The watch company that came in from the cold
Saxon Snow: To the Heart of German Watchmaking with A. Lange & Söhne
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It was December, and Lange busied itself finishing up new timepiece novelties for January’s annual Salon International Haute Horlogerie event. Watch companies are a secretive lot, and Lange is no exception. Unlike our last visit to the manufacture, we weren’t allowed to bring cameras inside. Not that any of us could have spotted something new among the tiny components on the watchmakers’ workbenches. Row upon row of mostly women hunched over their work, magnifying loupes pressed into their eye sockets, some engraving individual components for hours at a time, some assembling a single complicated timepiece for days on end.
Atop the Watchmaking Heap
High watchmaking is all about the details; Lange sits, arguably, at the top of the pyramid. Movements are devised entirely in-house, most with some innovative function, and then hand-decorated, assembled, tested, disassembled, cleaned and finally reassembled. These timepieces cost anywhere from $18,000 up to $2,000,000, and if anything looks worth that ungodly sum, a Lange & Söhne watch does.
Having grown up during the last two decades of the Cold War, in my mind East Germany was always a gray, distant land with steroid-addled athletes and machine gun-wielding henchmen. To see it now, driving through its countryside, is to dispel those visions, replaced with mountaintop fortresses, fairytale bridges and snow-covered forests. For sure there are still reminders of this region’s dark past — the wide avenues lined with small-windowed concrete apartment buildings and the underpowered, belching Trabants, that automotive symbol of the Eastern Bloc.
Before you make the pilgrimage to Glashütte, you’re going to want to brush up on your German watch terms. We’ve got you covered.
Auf /Ab: Up /Down, as indicated on a power reserve display. Auf means the watch is fully wound. Ab means it’s time to wind it.
Doppelfederhaus: A watch with two mainspring barrels, translating into a long power reserve. Much more fun to say in German.
Gangreserv: “Power reserve” or the amount of time remaining until you have to wind up the watch (see Auf/Ab above). Not to be confused with “gangnam style.”
Glashütte i/Sa.: Watches made in Glashütte, “in Saxony” proudly bear this phrase. Those that aren’t wish they did.
Monats-werk: “Month movement,” specific to the Lange 31 with its 31-day power reserve. Also known as “set it and forget it.”
Referenzuhr: “Reference clock,” known for its high precision and used to set other timepieces, which is as good an excuse to own one as we can muster.
Stunden: Hours. Das ist alles.
Zeit: Time itself, rumored to have been invented by the Germans.
By now, most horophiles know the story of A. Lange & Söhne, but it bears repeating because it is such a fitting metaphor for the rebirth of East Germany after the end of the Cold War. Lange’s history is really a story of two watch companies. Founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in the watchmaking hamlet of Glashütte, 30 clicks from Dresden, the company was the leader of a vibrant German watchmaking industry. First making pocketwatches, from the very simple to the highly complicated and ornate, Lange followed the trends of the early 20th century as the brand passed to F.A. Lange’s heirs and they made wristwatches right up until the Second World War. Then Lange was strong-armed into supporting the German war effort and they produced thousands of pilots’ watches and marine chronometers for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. On the last day of the war, Walter Lange, F.A. Lange’s great-grandson, was returning to Glashütte only to witness his family’s watch factory bombed by the Russians.
By the time Walter Lange rebuilt his company’s workshops, the East German Communist government was de-privatizing the country. In 1948, all the Glashütte watch brands were dissolved and absorbed into the conglomerate government-run Glashütte Uhrenbetrieb, or GUB. Walter Lange wanted nothing to do with this new arrangement and fled to West Germany, where he quietly worked in the watch industry for the next four decades. It took the fall of the Berlin Wall and the helpful genius of IWC’s then CEO, Gunther Blumlein, to resurrect the storied Lange name and restore it to its rightful place atop Glashütte watchmaking. In 1994, A. Lange & Söhne was reborn, releasing a lineup of stunning timepieces that would become instant classics, at the same time quintessentially traditional German and contemporary.
Ticking From Past to Present
As we drove through the Saxon countryside earlier in the day, playing hide-and-seek with the Elbe River, every muddy side road in the snowy forest seemed like a dead drop site out of a John le Carré novel. The gray skies, empty roads and falling snow lent a sense of mystery and foreboding to the drive. But Saxony is on the rise — new hotels, galleries and museums are springing up and polyglot tourist groups shuffle past the Residenzschloss in Dresden. It is somehow fitting that one of Saxony’s oldest names and one whose focus is marking the passage of time, has become the de facto symbol of East Germany’s rebirth. A. Lange & Söhne is the watch company that came in from the cold.
Driving aside, winter is really the best time to visit Saxony, the East German state nestled up against the Czech border. Not only does the snow render its pastoral hills and steep woodlands lovelier, but Dresden itself lays claim to one of the oldest Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) in the world, nearly 500 consecutive years by some estimates. Germany has its share of beautiful regions — Bavaria with its Alps, the Black Forest, the cultural hub that is Berlin — but Saxony is special. Suffocated under Communist rule for 50 years, the state is flourishing once again. Dresden, with its bridges, Gothic buildings and castles, reminds visitors why it was once called, “the Florence of the North”. Despite some remnants, the Cold War is fading further into Saxony’s past and, despite its icy winters, it has a warm heart.
On our first night in Dresden, Eric and I ventured out to partake in the centuries-old traditions of the Weihnachtsmarkt. Vendors sold handcrafted wooden toys, children rode the carousel, strolling musicians braved the frigid air to play their instruments and young couples clutched their mugs of Glühwein (mulled wine) in the shadow of the restored Frauenkirche. We decided to follow the time-honored German ritual of consuming fire-cooked meat from one of the many Grillmeisters tempting us with smells.
We clutched our braised beef, slathered with onions and mustard, in shallow trays, attempting to eat it with gloved hands. I saw Eric examining his tray of food closely in the dark. Suddenly, he speculated that the tray itself was edible, some sort of ingenious Teutonic eco-friendly food service. I watched as he stuffed a bite of it into his mouth and chewed. Several times. “Nope, cardboard”. We laughed and clinked our tankards of Glühwein. Welcome to Germany.
Driving to Glashütte is a little like going back in time. It’s not hard to imagine, threading along the twisty two-lane road through steep valleys, what it was like in the 1800s when Dresden would have been a day’s journey with horse and buggy. Glashütte was a remote enclave, a place whose isolation bred specialization during a time when Saxony’s royalty chose to focus on the arts and crafts instead of war. While another Saxon town, Meissen, became famous for its porcelain, Glashütte became a colony of watchmakers. It remains much the same today, with no less than 14 watch companies calling this town of merely 3,000 residents home. It’s not hard to imagine what the happy hour conversation is at the pub after work here.
The road into Glashütte follows the tributary creek that dictated the town’s layout centuries ago. On the right side of the main street sits the headquarters of Glashütte Original, the direct descendant of the GUB conglomerate and now part of another — the Swatch Group. A little ways down the road is SUG, the expert casemaker. On the left, near the train station, is the small manufacture of NOMOS, maker of Bauhaus-inspired timepieces. Down the road a little ways is Lange’s manufacture, where the magic happens and, after viewing the company’s small museum of historic pieces over a lunch of canapés and chocolate mousse, it was time to brave the weather and get back to Dresden before dark.
A left turn out of the manufacture’s parking lot and two blocks away, at a crossroads is the historic Stammhaus (family home) of F.A. Lange, now the company’s administrative offices. In front of this hallowed building, on the street corner, sits a tall stone column with town names and numbers carved into it. It is a milestone dating to the 1800s and one that F.A. Lange would have walked past on the way to his workshop nearby. We pulled over for a closer look at this reminder of Glashütte’s past. The numbers on it represent the distances to the corresponding destinations, some overwritten with new numbers in a palimpsest of transportation’s progress. Rather than measured in miles or kilometers, the distances are in Stunden, or hours, of travel by carriage, fitting in a town obsessed with measuring time. It was snowing harder now and the early winter light was fading fast. Our carriage awaited, idling obediently. If we lingered too long, our return would soon be measured in hours. It was time to go.
Score: Skysong by Philip Sheppard