Time and Again

For European watchmakers IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, success has been all in good
| By Edward Kiersh | From Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

When tourists flock to the massive waterfalls known as the Rheinfall in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, they gape in wonder at the surging waters and pose for Kodak moments.  

Yet, when American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones visited this picturesque town in 1868, he viewed the Rhine's powerful waters as a solution to a perplexing problem.  

Dreaming of challenging the domination of Geneva watchmakers--a goal that still occupies the attention of Jones's successors--the 27-year-old Yankee had traveled the world looking for a cheap energy source to fuel a state-of-the-art watch factory. He finally met the owner of a Schaffhausen hydroelectric power plant who provided the necessary energy for his machine tools that helped Jones launch the International Watch Co. in the north-central Swiss burg.  

IWC was quickly praised for producing elegant pocket watches. Though highly sought by collectors, these watches still couldn'tcompete with American-made timepieces in the 1870s. Close to bankruptcy, Jones sold his interest in the company in 1876 to Schaffhausen Commercial Bank, and another American, Frederic Frank Seeland, took over as director and general manager. Four years later, Johannes Rauschenbach-Vogel, a member of the board of directors and a Schaffhausen industrialist, acquired the factory, but it wasn't until his son, Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk, succeeded him upon his death in 1881 that the company became prosperous again. For the next 100 years the firm's name, ownership and financial prospects changed frequently.  

Despite its volatile existence, IWC pioneered increasingly complex movements and became synonymous with the factory stamp "Probus Scafusia," or quality workmanship, from Schaffhausen. Many European heads of state swore by IWC timepieces. Winston Churchill was presented with a gold IWC hunter, a pocket watch, by eight Swiss doctors for his role as the "liberator of Europe" in 1944, and when Sir Edmund Hillary made his successful assault on Everest in 1953, he wore the Ingenieur, the first IWC watch to feature patented automatic winding.  

Today, IWC is part of a powerful triad. Controlled by financial heavyweight LMH, a German holding company that also owns renowned watchmakers Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, IWC is breaking out of its small, elitist niche among watch connoisseurs and becoming the stylish choice for the likes of everyone from Michael Jordan to Giorgio Armani.  

In the highly competitive watch business, in which Geneva-based companies are able to fund the development of new products each year, the often struggling IWC was unable to compete with the Geneva titans before the LMH ties were secured in 1991. Now financially strong and mounting a massive challenge to Geneva's supremacy, IWC has styled numerous complex masterpieces that it feels will finally fulfill Jones's dream of reaching watchmaking's pinnacle.  

"Since we're outsiders from the German part of Switzerland, we're working feverishly to prove our products are equal to Geneva's," says IWC president and cigar-smoking chief executive officer Michael Sarp. "We must convince retailers our products have spirit, a technological edge.  

"The similarity between cigars, wine and watches is the passion of the people who make them, and that gusto, or culture of flawless craftsmanship, is guiding our new production [30,000 timepieces are made annually]. So, instead of short-term designs, fashion-type items, we're only going to do high-quality, hand-crafted pieces worthy of collecting."  

Priced at a whopping $350,000 and touted as the most complex mechanical wristwatch ever made, the Il Destriero Scafusia is already legendary. Named after valiant steeds used by jousting knights in the Middle Ages, this museum-worthy limited edition celebrates IWC's 125th anniversary (only 125 pieces were slated to be made when production began in 1993). Each watch squeezes 750 mechanical parts into a 35.4-millimeter-long movement, runs on 77 jewels to reduce wear to a minimum, and features 21 displays and functions.  

Though the 49-year-old Sarp laughingly confesses that he does not understand all the technical workings of the Destriero, the ingenuity of its micro-mechanics is dramatically clear. The perpetual calendar will show the correct year until 2499. A split-seconds chronograph adds separate times together and has a repeater with two finely tuned gongs that strike the time in hours, quarters and minutes. The phase-of-the-moon display is one of the most accurate ever found in a wristwatch, while the "flying" tourbillon is the first one ever to complete eight vibrations per second, guaranteeing maximum precision.  

"Il Destriero is a grand watch of impeccable quality," says Arnaud Tellier, the deputy chairman of Antiquorum, the Geneva-based auctioneers. "Its mechanics are very impressive, and an extremely pretty watch with hand engravings and a sapphire back crystal. Il Destriero is a true collector's item."  

In the same mechanically spirited mode as the Destriero, IWC's Grand Complication with moonface and minute repeater is another technical treasure (50 are made annually, and with a platinum bracelet, cost $195,000). The brainchild of designer-engineer Kurt Klaus, the timepiece has 659 parts--71 of them jewels--performing 17 functions, and boasts a perpetual calendar that is programmed to remain accurate for 500 years.  

While the passion to rule time, rather than to be ruled by it, ennobles IWC's magnificent line of Portugieser watches (successors to the 1930s watches that first catapulted IWC to fame), Sarp is also trying to give the firm a younger, sportier image. To contend with such stalwarts as Breitling and Rolex, he's recently introduced an array of pilot's watches and GST sports pieces, including Aquatimers (watches that are water-resistant to 2,000 meters) and the titanium Deep One.  

Sarp is particularly enthusiastic about the Deep One's innovative features, which include a mechanical depth gauge with an analog display, and a mechanism for measuring dive time. He insists, "This is a vanguard piece which will ultimately become a classic like our Mark X [a pilot's watch supplied to the British armed forces in the 1940s] and the Mark XI [a 1948 pilot's watch highly prized by collectors]. It will help us put a new face on an old company without destroying its storied essence.   "We have lots of ideas, yet we must streamline our assortment the way A. Lange and Patek Philippe have done. That's been a key to their fame."  

IWC's sister company Jaeger-LeCoultre has also used a minimalist strategy to great success. Founded in 1833 in Le Sentier, Switzerland, this pioneer of movements with a crown winding and setting system (1847) and the first fully automatic watch (the Futurematic in 1953) has lately won acclaim for its Master Collection, which includes the Grand Taille and Perpetual Calendar.  

Equally renowned for supplying ébauches, or movement blanks, to the industry's elite watchmakers, Jaeger is hailed as "a terrific company" by Stewart Unger, the owner of New York's Time Will Tell gallery. "What they're doing with minute repeaters and chronographs is wild, just exquisite work."  

That accolade-winning craftsmanship is best exemplified by Jaeger's Art Deco-inspired Reverso pieces, which feature a swivel, or reversible, case. Though originally designed to protect the glass from impact, the advent of sapphire crystals enabled the watchmaker to use the backside of the Reverso for more aesthetic purposes, such as decorative engraving and enameling or using translucent sapphire crystal backs through which the watch movement can be viewed.  

Created in 1931 at the request of British polo players who wanted a watch that could withstand the jarring shocks of their rough sport, the rectangular Reverso is the world's longest-running unchanged watch model. It usually features a silver dial with black numerals and blued steel hands, and has a spring-loaded button hatch that when released allows the case to pivot, or reverse, with silky smoothness.  

Though the Classic-size Reverso retains the exact proportions of the 1931 watch, Jaeger has recently introduced mechanical, manually wound Reverso models that will also attract attention. One of them, the Reverso Duo, has been described as "two watches in one" because its 21-jewel caliber 854 movement displays the time in two time zones on "back-to-back" dials.   Although Reversos are dressy and not as sporty as their historical origins would indicate, these watches still evoke a measure of magic. For instead of being one more face in the bigger-is-better parade, Jaeger has overcome the technological challenge of engineering several functions into a smaller case.  

IWC, meanwhile, is heading in the opposite direction of creating larger and weightier watches with manly sizzle, and Sarp is convinced he already has a piece that will rival the Reverso for longevity.   "While the Destriero, Grand Complication and GST are wonderful, our flagship is the Da Vinci," says Sarp. "When everyone was rushing to use quartz in the 1970s and '80s, we developed this ultimate mechanical."  

Three years in the making, the Da Vinci is an automatically winding mechanical chronograph, with a stopwatch accurate to one-eighth of a second, that shows the phases of the moon and displays the date, day, month, year, decade and millennium. This intricate piece of technological wizardry was introduced in 1985, and since then, IWC has added other pieces to the Da Vinci collection.  

The Da Vinci Tourbillon boasts a pearl-sized mechanism (consisting of 100 components) to compensate for the earth's gravitational pull, and to make the watch run even more precisely. There's also the exquisite Four Seasons Tourbillon, a limited edition of 20 watches with a finely engraved dial featuring four allegorical figures that represent the passage of time. The family's newest offspring, the Da Vinci SL Automatic with a quartz-controlled movement, is, comparatively speaking, affordably priced between $2,700 and $17,000 and comes in 12 models.   It's doubtful any watch will ever attain the near mythical status of Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, the Da Vincis are aptly named, for they epitomize the Renaissance master's gift for aesthetics.  

IWC isn't the only member of the LMH triumvirate that's winning new praise. Its other sister company, A. Lange & Söhne, is also delighting the watch world with its pieces. Even more impressive than its craftsmanship, however, is Lange's very existence. Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Lange survived a death-spewing firestorm during the Second World War and subsequent political upheavals before miraculously resuscitating the time-honored brand a decade ago.  

During the waning hours of May 7, 1945, Russian fighter-bombers swooped down from the clouds, raining havoc on a retreating German Panzer division and on the small town of Glashütte, south of Dresden, Germany, devastating the town.   The rockets demolished the main production facility of A. Lange & Söhne, which, since 1845, had created pocket watches that were considered by many to be the Rolls-Royce of German watchmaking.  

The brand had captured the fancy of the aristocracy throughout pre-war Europe. Company founder Adolph Lange, the son-in-law of the watchmaker to the royal court of Dresden in the mid-nineteenth century, used precise mathematical calculations in the manufacturing of watch movements, pioneering efforts that won his company numerous awards.  

Three generations later, Lange's great-grandson Walter Lange was eager to spin his own artistic legacy. Schooled as a master watchmaker before serving in the Second World War, Lange saw his dreams dashed by two turbulent events after returning to civilian life. In 1946, his family had to fend off an expropriation attempt by the Soviet occupying force. Just two years later, Lange's hopes for reconstructing the company were dashed when the East German dictatorial regime seized what was left of the Lange factory, eventually forcing the highly skilled employees to make mass-produced military watches in the "People's Own Factory," a government-owned plant formed by the forced merger of several expropriated companies.  

Lange, ordered to work in a uranium mine, fled to West Germany in 1948 and established a wholesale watch business. During this period, he made his first contacts with IWC, which evolved into a long-standing friendship with the company. But his dream of resurrecting the A. Lange & Söhne brand was thwarted by the harsh reality of the Cold War. He would have to wait almost 50 years before his dream became a reality.  

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, and the East German regime, fell. The buoyed but considerably older Lange made plans to "take up the challenge of producing exceptional wristwatches, bearing the imprint, character and mechanical precision of their predecessors" in newly equipped Glashütte workshops.  

"When we started again I only had my great-grandfather's journey book, a charter for future projects, and the promise of a transfer of know-how from Schaffhausen [plus a $12 million investment, from IWC and various grants]," says Lange, 75, sitting next to a tray of manually wound Lange 1 watches that have won numerous "Watch of the Year" awards in Europe and the Far East.  

"It was a miracle that we got started again, so of course the skeptics wondered, 'Could we really come back? Could we overcome a load of such practical problems as finding watchmakers and training technical designers?' Yet, this new beginning was also a chance to use the latest technologies and to use only supreme quality materials: the most precious metals--gold and platinum for the cases, stable nickel silver for plates and bridges, gold chatons--the jewel settings--for the ruby wheel bearings, or diamond cap jewels on the Tourbillon."  

Lange began to style his first wristwatches in 1990, emphasizing Old World craftsmanship and the tradition of A. Lange & Söhne, and small editions of watches with unique, in-house-made three-quarter-plate movements. He issued only 123 pieces, including the Lange 1, in 1994 (a mere 700 watches were produced in 1995). His aim was to create "the smallest and most exclusive watchmaking company in the world" and to put A. Lange on the same lofty level as Patek Philippe and other cachet Swiss brands.  

He has more than succeeded. Now producing about 4,000 watches annually, A. Lange sells virtually all of the pieces a year in advance and garners adoring reviews from watch industry observers. HR: Magazine, a leading watchmaking journal, recently wrote, "The Lange automatic movement essentially marks an aesthetic pinnacle that no Swiss house has reached."   The Lange 1 is particularly prized. The company's flagship piece features a patented outsized date in twin gold-framed apertures, a striking solid silver dial with off-center hour and minute hands, and two subsidiary dials for seconds and a power reserve indicator.  

The date display is three times larger than that on a conventional watch of similar size. "People are astonished by the outsize date, since no one did it before. It's incredibly useful, as watch wearers can easily read the date," says LMH president Gunter Blumlein.  

Lange's cutting-edge status in mechanical horology is best dramatized by its 30-millimeter, three-quarter plate movement (made from a copper, zinc and nickel alloy), which boasts twin mainspring barrels. A very rare feature in a wristwatch, the barrels give the Lange 1 a power reserve of more than three days. The state of wind of the two springs is shown on the dial by a gold hand, and 53 jewels, nine of which are set in gold chatons, ensure the virtually friction-free operation of the movement.  

"This Lange is the finest watch in the world," declares Leon Adams, the president of Cellini, the New York watch emporium. "Being in the trade I own a lot of timepieces. But my yellow-gold Lange 1 is the watch I wear for extended periods. I love the weight of it, and the design is absolutely gorgeous."  

The Lange 1, in an 18-karat gold ($19,800) or platinum ($28,600) case, isn't the only tantalizing piece that attests to this company's fanaticism for precision and technical innovation. There's also the self-winding Langematik with a caliber L921.4 "Sax-O-Mat" movement (every A. Lange model has a unique and painstakingly crafted movement). Developed over five years, this classic, restrained-looking piece ($30,700 in white-gold) is the first automatic wristwatch to have the "zero reset" feature, which immediately returns the second hand to zero when the crown is pulled for setting. Praising its "exceptional accuracy," and likening the Sax-O-Mat movement to a "master watchmaker at his creative peak," HR: Magazine concluded that "the Langematik is an exclusive and technically perfect timepiece that should make any collector proud."  

Aficionados have bestowed similar plaudits on the manually wound Lange "1815 Up and Down," which is engineered with a power reserve mechanism patented by A. Lange in 1940. Another technological marvel, a specially constructed planetary gear, has been miniaturized in a newly produced, 21-jewel movement to drive a blued steel hand to the up or down position, or somewhere inbetween, on the power reserve indicator.  

Lange's movements also have a wondrous poetry. Gold chatons are used as settings for the jewel bearings, and the three-quarter plates are always decorated with rubies and perfectly blued screws.  

But beauty is only one element of this comeback story. In this era of multitudinous mechanical complications, when the craze is to create as many functions as is horologically possible, A. Lange & Söhne introduced a piece last fall that is a bells-and-whistles tour de force.  

The new $46,200 Datograph is the world's first chronograph with a "precisely jumping" minute counter, an outsize date, stop seconds, a platinum case and flyback (the ability to instantly reset the chronometer to zero and then start the stopwatch by releasing the pushpiece). The watch took four years to develop and more than six months to manufacture. Only 50 were made in 1999, and though about 250 pieces are planned for this year, Lange still has more orders than it can fill. This masterwork features a movement with 390 precise, hand-finished parts, a two-part dial made of solid silver, and a see-through, sapphire glass caseback.  

A new movement had to be created to accommodate the flyback feature with the minute counter and oversized date, an example of the extraordinary technology that has become the firm's hallmark. Company spokesman Arnd Einhorn says such innovations will continue. "While we're working on new movements that might be presented in 2001, we believe in going slow," says Einhorn. "Preserving our exclusivity [only 41 jewelers worldwide carry Lange's products] and our craftsmanship is paramount. We'll only make significant watches, pieces worthy of our heritage."  

Cellini's Leon Adams suggests that A. Lange's go-slow strategy has allowed it to "build a product superior to most Swiss companies." But even while equating its exceptional craftsmanship with "the pursuit of a dream," he wonders whether "the sudden demand for Lange watches will impact quality. So far, Lange has resisted temptations to greatly increase production, and remained loyal to splendid workmanship."  

While commercial pressures may ultimately alter the firm's plans, Walter Lange is confident his company will continue to be a singular presence in the industry. "With all the demand for our work, it's our newest challenge to produce only a limited number of the finest pieces. We'll continue to just rely on movements we make, and if that makes us rare in the industry, great. We like doing the impossible."  

Florida-based freelance writer Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.