Walter Lange, the founder of the modern day A. Lange & Söhne, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92, was one of the greatest watchmakers of the modern era. The eponymous Glashutte-based company, founded in the early part of the 19th century, and known for its many technological breakthroughs, was seized by the communist government that took over East Germany after World War II, following which the family owners fled to the west. After toiling in oblivion for more that four decades, Walter Lange, a direct descendant, seized his opportunity to revive the firm in Dresden, following the German unification in the early 1990s. Though he was in his late 60s by then, in less than a decade, he had helped transform the new A Lange & Sohne into the worldwide luxury mechanical watch powerhouse that it is today.
Here is a replug of our interview with him on the eve of his 90th birthday in July 2014.
Walter Lange is, in the opinion of many, the man primarily responsible for Germany regaining its reputation as a maker of some of the finest luxury watches in the world, through his company A. Lange & Söhne that he successfully re-launched in 1990. Considering that he is a fourth generation watchmaker, and an heir to the reputation of the best known German watch brand since 1845, that should not be very surprising. But Germany’s tumultuous history in the first half of the 20th century has made sure that Walter Lange’s life story is probably the most unusual among any watchmakers in the world.
Walter was born in 1924 in Dresden in eastern Germany, the city, which along with the neighbouring town of Glashütte, was always synonymous with A. Lange & Söhne. Glashütte was virtually created by the Lange family on the back of the success of their watch company in the 19th century. But by the time Walter was about to start work in the family business in 1942, World War II was its peak and he, like millions of German teenagers of that era, was called for war service by the Nazi government. Badly injured in the battle against the Russians on the eastern front in the dying days of the war, he was lucky to have made it back home in Glashütte alive.
But by the time he was about to start work again in the family company, the production facility was destroyed as a result of Allied bombardment on the last day of the war. Walter and his family set about to rebuild the company when peace was declared but another catastrophe intervened. Germany, soon after the war, was divided by the Russians into the communist East Germany and the democratic West Germany. Glashütte and Dresden fell into communist hands and among the first thing they did in 1948 was expropriate the Lange assets. The young Walter Lange was sent to work as a bonded labourer in the uranium mines of the Ore Mountains nearby.
Unable to bear the thought of working in a mine, he fled to West Germany in November 1948 leaving his parents behind, and lived there for the rest of his life. But despite’s Lange’s historical reputation, Walter led a rather uneventful life for the better part of the 20th century, first as a refugee, then as a small time watch maker and then as a watch wholesaler.
In 1989 came the German re-unification and Walter, then already a retired pensioner for six years, saw this as an opportunity to re-launch his company. As luck would have it, he met Gunter Blumlein, a German engineer, who in the previous two decades had help revive two of the biggest Swiss watch brands, IWC Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Blumlein was looking to do something in the former East Germany and Walter was looking to revive his family legacy. A. Lange & Söhne was re-established in December 1990 in Glashütte.
The first set of 123 re-born Lange watches were shown in front of a much appreciative audience of jewellers in Dresden in October 1994. The rest is history. In a little over two decades since the re-launch, A. Lange & Söhne has developed as many as 49 new calibers and regained its position as a leading global luxury watch maker, as well as one of the best known German luxury brands.
In 2000 A. Lange & Söhne was acquired by the Swiss luxury watch group Richemont, and it was also the time that Walter Lange retired once again, this time for good. Though he doesn’t have an active role in the company, he continues to be involved with A. Lange & Söhne in his capacity as the revered founder.
On the eve of his 90th birthday, on July 29, 2014, Walter Lange spoke to MW about his life and the company that he helped re-establish.
You have led one of the most interesting lives among any contemporary watchmaker. When you were in your 20s and still living in Glashütte at the end of the war and Lange’s manufacturing facility was destroyed, did you ever envisage the kind of transformation your life would take, and that 60 years later a brand new Lange would become one of the world’s best known luxury watch brands?
During the times of the Cold War, when there were two opposing German states, the revival of A. Lange & Söhne was just a dream. The fall of the Berlin Wall raised new hope. When history opened up a window of opportunity after the German Reunification, my partners and I did not hesitate for one second to take it. I never once doubted that we would be successful. However, at the time we started we had no idea how great the success would be in the coming years.
How would you compare Lange of today with the Lange of pre-1948?
The main difference is that in former times, A. Lange & Söhne produced pocket watches. One of the major similarities is that A. Lange & Söhne still is a brand that follows a performance and innovation driven philosophy and strives for utmost precision.
You were among the early industrialists who went back to set up a company in East Germany after the reunification, despite the well known fact that East Germany was relatively backward in technological standards than West Germany. What made you go back to Glashütte, and not set up the new facility in West Germany?
The reunification offered the chance to turn the economic development of East Germany in the opposite direction. I wanted to make my contribution by bringing back jobs to my hometown. I knew that reviving the name of A. Lange & Söhne was the best way to provide the people of Glashütte with hope for the future. Furthermore I was convinced that the brand only had a real chance to succeed at its historical location. Not to forget that Saxony has a great tradition as an industrial and technological location in the past.
What was going through your mind on that day in 1994 when the re-launched A. Lange & Söhne made its first presentation of new watches to the 12 big jewellers in Glashütte?
Of course, I was excited. Before we presented the watches to the public on October 24, 1994, we showed them to the 12 most important German-speaking jewellers. Up to this time we had crafted exactly 123 watches. What happened then was just incredible. All of them gave their orders publicly. With the unanimous approval from these experts we knew that we had succeeded.
The off-centre hour display, the subsidiary seconds and the large date display of LANGE 1 set the tone for the distinctive look for Lange watches. Can you tell us more about how this unique style was conceived?
When we developed the product concept for the new line of A. Lange & Söhne timepieces we knew that it was not enough to return to traditional values. It was all the more important to create something completely new, watches that in their simple, classic design were ultra-modern. The LANGE 1 is the best example in this respect. Features like the outsize date, the decentralised dial layout and a three days power reserve were revolutionary at the time they were launched.
In your book The Revival of Time you have pointed out that “As in many important moments of my life, luck and a fateful stroke of good fortune were the decisive factors in the positive turn of events…” when you relaunched the company. Can you give us a few examples of how luck and fate played a role in your success.
Destruction and expropriation were the heaviest strokes of fate for me and my family. The biggest stroke of luck was the German Reunification, which opened the gates for the revival of the brand. These two events determine the history of A. Lange & Söhne.
How would you assess what A. Lange & Söhne has achieved since you retired from running the company on a full time basis?
I note with satisfaction that the company has followed my maxim to never stand still. It means that A. Lange & Söhne builds on its own achievements and tries to outperform them with every new development. Within a period of 20 years, A. Lange & Söhne has launched 49 in-house calibers. Many of them have been setting milestones. But what pleases me most is the fact that with 700 employees Lange is once again the driving force of a region that ascended to its former position as centre of the German watchmaking industry.
What is your favourite watch among those made by Lange in recent times?
As a watchmaker, I have a penchant for sophisticated complications that are useful and have never been made this way before. The Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar `Terraluna’ with its unique orbital moon-phase display is a complication that meets both requirements. It is perfectly in line with our spirit of tradition, innovation and performance.
We are not sure if you have ever been to India. What do you think of the fact that Lange watches are among the more popular luxury watches in this country?
My late wife Jutta and I had set off on a trip around the world, which took us to India in January 1980. Deep in my heart I keep the most delightful recollections of our stay in India where we were treated with utmost hospitality and friendliness. Therefore, I am more than happy to see that our timepieces are so well received in your country.