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Change is coming to A. Lange & Sohne, says CEO Wilhelm Schmid

On refreshing one of the most respected names in a largely traditional industry.

The last time we ran an interview with A. Lange & Sohne CEO Wilhelm Schmid, we focused on the German national’s stewardship of a brand that “moves forward by staying the same”. In the spotlight was how the fine-watch company had thrived by staying true to its credo of building the best watches in the world, and the unflagging popularity of its signature off-centre design, the Lange 1.

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Four years later, it’s clear that the conversation has shifted. Sure, A. Lange & Sohne continues to impress with technical tours de force such as the Triple Split chronograph, its 2018 blockbuster capable of tracking two simultaneous events of up to 12 hours each; and quiet triumphs like the steel 1815 “Homage to Walter Lange”, a timepiece that broke the brand’s own auction record in Geneva last month. But the product is no longer everything.

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Speaking to us at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) fair in Geneva in January, and again when he was in town in April to give collectors a pre-auction preview of the 1815 “Homage to Walter Lange”, Schmid elaborated on the recent shifting of the brand’s design and marketing teams from Glashutte to Berlin. He shared: “In Glashutte, we have an absolute paradise for watchmaking. It’s tranquil, it’s calm, it’s difficult to get distracted. We are the biggest company there. But, if you think about social media and digital, retail trends, marketing trends – and the talents whom you want to attract in those fields – we find it very difficult to establish them in Glashutte. They love it there for a day, but they can’t live there.”

Against the dynamic backdrop of the edgy, artistic German capital, these teams will take on what Schmid calls the company’s “biggest challenge” – selling a brand beloved by horological purists to a new generation of watch fans. He said: “On one hand, the way we talk, present, design and execute is exactly why people like us. But now, we have to change the way we communicate slightly to attract that younger audience.”

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One of the brand’s digital platforms up for a makeover soon – its website. With a smile, the CEO and father of two millennials (aged 18 and 20) elaborated: “We (at Lange) have a tendency to be very technical. If you ask us about our outsized date, we will explain the mechanism to you – in detail. But young people don’t want to go through piles of descriptions; they want to know the purpose of the outsized date and what it brings and, maybe, later on, they want to dig deeper and understand the technique. The experience has to be instantaneous, spontaneous – our website is three years old and it’s not offering that right now.”

He has been working to integrate this sense of nimbleness not just in his company’s marketing efforts, but also in its production processes as well. As with many other industries today, rigid specialisation is a luxury that few can afford. In January, he shared: “In the last couple of years, we have invested massively in training our people, to increase the flexibility of our capacity. We don’t have a general capacity problem, but we need to be able to shift more quickly from one product to another. In the past, we would have a watchmaker working on one movement and another working on another movement.”

“Today, we can have two watchmakers who are able to work on six to eight different movements, in total. It’s difficult because they work with their hands; with such work, you get more efficient with more practice. But now, they can adapt more quickly when moving from movement A to movement B.”

On a personal level, the watch lover – who was already into horology prior to joining A. Lange & Sohne seven years ago – has experienced shifts in horological perspectives as well. With a laugh, he said: “After helming a brand like Lange for so long, it takes far more for me to look at a watch and say, ‘I like it.’ I look at many details and if they’re not done properly, I’ll just say, ‘No, not for me.’”

A WORTHY HOMAGE

Steel

700,000 Swiss francs (S$940,000) – that’s the price at which the hammer dropped for a unique A. Lange & Sohne wristwatch at the Geneva Watch Auction: Seven, held by British auction house Phillips last month. The watch was sold by well-known auctioneer Aurel Bacs, who had promised Schmid to “scream his soul out” to get a good price for the timepiece.

The 1815 “Homage to Walter Lange” features a stoppable jumping seconds hand – a 150-year-old invention of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, great-grandfather of Walter Lange, who passed away last January. The 40.5mm watch features a steel case and a black dial – both unusual features for the brand. The watch makes a new record as the priciest A. Lange & Sohne timepiece sold at auction, and it’s all for a good cause. All proceeds go to the Swiss charity Children Action.

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