Always looking ahead

A. Lange & Söhne has two reasons to celebrate this year: First, the 175th anniversary of Glashütte precision watchmaking, which was founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange; and second, the 30th anniversary of the renaissance initiated by Walter Lange in the year of Germany’s reunification.

“The slowest person who never loses sight of their goal is still faster than someone who dashes about without one.” Did Walter Lange think about this aphorism by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1990 when the reunification in 1990 gave him the opportunity to re-establish a watch manufacture in Glashütte? The great-grandson of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, at that time already 66 years old and in well-deserved retirement, had never given up that dream. After the Second World War, during which he was seriously injured, the young master watchmaker was still actively involved in rebuilding the workshops destroyed by bombs, before the company founded by his great-grandfather was expropriated in the Soviet occupation zone in 1948.

In an interview on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2014, Walter Lange recalled this era, full of hardship and uncertainty, when his father Rudolf and his uncles Otto and Gerhard managed their manufactory: “My father, uncle Otto and I talked a lot about how we should proceed with the company. We started developing the Calibre 28, but before it could go into serial production, we were expropriated and were no longer allowed to enter the house.” And it got even worse: After he refused to join the union, he had to leave everything behind overnight and flee to West Germany, in order to avoid forced labour at the Wismut uranium mines. This was a fate that he shared with many others and a formative experience, but he never gave up his plans. From the mid-1970s onwards, the watchmaker travelled regularly to the Ore Mountains in order to maintain contact with the people in his hometown.

A day steeped in history – 7 December

Walter Lange set the date for the ambitious restart on exactly the same day in December as Ferdinand Adolph Lange had inaugurated the first watchmaker’s workshop 145 years earlier – after extensive years of apprenticeships and travels abroad with stops at some of the most important clock and chronometer makers. In doing so, he not only laid the foundations for the Saxon watchmaking industry, which already a few years later was flourishing and recognised worldwide for its high precision and excellent quality, but also ensured the region’s upturn. The rapidly growing demand for precise timepieces that were used in science, research, medicine and industry resulted in an almost magical success story. Not only did his own company grow steadily but, over time, more and more manufacturers and specialist workshops settled here. They mastered the entire production process of all watch and clock components. Under the aegis of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the town, which he headed as mayor for 18 years, transformed into a self-sustaining business location that offered secure, well-paid jobs and brought modest prosperity to the people of Glashütte. He also supported the settlement of talented colleagues like Julius Assmann, whose award-winning pocket watches also set standards in precision. Their specialist technical competence and tireless diligence intertwined like precisely calculated gear trains and laid the foundation stone for the economic growth that followed. Over the course of the decades, Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s company, whose workforce rarely exceeded 100 employees, has set the pace for and been the heartbeat of the German art of fine watchmaking, similar to the balance wheel in a mechanical movement. The German Watchmaking School which was founded by Karl Moritz Großmann in 1878, ensured that the highly specialised knowledge was passed on to the following generations. Many of the most talented watchmakers of that time were trained in the striking building located in Glashütte’s centre and later continued the success story of the watch town.

A successful restart

When German reunification offered the chance of a new beginning, Walter Lange did not hesitate for a second. “7 December 1990 is one of the most important days of my life”, he recalled in an interview. At that time he registered Lange Uhren GmbH, "with the borrowed postal address of a former classmate. It was a risk, but the only thing to do! I had to follow my family’s tradition by returning to Glashütte in order to build the best watches in the world again. Just like my great-grandfather, I wanted to provide work and new prospects to people during difficult times.”

The parallels of the story are indeed astonishing. As in 1845, the challenge could hardly have been greater. While Glashütte was an impoverished little town in a structurally weak corner of Saxony in the days of the Gründerzeit, where Ferdinand Adolph Lange built up a workshop from nothing, the aim of the new foundation was to raise the technically completely outdated production, which was designed for socialist mass production, back to the level of precision watchmaking for which the town in the Müglitz valley was once world-famous. Certainly, the time was marked by a spirit of optimism, but the challenge was enormous. Like almost all industrial sectors, the combine of the Glashütte watch and precision engineering industry, which during the time behind the Iron Curtain was the largest employer in the region with 2,500 employees, could not keep up with its Western competitors.

The legacy of the uncompetitive centrally planned economy proved to be difficult, as did the decisive power of the privatization agency Treuhand, which promoted rapid privatisation solely from the point of view of profitability. The new political and economic order brought about major changes for Glashütte, where, as elsewhere in the former GDR, people were worried about mass unemployment and emigration. There was neither a blueprint nor a guideline for Walter Lange’s ambitious goal – just the absolute will to carry on from where the expropriation had put the family business into a deep slumber.

The common goal: a classic appearance of the highest modernity

Like Ferdinand Adolph Lange, he received strong support from people who shared his vision, above all Günter Blümlein (1943–2001). At the time, the charismatic and visionary industry expert was the managing director of a holding company to which IWC Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre also belonged. This group took over the majority of shares in the newly founded company. With their financial support, the two partners were able to convert the buildings of the former Archimedes calculating machine factory and the precision pendulum clock specialist Strasser & Rohde into a contemporary watch manufactory with a high amount of in-house creation of value.

“Blümlein was a man of action, but also a visionary. He was a long-term thinker, an excellent strategist who had a knack for watch design as well as for the right marketing,” Walter Lange enthused about his business partner. The two also agreed about the style and character of the new collection: “From the very beginning, it was important to us to develop timepieces that are extremely modern yet simple and classic in appearance.” And, of course, Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s motto from the past – perfection down to the finest detail – took on a new meaning in the present.

With the spectacular outsize date of the now legendary LANGE 1, which thanks to its unmistakable off-centre dial layout was soon to become the face of the new era, A. Lange & Söhne cleverly built a bridge to Saxon history. Like the famous five-minute clock in Dresden’s Semperoper opera house, which was designed by Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, once the teacher and later the father-in-law of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, it brings a mechanical-digital display to life.

Three more timepieces, the ARKADE, the SAXONIA and the TOURBILLON “Pour le Mérite” marked the new era of the Lange dynasty. With its fusée-and-chain transmission inspired by historical pocket watches, the latter immediately secured the manufactory a place in the realms of Haute Horlogerie. On 24 October 1994, the new wristwatches were presented at a press conference in the Dresden Residenzschloss royal palace. The challenge could not have been greater: “The whole, almost overwhelming promise that stands behind the world-famous name A. Lange & Söhne is now reappearing in public for the first time. No longer just as a vague hope, nor even as a decorative myth, but as the result of a similarly courageous decision as the one Ferdinand Adolph Lange had made in 1845 when he transformed Glashütte into the centre of German fine watchmaking.” This was the text written in the invitation. Experts and aficionados of masterful high horology were thrilled right from the start.

During the next three decades, A. Lange & Söhne has continued to set new standards in precision watchmaking with increasingly complex and refined designs. All of them are manufactured in-house by masters of their trade, from the first drafts to the final product. In particular, the production of their own balance springs, the premier class of component manufacturing, has earned the company a great reputation. Today, A. Lange & Söhne employs around 750 people worldwide, and more than 250 international product and business awards are evidence of the unique success of the past three decades.

The name now is a synonym for masterful timekeeping and an example of a successful business location. The dream of Walter Lange, who remained the brand’s ambassador and advisor until he passed away on 17 January 2017, to give the people in Glashütte prospects came true: “I’m glad that I was able to do my part in reviving the watch industry in our little town in the Ore Mountains. It’s great to see that so many people build watches in Glashütte today. That makes me happy.” For A. Lange & Söhne, this continues to be both an incentive and an obligation, because it is not in the nature of Lange watchmakers to rest on their laurels. They hold up the spirit of the grand seigneur of the Glashütte renaissance: “There is something you should ask not only of your watch, but also of yourself – never stand still.”