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The Watchmakers Who Saved Glashütte

Ferdinand Adolph Lange established a horological industry in a poor German town in 1845, and his great-grandson Walter resuscitated it a century and a half later
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

(continued from page 1)

Eventually, applications began to come in—some from watchmakers whose grandfathers and other relatives had worked for A. Lange & Söhne. The process was facilitated by the hiring of Hartmut Knothe, who as director of the GUB's educational center had known many of the watchmakers. Once a small workforce had been assembled, Blümlein and Lange had to figure out a way to retrain them, as much of the knowledge of high-end watchmaking had been lost over the past two generations. The company's new watchmakers were sent to IWC in Switzerland to learn the modern watchmaking technology necessary to create haute horlogerie.

Today, some 500 specialists spread among five factory buildings use both traditional and modern technology to make only a few thousand watches each year, all of which are fully assembled and regulated by hand. A. Lange & Söhne has not only regained world fame as one of the very best watch brands in the world, but its rebirth has revived a struggling region and resuscitated its very special craft.
 
Elizabeth Doerr, author of Twelve Faces of Time, is a freelance watch writer based in Germany.

The Making of a Masterpiece

Owning a watch by A. Lange & Söhne is far more than just owning what may well be considered a piece of German history. Experts agree that this company's products may be counted among the highest quality the world of watchmaking has to offer.

"When we started Lange up again, we asked ourselves, How would Ferdinand Adolph Lange have made his watches today? He certainly would have gone with the times in terms of technology," says Walter Lange, the great-grandson of the founder, in explaining the company's basic premise. What many people don't know is that a watch movement made by A. Lange & Söhne is actually assembled twice—a practice that occurs nowhere else in the business of serially manufactured wristwatches.

"The movements are first assembled in a 'raw' state. Some of the finishing is already done at this point, but the first assembly is used for regulating," says Lange, referring to the final polishing and decorating process known in the watch industry as finishing, and the adjusting of the escapement subgroup to keep near-perfect time, which is called regulation. "But where there is danger of ruining something, the final polishing and decorating is done when the movement is taken apart again. At this point, the watch could be considered completed and could be encased, but at Lange it is taken apart again and all the components are finished, beautifully polished, etc. Then the movement is put back together and once again regulated.

"This is the luxury that costs so much money," explains Lange.

Lange says that it is the extreme vulnerability of the German silver that the company uses for the plates and bridges that led him to the idea of assembling the movement twice. German silver is used on high-quality movements in place of brass thanks to its natural beauty and longevity in addition to the stability and flexibility needed to support the mechanics.

Brass is a more common material, but commonality is not something inherent to a Lange. A. Lange & Söhne uses its German silver in an untreated state to preserve its natural beauty, which adds to its vulnerability. Other companies that use German silver—an alloy comprising zinc, copper and nickel that is less likely to oxidize than brass—treat the material's surfaces with a lacquer to prevent it from showing damage by scratches and fingerprints during production.

A. Lange & Söhne's long history—with the exception of the four decades under East German rule—was characterized by technical innovation and clever solutions to improve the product. This has remained an important element in the modern incarnation of the company. A. Lange & Söhne presented its first modern products on October 24, 1994: four new watches, among them a tourbillon called Pour le Mérite and the timepiece that was destined to become the new face of the modern brand, the Lange 1.

The genteel, luxurious appearance, and off-center arrangement of the displays on the Lange 1 was so exotic in the early years of the mechanical renaissance that it immediately hit home.
The genteel, luxurious appearance, and off-center arrangement of the displays on the Lange 1 was so exotic in the early years of the mechanical renaissance that it immediately hit home.
Though the Lange 1 is a relatively simple watch—especially compared to some of the brand's other offerings—its genteel, luxurious appearance, based on an off-center arrangement of the displays coupled with a magnanimous large date, was so exotic in the early years of the mechanical renaissance that it immediately hit home. The feel of this watch is so much like a German luxury car that you can almost hear the quality of the door closing when you strap it to the wrist.


Its large date could well be considered a commonplace complication today, but the watch world really has A. Lange & Söhne to thank for the advent of this display. This particular large date—the mechanics of which are much more difficult to conceive than they may appear—is modeled after the five-minute clock that hangs above the stage in Dresden's Semper Opera, a clock that was made by J. C. Friedrich Gutkaes and Ferdinand Adolph Lange, two men who were linked by marriage, an instructor/pupil relationship and, later, business. Tradition through and through.

Some of the modern technical achievements that A. Lange & Söhne and its 500 employees achieve are simply mind-boggling: the Pour le Mérite tourbillon includes a drive system inspired by vintage pocket watches called chain and fusee; the Lange Double Split is the world's first chronograph to feature both split seconds and split minutes for comparative interval timings; the Tourbograph combines both of these immense technologies; the Lange 31, a hand (key)-wound watch, can run for 31 days without winding. And the newest technical wonder, the Lange Zeitwerk Striking Time, is the world's first mechanical digital watch to acoustically sound the full and quarter hours using visible gongs and hammers.

Naturally, Lange's repertoire also extends to more accessible complications such as the perpetual calendar and other beautiful specimens of Glashütte watchmaking that never cut corners on finishing or aesthetics despite their more understandable mechanics. These magnificent models always include unique characteristics of the art of watchmaking as it has been practiced in Glashütte—for the most part—since 1845.


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