January 26, 2009
by Ariel Adams
So begins a series of articles that will appear both here and on Luxist.com chronicling the many lessons I learned, and splendors I witnessed as a guest of luxury German watch poster child, A. Lange & Söhne. To help all of you, I am going to first assist you with the pronunciation of the brand name, which I only recently mastered. Phonetically, it is “Ah Lhangeh und Zoneh.” For convenience, I am going to leave out the umlaut over the “o” in “Söhne,” but it should be there. What elevates Lange watches to the highest levels of luxury is the fact that they design and manufacture their own watch movements, apply the highest standards of quality to each step of the manufacturing and decoration process, and utilize only the highest grade materials in each watch they produce.
My real journey began on the drive from Dresden to Glashutte, a small town known above all else, for watch making. Within the petite confines of two major streets, are several major watch makers. A. Lange & Sohne was the first of them back in 1845 when the original company was founded by Adolf Lange (“söhne” in the brand name means sons, as it was later named when the Lange & Cie was taken over by Richard Lange, Adolf Lange’s son). After World War II, the area was appropriated by the communists and the government took over all factories, effectively terminating the private business. However, soon after Germany’s reunification in 1989, A. Lange & Sohne was back, and with a rejuvenated desire to be Germany’s best and most exclusive watch maker. In 1994, after 4 years of development (yeah, it takes that long), Lange released its first new collection of watches. The flagship model was the Lange 1, a highly successful, but initially controversial piece given its design. Today the Lange 1 is an icon of Lange Uhren, and one of its best sellers. Each of the original Lange “return” watches from 1994 utilized the trend of having individually developed and manufactured movements for each watch. The theme behind all the watches was to take the style and artisanship of pocket watches (that Lange originally produced before the Second World War) and place them in wrist watches. They were to be watches for those who could appreciate them the most, and have the means to afford what was painstakingly designed to be the best.
Getting closer to Glashutte from Dresden I learned that the area is known for a history of wood carving and porcelain. In the 18th century, Augustus the Strong, the ruler of Saxony at the time (where Glashutte is located), wished to bring the Chinese art of porcelain making to Germany, and it was done with great success. Today, Meissen porcelain is some of the best in the world. The region’s woodwork is equally impressive, with some of the most beautiful modern built furniture I’ve ever seen. It seems as though perfection is in the blood of the people, and has been for hundreds of years. This of course is part of the German work ethic: “slow, steady, and perfect the first time” (as I like to say).
A. Lange & Sohne has a boutique store in Dresden, located in the heart of the old sector. While you’d never know it as a new visitor to Dresden, the majority of the historical buildings are only now viewable again. 1945 was a bad year for Dresden during the war, with much of it being bombed or burned. Almost immediately after the war, and during communist rule, the rebuilding slowly took effect. It was not until after German reunification that the restoration process in Dresden got much more serious. A. Lange & Sohne is a name you can find all over Dresden, especially in the Green Vault museum located near the boutique in what used to be the royal home. What you will find in Dresden is a dynamic mix of medieval architecture and personality that combines Gothic buildings with the more festive style of the 18th century.
The Green Vault is located near the clock tower that has a lot of historical significance for A. Lange and Sohne because the original founder apprenticed here under master watch maker Friedrich Gutkaes, and began his idea for a manufacture. A short distance away is the famous “five minute clock” located in the Semper Opera House that is also tied to A. Lange & Sohne’s history having been created in Gutkaes’ manufactury in 1841 . These locations are in Dresden, but that is not where A. Lange & Sohne began. Lange wanted to enter a new region as Dresden was crowded with watch makers at the time. Eyes were set about 45 minutes south to Glashutte near the Ore Mountains. It was a poor region at the time. There, Lange saw potential in the people as watch makers due to their focus on crafts and weaving. Attention to tiny detail can easily be transferred to other skills with good direction. Today Glashutte is a different place than it was then, completely transformed by these actions in the 19th century. What is so amazing to me is that after all those years, and considering all the other things that have changed, the core elements of watches and clocks remain the same. It is that type of tradition that A. Lange & Sohne refers to when using the term “tradition.”
As you drive by the Glashutte watch museum on the way to the A. Lange & Sohne buildings along the charming streets. Chimneys pipe smoke as snow-lined roofs line the hills. This was all very story book looking. I noticed how dedicated Lange is to the city, and to the region for that matter. From sponsorships to philanthropic events, Lange is part of the people and appears to contribute regularly. They do this because the people there are Lange. Over 500 employees now make up Lange’s workforce, and the retention rate among employees is legendary. Aside from the obvious international sales of their watches, everything is located in Germany. It is Saxony’s own master watchmaker, born and bred. The image of the A. Lange & Sohne advertisement referencing Saxony is located in the Dresden airport, and nicely sums up a distinct character trait of the brand. In Glashutte next to the factory is a long banner on a fence that details the history of the brand to passing drivers. You can’t read everything in one pass, but the point is to educate locals as they drive by from day to day – maintaining a sense of local pride.
Upon arrival at the factory, the tour begins quickly. My guide is not a watch maker, but is able to answer each question I have, no matter how technical or obscure. I jest at how he must moonlight as a watch maker. No matter your position at Lange Uhren, you are well informed on how things work there, and what goes into the precious watches. The situation is immediately impressive from the clean modern architecture to the scent of fresh watches.
The company is divided into several buildings all located near each other. The buildings themselves are antiques, carefully preserved and fully modernized within. In some departments modern machinery sits next to machines well over 100 years old. Certain traditional technical requirements are best completed on hand-operated machinery that is no longer made. You get the feeling that even though the complex is modern, the goal is to create the most tradition oriented and functional setting for the watch makers, and that no technique or process is too burdensome to get that perfect result. “Why do the watch makers wear lab coats?” I ask. “Mostly because of tradition, and it helps keep their clothes clean, but mostly because of tradition.” Something in that statement comforts me. In the next part of the A. Lange & Sohne trip coverage, I will discuss the watch factory process in more detail, as it is an exhaustive process, and I was only given but a glimpse. Thus far the atmosphere is unpretentious and calm. It feels like it would be a good place to work, with smiles plentiful and attitudes cheery. Framed pictures on the walls in each room of are of watch movements, portions thereof, or completed timepieces. They are a helpful reminders of what is important to the people at Lange. These people really enjoy what they do, and take an immense sense of accomplishment and pride in the end result. Next, I’ll discuss what goes into everything you can and can’t see in an A. Lange & Sohne timepiece.
Read Part II of this article here.
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