Not for a Single Second
It was a building. But it was also a monument to his faith, to his unyielding, ceaselessly indefatigable belief that one day his beloved country would be united as one single nation. That he died just four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when people on both sides of the wall tore down the concrete that had separated them for 10,316 days, made Axel Springer’s crusade to reunify Germany, even more touching. That he did so even when it was not fashionable and continued even when he was made to seem a quixotic fool on a doomed mission, and that he gave his whole life to this cause, is to me what makes him so admirable.
When I first visited Berlin, my friend, the Michelin-starred chef Tim Raue, brought me to Springer’s 20-storey headquarters and explained that Springer, who created Europe’s greatest publishing empire, could have built this shimmering edifice anywhere. But his chosen location was Kreuzberg, right next to the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany. Why? Says Raue, “Because he wanted his building to be a symbol to East Germany that he believed one day we would be reunified as one country. He wanted his headquarters to be a symbol of freedom and a reminder of hope to Soviet-ruled Berlin and to all of East Germany. He chose Kreuzberg because he knew that one day when the Berlin Wall fell, as he knew it inevitably must, his headquarters would be in the center of a reunified city and country made whole again.”
Springer’s story brings to mind the story of another individual whose life was profoundly affected by the Soviet occupation of East Germany. His name is Walter Lange. While his story is equally remarkable, his early life was defined by an almost Job-like series of relentless absurdist tragedies. It goes like this: At 16 years old, Lange, young and idealistic with his whole future before him, was sent to Karlstein, Austria, to become a watchmaker. There he dreamt of adding his own chapter into the indelible codex of high German watchmaking that reaches back to 1845 when his grandfather, Ferdinand Adolph Lange, founded A. Lange & Söhne.
In 1942, at the age of 18, Lange graduated from watchmaking school and returned to Germany to find his country amid the throes of war. He was seconded to the army, sent to the Russian Front where, in 1945, he was shot in the leg and laid in agony on a battlefield all night, too scared to move. At that moment, he thought he would actually perish. He was eventually discovered and sent home via the Baltic Sea. Slowly, in the care of his family, he recuperated. Even better, word had spread that the war was finally coming to an end. His heart thus filled with hope, and on the very last day of the Second World War in Europe, Lange made his way to his family’s Glashütte watch factory to finally begin his journey as a watchmaker. He arrived just a few hours before the ceasefire was announced but then, incredibly, was forced to watch as his factory’s main building was decimated by one of the very last bombing raids over Europe.
Walter Lange and the Post-War Years
Over the next three years, he struggled tirelessly beside his father, Rudolf, and his uncles, Otto and Gerhard, to rebuild A. Lange & Söhne. Brick by brick, they brought the factory back to life. From dust and ruin they breathed hope back into their beloved A. Lange & Söhne. The family felt optimistic for the first time in years and even started work on a brand new movement named the caliber 28, intended for the booming wristwatch market. But then in 1948, his family was informed by the East German authorities that A. Lange & Söhne would be nationalized and absorbed into the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). All its assets were immediately seized. Its new role would be to build inexpensive mechanical watches for Soviet Bloc countries. The Lange family was left with nothing. Further, his father and uncles were immediately banned from the premises, to be arrested if they return. Walter Lange was given the chance to join this new union but refused on principle. As a result, he was told he would be sent to labor in a uranium mine. Understanding that this was effectively a death sentence, in November of 1948, he fled his hometown and escaped from East Germany, settling in Pforzheim. His father escaped the following year and came to live with him. However, Rudolf was so devastated by the expropriation of the family business that he died within a year. In his final moments, he despaired that that A. Lange & Söhne was lost forever. Walter Lange spent the next 42 years living in Pforzheim in relative obscurity, working as a watch distributor. He never became a watchmaker. He never returned home to Glashütte.
Then, a miraculous thing happened. Walter Lange was 66 years old and a pensioner living a quiet life of dignified retirement. In 1987, he watched the American president Ronald Reagan stand beside the Berlin Wall and say to the general secretary of the Communist Party, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Even more incredibly, in 1989, he watched again on television as the Berlin Wall fell. He couldn’t believe it. Germany had been reunified. It had been made whole. Then out of the blue, in the twilight of his years, Walter Lange received the single most important telephone call of his life. It was from an individual named Günter Blümlein. By the time he reached out to Walter Lange, Günter Blümlein had already assured his position in watchmaking’s Valhalla as one of the greatest leaders the industry had ever known. He had been hand-selected by his employer, VDO Schindling AG, to revive two failing watch brands, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Blümlein’s brilliance was to identify the core identity of each brand and extract and build on it to create appeal and excitement. IWC was a pragmatic tool watch with a reputation for reliability and accuracy. He transformed it into a brand synonymous with functional innovation. Every complication that existed, from the split seconds chronograph to the perpetual calendar to the minute repeater, IWC could do it better, more reliably and more affordably. Jaeger-LeCoultre had become relegated to producing movements for other brands, while its own models languished in obscurity. Blümlein focused on the unique swivel case Reverso and re-elevated it in status to that of an icon, now replete with a larger case and even complicated movements.
But as a German working in Switzerland, Blümlein nourished a dream, one shared by his boss at VDO and fellow German, Albert Keck. He envisioned the renaissance of German watchmaking, which had been extinguished by communism, but one returning at a level that the world had never seen. He imagined German watches with all the characteristics and hallmarks of Saxon horology but with in-house calibers finished at a level that rivaled even the greatest watch brand in the world, Patek Philippe. He dreamed of watch designs that were sleek and elegant but also revolutionary and totally new. And he had zeroed in on a mythical name with a sterling reputation, A. Lange & Söhne. By 1990, Walter Lange and Blümlein had registered A. Lange & Söhne.
Said Walter Lange, “The 7th of December 1990 was one of the greatest days of my life. I registered the brand using a borrowed address of a former classmate at our primary school in Glashütte.” But the re-establishment of A. Lange & Söhne was not without its challenges. Chief amongst these was negotiating the return of the confiscated Lange domain and factory. Walter Lange had made progress with the Treuhand Trust Agency when, incredibly, its chairman Detlev Rohwedder was shot dead in his home. This delayed the repurchase of the Lange factory for almost a decade. In the meantime, Lange and Blümlein had a name and a dream, but what they needed was a watch unlike anything the world had ever seen.
The Reinvention of A. Lange & Söhne
In some ways, the Lange 1 was destined to become an icon even before Lange or Blümlein began to conceptualize it. It was the expression of the deep, vast passion for horology and love for his family’s watchmaking tradition that had laid dormant in Lange’s very soul for half a century. To create this watch, Blümlein assembled a team comprising some of the greatest minds in modern watchmaking.
First amongst these was the da Vinci of Schaffhausen himself, Kurt Klaus. He was joined by Reinhard Meis and, of course, Blümlein and Lange. My friend, journalist Gisbert Brunner, interviewed Blümlein shortly after the launch of the Lange 1 in 1994 and asked if he considered the first modern A. Lange & Söhne collection a tribute to a great, albeit long ago, past. Blümlein’s answer was direct, “Absolutely not. The 1994 A. Lange & Söhne wristwatches and all upcoming models are anything but epigones of watchmaking legends.” He was clear that the Lange 1 was an all-new, entirely contemporary design that paid tribute to key elements of Lange’s past and to German watchmaking history, but without in any way replicating it. You see, to consider the Lange 1 backward-looking and charmingly nostalgic in its quotation of Lange’s past is to misunderstand it altogether. Because the Lange 1 is one of the most fearlessly original and modern watches ever created. Its basic design embraces an apparent eccentricity in layout belied by a slavish devotion to harmony, proportion and precision, which, to be honest, could only be created by two extraordinary Germans at the very height of their creative power. Above all, it is absolutely unique and game changing.
The Fearlessly Original Lange 1
Let’s begin with the dial design of the Lange 1. Before delving into this in detail, let me first shout out the story, “The Definitive Guide to Lange 1” by the terrific Alp Sever of Langepedia. (If you want to read his story on this extraordinary timepiece, you can find it here) As I explained, the Lange 1 has the capacity to simultaneously shock you with what appears like an eccentrically off-center layout, but at the same time, you find yourself somehow harmoniously mesmerized by this design. Why? Because it is one of the greatest examples of design precision and harmony ever created. It consists of a large grande date or big date window at one o’clock. A large off-center subdial displaying hours and minutes occupies the left side of the dial. The seconds indicator is found at the bottom right. A power reserve indicator occupies the remaining space on the right side of the dial. While you could say this layout is roughly inspired by regulator watches that also decentralized the time indicator from the running seconds, in reality, the Lange 1’s design is an act of pure and utter fearless originality.
To understand why the Lange 1’s dial evokes such a wonderfully pleasing sense of geometric harmony, let’s study the underlying symmetry that belies the apparent chaos. The hour and minute cannon pinion, that of the power reserve, that of the seconds, and the exact center of the frame dividing the two digits in the big date, all align to form an equilateral triangle. This mid-point of the date frame also aligns perfectly with the top of the Roman 12 index, while the bottom of the Roman six index aligns perfectly with the pinion of the seconds hand. The cannon pinion of the hours and minutes aligns perfectly with that of the power reserve hand. The distance from both of these pinions to the perimeter of the dial closest to them is identical. Once you realize that everywhere you look geometric harmony abounds, the result places you in a trance of bucolic genuflection; you feel that all is well in the world, as if the sense of order in the dial has permeated and enveloped your entire being.
It’s funny, but the Zen Buddhists feel we spend too much time agonizing over the past or worrying over the future rather than living in the now, the present. With the sensory overload and constant anxiety that this creates, our brains suffer a ceaseless blitzkrieg-like onslaught of overpowering thoughts. The Zen Buddhists point out that the only way to release ourselves from this is through deep and committed meditation. However, I have discovered one other solution. That is, to lower oneself in to a scalding hot bath, drink two ice-cold martinis in rapid succession and put on Johnny Hartman and John Coltraneart. Then, and this is the most important part, you pick up your Lange 1 and lose yourself in the seductive harmony of its dial, and you will find your mind releasing itself from all the anxiety that previously held it hostage. Of course, in order for you to undertake this powerful release from the temporal realm, you will need a Lange 1. So, what are you waiting for?
The case of the Lange 1 is one of the most beautiful contemporary designs in recent memory. This has very much to do with the watch’s wonderful lugs, which are notched, beveled, flared and highly sensual. This creates an incredible dynamic tension with a dial that can feel a bit Bauhaus-like in terms of its commitment to the functional display of information. I love this. It reminds me of the secret to extraordinary wines such as the Meursaults of Coche-Dury, which similarly display an amazing dynamic tension between fruit and laser-sharp acidity. This push-and-pull effect manifests on your palette as a sense of length that practically vibrates with intensity. This is the same as the sensually charged lugs of the Lange 1, seen against the cool harmonic beauty of the dial and case. What is known is that Günter Blümlein was behind these lugs. So passionate and specific about them was he that, according to Langepedia, he is known to have notched and beveled the lugs on the brass prototype himself. The case measures 38.5mm in diameter by 9.8mm in thickness, which made it one of the first substantial sized dress watches of the ’90s, though the alternating use of polished and brushed finishes for the bezel, mid case and caseback makes the Lange 1 feel much thinner.
The Caliber L901.0
As I had earlier mentioned, you had some of watchmaking’s greatest minds behind the development of the watch. Kurt Klaus explains, “The big date mechanism was something that Blümlein was working on at Jaeger-LeCoultre. But then he and Herr Lange realized that there is a five-minute clock in the Semper Opera House in Dresden that looks very similar. Even better, the clock was created by a watchmaker named Gutkaes, whom Adolph Lange apprenticed with. For Blümlein, this was the perfect rationale to have this date indicator in the Lange 1.”
When asked who came up with the idea of this being the first modern twin-barreled movement, as explained by the word “Doppelfederhaus” on the dial, Klaus recalls, “This was Walter Lange. He saw that there was enough space in the movement and suggested this, as Lange used to make pocket watches with this technical feature.” All of these elements contributed to the in-house caliber L901.0 that was the stuff of legends upon its unveiling. The movement is also the one element of the watch where you can see charmingly historic Saxon watchmaking style details, such as a swan neck regulator, a hand-engraved balance cock, gold chatons for the rubies that are held in place by blued screws and a three-quarter plate. When asked by Singaporean journalist Peter Chong if these elements seemed a little anachronistic, Blümlein’s response was, “A function may be anachronistic but beauty never is — does the three-quarter plate not look nice?” Based on this, it was clear Blümlein understood that, in the context of the late 20th century, a mechanical watch’s primary function was to impart emotion, and its greatest asset for doing so was beauty.
But then almost as a provocation to the rest of the watch industry, meaning all of Switzerland, Lange did something that no other watch brand did. That was to insist on a double assembly process for each and every watch. A movement is first assembled and regulated to perfection, then it is disassembled and meticulously finished. The angles are beveled, the Glashütte waves are applied, the balance cock is hand engraved, and the swan neck and the cap of the escape wheel bridge are black polished to perfection. Then the watch is assembled all over again and once again regulated. Why did Lange and Blümlein insist on this? Part of the rationale was that as they were the only brand using untreated German silver and not brass for their movement, and German silver discolors with the slightest touch of a human finger, they had to create an even more exacting and precise method of making their watches. However, to my mind, it was about making a statement that Lange watches, from a qualitative perspective, were the best in the world. Says independent watchmaking legend Philippe Dufour, the man considered to create the best finished watches in the universe and a Lange owner, “Lange is, from a quality perspective, above anything created in Switzerland.”
The Lange 1 was launched along with three other timepieces, the Arkade, the Saxonia and the ravishing “Pour le Mérite” Tourbillon, the first wristwatch with a chain and fusée mechanism, on October 24, 1994. Amusingly, in all the images given to the press, the watches read “25” in the date window, as Blümlein had correctly guessed that the majority of the images would appear in newspapers the following day, on the 25th. The watches were a critical and commercial success with all 123 timepieces across the four models selling out instantly. But it was the Lange 1 that would go on to inspire a cult of collectibility like few other watches in modern history.
The very first Lange 1 was executed in a lovely yellow gold case with a champagne dial. This watch and the initial versions of the Lange 1 in platinum with silver dial, pink gold with black dial, and white gold with blue dial, all featured closed casebacks, which was somewhat remarkable considering the slavish and exacting lengths Lange went to in order to achieve what Dufour considers the best finish for any serially produced timepiece hands down. Soon afterwards, the revelation that the Lange 1’s unique German silver movement needed to be shown to the world motivated the use of opened casebacks, and it is not uncommon for owners to joke about wanting to wear their watches with the movement facing the front, so majestic is its beauty.
Mid to Late ’90s: Steel Lange 1
Over the 27-year history of this model, several iterations have risen to cult status. The first amongst these were the steel Lange 1 reference 101.026, which was made in less than 30 examples sometime in the mid to late ’90s. There is a great article by Langepedia on this subject which you can read, here. These watches were made for two retailers, Orologeria Pisa in Milan and Cellini in New York City. According to Langepedia, the Pisa watches arose from a long discussion between the retailer, Fabio Bertini and Günter Blümlein. Blümlein was hesitant and only succumbed to Bertini’s many requests when they agreed to price the watch the same as a gold model. Accordingly, Pisa was sent 20 watches, 17 with silver dials and three with black dials. Today, these watches have brought auction results in excess of USD 300,000. Similarly, the legend that is Leon Adams, founder of Cellini in New York, also ordered eight steel Lange 1s but only received four of these, one of which resides on the wrist of my dear friend Gabriel Benador, otherwise known as @gva212. There were also a few watches delivered to Singapore and to Germany, one of which features a blue dial as chronicled by Langepedia.
1998: Lange 1A
As if channeling the spirit of one Auric Goldfinger, prototypical Bond villain and lover of all things gold, the Lange 1A reference 112.021 is as outré a watch as the normally conservative A. Lange & Söhne has ever made. Gaze upon its visage and be bewitched, for everything you see before you is crafted from pure yellow gold, including the massive gold dial, all hands save the flame-blued steel seconds hand on some versions, all applied indexes as well as the frame for the grande date indicator. The case is expectedly yellow gold and is 0.2mm thicker than usual to accommodate the added thickness of the dial, and the movement features a gear train as well as balance and escape bridges made from the same luscious material. Radiating outward from two points, the center of the dial as well as the center of the hour and minute subdial is a stunning guilloché à main, an undulating wave pattern that is created by a manually guided rose engine machine.
1998: Little Lange 1
One of my favorite Lange 1s and the model worn by my friend Mark Cho is the Little Lange 1, which measures 36mm in diameter instead of 38.5mm. This model was created for the Japanese market in 1998. One of the most beautiful versions of this watch features a white gold case and a black dial with a guilloché à main pattern similar to that of the magnificent Lange 1A.
1999–2006: Lange 1 “Darth”
Stunning, pure, elemental in its monochromatic glory, the “Darth,” in reference to Luke Skywalker’s father, has developed a strong following also because there is no other platinum and black dial version of the Lange 1 in the brand’s current lineup. What is particularly nice about the reference 101.035 is when it is paired with the Wellendorff or “beads of rice” style bracelet that was offered as a special-order request.
2002–2008: Lange 1 with Printed Indexes
While the first Lange 1 had applied Roman markers, just a year later, Lange experimented with a dial using printed indexes instead. This subtle difference in the reference 101.027x resulted in a dial that felt sportier and even a little bit younger. Reading this, you might think this difference to be insignificant, but its existence and the resulting collectability of printed dial watches based on this minute detail is precisely what makes watch collecting entertaining. Lange switched back to applied indexes, though the steel case watches delivered to Leon Adams at Cellini evinced a white dial with black printed indexes. A second watch with a platinum case and this same dial was produced in small quantities between 2002 and 2008. According to Langepedia, these watches were intended for a celebration of the Elbe Valley in Dresden making it to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. However, as the region was subsequently removed from the list, it seems like these watches were quietly sent onto the market.
Current Lange 1 Lineup
Every story has its tragic moments. Indeed, as I mentioned, the early life of Walter Lange was positively Job-like in his besetment by misfortune. However, the most tragic part of the A. Lange & Söhne story relates to Günter Blümlein’s premature passing in 2001 at the age of 58, already a legend in the watch industry. He was a marketer, a brand builder, a watch designer the likes of which we are lucky to see once every century, and the late 20th century was blessed by his presence. His legacy is, of course, the three VDO watch brands — at the time collectively known as Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH) — which were sold to Richemont Group for CHF 2.8 billion. But of this trio, it was clear that Lange held the most special place in his heart as it was a wristwatch brand created from the ground up by Walter Lange and him. The Lange 1 was meant to serve as a template on which other complications could be added. Over the 27 years of the model’s existence, it would become a multi-time zone watch; it would have a lovely moonphase integrated into the minute subdial; it would have an automatic caliber with a day-date function in the Daymatic; and it would be the home for a tourbillon as well as a tourbillon perpetual calendar. One of the most beautiful watches launched this year is the Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar, which is the first time this function is offered without a tourbillon in this model. In particular, the white gold watch with the massive pink gold dial is achingly beautiful. Amusingly, this watch as well as the tourbillon perpetual calendar feature all the indications on the front reversed or flipped, which demonstrates that the famous harmony in design works equally well in this orientation.
Says Lange’s very capable current CEO, Wilhelm Schmid, “That’s the beauty of the Lange 1 — regardless of which complications and even when the dial is flipped as in the perpetual calendar, it feels iconic, vibrant, relevant, modern and beautiful.” He is, of course, right. One of the greatest legacies left behind by Blümlein is the team at A. Lange & Söhne, perhaps in particular its current product director, Tony de Haas. Though he joined the company in 2004, de Haas worked at IWC under Blümlein’s tutelage from 1997 to 1999. When he told Blümlein that he was leaving for Renaud & Papi, de Haas recalled that Blümlein tried to persuade him to work at Lange instead. Regarding helping to develop watches such as the new Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar, de Haas says, “It is the greatest of honors to add variations to the icon created by these two extraordinary men, Walter Lange and Günter Blümlein.”
How do I summarize my feelings about the Lange 1? One of my favorite novels is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Because it’s about a man who has a blind, seemingly misguided but powerfully idealistic faith in love. Florentino Ariza stays faithfully devoted to his love for Fermina Daza even though they are separated for the vast majority of their lives, until one day they are finally reunited. I can only imagine that for Walter Lange, during the half a century that he was separated from the brand his family built, what sustained him was his idealistic faith that one day he would be reunited with A. Lange & Söhne, and it would be restored to its former glory. Imagine the extraordinary faith you must have — from the time you are a young man in your early 20s to when you are a pensioner in your late 60s — to never give up hope.
This is what I find so beautiful about the story of A. Lange & Söhne, and why I am so moved each time I look at a Lange 1. Because this is not just a stunningly original timepiece. It is a chalice for all the inchoate passion, hope and faith of Walter Lange and, indeed, every German like Axel Springer that dared dream of a time when their country would be reunified, restored and made whole. For Lange, I can only think that during those long years separated from his brand, he must have experienced considerable anguish. How he managed to remain the model of kindness, humility and warmth throughout rather than succumbing to bitterness as many others would have through those long decades mystifies me. That he lived an additional 27 years after Lange was revived, and he got to see it soar to its former glory and even ascend beyond it, that he got to see German watchmaking for the first time rival and perhaps even surpass Swiss watchmaking, never fails to put a smile on my face.
Walter Lange passed away at 92 years of age in January of 2017. But he played an instrumental role in Glashütte once again becoming the home of fine German watchmaking, and this must have uplifted him tremendously even in his later years. Shortly after the launch of the Lange 1 in 1994, Walter Lange was asked if after over 40 years of laying dormant, he doubted that Lange watches would appeal to the modern consumer. His response without hesitation was, “Not for a single second.”