easy in this era of obsolete smartphones and Chinese-made sneakers to question why a watch that doesn’t even tell the date and has to be wound every couple of days should cost $18,000. As a watch geek, I was a little more understanding of this when I went to visit the factory (or manufacture) of A. Lange & Söhne in Glashütte, a small village 30 kilometers from Dresden, near the Czech border. But I wanted to see what sets Lange apart from the better known Swiss companies.
First, a little history. The tradition of watchmaking started in Saxony in the 1840s after Ferdinand Adolph Lange returned from studying the art in Switzerland. Recognizing the appreciation, and local talent, for micro-craftsmanship present in his homeland, Lange and a couple others started a watchmaking school in the valley hamlet of Glashütte. In 1845, Lange started his own company, which started producing sturdy, accurate pocketwatches and the company, and the town, quickly gained a reputation. Lange passed the company on to his sons (Söhne) and the company remained a family business until World War II, just as the great grandson, Walter Lange, was finishing up his apprenticeship. Walter was conscripted into the German army and the business was shuttered.
On the last day of the war, Walter returned to Glashütte only to find the factory bombed by Soviet planes. Nothing remained of the factory or any of its tooling. No matter, the postwar Communist government expropriated all of the Glashütte watch companies to form a state-owned entity and Walter fled to the West to wait out the dark years that followed. When the Berlin Wall fell, Walter Lange returned once again to Glashütte to start up his shattered company. Four years later, in 1994, after a 50-year absence, the first collection of A. Lange & Söhne watches made a triumphant reappearance.
we disembark at the rather anonymous white building that could be considered the Wonka Chocolate Factory of the watch industry
The drive from Dresden to Glashütte looks much like the Midwestern U.S. – rolling green hills broken up by farms and forests. The road arcs down into a valley and into the town, founded centuries ago for the mining of silver. It is a quaint town with a population of only 4,700, presumably mostly watchmakers judging from the 14 watch companies that straddle the main street. I am on a press tour, and with my two fellow journalists, we disembark at the rather anonymous white building that could be considered the Wonka Chocolate Factory of the watch industry.
Inside, we were issued white watchmaker coats to wear for our tour. Mr. Engelbrecht led us down to an immaculate room humming and hissing with high tech machinery. Not exactly what I expected to see. But Lange’s slogan is “state of the art tradition” and this machinery is certainly state of the art. The computer-guided hot (electrified) wires slice through steel, bathed in water to reduce friction and heat, carving out the shapes that will become the baseplates of the watch movements. The tolerances are so tight that quality control is done by an optical measuring system that compares the cuts to a programmed template and rejects the pieces if they are mere micrometers off. This machine sits on a granite slab and air-cushioned base so it is not thrown off by the vibrations of trucks passing on the road nearby.
Up to the decorating room we dutifully followed. Here, we tiptoed in to look over the shoulders of the workers at their elevated benches, jewelers’ loupes planted firmly in one eye, using tools unchanged for centuries to hand-decorate the myriad small pieces that will soon work together to count out minutes and seconds on somebody’s wrist. Virtually every component of a Lange watch movement is decorated, front and back – chamfered, ribbed, perlaged, engraved and polished. And here is where Lange stands apart – components are decorated front and back, even the surfaces that will never be seen except perhaps by some lucky watchmaker who disassembles it one day. While this has no useful purpose, it is a hallmark of Lange’s tradition and carries forth that lineage of Saxon artistry that dates back to the carved cherry pit and ivory frigate. It’s not hard to imagine a room like this in the late 18th century, with workers bent reverently over their benches using hand tools to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces.
Once all components are carved out and decorated, it is time to put them together into a working timepiece. To see that, our small group filed into the assembly room. Brightly lit and populated by more white-coated elves who seemed as much like scientists or surgeons as craftsmen as they worked under microscopes with tiny precision screwdrivers and tweezers to build a watch out of a box of oddly shaped parts. No coffee cups or Red Bull cans here, as a steady hand is a prime asset for the work.
Here we see one watchmaker building the groundbreaking Lange 31, the world’s first wristwatch with a 31-day power reserve (the length of time a watch stays wound and running), fitting the two mainsprings that would total over six feet in length if uncoiled. Another is putting the finishing touches on a Double Flyback, a remarkable chronograph that can track split times in increments up to 30 minutes. Another practice that sets Lange apart is the double assembly of their watches. Every watch is assembled by hand, tested for function and accuracy and then disassembled, cleaned and re-assembled using new heat-treated blue screws. Why do this? Because they are craftsmen, artists, German, Saxon. And that’s all you need to know.
After lunch, our small press contingent was presented with the current collection of Lange timepieces, from the iconic Lange 1, which re-launched the brand in 1994 to the new Zeitwerk, a “digital” watch that displays the time through apertures in the dial that reveal rotating numerical discs. All Lange watches are cased in precious metal, either gold or platinum. The least expensive piece is the Saxonia, which is about $15,000. The most expensive pieces run up to half a million dollars. Discretion prevented Mr. Engelbrecht from divulging names of who is buying these pieces, but hints were dropped – heads of state and heirs to fortunes are among the ranks.
It’s easy to dismiss these watches as mere “toys for rich boys.” And while most of us will never own one or even have the privilege of fondling one after lunch (believe me, I am grateful for the chance), having seen the pride and artistry of the humble workers at A. Lange & Söhne, I can say I am glad that the world still has companies like this, carrying on traditions of sheer beauty and craftsmanship so that one day, someone may be able to peer through a magnifying lens at a museum and marvel at another hand-decorated masterpiece from Saxony.