Interview with the CEO of A. Lange & Sohne Wilhelm Schmid
CEO of A. Lange & Sohne Wilhelm Schmid gets candid about working remotely, sustainability and…rubber boots.
When we last met Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Sohne, it was just before the launch of the Odysseus watch. That seems a lifetime ago now, but we were lucky enough to catch up with him a little out of sequence, earlier this year via a video conference. Of all the various digital means of communication that we have tried in the last 12 months, this is our favourite. It was also how we caught up with Anthony de Haas, Product Director at A. Lange & Sohne late last year. While we, like everyone else, do miss in-person interactions, at least in a video call we can both see and hear each other.
Like everyone else, Schmid has his hands full dealing with scenarios that no one ever planned for, and the near-total inability of hosting any physical activities, which we can report are very important in the business of luxury. “We stopped all events immediately because we could not guarantee safety and security, including at our boutiques,” said Schmid. He adds that the manufacture at Glashutte also put into place safe distancing measures and glass barriers where possible, as well as leaning harder into working in shifts, which is already not unusual at watch firms in Europe. “Almost everybody who can work from home does so, including me,” said Schmid. He is taking this call from his home office.
By the time further lockdowns came around, the most recent one earlier this year as this conversation took place, procedures had improved, after the initial one in 2019 caught pretty much everyone off-guard. You will no doubt have read about all this, or rather noticed less news about supply disruptions so far compared with the initial phase in 2020, and Schmid confirms that this is the case at A. Lange & Sohne.
Having said all that though, Schmid did note that the one event the brand managed to organise, in September 2020, in London, was a great success. It was indicative of how much watch lovers miss the opportunity to interact with each other, and with the amazing timepieces of A. Lange & Sohne. This is the reason why Schmid thinks that there is a huge hunger for the physical experience of watches. He does agree with the proposition that business and practices will probably experience permanent changes. For example, neither of us would have preferred an 18-hour flight to have this conversation in person.
We dare say that physicality is of paramount importance to the business of watches overall, because no matter how on-point your video production skills, it is impossible to understand a timepiece without feeling it. Some watches seem like good ideas on paper – or on-screen – but in reality they are impossible to wear, or the details are just not right. This emerged in our chat with Schmid when discussing the appeal of the Odysseus, a model we both agreed was divisive on launch.
Bearing in mind that this was from a time when physical interactions were possible, the Odysseus attracted all sorts of negative reactions, just based on the images published online and in print. As you no doubt already know, it all worked out in the end, because once more people got the chance to feel and wear the watch, its characteristics were more easily understood.
This is not to say that Schmid is pessimistic about digital communications, or even e-commerce. In fact, he pointed out early on in his tenure at A. Lange & Sohne that people would accept buying watches online. Schmid is nothing if not adaptable, which we discovered last year when the brand got a new Managing Director for Southeast Asia and Australia, Charles Langlois, formerly responsible for Montblanc in Japan. Schmid reveals that he has never met Langlois in the flesh, and that he never hires people for important jobs if he has not met them in person. Obviously, 2020 made that all but impossible, but the brand soldiered on.
With that, we will leave the rest of the story to our conversation with Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Sohne.
We have all heard about how the pandemic is disrupting business globally, beyond wiping out the US$1 trillion+ tourism trade, and watchmaking is no exception. How is A. Lange & Sohne coping?
Our first and most important task is to protect our staff, customers and partners, including journalists, so we did not want to fuel the infection rate by organising our business wrongly. So in Germany, with schools closed, we do everything we can to allow our people to [make arrangements in their private lives]. This means we start at the manufacture at 5 am and end at 8 pm, [always in shifts]. Because so many of us are working from home, the watchmakers – who must be at the manufacture – have more space [for social distancing] and face fewer risks. Again, what is important now is to prevent the possibility of anyone transmitting the [COVID-19] virus at the manufacture. But we don’t plan to slow down at all. You know that we launched a lot of new watches last year, finishing with the Saxonia Thin and the Saxonia Outsize Date. In hindsight, it almost looks like a normal year.
When we last spoke in person, it was just before the Odysseus was revealed. How is the watch doing now?
It was hugely controversial when we launched. I never intended that the watch would be loved by everybody so it is fine that those who don’t like steel watches with steel bracelets don’t like it. Now the discussion is moving towards an acknowledgement that the Odysseus is a typical A. Lange & Sohne watch, to the last screw. As for how the watch is doing, well I’m sure you [and your readers] know it achieved a strong price at a Phillips auction in New York (it sold for US$81,900, or almost three times its retail price, in December – Ed). So the watch has established itself.
At that time, you said that the steel sports watch was not really trending because it had been in the market for decades, as part of the casualisation of luxury. Do you think the sports watch threatens the status of the dress watch? It is perfectly acceptable to wear some such watches with tuxedos even.
I don’t think it is a threat… You know our Saxonia Thin is one of our bestsellers, so that contradicts your idea there. But look, we are not the typical brand. We only produce a few thousand watches a year. Our customer segment wants a variety of watches, including complications, and the Odysseus represents something people wanted from us that we never had.
One of our talking points about the sports watch, before COVID-19, was that a sturdy bracelet is very reassuring, and has the virtue of being easy to clean and virtually unbreakable. Will the bracelet become even more important in fine watchmaking? In terms of sustainability, the bracelet might also offer certain advantages. What is your opinion on that?
It is important to have a metal bracelet in the collection yes, especially in the context of your environment. On the other hand, rubber boots are also better at handling your weather than leather shoes but you don’t see people going for meetings with rubber boots. It is not always about practicality, but again this is a difficult question for me to answer because A. Lange & Sohne is a smaller brand.
As far as sustainability goes, let me answer in three different parts. We launched the new manufacture building in 2015 and a lot of our investments went into sustainability. The whole building is powered by a geothermal system. We use water to cool the building in summer, and pump it into the ground, and back up again to heat the building in winter. Only the electric pumps require energy, which we get from a green energy supplier. This is important because everything begins with your facilities.
On the material side, we ensure that the gold and platinum that we use are from clean and ethical sources. We are members of the Responsible Jewellery Council (the leading global sustainable standards organisation), and we undergo audits where they ensure that we do as we say we do. On the point about avoiding wastage, let me say that given the price of gold per gram (€40 as we spoke), we are very careful to not let anything go to waste.
Then there is the matter of the watches themselves, which is often forgotten. It is important that what we make can be repaired [decades into the future] so we invest in making sure we have the materials and skills to service these watches. This is something we do as a company, to preserve the know-how and the skills, with our own watchmaking school.
With regards to another category of watches, what do you think differentiates a watch for a man and a watch for a woman? Is it time to move beyond such distinctions?
Look, there is no archetypical man or woman who can represent either gender. Of our own collectors, we know that both men and women go for the same pieces, which are considered watches for men. I know from the car industry (where Schmid spent his career, prior to joining A. Lange & Sohne more than 10 years ago), that a man won’t buy something that is made for or marketed to women. Women don’t care so much about this; if they like they will buy it.
When it comes to extremes, I think it is obvious if a watch is for a man or a woman. If the watch is 35 mm, with lots of diamonds and a mother-of-pearl dial, then it is probably made for a woman. If it is 44 mm, in platinum and weighs 280 grams, like the Lange 31, then it was made for a [man’s wrist]. In between those extremes, it is a matter of taste. Take the Saxonia Thin with the aventurine dial (38 mm and 40 mm) that we just launched. We thought of this piece as a unisex watch given its dimensions. I can tell you from the initial results that most of the watches are going to be worn by men.
With the global economy expected to take years just to return to 2019 levels, how can leaders, such as yourself, help companies to emerge stronger?
It is not one man or woman who determines the fate of a company; it’s a team effort. You know, with the pandemic, we really had to depend on each other. Take Singapore for example, which is an important market for us. But we really could not travel so we had to depend on the team on the ground. It was a challenge but also an opportunity because for the first time, we really had to rely on each other. I think we changed more in the last 10 months than at any other time.
For more information about the timepieces from A. Lange & Sohne, head over their website here.