Nestled in Saxony, not far from the Czech-German border, and a stone's throw south from picture-postcard rebuilt Dresden, is the tiny village of Glashütte (population, less than 5,000), also a little jewel of a village. Its buildings are tinted ochre, buttery mustard, and robin's-egg blue, and look like a stage set-you'd expect Hansel and Gretel to pop out of the nearby woodlands.
This sleepy town is, however, the pulse and heartbeat of the illustrious German watch-making industry and a serious rival to Switzerland's famed Vallée de Joux, the birthplace of Swiss horology and home to les manufactures of some of the most prestigious Swiss brands ever to grace the wrist of a passionate, knowledgeable collector. But not to be outdone by its Swiss cousin, Glashütte is also home to a half-dozen renowned, collectible brands; in fact, watch-making in Germany actually predates watch-making in its Alpine neighbor. And it is likely an agreed-upon fact among those same connoisseurs who collect "wrist candy" that A. Lange & Söhne creates the masterpieces that are the watchmaker's watch of choice, a coveted timekeeper. An A. Lange watch is simply a timepiece for all time, featuring elegant complications, sophisticated design, extraordinary workmanship, technical perfection, and above all, classic beauty.
The company began some 165 years ago, when Ferdinand Adolphe Lange started making pocket watches, showcasing his first collection of these wondrous beauties in 1849. He had been apprenticed to a celebrated clockmaker (himself the keeper of the tower clock at the royal Saxon court in Dresden); later, Lange was dispatched to London, Paris, and, of course, Switzerland to broaden his knowledge. Upon his return, he settled in Glashütte (and even became the village's mayor, a post he held for 18 years!); more or less, the rest is history, with a few detours. The business suffered a bit during World War I, but stayed afloat and even managed to do the same during World War II-that is to say, until, in a stunning salvo of irony, the factory was reduced to a heap of rubble during a bombing that tragically took place just a few hours before the war's cease-fire! What was left of the brand soon fell under Communist hands when the company was nationalized in 1948, marking the beginning of an unexpected-shall we say?-hiatus.
It fell to Ferdinand's great-grandson, Walter, to be the keeper of the flame, and although he no longer resided in Glashütte, he nonetheless waited patiently. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, he bought back the site of the original headquarters and hung out the shingle...and in another startling bolt of irony, he did so 145 years to the day that Ferdinand had arrived in Glashütte. And so, on December 7, 1990, the brand was re-inaugurated and resurrected; it soon issued several watches that remain company classics and icons to ardent collectors: the "Lange 1," the "Saxonia," and the exquisite tourbillon, "Pour Le Mérite." The "Saxonia," in pink or yellow 18-kt. gold, is about the least costly of the brand's watches and retails for just under $17,000; the newest version of "Pour Le Mérite," a tourbograph, is the most pricey and in 18-kt. honey-gold-limited edition of 50-is just over half a million dollars. Most watches in the line range from about $35,000 to $75,000. When the "Lange 1" was created, it set new standards not only in design, but also in technology: With its off-center dial, asymmetric face, and unique movement (featuring an array of technical complications), it captured the hearts of horological aficionados.
Today, the factory, or the "manufactory" as watchmakers often call their "plants," is housed in several non-descript dove-gray buildings. The appellation "manufactory" is not used loosely: Derived from Latin it does mean, quite literally, "made by hand"-manus and facere-and in order to use that designation, it is generally agreed in haute horologie that a watch-making brand must make most of its parts truly by hand.
The cozy facilities are decorated in layered tones of a chiaroscuro palette, and you get a sense that the serene salt-and-pepper marble and the sleek black, white, and gray interior design are actually second bananas to what really matters here-the crafting of exquisite timepieces. Even in the industrial, "dirty" section of the building-where infinitesimal (imagine cutting a grain of rice into 100 parts, for that is just how tiny the countless components actually are) parts of watches are engineered by computer-driven lasers, dies, and machines (and it's the only place where parts are NOT made by hand)- you could eat off the floor.
Here, just about all employees are men-in spotless blue work shirts and jeans-who are generally engineers and toolmakers. Go to the finishing areas, and you'll see that women predominate (56% of the company's employees are, in fact, female), and in those finishing rooms, the attire is white lab coat and the de rigueur jeweler's loupe, most often fashioned on a tension spring around the head-a jeweler's version of a British "fascinator."
At the manufactory there are about 450 employees, and throughout the world, about 2,000. It's a workforce that is comprised of generations of many families-some employees, in fact, are fourth-generation loyalists. Master watchmakers take years to achieve that title and may, in fact, ultimately specialize in several movements. (The movement is the internal mechanism of a watch that, poetically, encapsulates the soul of the timepiece and breathes life into the hands.) It might take a watchmaker anywhere from six to 14 months-start to finish-to create a Lange watch. It is easy to understand why it takes so much time, when you realize that a watch like the "Saxonia" has 164 parts in its movement; graduate to the "Pour Le Mérite" tourbograph, and you have a watch with 465 parts in the movement alone; and in the fusée-and-chain (the highly intricate and precise torque-regulator in a very complicated watch), there are an additional 646 parts!
When you consider all the things that could go wrong with a mechanical watch, it is easy to comprehend just why there are collectors who slaver for the most mind-boggling complications, the most skillfully crafted movements, the most graceful timepieces. With any watch good enough to come from the A. Lange manufactory, you are guaranteed to get the entire package-and you'll likely never want to take this masterpiece off your wrist, unless you wind up buying another one!