20 Years of the Lange 1

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The day was October 24, 1994. The place was Dresden’s castle. Germany’s premier retailers and a handful of press had gathered to witness a historical event, though the pictures would show the large date on the more than life-sized photos of the watches to be October 25 so as to coincide with the publication date in the newspapers.

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To an outsider, the first public appearance of the new watches by A. Lange & Söhne may seem to have sent out a signal only within Germany, where, indeed, the rebirth of the country’s premier luxury watchmaker was celebrated like nowhere else. Despite the location, this event also sent out a global signal: something special had been created from literal ruins like a phoenix rising from the ashes. And it signified two very human things: the indomitable spirit of the human being and the enterprising spirit of Saxony, home to a technically advanced, industrious people that could well have withered and died of the many horrible setbacks it experienced throughout decades of economic disaster, warfare and communist rule in the wake of World War II.

It also signified that very, very good horology could be created outside of Switzerland, even at the very highest of levels. Without ever being vocalized, the new iteration of A. Lange & Söhne’s goal was to share the tip of the horological pyramid with Patek Philippe. Initial investments of 20 million German marks (approx. $10 million in 2003 when the euro was introduced) were made, including financial support from the state of Saxony. Germany’s “new,” recently reunited eastern states needed an economic success story, and this was deemed a good investment. Additionally there was some pressure from within to perform: the Mannesmann/VDO watch group headed by Günter Blümlein—Walter Lange’s business partner—also included International Watch Company (IWC) in Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre in the Vallée de Joux’s Le Sentier. A. Lange & Söhne needed to measure up to these already-flourishing watch companies sooner rather than later. “Blümlein was more of a Da Vinci at IWC,” Walter Lange recently remembered. “With IWC he wasn’t going to get to the top of the watch world’s pyramid, though. IWC was a great daily wearer, but not really special.”

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Now with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it is easy to say that A. Lange & Söhne couldn’t fail, but the runaway success that it has become was unexpected as Walter Lange recently told me again. And looking back over the past 20 years of horological history, there are many renowned specialists and experts who would declare A. Lange & Söhne’s goal achieved in terms of quality and ingenuity.

One of the biggest reasons that A. Lange & Söhne was so successful right from the get-go can well be attributed to one of the four wristwatches that appeared within the founding collection of 1994. While the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite, the Saxonia and the Arkade were all interesting—the Pour le Mérite was a true first in terms of its incredible technology including a chain-and-fusée drive added to the tourbillon at a time when tourbillons were still scarce—it was the Lange 1 that was to form the backbone of the brand’s collection and become its building block. In 1994 there was certainly no other watch talked about nearly as much as this timepiece.

Why?

The simple answer is because it was so different from everything else on the market at the time, or before it, and this was apparent at first glance. But its design also remained within the “Lange” codes, which were luxurious and traditional. Its off-centre visuals dragged the eye in, which hungrily roamed around the dial trying to allow the brain to understand why the watch was so appealing even to the most conservative watch lover. It even self-confidently passed the scrutiny of a second and third looks. The tangible excellence of the watches proudly bearing the name A. Lange & Söhne on the dial and outfitted with manufacture movements (an absolute rarity in 1994!) not only revived a 150-year-old legacy, it enriched it—and the entire horological world—with the rebirth of a legend and brought it straight into the twenty-first century. Walter Lange and his contemporaries were confident that founding father Ferdinand Adolph Lange would be proud of what they had created.

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The Lange 1’s appearance

The outside appearance of the Lange 1 was straightforward in an elegant way, though it could never be called bland or vapid. Walter Lange remembers that one of the rules laid down for its design was that none of the displays could overlap. “I found the outcome amazing,” he remembers.

Contrary to a “normal” watch with a centralized layout, the Lange 1 possesses an off-centre display for hours and minutes. A separate subdial placed at about 5 o’clock points out the passing seconds, which naturally emphasizes the timepiece’s accuracy.

The large hand for the power reserve display, the length of which is close to that of the minute hand, is located right above the subsidiary dial for the display of seconds. According to German tradition, the power reserve indication is called the Auf/Ab, or “up and down.” The hand makes its way from “auf” (“up”) to “ab” (“down”) in about three days’ time. The very large date window displaying two separate numerals has not only become the hallmark of A. Lange & Söhne’s modern timepieces, it kicked off an industry-wide trend for large date displays in 1994. This is yet another way that A. Lange & Söhne has influenced the industry as a whole. Said date display, which is modelled after the famous Five-Minute Clock found above the stage within the Semper opera house in Dresden, is very conspicuously positioned above the power reserve hand at the 2 o’clock position. The date is easily adjusted by pushing the button located at 10 o’clock on the case.

Today, this award-winning watch is available in a great number of variations that also include extra functions, and even an automatic version, whose dial displays are positioned in mirrored manner so as to immediately allow those in the know to recognize the type of movement powering it.

Alongside the original case size of 38.5 mm, a smaller version is also available, especially conceived for more delicate wrists. This version is often embellished with gem-set bezels and mother-of-pearl dials, making it quite feminine. As its 36 mm case is 2.5 mm smaller in diameter, there is no room left for a movement holder ring or even the date button. Instead, the somewhat rarer Kleine Lange 1 contains a corrector recessed into the case that is activated by using a stylus that comes with the timepiece.

Space is not a problem for the Grand Lange 1, which boasts a proud 42 mm case, perfectly befitting some modern tastes for larger watches. The subdials were also proportionately increased in size as well. The Grand Lange 1 is the only variation to include interesting dial versions comprising contrasting scales and a sportier Luminous model featuring greenish luminous numerals and hands against a matte black dial. All serial watches by A. Lange & Söhne are only available in precious metals.

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The Lange 1’s movement

Contrary to a “normal” watch with a straightforward layout, the Lange 1 possesses an off-centre display for hours and minutes, which is the result of an off-centred movement design that allows room for the twin spring barrels needed for the timepiece’s three-day power reserve. In 1994, three days’ worth of power reserve in a manually wound movement was nothing to sneeze at. Nor is it today.

In order to make the separate subdial for the seconds possible all the way across the dial, an additional wheel attachment was created for the fourth wheel. One of the most visible movement design traits of the Lange 1—its great power reserve—was achieved by two serially operating spring barrels. Calibre L.901.0 ticks at the quasi-vintage speed of 21,000 vph (3 Hz).

The only major change to take place to the classic Lange 1 model in 20 years can be found within the movement: the standard Nivarox hairspring that Calibre L.901.0 began life with has meanwhile been replaced by an in-house hairspring made by the manufacture’s own technicians.

This most beautifully finished mechanism offers a great deal of Glashütte-style tradition, beginning with a polished three-quarter plate made of radiant German silver and continuing through to screw-mounted chatons secured by thermally blued screws, a finishing technique called Glashütte ribbing (similar to côtes de Genève), and a hand-engraved balance cock holding a swan-neck fine adjustment in place that makes each movement unique and allows for individuality at client request. These are the type of elements that originally created the legendary reputation of Lange’s pocket watches.

One element, though, is not traditional anywhere else today: all movements by A. Lange & Söhne are assembled twice before they are encased. Once to ensure perfect running order, and a second time after all the untreated German silver and steel components have been finished to perfection.

When Walter Lange said, “mit 66 fängt das Leben an“ (“life begins at 66”) in an interview I took with him nearly a decade ago, I was certain he was talking about that day: October 24, 1994, and the immense effort put into the reconstruction of a new brand based on vintage ideals handed down through his family, which included product development, production room outfitting, employee training and so much more. Every last minute of sweat, blood and tears was probably worthwhile, for on that particular day, Germany’s tastemakers lauded the efforts of Walter Lange and Günter Blümlein. And put an avalanche into motion that to this day has not ceased.

The Lange 1 continues to write chapters of watch history, fascinating new and old horological enthusiasts alike. The Lange 1 has become an evergreen, a standard set for manufacturers inside and outside of Germany.

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