Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Going Behind the Scenes of A. Lange & Söhne’s Watchmaking Facility

A. Lange & Söhne takes traditional watchmaking far beyond double assembly, as we learn at the manufacture in Glashütte

Feb 27, 2024 | By Ashok Soman
The Lange I building after the renovation (Image taken in 2013)

For our first visit outside Switzerland this issue, and the first one in Legacy overall, we will take a moment to address some behind-the-scenes work. In an issue like this one, where a multitude of manufacturer visits are arrayed before you, dear reader, our goal is to make it all as engaging as possible. Normally, we do not worry about how one story follows the next, as long as there is a standard. For example, the simplest thing is to go with alphabetical order. If you have gotten this far, then you already know we have not done this. What we have done is separated the Swiss brands from the others, although in practice there is nothing to set them apart in terms of quality. Of course, this is not to say that Grand Seiko and A. Lange & Söhne are at all the same, any more than all manufactures are the same. For this reason, this seems as good a place to pause and take stock as any.

To begin with, it will not have escaped your attention that all but one of these stories is written by me. In itself, that elevates the risk that each manufacture story would suffer from a certain sense of ‘sameness,’ and this is not what we want for Time Stamps. As noted previously, we abandoned any idea of standardising this series of articles, just as a practical matter. Far better that each story stand out for its own virtues, whatever the deficiencies of the writer. In that sense, the biggest takeaway from the Glashütte manufacture of A. Lange & Söhne is that it embodies the spirit of an entire watchmaking region and philosophy.

Double-assembly at the Lange 1 station, with components and movements laid out for inspection

Watchmakers here probably studied at least part of their craft here, if not all of it. Unlike the Swiss, German and Japanese brands have to train their own people, without the benefit of an entire ecosystem. Production Director Tino Bobe never fails to remind us that A. Lange & Söhne requires skill levels that are simply impossible to find, outside Switzerland, and thus is obliged to run extensive apprenticeship programmes. On this particular visit, we got to meet many of the young people who make up the core of the watchmaking team here, besides the usual familiar faces, including Arnd Einhorn, Head of Global Corporate Communication.

From Scratch

Even a well-visited and documented site can reveal new things as we discovered at the one manufacture where we did not see CNC machines. They very much did exist, in the basement, but there are a few watchmaking firms where no one expects to see such contemporary machinery. They are just as important here as anywhere, given that A. Lange & Söhne typically produces new calibres for every new case and certainly for every new family. The manufacture has delivered no less than 71 calibres since it was reestablished in 1990, and this level of creation, shall we say, requires precision engineering for quality assurance. Remember once again that every one of these calibres, especially unique watch families such as the Zeitwerk, has to be built-up from scratch, and that includes developing the skills to make them. Impressively, this covers both the skills and know-how needed to make hairsprings in-house.

Tony de Haas with the Odysseus Chronograph

In a lot of ways, this was the definitive manufacture that helped shape the structure of every story in Time Stamps, as well as the Conversation on the very subject of manufactures. This tour, rather different in form than those organized in the Before Times, takes us all through double assembly (the Lange 1); complications (Datograph Up/Down); and Zeitwerk (time-only). While previous tours have included sessions on grand complications and engraving, this time we have a hands-on session with an attempt at engraving a balance cock. While we did not see or hear about the Odysseus this time, we did learn that the team that works on the base Odysseus also works on the Lange 1. Product Development Director Anthony de Haas notes that to make more Odysseus watches, A. Lange & Söhne would have to make fewer Lange 1 pieces. He is adamant that one collection will not suffer for the sake of another. In no small measure, de Haas and the watchmakers here, with their cheerful yet sometimes cheeky takes on their work, convinced this writer that every manufacture story in this issue had to be different.

Despite this commitment to variation, we note for the record that the Glashütte manufacture is still in much the same state as it was in 2019, which is to say that no new buildings have been added. There are still two wings – the former home of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange and his original production building, and then a much newer facility just a short walk away. The historical building houses offices, welcomes guests, and is also where the new watchmakers train – each annual batch of aspiring watchmakers numbers roughly 20.

German Silver

Most of the watchmaking action takes place in the contemporary building that was opened in 2015, and this is also where we spent most of our time. It is a multi-winged facility that covers roughly 5,400 sqm, which we have covered previously when it first opened and in our stories on sustainability in watchmaking because the entire production facility is carbon-neutral. This is largely thanks to geothermal energy, and demonstrates remarkable foresight on the part of the brand and its owner, Richemont.

Discovering the inner workings of the constant force mechanism at the Zeitwerk station

Foresight was also important in the decision to use double-assembly at A. Lange & Söhne. The Glashütte watchmaker is perhaps most famous for this process, with even its advertising leaning into it. Of course, de Haas is sanguine about the realities of double-assembly, telling us that A. Lange & Söhne is certainly not the only brand to use this process and that using it is a matter of practicality rather than of storytelling. “We tried doing single assembly and it was a disaster,” said de Haas. “In fact, it made us slower rather than faster.” This comes down to A. Lange & Söhne’s decision to use German silver for its plates and bridges. This material is notoriously prone to oxidation and thus must be handled carefully. At the Lange 1 second assembly demonstration, we learned that some components, such as the screws, are actually replaced at this stage; the second assembly is where the blued steel screws go in, with the temporary screws used in the first stage recycled.

Finishing is a deeply important part of the A. Lange & Söhne experience and it might surprise you to learn that some decorative steps are left till until the second assembly after the calibre is disassembled and all parts are cleaned (in an ultrasonic bath). The signature three-quarter plate of the Lange 1 – a Glashütte signature that one finds in virtually all the calibres at A. Lange & Söhne – get the Glashütte stripes applied only at the second assembly stage. Again, this is necessitated by the brand’s use of German silver, which de Haas, Bobe, and others will never ditch because of its luster and character.

Neue Manufaktur – The newer facilities of the manufacture

Visceral Experience

The watchmaking lessons continued with demonstrations and explanations of complications, where we saw the relatively simple Datograph Up/ Down. Nevertheless, the information on the inner workings of the chronograph all made their way into our giant (and ongoing) chronograph explainer series. If there is one chronograph that we would have liked to get under the microscope here (literally, as you can see) it would have to be the Odysseus Chronograph, simply because we get a lot of questions about this watch. It was not to be on this occasion but seeing the workings of a lateral clutch chronograph up close, with just the movement, is revelation enough.

Space is a premium in these stories, and every word now is taking away from the images we got on this tour. A. Lange & Söhne was one of three manufacturers that had a photographer accompany us, hence you see me and Ruckdee in some of these shots, but I digress. Our last theoretical lesson was with the Zeitwerk department, where we have learned some impressive information – some of which we are unable to share. Nevertheless, if you do have a chance to visit the manufacturer, do listen to what the production people themselves have to say. It is both revelatory and also heartening, which might surprise some of you, dear readers.

As usual, the Zeitwerk workshop featured more explanations and a visceral experience too since visitors are given the chance to feel the now-legendary mainspring of the movement. For the record, this is the most powerful mainspring in the A. Lange & Söhne assortment – yes the Lange 31 has the longest power reserve but it is also the longest spring. For the Zeitwerk, the spring is the strongest of all. A manufacture visit is probably the only time you will ever see the springs in this state, including the regulating organs of the constant force system.

A lesson in how the chronograph works


Of course, it would not be a manufacturing visit at A. Lange & Söhne without something hands-on, which is what we got with an afternoon with the engravers. This is not my favourite activity, which is a necessary fourth-wall break here, as I have done this a number of times and have not improved; movement assembly though, I have noticed an improvement. Here is what I can tell you about this craft: it takes a steady hand that can apply a degree of consistent force. The engraver’s tools look pretty much alike, with a wicked-looking steel tip attached to a bulbous wooden handle that is meant to sit in the palm of your hand. You apply force with your hand and provide a measure of stability with your thumb and finger. You can just about make this out in the image here.

Actual engraving work on real balance cocks

While such activities are not really meant to teach much of anything, they do offer a sense of the skill of the craftsperson. Obviously, the young chap who was leading us was both serious about his work, yet quite carefree – there was no stress tension anywhere on his person, except perhaps when addressing a room filled with grumpy amateurs. Importantly, the engraving session reflects how a balance cock would really be engraved. It is done by hand, with the part secured in a clamp, just as you see. Imagine what happens when you etch away too much material and this will lend some additional heft to the task.

Watchmaking is indeed weighty, as A. Lange & Söhne demonstrates with each of its watches, not only to those who have seen the work up close. While human beings are not cutting out the balance cocks from blocks of metal (a task better left to precision instruments) but only humans can add beauty to a piece of metal. We continue to hope that watch enthusiasts will never lose sight of the fact that such efforts are made for all of us. We are the only ones who care enough to notice.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue.

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