Quality time

1 Oct 2006 by business traveller

Deep in the German countryside is a small town with a large reputation. Glashütte, with a population of 2,500, lies in the crook of Germany, close to where the Czech Republic bites a chunk from its eastern side. At 40 minutes' drive from Dresden, which itself requires a connection at Munich or Berlin, it is by no means easy to reach.

Visitors arriving at Dresden's airport are assailed by huge banners advertising upmarket watches, and here is Glashütte's secret: this unremarkable-looking town is a giant in German watchmaking and home to several luxury brands including Lange & Söhne, owned by the Swiss-based Richemont Group along with watch brands such as IWC, Panerai and Baume & Mercier.

The history of how Glashütte came to this unlikely position at the forefront of luxury watchmaking is closely entwined with Lange & Söhne's past. The company has built up its current portfolio in the last 16 years, which makes it seem like a mere blip on the radar of watchmaking history – but this is deceptive. Lange & Söhne was making pocket watches as far back as 1864, thanks to a man called Ferdinand Adolf Lange. After learning the watchmaking trade, Lange vowed to lift the fortunes of a poor rural German village called Glashütte. In 1843, he received a loan to train 15 young, disadvantaged locals to make fine watches – today this project would be a television documentary.

Lange's legend continues today in the local watchmaking school, where the town's young people learn the trade that belonged to their parents and grandparents. They start straight from school and spend three years mastering the basic skills of watchmaking. Lange & Söhne has a small school of its own with 23 students who will all go on to take jobs in the factory. The factory's spokeswoman tells me that there is a joke in the company that "if you put a pin in the centre of Glashütte then all the employees will be from within a radius of 30km".

With only a few thousand watches produced each year and prices from £6,100 to over £100,000, Lange & Söhne is at the exclusive end of even Richemont's high-end portfolio. The small production scale means customers have to be patient: many of the watches have a waiting time of between 18 months and two years. In an extreme example, the wait for the new limited edition "Tourbograph Pour le Mérite" is up to four years. Only 12 of these precious timepieces can be made per year since just one watchmaker is trained in its assembly.

Are people willing to wait this long and pay this much for a watch? Clearly the answer is yes, as all 101 pieces of the Tourbograph have already been snapped up. Granted, it is the company's absolute pride and joy, containing some impressive complications (additional functions to a watch aside from timekeeping), including a tourbillon (a movement compensating for the effects of gravity on the watch); a rattrapante chronograph (a start-stop timing function); and the highlight, a fusée-and-chain transmission which, to anyone not well-versed in watchmaking, is a mind-blowingly technical piece of micro-equipment that vastly improves the watch's accuracy.

To find out what makes these watches so special – and worth waiting for – I was allowed a rare glimpse inside the Lange & Söhne factory. "Factory" hardly seems the word to describe the quiet hush inside the five modern laboratories where the tiny watch parts are made, polished, engraved and assembled. Everything is done on a small scale but by disproportionately huge equipment; the gently wheezing machines that produce the three-quarter plates which form the backbone of each watch make just 20 plates per batch. Quality control takes on a new dimension of precision – in a side room a laser machine scans plates with 1/1,000th millimetre accuracy to check the dimensions of each batch. The process must be so exact that the machine has been placed on a granite base with an air cushion so that any rumbling lorries passing on the road outside do not jog the laser beam.

When we enter Lange 1, the building where the components are polished and assembled, we must don white coats to protect the watches from dust specks brought in on clothes, and special doormats suck gently at our shoes to remove obstinate alien particles. Here on the factory floors bathed in natural daylight staff (most of them women) perch at long benches, quietly polishing, pre-assembling, testing and assembling.

The watches pass through the hands of many people as they are made, so traditional craftsmanship doesn't mean, as I had naively pictured, each watch being made from start to finish by an old man in a shabby basement workshop working with hand-made tools. However there are some parallels. Tools may not be hand-made but they are custom-made; the company makes its own since no other tools allow it to achieve such a high finish on the watch parts. And it would be impossible for one worker to make a watch from start to finish; each complication – from the perpetual calendar to the chronograph – has a separate department, where staff must be highly trained; the more technical their task, the longer the training period after the initial three years' watchmaking course. Once each watch has been assembled and tested, it is taken apart again so that the components can undergo detailed finishing work.

We are taken to Lange & Söhne's watchmaking school, where we spy on white coat-clad adolescents peering into their magnifying glasses, concentrating hard. That they are sitting here today is thanks to Ferdinand Adolf Lange's great grandson, Walter Lange, who has fought to keep the company alive against all the odds. After daring to hope that his factory had survived the bombing of the Second World War, the main building was razed by Russian bombs just hours before the war ended, in 1945.

Lange then watched helplessly as his company was seized by the communist regime in 1948 when the Iron Curtain fell, severing the ambitions and livelihoods of thousands of east Germans. Lange & Söhne was merged into one national watchmaking collective, and Lange was forced to flee.

For four decades, he waited. Finally, Germany was reunified and Lange seized his chance; in 1990 the wall came down, and the Lange & Söhne signs went back up. But only after Lange had been forced to buy back the buildings that were rightfully his, because of bizarre bureaucratic rules.

Since then the company has made up for lost time. In 16 years it has built up a collection of 23 movements (different designs of watch interior), which are incorporated into its wide catalogue of models. Now almost 400 employees work in five manufacturing buildings, with a state-of-the-art facility planned for 2009.

But if proof were needed that these are watches with a personal touch, it came as we visited the engraving department, where each member of staff has his own distinctive style of engraving. One of our party handed over his Lange 1 model and the engraver on duty pored over it for several seconds. He pronounced that his colleague, "Herr Petermann" was responsible for the work. Unfortunately Herr Petermann wasn't there to meet the proud owner of his handiwork that day. But in these days of mass production and automation, being able to pinpoint the man who painstakingly engraved your watch must be as close as it gets to the fairytale watchmaker.

The watches

All Lange & Söhne watches are mechanical timepieces, with dials of solid silver, sapphire crystal glass, hands of gold or blued steel and cases made from either 18-carat gold or platinum. The best-known model is Lange 1 (below), which costs from £13,500 and has a 38.5mm case, power-reserve indicator and characteristic outsized date. Also available with a second time zone (£18,800). For more on the watches, visit lange-soehne.com.

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