Hubert Burda Media

Walter Lange on A. Lange & Söhne’s Journey to the Top

A. Lange & Söhne is one of the world’s most esteemed brands, but, as Walter Lange shares, the journey to the top isn’t easy.

Walter Lange, great-grandson of A. Lange & Söhne founder Ferdinand A Lange, is somewhat of a living legend in the horological circle. Take, for instance, the annual SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie) in Geneva, where the Glashütte-based brand maintains a booth and where we meet for this interview. Wherever the 91-year-old goes throughout the fair, there’s someone eager to shake his hand, wish him well, or ask about the good ol’ days.
Lange is more than happy to engage his “fans”. After all, he is a wellspring of information, a walking encyclopaedia of the Saxon watch industry and even European geopolitics, having lived through many of the traumatic events of the 20th century, including the Great Depression, World War II and a divided Germany. During the Cold War, his hometown of Glashütte in East Germany was governed by the socialist Soviet state.
Speaking in German through a translator, Lange recounts his troubled childhood: “I remember my childhood being difficult because of the economic crisis in 1929. There were all these unemployed people in Glashütte looking for jobs. They would hang around the train station every day waiting for job offers. It was really not a nice time and I suffered a kind of childhood trauma.”
At the age of 10, Lange moved to the nearby city of Dresden to study, returning home to Glashütte only on weekends. He dreamed of becoming a watchmaker like his father Rudolf, but it wasn’t possible as the watchmaking school in Glashütte only trained master horologists at the time, so he enrolled in a watchmaking college in Karlstein, Austria. In an unfortunate turn of events, his studies were interrupted when World War II broke out in 1942 and he was drafted into the army. He sustained a gunshot wound to the leg in his time of service to the army. But that wasn’t the worst of his troubles: On the morning of May 8, 1945, the main production building of A. Lange & Söhne was destroyed in a bombing raid.
After the war ended in September that year, the watchmaking school in Glashütte reopened and began accepting students and apprentices again, not just master watchmakers. Lange jumped at the chance to finish his studies there. But his hopes of joining the family business were dashed when the Soviet administration expropriated the company in 1948. His father and uncles, who ran the manufacture at the time, were banned from setting foot on the premises.
Lange refused to join the Soviet Union, although the alternative was even worse — forced labour in a uranium mine. Unwilling to subject himself to such a bleak future, he fled his hometown and settled in the city of Pforzheim, 600km away in West Germany. His father came to live with him for a while, but the loss of the company was a blow too great to bear and he passed away within a year.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet regime in November 1989, a lightbulb went off in Lange’s mind. This was the moment he had spent a lifetime waiting for: The relaunch of A. Lange & Söhne. He had already retired by then, but felt a responsibility to reinstate his family’s heritage and, in the bigger scheme of things, provide jobs for the people of Glashütte — an ambition no doubt borne from his childhood memories.
On December 7, 1990, Lange registered the brand. Together with business partner Günter Blümlein (1943–2001) — another watchmaking legend — he spent the next four years re-establishing the company, though the historic production building would not be reacquired until 2000.
On October 24, 1994, Lange and Blümlein held a press conference announcing A. Lange & Söhne’s return to the watchmaking world. There, they unveiled the Lange 1, a watch that not only ushered in a new era for the brand, but also set a benchmark for modern watchmaking.
“We decided to make high-quality watches, which was a good decision because if we made cheap watches, surely Glashütte would not exist today as a watchmaking hub,” says Lange. Indeed, without their efforts to revitalise the local economy, the region would not have flourished the way it does today. Since 1990, more than 1,300 people have worked, or continue to work, in the A. Lange & Söhne manufacture.
If Lange could travel back in time to meet his great-grandfather, what would he say? “I would say: ‘Thank you, great-grandfather, for coming to Glashütte and starting the watch industry there.’ And I’m convinced that my great-grandfather would reply: ‘Dear great-grandson, you did good as well; restarting the company.’”