A Lange & Sohne watches: Factory visit

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Monday, June 19th 2017
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I've always liked watches, but deliberately stayed out of the depths of obsessiveness that consumes some men.

Time and money restricts your hobbies, and I have preferred to acquire the odd piece that particularly takes me from an aesthetic point of view - rather than one based on historical significance or mechanical complications.

Read my previous articles and guides to watches here:

However, visiting my first watch manufacture - A Lange & Sohne in Glashutte - last month made me understand for the first time how such obsessiveness could start.

Indeed, I find it odd that so many men could become obsessive about watches without visiting a factory.

Many modern watches have transparent case backs, so you can see a certain amount of what's going on.

But that's like feeling the pin-pricks on the back of a hand-padded lapel, rather than seeing them put in first-hand.

It was only when I saw a watch assembled at Lange that the engineering appeal hit home.

Or rather, it was watching an English member of staff put bits in, take them out, test a couple of pushers, watch the results, try again, and smile when the glitch was fixed - every tiny wheel connecting in the right way, and two number plates clicking into place with perfect symmetry.

It is the appeal of car repair. Of mechanics.

A very different appeal to the craft of bespoke tailoring or shoemaking - with none of its creativity or style - but a deeply appealing one nonetheless.

The artistic side of Lange was in another building (there are several in the compound, in the village of Glashutte, in a wet, green valley outside Dresden).

Here, we saw the engraving of a balance cock (shown above).

Minute carving of rococo patterns on a thin piece of metal. Fascinating and nerve-wracking, but again a very different appeal to the engineering of a mechanical movement.

As described in my post 'How to buy a watch: Value', this is one of the details that separates some of the more expensive watches from cheaper, still automatic and highly complicated, brands.

You get what you pay for, and here it is all of complication, precious metal and artistic embellishment.

So, what else would a Permanent Style reader find interesting about a watch factory?

Perhaps that the average age of workers is very low, with many people in their 20s and 30s.

Several schools, competitions and apprenticeship systems help funnel the most talented people into Lange and other manufactures.

You can't help feeling that if tailoring had margins that approached watchmaking, it would be able to support similar schemes and the industry would be a lot healthier.

It would make bespoke less accessible to people, but perhaps more likely to survive for another generation.

I also found the clear division of roles interesting.

There is the design team, the watchmakers and the engravers. They are all separate, but all communicate continuously.

They are the equivalents, in some ways, of cutters, tailors and finishers in bespoke tailoring.

(Although obviously there is none of the bespoke fitting that is core to the cutter's trade.)

I often feel that it should be clearer that a cutter is not a designer (as they frequently make bad ones). Or indeed that a front-of-house is the designer.

Artisan industries tend to underestimate the importance of good, original and relevant design. Clear separation might enable a profitable focus on it.

Finally, it was striking how much passion and tradition there was at Lange.

It's easy to be cynical about the watch industry, and there are some houses producing hundreds of thousands of pieces a year with largely automated processes. Their approach to heritage can be rather loose as well.

But even though Lange is a relatively young company (it was founded in 1845, but only re-started recently, in 1990), the enthusiasm of the makers was striking - no less than at any tailor or shoemaker I've ever visited.

And the heritage comes just as much from staff like Arnd Einhorn, the wonderful communications director who has been at the company for decades and seen it grow from nothing, as it does from the original designs and passion of Ferdinand Adolf Lange.

As we drove back to Dresden, light rain falling like a mist on the trees outside, I felt glad I'd taken the time to visit a manufacture outside our normal remit.

It had provided both inspiration and perspective.

Above: Lange 1815 Up and Down model in rose gold