Even more, its founder was responsible for the formation of that industry, and pioneered key horological tools, techniques and components. For example, he invented the three-quarter plate, which affords more stability to watch movements.
The brand chiefly distinguishes itself with its high-end complication watches. Like other German watchmakers, it nationalized during the East-West Germany divide, but unlike many others, it has kept its identity intact.
The company wears its Saxon heritage proudly, therefore, its watches feature distinctive Glashütte traditional decorations and materials.
Images: A. Lange & Söhne
"Ingenious Intricacy!" A. Lange and Söhne pushes the envelope with its remarkable skill in movement engineering.
Certainly, A. Lange & Söhne has done its part to make “Made in Germany” into a respectable watch designation.
All of the brand’s design conveys its clean, frank attention to detail, but also dares to stand out as unique. Indeed, down to the dials’ stylish-yet-clean 19th century typography, it strives for visual recognizability. This is not only for itself, but for German watches as a whole.
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A. Lange Gets Started
Ferdinand Adolph Lange, founder of A. Lange & Söhne, was originally from Dresden, so he first studied horology there. He apprenticed under the clockmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, thus, Lange was part of the Semper Opera House clock project.
This clock was therefore Ferdinand’s first major project, a digital clock designed for maximum visibility. The king requested this clock in order to reduce noise from audience members checking time with pocketwatch minute repeaters.
Afterwards, when he had completed his apprenticeship, Ferdinand A. Lange moved to the Paris area for work and study.
Significantly, during the late 1840s, Ferdinand frequently used metric rather than customary measurements. Though metric units of length existed since the end of the 18th century, they were not yet in common use.
Therefore, Lange was the first European watchmaker to adopt the metric system as his primary method of measurement. The Saxon government did not institute metric as the official system of measurement until a decade later.
While studying at the Sorbonne, he worked in a workshop run by Joseph-Thaddeus Winnerl, a student of Abraham-Louis Breguet.
Around this time, the German railroad industry was gaining momentum, and so demand for accurate watches was increasing. Ferdinand Lange then returned to Dresden in 1841, marrying Antonia Gutkaes, the daughter of his mentor Johann Gutkaes.
An Ambitious Plan
Ferdinand’s next goal was to create a new German watchmaking region in order to compete with the Swiss and English. Over the next few years, Ferdinand A. Lange researched what he would need while corresponding with the Saxon state government.
At this time, Glashütte’s economy was suffering. In this part of the Ore Mountains, the eponymous silver deposits had long since gone, so the citizens suffered underemployment.
Lange’s business plan would not only provide skills training and employment for the citizens, but bolster the local economy.
Hence, the Ministry of the Interior loaned Lange a total of 7,820 silver thalers to set his plan in motion.
During this era, 7,820 thalers would have been several years of a middle class salary, to give a rough idea.
And thus, Ferdinand A. Lange set up shop in Glashütte in the December of 1845. It was a village at the time and, indeed, there were no paved roads into it. However, Ferdinand and his 15 new apprentices would soon make history.
The First Innovations
Lange was deeply in debt; everything he owned had gone into his business, but he was determined. Even more, success was in his sights: the railways needed accurate timing, so he geared up to provide just that.
At this time, he invented a pivotal component that features proudly in his company’s watches to this day.
This was the three-quarter plate, which he devised in order to improve manufacturing efficiency and the timepiece’s general stability.
The barrel, crown and wheel train attach directly to the three-quarter plate, rather than to multiple individual bridges.
This is a hallmark of Glashütter watchmaking, with the three-quarter plate’s movement using fewer parts, thereby offering its unique stability. These plates also used one of Lange’s other innovations: watch components of German silver.
Despite the name, German silver neither contains silver nor is originally German. It is an alloy primarily consisting of copper, with smaller proportions of nickel and zinc.
Originally brought into Europe from China, the Germans learned to create it, becoming the traditional European source of this metal. Lange used it both for its availability in the area and its favorable properties.
Specifically, German silver is more corrosion resistant than brass or carbon steel, durable yet soft enough to decorate and engrave. A. Lange & Söhne has used German silver in its movements ever since.
1A Quality: An Uncompromising Standard
Because of the rail industry, Lange’s sacrificed and business gambles paid off in spades. Even today, A. Lange & Söhne watches include railway-themed motifs in order to pay homage to this era.
Specifically, railroad-track minute and second scales are common on the company’s dials.
These emphasize the accurate punctuality that the train conductors could achieve while using Lange’s timepieces.
This goes together with other signature details that defined the 1A Quality pocket watches of this era of the brand. For example, the chatons which hold the movements’ rubies are gold, held in place with two or three blued screws.
Also, the signature three-quarter plates are typically decorated with Glashütte stripes, an engine-turned finish similar to Côtes de Genève. In addition to this, a hand-engraved balance cock makes for an exquisitely ornate movement.
1A Quality, the company’s top grade for pocketwatches, also specifies an 18K gold case and movement adjustment in five positions. The latter means that the company’s technicians perform accuracy adjustments to each movement while it is in five different orientations.
For example, the movement is accurate when it is placed dial up, dial down, and in three other positions. Five positions generally cover how a watch sits during extended periods, whether around the wrist, in a drawer or shelf.
In order to emphasize its high quality, A. Lange & Söhne now holds its wristwatches to most of these standards. Of course, not all of its cases are 18K gold, and some dial styles preclude the railroad track motif.
The 20th Century: The Langes Persevere
A few years later, Glashütte appointed Ferdinand Lange its mayor, because of his aid and guidance in transforming the town. He held this position for 18 more years, during which his sons Richard and Emil learned the family business.
Both Richard and Emil were officially partners in the family business by 1871, therefore, it became A. Lange & Söhne.
During this period, Richard Lange invented Nivarox, a class of metal alloys with excellent properties for balance springs. The company’s success continued until World War II brought ill tidings.
When A. Lange & Söhne, like other German watchmakers, moved over to military timepiece production, its facilities became a target. At the end of World War II, a bomb obliterated the company’s main workshop.
Because Glashütte falls squarely within East Germany, the Soviet-run East German government nationalized its watch industry. The Lange brand essentially ceased to exist, and the Lange family’s sons fled West Germany at this time.
Walter Lange escaped government-mandated hard labor in an East German uranium mine, meeting up afterwards with his brother, Ferdinand Adolf. The Lange brothers bode their time, working with people who would help them restore their legacy later on.
In 1990, one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Langes did just that, reforming the company. They achieved this with the help of International Watch Company and its director, Günter Blümlein.
A New Era Of High Complication
Since 1990, the watchmaker has made its name anew with its high complication wristwatches. These timepieces, such as the Saxonia Triple Split chronograph, take functional complications to their apex.
The Triple Split specifically uses a 567-component movement which provides split seconds, split minutes, and split hours.
This triple rattrapante mechanism runs two second hands, two minute hands, and two hour hands concurrently or individually.
A unique isolation mechanism prevents the rattrapante or jumping minutes functions from affecting the watch’s rate stability. Hence, the watch stays reliably stable and accurate even when stopping or restarting the seconds, minutes or hours.
The clear sapphire caseback reveals the mind-boggling complexity behind this complication, a multitudinous landscape of recursive arbors, gears, and bridges.
True to its German aesthetic, rather than celebrate this improbable intricacy with lavish embellishments, the watch’s dial is visually subdued. This display of restraint underscores the importance of function alongside beauty in A. Lange & Söhne’s engineering marvels.
This substantial timepiece is held onto the wrist with a leather strap incorporating a white gold folding clasp. With a diameter of 43.2mm and a thickness of 15.6mm, it’s a chunky watch, yet miniscule when considering its capabilities.
Raising The Bar: Handwerkskunst
Although A. Lange & Söhne refrains from over-the-top flashiness, there is a designation for the brand’s watches with exceptional decoration. Specifically, these models fall under the brand’s category of “HANDWERKSKUNST.”
This is German for “art of handcrafting,” and therefore includes watches featuring particularly difficult-to-execute and laborious decorations. Most of the watches in this category feature tremblage engraving, for instance.
Tremblage is the cutting of a rough and gritty, but totally uniform pattern, usually into a precious metal surface. Usually, A. Lange & Söhne uses rhodium-plated gold dials in this technique.
The engraver carefully cuts thousands of grooves of varying depth using a special burin in order to achieve this affect. Afterwards, the dial takes on a unique sparkling appearance.
This requires a tremendous amount of skill and patience, because proper tremblage must appear entirely uniform. The engraver must also carefully avoid indices, numerals, and other details on already on the dial.
Tremblage is occasionally combined with other engraving techniques in Handwerkskunst watches. In the Lange 1 Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar Handwerkskunst, for example, baroque leaf patterns in relief decorate the dial and balance.
Other Handwerkskunst models, such as the 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar Handwerkskunst, include colored enamel atop engraved decorations in relief. Enameling a smooth dial is difficult, however, evenly enameling a surface with such tiny decorations takes a master artisan.
Find More On A. Lange & Söhne
A. Lange & Söhne not only made Glashütte an horological nexus, but also did much to establish German watch aesthetics.
The brand’s dazzling complications are inventive and innovative, while its cases display German subtlety and restraint.
In the 19th century, Britain required the “Made In Germany” mark in order to warn of second-rate quality. This warning, however, soon turned into a respected sign of quality instead.
Since then, A. Lange & Söhne has upheld its high standards and, accordingly, the reputation of “Made In Germany.” The company also proudly displays the line “Glashütte I/SA,” short for “Glashütte In Saxony.”
For more on this watchmaker and its Saxon heritage, you can read its illustrated history. You can also find information about its production process on its official site. Lastly, for more useful information, high-quality reviews, and helpful guides on watches, follow the links below: