A. Lange & Söhne unveils new timepiece for founder’s 200th birth year
Not many luxury watches can claim to have roots in a royal command. But when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Germany, ordered the creation of a special clock for the Semper Opera House in the city of Dresden in 1841, it set off a chain of events that would eventually lead German watch brand A. Lange & Söhne to create its iconic Lange 1 timepiece.
The king grew tired of the incessant chiming sounds made when audience members checked their pocket watches during performances at the opera house. To resolve the issue, he ordered that a stage clock be created for the venue. It would need to fit in the two-metre arch 20 metres above the centre of the stage, and would have to be visible from the dimly lit back rows of the opera house. “It should distinguish itself from the ordinary arrangement with hands on a dial” and be “read clearly from all seats”, stated the regal design brief. The task fell into the hands of Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, who, after accomplishing the job, was appointed to the royal court as chief clockmaker.
But let’s rewind. When he was just 15 years old, Ferdinand Adolph Lange was hired by Gutkaes as an apprentice. Having spent years travelling around Paris, England and Switzerland studying horology, he rejoined the watch master to aid him with this crucial assignment. Because a round-dial clock would not fit the king’s criteria, Gutkaes made the revolutionary decision to construct a time-telling device with a digital indication.
The final result, one of the world’s first digital clocks, fittingly named the Five-Minute Clock, consisted of two counterrotating drums that showcased the time in twin apertures – the left-hand aperture featured the hours in Roman numerals, while the right-hand aperture showed the minutes, in five-minute intervals, with Arabic numerals.
While the Five-Minute Clock and the Semper Opera House, which turns 175 this year, were destroyed twice – once in a fire, and then again during the Second World War – they were reconstructed both times, and today, the clock has come to represent a symbol of innovation and pride in Saxony.
In 1845, emboldened by the success of the project, Lange founded his own manufacture in Saxony, marking the birth of the A. Lange & Söhne brand. Only three years later, he was elected as mayor of Glashütte, and during his 18 years in office, he pioneered the industrialisation of the town, previously a run-of-the-mill agricultural village. After his death, his sons Richard and Emil took over the watchmaking company, but in 1948, on the final day of the Second World War, the main production building was destroyed in an air raid, and the company was expropriated. That could have been the end of the A. Lange story, but in 1990, following the reunification of Germany, Richard’s son, Walter, registered the A. Lange & Söhne trademark internationally, and the company was reborn.
The company’s big comeback year was 1994. Walter presented A. Lange & Söhne’s first collection of wristwatches, including the Lange 1, at the royal palace in Dresden, where Gutkaes, the Five-Minute Clock maker and mentor of his great-grandfather, had lived and worked. With its outsize numerals, the Lange 1 clearly paid tribute to the Five-Minute-Clock and was a quiet nod to the brand’s own unwavering heritage.
But the Lange 1 also represented a new era for the brand, as previous A. Lange & Söhne time-tellers were pocket-watch styles. The timepiece featured the first outsize date in a series wristwatch, along with an off-centre dial configuration. The date display was five times larger than competitors’ attempts, and, like the Five-Minute Clock, the composition was based on two separate elements. But rather than drums, a ring-shaped units disc and tens cross were used in the mechanics. The Lange 1 is now the brand’s most iconic timepiece and has spawned various models, including the Grand Lange 1 Moon Phase, Lange 1 Daymatic and Lange 1 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst, to name but a few.
“The Lange 1 has become the cornerstone of a watch family,” explains Anthony de Haas, director of product development at Lange Uhren GmbH. “In a way, the Lange 1 is a symbol of our corporate philosophy,” he adds. “Lange is a company that does not rest on its laurels, but is constantly heading for new shores.”
Unveiled at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie exhibition in Geneva is a white gold version of the watch, which features 368 movements, 43 jewels and eight screwed gold chatons, along with a 72-hour power reserve when fully wound. The diameter of the case measures 38.5 millimetres, with luminous hands and markers.
“The present Lange 1 shares all the values of its predecessor,” says de Haas. “The main perceptible changes of the new movement are a precisely jumping outsize date display, which switches at midnight, a balance wheel with eccentric poising weights and a free-sprung in-house-produced balance spring,” he explains.
Another rendition, the Grand Lange 1, which was redesigned in 2012, is essentially a larger model of the original, with a diameter measuring 40.9mm. Each of the elements – the outsize date, hands and solid gold appliqués, are increased in the exact same proportion as the case.
With 2015 marking the 200-year anniversary of the birth of founder Ferdinand Lange, the brand also debuted a new manufacture calibre, L121.1, last year, and completed its largest investment to date, on a new 5,400-square-metre building at its production site in Glashütte, Saxony.
A. Lange & Söhne opened its first boutique in Dresden in 2007 and has since introduced mono-brand stores in major cities worldwide, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But despite this international growth, the business has stuck firm to its roots in Glashütte, Saxony – Saxonia is even the name given to one of the brand’s lines of watches.
The company has been a dedicated sponsor of the Dresden State Art Collections, an association of museums with international repute, since 2006. One of these museums is the Mathematics and Physics Salon, which is known to house historical collections of watches and clocks.
The Five-Minute Clock has been telling the time during musical performances at the Semper Opera House since 1841, when it was first inaugurated. “It was considered to be a technical masterpiece,” says de Haas. But while this clock has never left Saxony, the timepieces produced by A. Lange & Söhne in Glashütte, which number fewer than 5,000 a year, are sent all around the globe to be worn and collected by luxury-watch connoisseurs, who value the company’s commitment to craftsmanship and tradition, and its capability to outdo customary conventions, time and time again. As Walter Lange, who can be credited with saving the company from its war-torn shambles, once said: “There’s something one should expect not only of a watch, but also of oneself: to never stand still.”