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
| By Elizabeth Doerr | From Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011
The Watchmakers Who Saved Glashütte
Photos/Berthold Steinhilber
Walter Lange at the A. Lange & Söhne factory in Glashütte.

Nestled among the natural beauty of the Erzgebirge mountains, the small eastern German town of Glashütte had once been known for its world-famous watch industry and the timepieces of legendary watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne. Founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the company flourished for most of the next century, but a series of upheavals beginning in the early twentieth century would eventually lead to the demise of the esteemed watchmaker. A. Lange & Söhne managed to survive the advent of the wristwatch and the Great Depression, but National Socialism, the Second World War and expropriation by East Germany finished it off.

The town's reputation for haute horlogerie might have been permanently tarnished, but after German reunification in 1989, the founder's great-grandson Walter Lange was able to rekindle the tradition. Thanks to his inimitable spirit, Lange found a way to bring the art of mechanical watchmaking back to Glashütte, and today the town is once again home to some of the finest watchmaking in the world.

    It was Ferdinand Adolph Lange's passion and desire to aid his impoverished home region that originally helped Glashütte blossom into a world-renowned center of German watchmaking. Born in 1815, Lange completed an apprenticeship in 1835, then, in 1837, embarked on a four-year journey throughout Europe, working with the most famous chronometer makers of the day. Not only did he bring a gigantic cache of knowledge back home to Dresden, but also the seed of a concept to start up his own manufacture of pocket watches and the beginnings of an entire industry.

    The mining areas surrounding Dresden were very poor and structurally weak in the 1800s. In the Erzgebirge mountains, silver ore had mostly run out and farmers were finding it hard to make ends meet. People learned basket weaving to keep their hands busy and keep at least a few talers coming in. While clock- and watchmaking played a role in Saxon life during this time, there was no real horology industry in the area, an element that was an intrinsic part of both London's and Paris's cultures at the time.

    Upon returning from his travels, Lange was intent on initiating a new watchmaking industry in Saxon. He submitted a clever concept to the Saxon government that included concentration on one single pocket watch model, the design of which he had simplified and perfected so that it could be made with self-manufactured machinery as well as division of labor, a novel concept at the time. His concept also included an apprentice training program designed to evolve into a later supplier system.

    The government agreed to provide money to purchase tools and instruments and a loan to cover other start-up costs and the 15 apprentices' costs of living for three years. It also chose to locate the watchmaking factory in Glashütte, one of a number of poor Erzgebirge communities urgently in need of help.

    In 1845, Lange founded not only a factory for watchmaking that would bear his name, he established an entire industry. He patiently taught his apprentices the basics of watchmaking and even encouraged them to break off from him and start their own small supplier firms once they had thoroughly mastered the craft—thus providing the region with a new means to make a living.

    Though Lange established a watchmaking dynasty with his own groundbreaking entrepreneurship, he also exhibited great community spirit by founding various clubs and societies and financing infrastructure elements such as roads, bridges and even living space for 60 families. He also served as mayor of Glashütte for 18 years in addition to developing a foundation that insured his workers and gave them a pension.

    Over the course of the following century, Glashütte became the German center for fine watchmaking, highlighted by the founding, in 1878, of the German School of Watchmaking, a specialized technical school that soon earned a global reputation. The Lange family also introduced the metric system to watchmaking and invented the invar alloy for movement springs, both of which became standards in watchmaking.

    Throughout the years, it was A. Lange & Söhne that waved the flag of luxury watchmaking in the Teutonic regions; the name itself was a sure sign of quality, attracting and inviting various other brands to establish their own factories in the valley created by the Müglitz River.

    If a word were to be used to describe Glashütte's people, it might be tenacious. The persistent spirit that prevails in the small city has been the key to its survival, for this unfortunate region has been afflicted more than once with modern plagues. At the beginning of the 1900s, the town's industry was jeopardized by the development of the wristwatch, which was beginning to replace the pocket watch, although the latter would remain prevalent until the 1920s.

    The lifting of an embargo on Swiss products in 1924 finally burst the dam, leading to a flood of comparatively cheap Swiss wristwatches on the market. A. Lange & Söhne countered this by introducing a simplified, machine-manufactured caliber sold alongside its luxury products. Shortly after the Swiss challenge was overcome, however, the world economic crisis set off by the 1929 market crash and ensuing inflation dampened Glashütte's flourishing business. A. Lange & Söhne managed to survive where others did not thanks to its quality products and enthusiasm for watchmaking.

    "My parents never let on about the status of the times," remembers 84-year-old Walter Lange, Ferdinand Adolph's great-grandson, who grew up in Glashütte in relative comfort. "I was born in the Weimar era, then came the crash in 1929 and the great unemployment. I can still see it today; it was a childhood trauma for me, when I looked out the living room window and saw all the unemployed men lined up, waiting across the street. I will never forget that view, and it was one of the main reasons I started the company again [in 1990]—to bring work to Glashütte. I saw the same situation heading toward Glashütte again."

    The next crisis, in the 1930s, stemmed from National Socialism and the rise of the Nazi party. This bleak period in German history did not leave an isolated region like the Erzgebirge untouched: to the contrary, it was perhaps felt even more strongly here than in a large city, with local representatives of the party not only familiar with neighboring faces and attitudes, but also installed in companies to ensure that party directives were being followed. A. Lange & Söhne was not immune to the unstable political environment which, along with continued rampant inflation, contributed to falling watch sales.

    During the Nazis' rise, Walter Lange was a young watchmaker being prepped for the family business. When he was drafted into the army in 1942 at the age of 18, he was attending a watchmaking school in Karlstein, Austria. Though Glashütte's watchmaking school had the best reputation around, at the time it was only taking journeymen headed for master certification. Lange and his family felt that Walter should first get out and see some of the world. During the war, Lange was heavily injured at the Russian front before embarking on a perilous journey westward across Denmark in the midst of a retreat to find medical attention.

    A. Lange & Söhne and the other Glashütte watchmakers had also been pressed into military service, ordered to develop pilot's wristwatches for the air force. These watches became legendary for their precision and reliability.

    Upon returning home, Walter Lange had yet to experience the worst part of this nightmarish chapter in Saxony's history. After the war, Germany was divided into four zones, with each of the Allied forces in charge of one: Glashütte was located in the zone that belonged to the conquering Soviets, who proceeded to pillage the land.

    Among other things, the Soviet Union was interested in Glashütte's wristwatch technology, and it forced A. Lange & Söhne to hand over all construction plans for Caliber 48, the reliable movement used in the pilot's watches. The Soviet forces also dismantled the factory's machinery and sent it off to Moscow, leaving Glashütte with a weakened watchmaking industry—and bombed out to boot: The town had been the victim of an air raid that took place on May 8, 1945, just hours before the war was officially declared over.

    Nothing but an energy turbine was left standing, according to Walter Lange.

    Lange returned to work in various departments of his family's business. After several years of rebuilding, A. Lange & Söhne was beginning to reclaim its previous global reputation when the next disaster struck: the rise of the socialist German Democratic Republic and the establishment of a planned economy.

    On November 15, 1948, Lange was condemned to work in the uranium mines, which meant almost certain death, if he did not agree to join the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, a long arm of the Communist Party. This left Lange no choice but to flee to what was now West Germany. His family's company had already been expropriated; it continued to manufacture watches under the name Lange VEB Glashütte from 1949 until 1951.

    A. Lange & Söhne wasn't the only Glashütte watchmaker to be nationalized: in 1951, all of the town's seven horological companies were expropriated and combined to form one conglomerate in charge of watchmaking and microelectronics for East Germany.

    This "people's company"—which by the 1980s would employ about 2,000 people—was known as VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe, or GUB for short. Although mechanical watchmaking in its simplest form would continue, the next few decades would bring seemingly irreparable changes to the art form that Glashütte had once been world-famous for, including a transition to mass quartz watchmaking in later years.

    Having relocated to the West, Lange resumed his watchmaking career by going to work in the Bavarian community of Memmelsdorf for Ernst Kurtz, another Glashütte native who had flown to the West, and who would later be recognized as the founder of Tutima.

    By 1950, Lange had resettled in Germany's other center of watchmaking, Pforzheim, where he briefly worked in various capacities for PUW, a movement maker. He soon started a watch assembly company as well as a wholesale business representing Swiss brands. But he could never forget where he had come from and that A. Lange & Söhne was innately connected to the place of its birth and the spirit of its people.

    By the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev was promising an end to the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. His glasnost ideas were to have far-reaching effects, and the inherent cracks in the GDR's politics and economics eventually led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The German people were reunited; East and West were no longer divided.

    Western-style marketability and economics would soon return to Glashütte. So, too, would Walter Lange, who had a burning desire to reinstate his family's rich legacy there and to resurrect the town's grand watchmaking tradition.

    "This was a pioneering time," recalls Lange. "It was such a wonderful time, despite all the difficulties that came along with it. This wasn't just about refounding a company, it was about rebuilding Glashütte. My partner in this venture, Günter Blümlein, would often feel he needed to say this to me: 'Mr. Lange, you are more for Glashütte than Lange.' For him, it was about the company; for me, it was both. And I take great joy in the fact that today [some one thousand] people earn their livings with watchmaking in the small city."

    As Lange and Blümlein went about reestablishing the A. Lange & Söhne brand, watchmaking's mechanical renaissance was just hitting full stride in the rest of the world. This period had followed the so-called quartz crisis, a decade and a half during which inexpensive Japanese quartz watches almost entirely wiped out the mechanical watch industry in Switzerland and Germany. In Germany, the mechanical renaissance was undoubtedly accompanied by a revival of Glashütte-style watchmaking, thanks to Lange and Blümlein.

    The partners faced seemingly insurmountable hurdles in achieving that return to high-quality horology. Not only did they have to wrestle with the mistrust of Glashütte's inhabitants, whose upbringing had been starkly different than Westerners', but they also had to contend with various business challenges, such as poor telephone service, a shortage of hotels and restaurants in the area and the dearth of qualified personnel.

    Their most difficult obstacle in rebuilding the company was obtaining a factory location. A. Lange & Söhne has been headquartered in what was known as its historic family domain, located at the city's most prominent crossroads, a stone's throw from the German School of Watchmaking.

    It would seem that Walter Lange's childhood home should by rights be given back to him, but a loophole in the German law governing the GDR's assets precluded this. (It wasn't until 2000 that Lange was able to regain ownership of the property. "We ended up having to buy the historic family domain back from the government," he says. "That still hurts today when I think about it.")

    Literally having to start over from scratch, Lange registered the new company, Lange Uhren GmbH, on December 7, 1990—the anniversary of the original founding in 1845—using the address of a private residence belonging to an old school chum. Lange Uhren GmbH was a joint venture between Walter Lange and the watch group known as LMH, which was managed by Blümlein and included iconic Swiss watch brands Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC.

    Lange and Blümlein needed to find people to work in the factory, so they hung signs in the gargantuan GUB building located next door to A. Lange & Söhne's historic family domain. The behemoth conglomerate was undergoing fundamental changes as a result of German reunification, including a huge reduction in the workforce from 2,000 to 70 between 1990 and 1993, and the rundown watch factory would eventually be sold.

    Lange and Blümlein's attempts to recruit GUB employees were initially met with resistance. The professional home of two generations of Glashütte watchmakers, GUB's workers generally viewed Western entrepreneurship as an enemy of the working class, and it took time to get over their mistrust.

    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.