When we last met the spry Walter Lange, the great-grandson of the watchmaker’s first founder, he was 90 years old and swathed in bandages. He’d fallen earlier in the week, but he wasn’t about to miss the 20th anniversary of the relaunched brand’s first collection, which sported the now legendary Lange 1. After all, he’d been the one to resurrect the German manufacture post re-unification.
While news of the wizened nonagenarian’s passing hit the watch industry hard, a particular quote that we can fondly remember him by stands out.
The Peak: “You’ve lived a great life… ”
Lange: “I wouldn’t say it was a good or a great life, because life has two parts: the very nice and not so very nice. I have had a very mixed life, but I’m satisfied.
“I’m very optimistic. If you don’t have optimism, if you see only black in front of you all the time, you can’t live. And if I weren’t an optimistic man, I wouldn’t have re-established, or established, a company.”
Rest in piece, Mr Lange.
Other excerpts from the interview:
What do you remember most from the time you relaunched the brand in 1990?
The reunification of Germany took place on Oct 3, 1990. Everyone was happy. My greatest wish was to go back to Glashutte as soon as possible to re-establish the company.
You can do everything you want in life, but if you don’t have luck, you will not be successful. In my life, I had a little piece of luck. I had a very good partner, Gunter Blumlein. He took over two German manufactures Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC during the quartz crisis (when the availability of the material crushed the Swiss mechanical watch industry). He really focused on going back to mechanical watchmaking. He was a really great manager. Because of that, I could bring the company from zero back to the top.
How do you feel about leading a German brand that’s on top, in an industry dominated by the Swiss?
We are heartened that we have rebuilt a brand in Germany that can directly rival Patek Philippe in Switzerland. We thought that if we could teach the Swiss to be afraid of us, at least a little bit, we would break the Swiss monopoly. What was terrible for them to understand was that a tiny company from Eastern Germany could produce very nice, very advanced watches. All they knew of the country at that time was that it produced plastic automobiles, the trabant. We showed them there was another player in the market.
How did the Lange 1 come about?
When we restarted the business, we had to consider how to make ourselves known. The brand was away from the market for more than 40 years. So, how could we relaunch the name? People in the watch business were watching and talking about us. We had to design a watch that was unconventional and the Lange 1, with a decentralised dial, was the result. Had we gone with the standard, centralised style, no one would talk about Lange anymore.
The design was very exotic. The three subdials did not overlap and, with the oversize date display, you could read it easily. The newspapers wrote that Lange was really back on the market with a sensational design. It was successful on its first try.
Was there any drama when you resurrected the brand?
No. We were clear about our direction. We wanted to make valuable watches with a timeless design. We did not want to follow or create a trend because, after a few years, trends would disappear. Look at tattoos. They were big for a few years, now people are removing them.
Aside from being a family member, what compelled you to do it?
Although the main reason is that I am from the Lange family, there is another that I’ve thought about, now that I am quite older. And it has to do with my childhood. In 1929, during the world economic crisis, I remember seeing in Glashutte, in a park by the riverside, all these jobless people. They were hanging around, smoking, because they had nothing to do.
After Germany’s reunification, there was only one big socialist company left in Glashutte, a watchmaker. If the country opened its market, this company’s products would never have a chance in the world. I could see from my childhood experience that Glashutte would have the same problem again, namely high unemployment, and I wanted to avoid that. So, in the same way my great-grandfather brought work to Glashutte – watchmaking to replace jobs lost in the silver mining bust – I wanted to give people jobs so they could have a chance at a future.
If you could talk to your great-grandfather now, what would you say?
I would say: “In the ’90s, I faced a situation similar to yours. That’s why I tried to do what you did.” And maybe he would say: “Yes, my boy, you did quite well.”