It’s easy to see the influence Ferdinand A. Lange has had on Glashütte, a little town in Saxony of 7,000 inhabitants, most of whom work in the watchmaking industry. Three years after setting up his manufacture, in 1848 Lange was elected mayor of Glashütte – a post he would keep for 18 years. During his tenure, Glashütte was transformed from an agricultural village into a modern industrial town. There is even a monument dedicated to this man in the town center that still stands today.
Originally from Dresden, Lange paved the way for a generation of watchmakers like Moritz Grossman, Adolf Schneider and Julius Assman that helped establish Glashütte as the center of German watchmaking universe. Few brands have the kind of cachet that A. Lange & Söhne has among collectors. The brand’s distinct movement architecture and models, purity of design, superlative finishing and, of course, rarity, are among the qualities that leave enthusiasts weak-kneed. Through the early 20th century and right up to the end of World War II, A. Lange & Söhne produced high-precision pocket watches admired the world over. This march was stopped at the end of World War II when the East German government nationalized the watchmaking companies in Glashütte into one State-run enterprise, VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB).
It was only after the reunification of Germany in 1990 that the founder’s great-grandson Walter Lange was able to re-register the A. Lange & Söhne trademark again. The brand made a comeback in 1994 and unveiled a new line of watches with the flagship Lange 1 model featuring an outsize date and off-center dial configuration. In 1999 the brand introduced the Datograph Up Down with an integrated chronograph movement that many consider to be the finest in the modern era.
In the 25 years since its resurrection, the manufacture has created a staggering 54 in-house calibers, it produces only a few thousand (guesstimates put that number to be around 5,000) wristwatches in a year all in gold or platinum. In 2013, the brand unveiled its most ambitious project yet – the Grand Complication, the manufacture’s most complicated wristwatch that unites seven complications including a perpetual calendar, a grand and petite sonnerie, and a split-seconds chronograph with flying seconds.
The maison designs and creates its movements in-house and even makes its own balance springs. With the exception of cases and dials – Lange prefers to leave these to experts – it manages everything else in-house. In August 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the manufacture’s new annex. The latest building provides more than 5,400 sq-m of additional space for more improved processes.
So why build a new annex? Is Lange planning to push out more watches in the coming years? Not likely, according to Lange officials, who tell us that the latest annex was more to accommodate the new staff and machinery that was cramping up the original building. The annex is across the road from the existing building and is connected via a footbridge. We are told that a third of the manufacture is devoted to the production of components, a third to finishing the movement and the remaining are involved in the assembly of the finished components and movement. About 55 people (10 per cent of the staff in Glashütte) work in the product-development team. “It’s a big number considering our size and the number of watches we produce in a year. But having a well-staffed product development team is important to us,” says Anthony De Haas, director of product development at Lange.
To begin at the beginning: we visit a room filled with giant CNC machines that work on processing the components that make up a Lange movement. The brand uses German Silver (an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc) as the base material for its movement. The choice of German Silver as the base material is down to the fact that it is durable and on oxidation it imparts a yellowish patina to the metal. Giant CNC machines are fed blanks of German Silver that are drilled and cut in a bath of mineral oil to produce the famous three-quarter plates pioneered by the founder and used in the movement of Lange watches – a style that has come to be associated with Glashütte watches now.
The tolerances are tight here and quality control is done by an optical measuring system. If the measurements are even micrometers off, the parts are rejected. Automatic lathes that are fed long tubes of metals churn out smaller components like screws and pinions; Lange also uses wire erosion machines to churn out the small parts and components that make up the movement.
From here we are lead to the finishing department. Given Lange’s annual output, each watch is lovingly finished by the employees of this department. It is no secret that Lange timepieces are known for their exemplary finishes – a dinner-plate size version of Caliber L.951.6, the movement used in the Datograph, sits in the lobby of the main building.
No matter how many times you’ve seen this under a loupe, you can’t help admire the architecture of this integrated chronograph movement that is made up of just over 400 parts. There are some characteristic features to most Lange movements – the three-quarter plates with Glashütte ribbing, the gold chatons in which the rubies are placed, blued screws, bevelled edges and an engraved balance cock – and these require effort and man-hours.
We walk into the finishing department to see a young finisseur black polishing a tourbillon bridge. It takes about two-five days just to finish this one component. The workshop has a mix of modern polishing and buffing tools like Eneska and traditional tools – the craftsmen use traditional polishing tools for certain parts.
Lange bridges and plates are chamfered – edges are bevelled at a 45-degree angle and polished by hand to a high lustre – to a uniform width. The trademark Glashütte ribbing doesn’t happen at this stage. Watchmakers assemble the movement first and then dissemble it. The three-quarter plates are now given their stripes and blued screws are used in the final assembly.
Each Lange movement’s balance cock is hand-engraved by a member of this specialized department. Each of these artisans has a signature style and it’s not uncommon for owners to meet the artisan who worked on their watch.
From the finishing department we move onto the assembly department where the finished components and parts are put together. The more complicated watches are assembled by an elite team of watchmakers in the complications department. We are told that some of these watchmakers even work on the finishing of some chronograph parts.
We peer over the shoulder of a watchmaker assembling the Lange 1 Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar. The Caliber L082.1 has more than 600 components and it takes one watchmaker about six weeks to assemble. The Zeitwerk, another modern icon for Lange with the jumping numerals and digital display, has its own department for assembly and sits in a separate enclosure. A young man here demonstrates how Lange tapped the constant force escapement to ensure that there is an even torque supplied from the gear train to the escapement.
One of the things we notice during our visit is that a lot of the staff are relatively young, unlike the stereotypical image of elderly watchmakers hunched over their work desks in the Vallée de Joux. We are told that the staff come through a rigorous training program and only the most talented ones end up staying at Lange. “Part of my job is to promote this young talent, to help them realize their potential. These youngsters are not afraid to try new things. It makes product development a lot more exciting for us,” says Haas. “For example, five years ago we started working with enamel dials.
We had just one lady then, now we have two in that department. Two years ago we introduced the Lange 1 Tourbillon with a black enamel dial (Lange 1 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst to commemorate the brand’s 20th anniversary). It was a hard way to learn to gather this know-how to make it inhouse. It was important for Lange that this was done in-house. It was tough but we managed to add that skill to the manufacture.
“There have been some bumpy roads along the road that lead to the development of the Grand Complication and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, but we prevailed. I think it’s important to feed this team these challenges. That’s what keeps things exciting. That is the DNA of the brand,” he adds. Though Lange sources cases and dials from suppliers, it does make a limited number of cases in-house. It also creates some dials in-house, especially the ones used in the Handwerkskunst editions. Lange’s dials are made by the La Chaux-de-Fonds company Quadrance et Habillage.
Haas explains, “Only the cases used in the Grand Complication and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater are made here because the construction of these cases is quite technical. But it’s not our goal to bring in case production in-house. Why? Because it’s a huge investment and we don’t make enough watches to justify such an investment.
“Same with the dials. Making dials is a business on its own. If you look at the Lange 1 for example, the Roman applied numerals are stamped. That’s a technique we don’t know. It’s again a huge investment and it only makes sense if you produce a lot of dials. The guys who make our dials are very good, so why should we bother making them. Leave it to the guys who are really good at it while we concentrate on our strengths,” Haas signs off.