A. Lange & Söhne is one of the most renowned watch brands in the world today. How did A. Lange & Söhne achieve this status? What achievements in the 19th and early 20th centuries made the brand shine so brightly that it could be successfully reborn in 1990? And how did A. Lange & Söhne live up to the high expectations that greeted its revival in the 1990s and even enhance its reputation to this day?
Both the A. Lange & Söhne brand and the manufacturing of watches in the town of Glashütte, Germany, trace their ancestry to the initiative of a Saxon watchmaker in the 19th century. Ferdinand Adolph Lange, who was born in Dresden in 1815 and was called “Adolph,” completed an apprenticeship with the Saxon court watchmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes in 1830 and then set out on a journey to Switzerland and France. A bold idea began to take shape in the young man’s mind during these years: he wanted to establish his own watchmaking production in the Kingdom of Saxony, which had suffered greatly during the Napoleonic Wars. In Switzerland, he had become acquainted with a new way of making watches: the “établisseur” system, in which a single watchmaker no longer makes all of the individual parts of a watch himself. Instead, the various components are made by specialized suppliers, who usually live nearby and work from their homes. In a letter to the Saxon government council of Weissenbach in 1843, Lange explained how impressed he was by the fact that “in the Canton of Neufchatel alone, more than 8,000 people earn their living from watchmaking.” Lange’s correspondence was met with interest from the Saxon government for several reasons. First, railroad construction had begun in Germany in the 1830s and the rail network was rapidly expanded in ensuing years. On April 8, 1839, the first German long-distance rail connection between Leipzig and Dresden was opened. As a result, the need for precise, portable but also affordable timepieces grew rapidly. Not having to import these timepieces from abroad seemed like a worthwhile goal. Second, there was the enticing prospect of creating new jobs. Following the example of the Swiss établisseur system, Lange’s plan provided for the training of 15 apprentices who would each specialize in a specific sub discipline of watchmaking. After completing their apprenticeship, each young watchmaker would be self-employed as an independent entrepreneur.
After some back and forth, the government finally approved Lange’s plan and supported him with a startup loan of 5,580 thalers plus 1,120 thalers for the purchase of tools. That the choice ultimately fell on the town of Glashütte, rather than on other needy communities, such as Altenberg, Klingenthal or Johanngeorgenstadt, was also due to the commitment of another man who is often forgotten when Glashütte’s history is chronicled. Gustav Adolph Lehmann, Dippoldiswalde’s magistrate of justice, was determined to bring watch manufacturing to Glashütte. He persuaded the town council to provide financial support for Lange’s company and, above all, for the training of apprentices. At the same time, he convinced Lange of the necessity of not remaining in Dresden as originally planned, but of resettling in Glashütte so that Lange could train the apprentices directly on site.
A ceremony was held on Dec. 7, 1845, to mark the official opening of Lange’s workshops and the start of the apprenticeships in Glashütte. From Dresden, Lange brought along his colleague Adolph Schneider, who also gave the apprentices lessons in mathematics and technical drawing. As foreman, the entire production was under Schneider’s responsibility, especially when Lange was traveling. Other important Glashütte watchmakers such as Julius Assmann and Moritz Grossmann also worked for Lange for a number of years before starting companies of their own. Grossmann later founded Glashütte’s school of watchmaking.
The first years were hard ones. Years later, Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s eldest son, Richard, described how, despite the government’s advance funding, lack of sufficient capital forced his father to put his own savings and those of his wife into the company and, in addition, to repeatedly burden himself with private debts to make ends meet. In 1848, after three years, the first 17 watches were completed, but many more years would pass before Lange could realize his original plan of producing 600 timepieces each year.
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