Wilhelm Schmid (WS), CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, sat down with our Watchype editor Giovanni Andrean (GA), to discuss the current status of the luxury watch industry and A. Lange & Söhne’s approach to tradition, innovation, and customer engagement. In this interview-article, we capture their conversation while retaining the interview format.
GA: The luxury watch industry is heavily influenced by fashion trends. How does A. Lange & Söhne balance tradition and innovation in the design of its watches?
WS: To start with fashion, you look around in Glashütte, and you see it is none of our business. Trends and fashion are not something we take into consideration. For example, you won’t find a watch with a green dial from us. We always go our own way, not following trends. Tradition and innovation, for me, is not an “either-or” situation. Tradition embodies a set of values, such as the handcrafted double assembly, meticulous polishing, decoration, and the skilful assembly of watches. This approach, a non-industrialized process, is a value set we will always maintain. But it doesn’t stop us from introducing new facets to Lange, like titanium or steel in our Odysseus model. Take the tourbillon, for instance; it has been around for 300 years, but we added a mechanism that not only makes it stoppable but also resets it to zero, allowing precise time adjustments. These subtle innovations bridge tradition and innovation seamlessly.
GA: You’ve perfectly explained the balance between the two, maintaining your own path while looking towards the future, rather than following transient fashion trends. In recent years, we’ve seen a shift in consumer tastes when it comes to luxury watches. How is A. Lange & Söhne’s adapting to this evolution, what strategies are you implementing to attract new customers, such as young customers, our audience, and satisfying the evolving needs of the customers?
WS: We are primarily a collectors’ brand, and that’s crucial to understand. Collectors expect us to be innovative because they seek the next great timepiece rather than buying multiple watches of the same model. This forces us to continuously reinvent ourselves. We aim to have around 65-70 references in our portfolio, which means that for every new watch we introduce, one must be phased out. We don’t follow consumer trends, but we have evolved our communication methods. Today, we engage more through social media, recognizing the changing landscape of customer interactions.
GA: During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the secondary value of many Lange & Söhne watches on the market skyrocketed. Do you believe this was a result of the public giving the right attention to your brand or rather due to speculation?
WS: Even today, we are extremely cautious about serving the speculator market. It’s not a matter of arrogance but rather a strategic choice. If we were to adopt a first-come, first-served strategy, many of our watches would quickly end up on the grey market. This isn’t aligned with our business model. Our primary focus is crafting timepieces for individuals who possess a deep passion for fine watchmaking. Typically, these enthusiasts seek more than just one watch. The reasoning behind our approach is straightforward. Each August, we welcome new apprentices at our factory, these young girls and boys, aged between 16 to 20, then join us. It takes us three years to shape them into proficient watchmakers, engravers, or finishers. They then spend an additional two years honing their skills before becoming part of the manufacturing team. For the rest of their lives, they dedicate themselves to the craft of watchmaking. This dedication and permanence are in stark contrast to the unpredictable nature of speculators, who might switch interests from wine to cars, art, property, or other investments on a whim. Therefore, our primary aim is to serve as an enduring source of inspiration for passionate watch collectors, which remains our main target group..
GA: It is a very noble intention that you have and is admirable because you’re not trying to speak to everybody, you’re trying to speak to the collector. The person who can truly appreciate your work.
WS: You see, when we mention terms like “double assembly,” it might seem meaningless to those who don’t grasp the intricacies of watchmaking. However, for collectors who understand the depth of our craft, it holds profound significance. Take, for example, our use of untreated German silver, a material exceptionally sensitive to grease and acids. Everything must be meticulously adjusted to meet our exacting standards. The undecorated movement undergoes rigorous testing, and only if it passes these tests does it proceed further. The movement is then disassembled, meticulously decorated, reassembled, encased, and subjected to another round of testing. This meticulous process serves a purpose, to achieve the highest level of technical and aesthetic performance in our watches. That’s the essence collectors need to understand. Without this understanding, terms like “double assembly” might lose their meaning.
GA: This positioning is indeed a strength. What challenges does this approach pose, and how are you addressing them?
WS: We continue to launch beautiful watches consistently, between five and eight each year, keeping the company in constant motion. That’s what a collector would expect from us. And that keeps us on our heels because it means the whole company never stands still.
GA: What are your long-term goals for solidifying A. Lange & Söhne’s position in the luxury watch market?
WS: You have to stay true to yourself and to change permanently. We won’t change how we develop, design, and produce our watches, but we’re open to adapting our communication, distribution, and other aspects to protect the essence of who we are, a Saxon watchmaker from Glashütte.
GA: A holistic approach to sustainability is commendable. Could you share your efforts in this regard?
WS: We’ve taken steps to reduce our environmental impact, such as utilizing geothermal energy for heating and cooling at our new manufactory, significantly reducing our carbon footprint. We have our own watchmaker school, we give prosperity and a future to that little village here. That’s what we aim for.
GA: Your approach, considering economic, social, and environmental aspects, is impressive.
WS: We have our school, about 600 plus people work at the factory, it gives work to the whole environment, it gives well to a lot of people that supply us with parts here. That’s where we feel at ease.
GA: Could you provide some key performance metrics or business performance figures to illustrate the direction A. Lange & Söhne is headed?
WS: On the one hand, we want to stay true to ourselves, on the other hand, we have to change permanently. I don’t think we have a change in strategy, we may see a change in execution. What we did recently, and while we are still enforcing, is to stay very close to our clients. And how can you stay close to your clients if you have a middleman in between? So that’s why we changed from a more wholesale-driven network to a distribution network that predominantly works within telematics. So today, we know exactly who is buying our watches. We know exactly what he or she wants from us and expects from us. They know exactly how to approach us, and that’s as important. We are as open to them as they are open to us. That’s the strategy that we have started and that we are still in the process of further developing.
GA: To conclude, could you provide some historical context about the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne in the ’90s and the vision that drove the founders?
WS: I think it always takes two names, if you talk about that period of the history of our company: Mr. Walter Lange and Mr. Günter Blümlein. And I always refer to them as the heart and the brain. Mr. Lange was to bridge into the history of A. Lange & Söhne as he was a legitimate successor of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, a living person knowing how Glashütte looked before the war and before the war closed the door for us. And Mr Blümlein was a genius, a lot of things like the Lange 1, the double assembly, the three-quarter plate, the celebrations on the 24th of October, the celebrations on the 7th of December, these are all things that Mr. Blümlein and Mr. Lange developed. It was a great time to do it, a window of opportunities that were taken by two great men and pursued against all the odds. And I always say without that watch, without the Lange 1, we probably wouldn’t sit here. Next year, it will be the 30th anniversary (of the Lange 1), it is still our best seller. It does extremely well in the secondary market even if that’s probably the watch that we have produced the most in the last 30 years. Walter Lange wanted to give work to Glashütte and we were never sure, with him, what was more important: A. Lange & Söhne or Glashütte? I think he never distinguished, for him Glashütte was A. Lange & Söhne and A. Lange & Söhne was Glashütte. What was good for us was good for the city. And that was his main emphasis and rightfully so, today every building looks nice, we have great competitors around us all in this segment we work together on. Glashütte is a landmark for quality, the streets are good, you see a lot of young people and we just welcomed 21 new people this August at our watchmaker school. I think that’s important, is vibrant, you know, there’s prosperity, there’s future, there’s hope. You can make a nice living out of what you can do here. That’s what we’re here for. And that was the main force for Mr. Lange.
GA: The legacy and vision of these founders have undoubtedly shaped A. Lange & Söhne into the respected brand it is today, fostering the spirit of Glashütte and exquisite watchmaking. It’s been a pleasure discussing your brand’s journey and philosophy with you.