“Road Trip to Glashütte”: A. Lange & Söhne
Each time the possibility of visiting the A. Lange & Söhne manufacture comes your way, you can be certain about one thing – you will see watchmaking at its absolute best.
Altenberger Straße is an address every “Made in Germany” watch enthusiast knows. A small street of an even smaller Glashütte is home to all serious watch manufacturers who, combined, make up most of the modern German watch industry. After last year’s road trip following the trail of a few Swiss watchmaking companies, this time we set off for a shorter, but equally interesting journey. Dresden lies a mere 100 kilometers outside the Polish-German border; Glashütte is a small village, becoming practically a ghost town after 6 p.m., so the picturesque capital of Saxony was our point of residence. After we made ourselves at home at the excellent QF Hotel in the core of the Old Town, we started off by visiting one of the best watch brands of the known world – A.Lange&Söhne.
We have written a lot about Lange and we have done so frequently, but we cannot be blamed. This brand is synonymous to absolute top rank of the watchmaking art and, in the past 20 years, has presented watches that give enthusiasts and collectors sleepless nights. This is a consequence of a number of factors, starting with consistent philosophy of the brand through mainly hand-made, traditionally designed chronometers, such as the Grand Lange 1, which we have tested extensively HERE.
The manufacture itself was also mentioned in our texts, especially during the December Pre-SIHH event, which Lange organized in their Glashütte manufacture new building, at that time still under construction. This building is still being constructed and will be open to business late next year; considering the pace at which the work is progressing this prognosis seems very feasible. The new impressive space of self-sufficient (in terms of energy provided by a geo-thermal installation) manufacture, will allow the brand to improve on the quality and comfort of work, but – and this is an interesting fact – will not increase the count of watches manufactured there. Lange puts a lot of pressure on quality, which you will be able to appreciate from our interview with the company’s CEO – Wilhelm Schmid. Now, however, you will read our impressions following the parking of our car outside the company’s premises at Altenberger Straße 15. Here, in close vicinity, you will find almost all the premises of A.Lange & Söhne, where almost all of the manufacturer’s watch components are produced in-house.
As you well know, the process of constructing a watch encompasses a number of stages, leading from the R&D department, responsible for the design and the prototype stages of the new model, through machines that manufacture individual parts, to typical watchmaking stages – finishing and decorating the elements which end up on a watchmaker’s worktable to be assembled into a finished product. At Lange’s this is a two-stage process. After the first assembly, the movement’s functions and accuracy are checked, and following that the setup is disassembled to the last screw, gets its final touches, is cleaned and reassembled into a complete watch with the face and case (the only two elements that are not produced in-house). Such an approach – although time- and energy-consuming – guarantees the highest quality of the finished watch, and because the first assembly and adjustments may result in elements suffering minor damage, these are eliminated by decorations at the later stage. Lange & Söhne pays great attention to the decorative element of their products, which we were able to witness in dedicated departments of the manufacture.
At a specific level of watchmaking, the visual aspects of the movement become almost as vital as their technical parameters. If a prospective customer is to pay a few tens of thousands of euro for a watch, it is imperative that the manufacturer offers them a product that may be treated quite literally – not only from a marketing point of view – as a work of art. Following this philosophy, Lange decorates practically every element of every movement, from the simple Saxonia to the Grande Complication, even in places that are not visible after the assembly. One can say that this looks like art for art’s sake, but this is what paying respect to the customer, one’s tradition and one’s art is all about – it’s no news that no one buys an expensive, exclusive watch just to know what time it is.
The workstations responsible for the decorations take up a large well-lit area in a few rooms, where behind desks cluttered with all manner of hardware (polishing paste, grinders, wooden tools, etc.) the famed German silver ¾ bridge and other components are adorned with decorations, from circular graining on the bridges through practically all decorative techniques known to mankind, ending with the so-called black polish. This is a technique that – at specific light angles – gives an impression of an ideally smooth, black surface. This exclusive decoration is applied to e.g. the cage of the tourbillion.
A separate room is designated for the engraving works – sort of a trademark of A. Lange & Söhne. In the report from last December, which was linked above, I mentioned that each balance ticking in a watch bearing the brand’s logo has a manually-engraved bridge. A floral motive inspired by Lange’s old pocket-watches is cut and finished characteristically to each individual artist.
Here is also where special engravings for limited-series watches are made and, at special requests, customer-ordered motives. Each such case is first approved by the brand’s management and decorating the golden cover of the movement costs a small fortune, although it is an effective-looking touch. Naturally, the trade of the decorative personnel is a hard task that we were able to check ourselves, but more about this later.
Each A. Lange & Söhne watch is manually assembled in the Glashütte manufacture, but some receive special treatment. The most extravagant member of the family – Zeitwerk – has its own designated workshop and a group of watchmakers dedicated to work only on this model, or more precisely its two variants. One watchmaker is responsible for one piece from the very beginning to the very end of its production, taking care of the assembly, adjustment and – in the Striking Time version – the acoustic module that strikes each quarter and each full hour.
The manually wound L043.2 caliber (and its base version L043.1) is an immensely complicated cooperation of 528 small components, headed by the “constant force” escapement, which provides uninterrupted energy to the watch’s regulative organs, regardless of the power reserve in the mainspring – which is an absolute must in such a power-hungry movement.
Apart from the Zeitwerk, another dedicated room is taken by the assembly work on the flagship model – the Grande Complication. The winner of our “Watch of the Year 2013” competition is such a complex timepiece that only one copy will leave the company’s facilities each year (6 to be made in total). For the 50-milimetre giant its future owner will pay a little below 2.000.000 Euro.
All the remaining movements are assembled in two workshops – one responsible for simpler models and one dedicated to complications. Among many components used there is also an in-house made balance spring.
In the latter one – a spacious, well-lit room with characteristic workbenches situated at right angles to the windows – Lange’s watchmakers create, among others, the greatest watch of my dreams – the Datograph.
The process of the work on its caliber, the L951.6, was demonstrated by a Dutch watchmaker who joined the Lange team a mere two years ago. Multiple nationalities among the personnel are an everyday thing, and the brand-owned watchmaking school attracts young people from all the corners of the world.
Since we mentioned the school – A. Lange & Söhne treats the preparation of its future cadre as a key value, almost at the same level as the quality of the wristwatches the trained personnel would assemble later on. The school is located 100 kilometers from Glashütte, in the town of Bärenstein, but the neighborhood of the manufacture itself also allows for the training of future engraving masters.
I have mentioned that this task only seems simple, but in order to appreciate how mistaken those who treat engraving as a casual job are, one needs to try it by oneself. Drawing up a simple design on a sheet of paper does not exhaust the possibilities of a regular mortal, but transforming the drawing into an engraved motive made me feel like a blind baby. Even a much larger balance bridge and a sharp chisel did not help at all, with the only positive outcome being that we still have all our fingers on us. Simone Rauchfuß who was watching us all the time seemed to enjoy herself to the fullest, though…
The traditional ending to all the stages that were described above is the showcase of the finished watches. Lange & Söhne’s showroom may easily be considered a place that anyone feeling passionate about watches may lose themselves in for a few hours. All the collections were shown on a table, one after another, from the minimalistic Saxonia Thin through the Zeitwerk Striking Time to Richard Lange Tourbillon ”Pour le Merite”.
The “Road Trip to Glashütte” was my third visit to Lange & Söhne’s premises and – as always – the impressions were immense. The amount of work put into every watch leaving the manufacture rooms is really impressive and to a large extent justifies the price of the final watches. Naturally, the price consists of a number of other factors as well, including the manufacturer’s prestige which is a value that must be earned in the world. Consistency at every stage of production assures not only excellent quality of Lange’s timepieces, but also boosts the company’s prestige, where others try to help it by marketing and PR tricks. A. Lange & Söhne is merely 20 years old – its first collection was announced in Dresden in October 1994 – however, it was able to hoist its reputation to the world’s absolute top rank. A still low production volume does additionally raise the exclusive character of the brand (the company does not give production figures), but at the end of the day the brand’s position is decided upon by its watches. These are excellent in almost every detail. Peter Chong, our friend and the editor of the Deployant.com portal, as well as the author of a special collector’s album, “The Pour Le Merite Collection”, answers the question on what makes Lange watches special in this way: “First, the workmanship. The attention to detail in designing, producing and finishing is just incredible. Decorations present the highest possible level. Second, innovation. Lange’s watches always bring something extra with them – this could be a zero-reset mechanism, stopping the tourbillion’s cage or the Saxomat. Third, the people. The best and the most hospitable team I have met in this branch.” I can only agree with Peter and wait impatiently for the next visit to Glashutte, maybe when the new manufacture is open, next autumn.
To compensate for the wait, we will shortly present a special interview with Wilhelm Schmid – A. Lange & Söhne’s CEO.
Dresden – Grünes Gewölbe
Dresden is a city which may be historically more important to German watchmaking than Glashütte. Saxony’s capital is a historically experienced, beautiful city, especially proud of the times under the reign of Augustus II the Strong (also the king of Poland in 1697-1733). We will find traces of the reign at our every step, including in the beautiful Zwinger palace compound. This time we set off to see a very special place – the so-called Grünes Gewölbe.
The place is located in the chambers of the residential palace and consists of a massive number of jewellery and gold items – allegedly the largest such collection in Europe – which were crafted by the world’s artists to satisfy the whims of the Saxon regents. The collection makes an immense impression, and one of the items that can be found among the displayed works of beauty is the Dresden green diamond – the world’s largest green diamond, weighing 40.7 carats.
And to complete here’s the panoramic view of Dresden with Semper Opera.