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
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011
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"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.
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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