Happy 90th Birthday To Walter Lange With A Look Back At The Modern A. Lange & Söhne
Ninety years is a ripe old age to reach for anyone, and few actually reach it. But it doesn’t surprise me that Walter Lange has reached this age so gracefully.
He was, after all, 66 – retirement age for most people – in 1990 when he embarked upon the new business venture with Günter Blümlein to refound his family’s birthright.
“I did this for Glashütte and for the company; I wanted to see it flourish. An important point for me was to bring employment back to Glashütte,” Lange reminded me several years ago. “I wasn’t thinking of making money at all. I was already too old for that.”
A. Lange & Söhne’s success is unparalleled in the history of German watchmaking, though production of the brand’s timepieces as such ceased in the East German era. It is only thanks to Walter Lange, great-grandson of the company’s founder, Adolph Lange, that the world can once again enjoy A. Lange & Söhne’s unique products.
As I had the unique opportunity to translate Walter Lange’s memoirs, The Revival of Time, back in 2004, I am relatively well acquainted with Lange’s life. Follow me now on an abbreviated journey through his experiences.
A young Walter Lange
“I had a very nice childhood,” Lange remembers today when he’s asked. “My parents never let on about the status of the times. I was born in the Weimar era, then came the crash in 1929 and the great unemployment. I can still see it today; it was a childhood trauma for me, when I looked out the living room window and saw all the unemployed men lined up, waiting across the street. I will never forget that view, and it was one of the main reasons I started the company again [in 1990] – to bring work to Glashütte. I saw the same situation heading toward Glashütte again [after German reunification].”
This bleak period in German history did not leave an isolated region like the Erzgebirge untouched: to the contrary, it was perhaps felt even more strongly in small Glashütte than in a larger city where anonymity was (and remains) the order of the day.
Walter Lange was by this time a budding watchmaker in the family business attending watchmaker school in Karlstein, Austria, as the family had decided that Walter should get out and see some of the world. Little did they know that he would be soon seeing more than he wanted.
Lange was heavily injured at the Russian front before embarking on a perilous journey westward across Denmark in the midst of a retreat to find medical attention. Simultaneously, A. Lange & Söhne and the other Glashütte watchmakers were pressed into military service, which translated into developing pilot’s wristwatches for the air force. They became legendary in their precision and reliability, a fact that holds true for all pilot’s watches emerging from Glashütte at this time.
After the war
Lange experienced what was likely the worst part of this nightmarish chapter in Saxony’s history upon returning home from the war. Germany had been divided into four zones, with each of the Allied forces in charge of one: Glashütte was located in the zone belonging to the conquering Russians, who proceeded to plunder the city’s technology as “reparation.”
The Russian forces dismantled the factory’s machinery and sent it off to Moscow, leaving Glashütte back at the beginning and bombed out: Glashütte was the victim of a late air raid that took place on May 8, 1945, just hours before the war was officially declared over. Nothing but an energy turbine was left standing.
Thus, Walter Lange returned to his family’s business to find it almost non-existent. Years of rebuilding brought A. Lange & Söhne back to its previous global reputation when the next disaster struck: the rise of the socialist German Democratic Republic and the establishment of a planned economy.
Walter Lange was condemned to work in the uranium mines – certain death – if he did not agree to join the party and turn his family’s company over. This left Lange no choice but to flee to what was rapidly becoming known as “the West.”
Fifty years of the GDR saw all the horologically-related companies located in the town expropriated, thrown together, and combined to form one conglomerate in charge of watchmaking and microelectronics for East Germany.
VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb, as this “people’s company” was then called, employed about 2,000 people and represented a way of life for the new country’s watchmakers. Mechanical watchmaking in its simplest form was continued, giving way to mass quartz watchmaking in later years.
“For me,” Lange says today, “the 1948 expropriation ranks among my bitterest experiences. But it was even worse to have to witness the gradual downfall of the nationalized manufactory.”
All quiet on the western front
Walter Lange had meanwhile settled in West Germany’s center of watchmaking, Pforzheim, though he never, ever forgot where he came from. A desire continued to burn within him to maintain his family’s rich legacy, but one thing he discovered during the course of fifty years of a changing watchmaking landscape was that A. Lange & Söhne was innately connected to the place of its birth and the spirit of the city’s people.
Alone in the West, Lange could not start over and continued to make a living in his chosen field working for other watch companies.
Magically, in the late 1980s a new beginning arrived that promised an end to a cold war and an iron curtain. The Berlin Wall fell; the German people were reunited; east and west were no longer divided, and with that Glashütte once again had the opportunity to regain its former shine.
“This was a pioneering time,” Lange remembers today. “It was such a wonderful time, despite all the difficulties that came along with it. This wasn’t just about re-founding a company, it was about rebuilding Glashütte. My partner in this venture, Günter Blümlein, would often feel he needed to say this to me, ‘Mr. Lange, you are more for Glashütte than Lange.’ For him, it was about the company; for me it was both. And I take great joy in the fact that today so many people earn their livings with watchmaking in the small city.”
A mechanical renaissance
In the rest of the world, watchmaking’s mechanical renaissance was just hitting full stride. This was the period to follow the so-called quartz crisis, more than a decade in which inexpensive Japanese quartz watches almost entirely wiped out the mechanical watch industry in Europe.
In Germany, the mechanical renaissance was undoubtedly accompanied by a resurrection of Glashütte-style watchmaking, thanks to Lange and Blümlein.
The hardest blow the pair had to face in 1990 was obtaining a factory location.
Historically, A. Lange & Söhne was headquartered in what was known as its historic family domain, located at the city’s most prominent crossroads, across from the German School of Watchmaking, which today has become the German Museum of Watchmaking.
Common sense would dictate that Walter Lange’s childhood home should by rights be given back to him, but a loophole in the German law governing the GDR’s assets did not allow for this. Lange literally started over from scratch, with nothing but memories, a burning desire, an extremely able business partner, and a reputation that boomed like the bombs that fell on the town in 1945.
“During the first weeks and months we had to overcome many obstacles. There’s one story that I still vividly remember. In 1990-1991, we were negotiating the return of the confiscated Lange family domain with the Treuhand trust agency [the agency that managed the East German assets].
“On Wednesday before Easter, I met with Treuhand chairman Detlev Karsten Rohwedder and after our conversation finally had the feeling that I was talking to the right person. Five days later, Rohwedder was shot in his home. I was stunned. The continued negotiations with Treuhand concerning the return of the property were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that we were able to repurchase the building from the city of Glashütte.”
Lange registered the new company, Lange Uhren GmbH, on December 7, 1990 – the anniversary of the original founding in 1845 – using the address of a private residence belonging to an old school chum.
“The 7th of December 1990 was among the greatest days of my life,” Walter Lange recalls.
Lange Uhren GmbH was a joint venture between Walter Lange and the watch group known as LMH, managed by Günter Blümlein and that already included iconic Swiss watch brands Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC.
The rest, as they say, is history. A. Lange & Söhne has not only once again attained world fame as one of the very best watch brands in the world, but has revived a struggling region and resuscitated its very special craft.
Today, there are well over 1,300 people working in the watch industry in Glashütte. Walter Lange can – and should – look back on his life’s work with immense pride. A. Lange & Söhne, as a single brand, graces the tip of not only German watchmaking, but global luxury watchmaking.
“Of course, I’m pleased with the role that A. Lange & Söhne has played in this process,” Walter Lange recently said. “As was the case during my great-grandfather’s era, Lange is the region’s driving force. I believe most people see it like that.”
It is a company that sells its products in more than sixty countries and now employs upward of 700 people. And, barring any more global catastrophes, Glashütte will probably never need to worry about unemployment again. Thanks, in very great part, to Walter Lange.
To find out more about the FHH Hommage à la Passion award Walter Lange received in 2013, please check out A. Lange & Söhne’s Lange And Watchmaker Wiederrecht Win ‘Passion’ And ‘Talent’ Watch Awards.
Quick Facts Walter Lange
Born: July 29, 1924 in Glashütte
Lange Uhren GmbH refounded: 1990
First modern Lange watch introduced: 1994
Important awards: Key to the city of Glashütte / honorary citizen (1995), Order of Merit of the Free State of Saxony (1998), FHH Hommage à la Passion (2013)