Renaissance Stories: A. Lange & Söhne

A. Lange & Söhne’s new Lange 1 Time Zone is an impressive watch. Its simple masculine case houses an original mechanism that practically and efficiently executes its world time function, indicating all 24 time zones, while also tracking a second time zone with a subdial at 5 o’clock. However, the watch’s superior finishing and the streamlined engineering of its functions seem even more extraordinary when you consider that only 15 years ago, the company (along with the German watchmaking industry as a whole) was virtually nonexistent.
 
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, A. Lange & Söhne was the preeminent watch company in Glashütte, Germany’s watchmaking center. But economic upheaval, world wars, and communist nationalization eventually shut down all the Glashütte firms, including Lange. The East German government then replaced individual companies with a collective mass-production facility that supplied cheap watches to the entire Eastern bloc.
 
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 enabled Walter Lange, the enterprising descendant of the company’s founder, Ferdinand Adolph Lange, to secure financial backing from the Swiss-German watch company IWC and resurrect the Lange brand and restore its former luster. Lange challenged the Glashütte craftspeople to compete against Switzerland’s premier manufactures, just as their forefathers had done, instead of continuing to produce mass-market watches.
 
When Lange reestablished the company in 1990, most watchmakers were using supplied movements. But Lange, helped immeasurably by his association with IWC, chose to make his own. The partnership enabled the fledgling firm to draw on the latest technology and to train its watchmakers in state-of-the-art techniques. Finding qualified watchmakers in a town that had labored under communism for a half century was a daunting task, but Lange discovered that a surprisingly high degree of talent remained in Glashütte. By recruiting the best watchmakers from the collective factory, he quickly staffed his manufacture.
 
Lange introduced his debut collection, including the brand’s hallmark Lange 1 with its large date window and off-center dial, in 1994. Many of Lange’s movements feature the three-quarter plate and engraved balance cock found in vintage Glashütte pocket watches. The sober, contemporary lines of the cases and the watches’ emphasis on functionalism recall the characteristics of Germany’s finest performance automobiles.
 
A. Lange & Söhne’s rapid ascension prompted luxury conglomerate Richemont to acquire the company (along with partner IWC) in 2000. The new ownership, however, has not altered the company’s character or its home base. Today, thanks to Walter Lange, who delivered a new variety of watchmaking for collectors to savor, Glashütte is as thriving a watchmaking center as any town in the Vallée de Joux.

A. Lange & Söhne, www.langewatches.com

Photo by James Lipman
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