It's no secret that the watch industry is immensely competitive. And among the droves of (predominantly) Swiss brands clamouring to be bigger, brighter and louder stands A. Lange & Söhne, a German watchmaker that appears largely unperturbed by the competition. This August, in conjunction with the 200th birthday of its founder F A Lange and the 170th year of its founding, it celebrated the unveiling of a new state-of-the-art facility, its most expensive investment in its history.
Notorious for its limited (but undisclosed) production output, Lange's exclusivity has endeared the brand to an ultra-niche group of very discerning watch collectors searching for authenticity and uniqueness. However, unlike other brands that may intentionally create limited edition timepieces to drive demand, Lange's evident restraint is no marketing gimmick. As CEO Wilhelm Schmid stresses: “Our restriction is strictly based on the manufacture's output. We're not into the numbers game.”
The brand is known for its haute horlogerie timepieces, which in recent years have included masterpieces such as the 1815 Tourbillon (2014), Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna (2014) and Zeitwerk Minute Repeater (2015). Each of these complicated watches is assembled from start to finish by a single watchmaker chosen from a small group of some 14 watchmakers. Interestingly, despite being accompanied by intimidating six-figure price tags (and sometimes more), these are the first to fly off the shelves, not the simpler three-hand models that start at $21,300.
When you consider the time taken to produce each complicated timepiece, which can be anything from nine to 18 months, it is clear why the demand for these watches exceed their supply. In reality, there is no need to release limited editions — the production of each of its fiendishly complicated pieces is already limited by the manufacture's capabilities.
In 2012, when it was first announced that the brand would be expanding its production facility, questions arose on whether this would translate to a ramped up production and a diversification of its product offerings. The answer to both speculations is no. “Quality comes first and nothing has changed. We still need to invest in watchmakers who will take at least five years before they can work on an A. Lange & Söhne watch. We are aware every company needs to grow, but this can only happen within our brand's clearly defined parameters. There will be no shortcuts,” Schmid says.
This means that brand trademarks, which collectors have come to love, such as the hand-engraved balance cock, meticulously hand-decorated movement and the time-consuming double assembly process, will continue to define a Lange timepiece, even if they contribute to a drawn-out manufacturing process. Lange also remains as one of only a small handful of brands to invest in the production of proprietary hairsprings.
Schmid also rules out the probability of product diversification. “Why expand if you cannot fulfil current market demands? I don't see a good reason to stretch my brand profile or DNA by attracting customers that we don't already attract today. It's so easy to lose yourself and I have seen too many brands who became less attractive because they took shortcuts to attract a customer group they never appealed to before. In doing so, they ended up neglecting the DNA of the brand,” he says. Producing men's watches will remain the brand's modus operandi, he explains: “I always apologise to the ladies because our feminine collection is pretty thin...every additional ladies' watch means one less men's watch, which will remain our home turf”.
Instead, the new 5400-sq-m extension revolves around one primary purpose: Efficiency. Rather than operating out of four separate buildings, which it did in the past, all manufacturing processes now take place under one roof. This encourages effective communication, better workflow and also allows Lange greater control over factors such as the presence of dust, humidity and air conditioning.
Implementing these changes were an operational challenge because the staff were too used to working in the beautifully restored heritage buildings. “The staff have worked so long in a nice environment, even though it had space constraints. When they moved to the new building, they realised they could no longer open the windows,” explains Schmid. Instead of windows, the new extension features large-format glass panels that allow ample sunlight to flood the rooms and also ensure that the watchmakers enjoy a dust-free working environment.
But such changes were necessary to prepare the brand for the future. “I always say that I am only a custodian. I received something as beautiful as A. Lange & Söhne and it is my duty to ensure that when I return it, it is more beautiful than when I first received it,” he adds.
The facility is also Saxony's largest geothermal energy plant. It relies on green energy to power 55 downhole heat exchangers that keep indoor temperatures constantly pleasant throughout the four seasons. The energy-efficient and carbon dioxide-free building is an important contribution to climate change mitigation and is “essential in minimising our ecological footprint and resource consumption,” says Schmid.
The A. Lange & Söhne way
Signature trademarks that define a Lange timepiece
Proprietary balance springs
Unlike most other brands, which rely entirely on balance springs made by hairspring specialist Nivarox, an entity owned by the Swatch Group, Lange relies on its in-house expertise to roll, coil, heat and bend some of its hairsprings. Each watch is paired with a balance spring that had been crafted specifically for a specific movement.
Hand-engraved balance cock
Lange watches are decorated with a combination of traditional finishing techniques such as flat polishing, chamfering, black polishing, perlage, engraving, sunray graining, Glashütte ribbing and contour grinding. These are executed by hand and cover every part of the movement, including the portions that are no longer visible in an assembled movement. Engraving is perhaps the most well-known of Lange's aesthetic expressions: There are a total of six hand engravers in the manufacture and they use freehand techniques to work on everything from the balance cock to special dials, such as those that are on the Lange Handwerkskunst models. In theory, every Lange watch is a one-of-a-kind creation because there are no two balance cocks that are decorated identically.
The famous double assembly process that Lange stands resolutely by is not just a brand specialty, it is also a form of quality control to guarantee each timepiece's superior performance. A watchmaker puts together the various movement components before the movements are sent to the regleurs, who ensure each of them fall within the average daily rate tolerance (at Lange, it's between -2 to +4 seconds). At this point in time, when the next logical step would be to encase the perfectly functioning movement, the Lange watchmaker takes the movement apart again and repeats the assembly process. Each movement component goes through ultrasonic cleansing before some of them are decorated with their final finishing process. This second assembly process is when the three-quarter plate made of German silver (another brand trademark) is given the traditional Glashütte ribbing, when the hand-polished gold chatons are positioned on the plate and when the watchmaker replaces the plain screws with thermally blued ones.