Duty of Care: A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid
A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid explains what is really at the heart of the brand, and drops all manner of truth bombs about high-end watchmaking today.
The world is a very different place than it was just five years ago, especially when it comes to collecting watches. When we meet brand CEOs, new watches are always the easiest to discuss — brands want to talk about novelties or special editions, for purely promotional purposes. If the resulting interview turns out to be a good conversation, so much the better, but it is not necessary. Today, just talking about what watches are available is fraught with danger. “Just try getting a simple Lange 1 from us — you will have some trouble,” said A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid.
We met Schmid at the A. Lange & Söhne boutique at Singapore’s ION Orchard, and we were determined to make up for our own lapses during our interview with the brand’s Product Development Director Anthony de Haas, where we mostly had a chat. Happily, this conversation did not spiral out of control, despite Schmid being a little jetlagged. To be fair, we were united in our mutual dismay at the difficult retail reality that Schmid described above.
At this very boutique, we learned that not everything is for exhibition purposes only, which was heartening. We cannot speak to the availability of any Lange 1 watches, and in fact we think your best shot with any given brand might be a complication… provided it is part of the core collection of course. “The good thing is that if you are someone passionate about watches and you want an A. Lange & Söhne watch to wear, you can get it,” said Schmid. “You just have to wait. Of course this doesn’t solve everything because if what you want is a special edition, waiting is of no help.”
Nevertheless, Schmid does have a plan to address the current pressures in the market, and it is quite well-thought out. Most importantly, it puts the people at A. Lange & Söhne front-and-centre, which is something Schmid demonstrated his true feelings about when the pandemic hit. We will get on with it now because this story runs a little long.
Tell us about your experience at Watches and Wonders Geneva this year. Was it wonderful?
I was quite sceptical [at first] to say the least because the likelihood that I will be Covid-positive [after the fair] is very high because you meet so many people, there is no chance to protect yourself. So I thought that if I don’t get it there I won’t get it — I was wrong by the way, I caught Covid after the fair. But anyway…
There is a magical moment [at a physical fair] that you do not get with a pure digital launch. Because you work for so long in the dark and then comes the first day of the fair, and within the first hours you know if it will be a challenging year, or if the novelties will be more than well received. This immediate reaction — in the body language, in the eyes — from the people you meet, whether it is peers, partners or journalists, this is something you cannot get from a digital event.
It is certainly difficult with subtle pieces to understand the details without handling them…
Don’t underestimate the number of hours that go into [finishing] each and every Odysseus bracelet because we do that all in-house. The natural habitat of the wristwatch is the wrist, and only there can you understand, if it is for you, or not for you. Is it appealing… do I want to have it, or does it look better on paper [or in theory]. That moment of truth is probably more important for a brand like us than a more mainstream brand.
On that note, why keep the Odysseus in titanium as a limited edition when you could sell much more? And is the titanium version a new favourite for you?
[The Odysseus in titanium is a limited edition] because we do not have the capacity. It is that simple. It is a lot of hard work [to create the finishing touches in this material]! As for me, the pick of the whole collection is the white gold version… I’m not a bracelet guy, so I prefer to wear the watch with a leather strap, or if I am going swimming or something then perhaps the rubber strap.
- READ MORE: A. Lange & Söhne: Titanium for the Win
I was surprised by the Grand Lange 1, and perhaps more surprised by your reaction… Why were you so surprised by how the Grand Lange 1 turned out, as you told Monochrome?
Probably for the same reason as you. I saw the first sketches, the first prototypes, but it is one thing to see it like this, and another to have it on your wrist. I was absolutely astonished by the depth of the dial, because it looks like you can touch the hands… you basically don’t see the sapphire crystal anymore.
On that note, would you be tempted to make the aesthetics pop more by making the watches even slimmer?
No, we would not. Robustness, in the end, I think is more rewarding than making the watches as slim as possible. Mr Blumlein [the late industry legend] once said, when you close the door of a Mercedes-Benz, there is a satisfying thump, and a sense of solidity that makes you feel at home… and this is exactly the feeling that an A. Lange & Söhne watch should have. When you go too thin [with a watch], and make things feel less robust, you lose that feeling. There are a lot of brands that can make thin watches a lot better [than us], who do not emphasise how [sturdy and reliable the watch feels] or do all the tests we do to make sure the watch is suitable for daily use. So [ultra-thin watchmaking] is something we leave to others.
Well you certainly have your work cut out for you in your traditional segments because the demand for A. Lange & Söhne watches is out of control, as it is with a number of other key watch brands. How are you handling this?
I totally agree that [demand is] overheated at the moment. One of our challenges is to identify — and I don’t mean this in an arrogant or disrespectful way — the right customer. When we train our young people to become watchmakers, that is a three-year apprenticeship programme [this programme began in 1997, with just two trainees; to date, it has produced 228 qualified watchmakers – Ed], and then it takes another two years before they really integrate into our team. From then on, for the rest of their careers, they are watchmakers. That means my duty and responsibility is to ensure that there is enough demand that these people have work. What can a watchmaker do if the watches are not needed?
I don’t think that fundamentally, the number of passionate watch collectors has increased. Well, demand has increased but not [commensurate] with the number of collectors… I don’t know if the word collector really describes it perfectly, but then again maybe it does. Because he [the collector] just buys watches and puts them into a safe — unworn and unused — because he wants to give to them his children [or something like this] and that’s good. But don’t underestimate the number of people today who think that buying an Odysseus is a good way to at least double their money, if not tripling it… who is not keen on that? Doubling €30,000 just by buying a watch — nothing more. Without effort or committing a crime. This goes for quite a few of our watches. Again, I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but these are not the people I can trust to stay with us in the rainy days… because even in bad times our watchmakers need to work. You know, the people who do the finishing, the engraving, the polishing, what are they going to do if we [management, marketing and sales] promote the watches in the wrong way. We have a duty of care [not only to the commercial well-being of the brand but also] to the people who make the watches.
We heard from Tony [de Haas] that you had to cut partners because of Odysseus models appearing on the grey market…
It goes further than that because the entire Odysseus collection is now boutique exclusive. We tried to keep the white gold model more widely available, only to find them being sold at a huge markup in the grey market, so I’m sorry but we cannot have that.
With regards to the retail price, you begin at approximately €20,000 yet are significantly more exclusive than many other brands. Is the price right?
Well, we need basic two- and three-hand time-only round watches because we have a watchmaking school, and when they finish [with their education], they can’t work on complications straight away. They need to hone their skills with simpler watches, in watchmaking complexity terms, so we need these. We don’t need them in large numbers so they will become more rare as well.
So, on the related matter of rarity and exclusivity, as well as how you would then choose your customers, how can you be sure that the watches find themselves with the right sort of owners?
As a matter of fact, I can’t; I need to rely on what is happening right here [in the store], which is my first line of defence. Good people and a good system will enable us to find the right wrists for our watches. There is a lot of experience involved [in terms of the staff] as well as an automated system operating in the background. If you think about how few Odysseus watches have managed to find themselves in the grey market, I think we are doing a good job.
Talking about the retail experience there, how do you keep finding new customers when it is so challenging to even keep existing collectors happy?
It is really difficult! I think our clients are willing to wait. This is not a problem. I think the difficulty is that our limited editions are now even more difficult to get. And we don’t want to give these to the same people always — this is a challenge that I understand. So to keep the momentum in the brand I cannot always allocate the hot watches to the same people. I think we make it so that there is a fair chance [for everyone who has a dream of having an A. Lange & Söhne on the wrist], because we know by now that [no collector] is forever, so we need new people to keep things going. Basically, [if you think of it in culinary terms], we can’t hope to cook the same soup with the same ingredients forever; we have to keep refreshing the ingredients.
And finally, and perhaps appropriately, tell us about the Concorso d’Eleganza and other classic car events that A. Lange & Söhne regularly partners with.
Well, cars and watches, or watches and cars, are not an unusual combination. When we were looking for [suitable activities] 11 years ago, we wanted something outside of typical watch circles. Watch collectors and enthusiasts already know us well, after all. The Concorso d’Eleganza is a great platform where we can entertain our guests; where we can meet new clients and generate new content relevant content. [Specifically] we can help car enthusiasts better understand who we are, and what we offer. In terms of values, it is also a good fit because although not all the cars were hand-made, they were certainly hand-restored! Then there is the matter of the artisans involved… like in watchmaking, if you don’t train the [next generation of] artisans they will disappear.
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