Many of us know the modern A. Lange & Sohne was refounded by Walter Lange in 1990, but the company has a long rich history spanning almost a thousand years ago revolving around a small town in Germany, Glashutte. The town is difficult to find on a map, but has been the center of German horology since the early 1400’s. It is still the home of A. Lange & Sohne’s production facility. Devastating carpet-bombing by Allied Forces toward the end of World War II destroyed the original building. The company nationalized under Soviet rule, but this was just the beginning of their story.
After the Second Great War concluded, Germany divided into west and east, “The German Democratic Republic” under control by approximately 400,000 Soviet Army Forces, and the western side of Germany coined “The Federal Republic.” Those familiar with history will know that the former Soviet Union created a boundary named the “Iron Curtain” separating Soviet controlled satellite states from the rest of Europe. Coerced into transferring their ownership to a state run company the Soviets required all local watchmakers to conglomerate. Lacking tools, key machinery, unable to trade and even missing members of their original handpicked 15 apprentices, A. Lange & Sohnes and other local watchmakers banded together under one banner to survive, Known as VEB Glashutter Uhrenbetriebe.
A. Lange & Sohne stopped making innovative timepieces and went into mass production for the Eastern Bloc. It was a dark time for the A. Lange’s clan, but the period between World War II and the end of the Cold War provided the training of necessary skills so that they could create the watches that we love today.
Walter Lange returned home from the war to a nightmare. Soviet soldiers requisitioned the town as payment for what Germans did during World War II, but it was akin to looting. Soon after being home, he was given a choice. Either hand over his ancestors’ company or pick death by labor in the uranium mines. He fled the Soviet Bloc in the middle of the night, and found his way to West Germany, but never forgot where he came from. Glashutte went into watch-making hibernation for 50 years and Germany remained split until the end of the 20th century.
“At that time, my father Rudolf and his two brothers Otto and Gerhard ran the manufactory. Of course, we tried to keep working and rebuild the production facility. I had extensive discussions with my father and uncle Otto regarding the future of the company. We began to develop the calibre 28 for a wristwatch, but before it went into series production, the company was expropriated – in April 1948. My father and his brothers were no longer allowed to set foot in the manufactory. I was asked to join the union, but refused. Subsequently, I avoided forced labour in a uranium mine by fleeing from my hometown one night in November 1948.”
After escaping into West Germany, Walter continued to work with watches at a smaller company, but assumed his family business was lost. Walter was approaching retirement age in the late 20th century, but talks of reunification began to emerge from the Soviet state. With reunification beginning to seem like a strong possibility, one of horology’s biggest personalities, Gunther Blumlein sought Walter out. Gunther was responsible for reviving the Swiss watch market in the Quartz Crisis of the 70s, along with heading the marketing, branding, and communications division at Jaegar-LeCoultre. Gunther was a strategist, visionary, and perceptive businessman. He found Walter, and the discussions began of a new A. Lange & Sohne. A company that would still embody the same manufacturing elements from the past, but modern business strategies. During this time Walter and Gunther became great friends. Walter spoke of his ancestor, Ferdinand, beginning the company in Glashutte in the 1800s, along with what the small German town meant to his family. Gunther not only planned how to revive A. Lange & Sohne’s, but also how to revive the city. Today, about 1100 residents of Glashutte work for A. Lange & Sohne.
Two important dates in history.
November 9 1989, The Fall of the Berlin Wall
October 3 1990, the Iron Curtain fell.
Walter did not attend any of his uncles’ funerals, but he could revive the family’s legacy by reigniting A. Lange & Sohne. As West and East Germany reunited, the once young Lange also reunited with his former home of Glashutte. The company restored in December, a few months after the reunification of Germany with the aid of Gunter. The resurrected A. Lange & Sohne had no production facility, team, or materials. They had to advertise next door at a rival watch company for employees. Nevertheless, slowly, and surely four watches models were created by a small team of 48 people within four years. The philosophy stayed the same as in 1845, never sacrifice quality for cost.
Just as his ancestor Ferdinand Lange did in 1845, Walter revived the German watchmaking industry. About a fifth of the town of the Glashutte work for A. Lange & Sohnes today and thousands of tourists come to visit the watchmaking Mecca. The new beginning was not easy, but in modern times, A. Lange & Sohnes carries the same reputations as the most desirable Swiss watches in the world. From the words of the late Gunter Blumlein himself, “A Lange watch is a fusion of the arts, consisting of a proud legacy, the passion of our staff for fine timepieces, the style of the company, a responsibility for its traditions, and finally the unique technology and artisanship to which we are committed.”
For eyewitness recalling the fall of The Berlin Wall click here.
More about Walter Lange’s passing here.
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