Behind The Scenes Of The 2018 Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award, Now Underway
What happens when you take eight watchmaking students, a photographer, a plucky PR manager, and yours truly and send them on an international mission of espionage and intrigue?
I have no idea, but it sounds like a great movie script, right?
What I do know is what happens when that same cast of characters comes together to participate in quite possibly the most prestigious watchmaking competition in the world: the Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award presented by A. Lange & Söhne.
I know this because I was given the rare and exciting opportunity to accompany eight international watchmaking students during a week with A. Lange & Söhne, where they were given training and inspiration for this year’s competition.
In my article Motivation To Achieve: F.P. Journe-FHH Young Talent Competition, The F.A. Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award And Fantastic Watchmaking, I outlined what the Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence award is. And as a result of that article, I was invited to A. Lange & Söhne to learn more about the competition.
As a prototype fabricator with a passion for watches (who happens to moonlight as a watch writer), my unique knowledge set allows me to see the competition’s launch week from a variety of perspectives. And in an attempt to truly capture the students’ experiences for myself, this meant that not only was I able to see what the students were doing, I did everything as well!
I was not participating in the competition itself, but I took part in all of the tours, lectures, and workshops along with the students.
More than 30 different international watchmaking schools are called upon to nominate up to three students for competition consideration by A. Lange & Söhne – meaning the possible pool of applicants could reach nearly 100 students, of which only eight are selected.
Being chosen already means the student has shown exceptional skills and talent. These students are then given the opportunity to see inside A. Lange & Söhne to better understand its world of watchmaking excellence in preparation for the competition task.
What is that task? In this edition of the competition, it is to build an “acoustical indication,” but I will come back to that later. The task is meant to challenge and inspire the students, pushing each of them to shine with his or her unique skills.
But what the competition showcases nearly as much as watchmaking is the people involved, both at A. Lange & Söhne and the various students from around the world. This year, the field is truly globe spanning with competitors coming from nearly 6,000 miles apart: from the Netherlands all the way to Japan.
Each competitor brings something unique to the experience, and nobody has the same story. From their reasons for pursuing watchmaking and what each one did before focusing on watches to what they like to do in their spare time: each competitor is part of a larger story.
To better understand what makes this competition unique, we need to get to know each student a little better and hear about the individual experiences during the week.
Students participating in the 2018 Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award
The 2018 edition of the Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award features eight students from seven countries speaking as many languages and all getting along thanks to their shared interests in watchmaking as well as a desire to connect. So who are these kids?
Emilie Visser is from the Watchmaking Vakschool in Schoonhoven, Netherlands. If everyone were to be assigned a persona, she might be considered the rebel of the group. She loves to work on and drive cars and motorcycles and she trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai boxing.
She came to watchmaking after becoming interested in secondary school and then shadowing a watchmaker before deciding to fully commit to the profession. Being Dutch she seems to have a shared spirit with the Grönefeld brothers as well as Finnish watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva, who is a known gearhead. Visser also has studied goldsmithing, proving her background has given her a broad pool of knowledge to pull from.
Next we meet a young French student, Matéo Cattin from the Lycée Polyvalent Edgar Faure in Morteau, France. You might say he is the legacy student of the group, having a watchmaker mother and growing up just ten minutes away from Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds. In such close proximity to the world’s center for fine watchmaking, it was only a matter of time until Cattin was hooked, with the final push to study watchmaking coming from a visit to Baselworld when he was 12 years old.
Since then he has had an internship in a Swiss factory and was encouraged by a watchmaker friend to pursue the path he is on, which sees him taking the deep route of micromechanics and engineering like some of the best names in watch movement development.
Continuing on, we come to the only German student in the competition: Linda Holzwarth from the Goldschmiedeschule mit Uhrmacherschule in Pforzheim, Germany. She might be the most under scrutiny during the competition simply because she bears the banner for her home country.
But, like others, she only found watchmaking as she was deciding her career path. Already a trained goldsmith, she was looking to expand her abilities and expertise. As it turns out, her favorite things to work on are striking watches and small skeletonized movements and she has already rebuilt or modified some for friends and family.
Given that the task this year is the acoustical indication, it seems Holzwarth might be in a good position to have a head start on technical knowledge.
The lone Swiss student, Aaron Rüegger, studies at ZeitZentrum Uhrmacherschule in Grenchen. Rüegger is probably the strongest competitor (even in a literal sense): outside of watchmaking he participates in “Schwingen,” otherwise known as Swiss wrestling, and he definitely stands out in a variety of ways.
Still, he has just as steady a hand as the others, likely thanks to his rather laid back personality that undoubtedly balances out his athletic prowess. He turned to watches due to a fascination that grew from his childhood when he was given Flik-Flak watches (like many children) but didn’t wear them because he knew he wanted a mechanical watch. That passion for mechanics has followed him through the years, leading him to pursue the watchmaking lifestyle.
Per Pucher, an Austrian, is Rüegger’s classmate at ZeitZentrum Uhrmacherschule in Grenchen – and the youngest in the competition. At just 17 years old, he is younger than pretty much every other competitor in the award’s history, and the only student that can nearly match A. Lange & Söhne technical director Anthony de Haas in language ability.
De Haas is a skilled polygot, and Pucher is rather multilingual himself, able to converse in German, French, Swiss German, Swedish, and English. He even said that if he hadn’t found watchmaking he probably would have studied languages. But thanks to a Rolex catalogue finding its way into Pucher’s hands when he was 12 years old, he was inspired by mechanics and urged by a newfound boredom with regular schoolwork to focus on watchmaking.
While he didn’t have much experience or skills with tools at the time, he has been competing as a mini golf player (currently ranked twelfth in the world) since 2013 and uses the fine motor skills and patience from that to drive skill development for watchmaking.
Two students from Finland have found their way into this year’s competition; one is Otto Peltola, a young man who had no thoughts to go into watchmaking until at a college fair he became aware of Kelloseppäkoulu, the Finnish School of Watchmaking in Espoo, and realized he was drawn to it.
Already endowed with a background working with his hands, he has engaged in woodworking and built musical instruments. Music is another one of his passions (he can play the electric and upright bass, banjo, ukulele, French horn, piano, and guitar), so manual dexterity isn’t an issue.
He is also fascinated by mechanics and technology, and aside from attending watchmaking school, he currently works for a company building near-absolute zero vacuum chambers. Peltola kind of found watchmaking by accident, but it seems like he is in the right place.
The other Kelloseppäkoulu student is Jonna Frilander, a young woman who also came to watchmaking by chance. Originally, Frilander was studying jewelry design and enjoying it very much, but realizing that the job outlook was limited and not the path she wanted to take she began to look around for options.
That is when she discovered the only watchmaking school in Finland and knew she had to try to that. With her background in jewelry, hand skills weren’t the hard part. She even has a background with art, drawing, and painting, helping even more with manual dexterity. Technical thinking is boosted by her passion for aquariums, where she has to carefully monitor pH levels in each of her four tanks. While she may be one of the quieter watchmakers in the group, she possesses a skill set that could make her a serious contender.
Finally we leave Europe and go all the way to Chiba, just outside of Tokyo, to meet Yutaro Iizuka, the final student in the competition. Studying at the Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry & Watchmaking, Iizuka has been interested in watches since he was only five years old thanks to his grandfather.
All his life his grandfather discussed watches, inspiring Iizuka to pay attention to an object that has all but lost its place in our tech-driven age. Combined with a memorable television program he saw as a kid, he chose early on to pursue watchmaking. Grasping complex theoretical knowledge won’t be a problem for Iizuka as he majored in physics and dabbled in theoretical astrophysics.
But while motivation and skill set are in place, he still needs to be a typical teenager: after pondering the universe and micro mechanics he simply likes to play video games, drive his car, and hang out, something many of us can probably relate to.
This diverse group of young watchmakers all come from different backgrounds and have different stories, but there are certain similarities too. One is that half of the members have a history with gold- or silversmithing and half the group discovered watchmaking sort of by accident.
A big similarity is that many have a desire to start their own brands or make their own watches. Or, as an alternative, teach watchmaking to carry on traditions.
This shows that while different, there are like minds within the group.
How the week played out
So how did that all translate into the activities during the week?
At full attention for every event in hopes of learning and being inspired for the big task, the kids showed little hesitation. The task, though, remained a secret for the entire week until the final afternoon, making bus rides, elevator chats, and walking tours a prime time to make guesses and plan for a variety of outcomes.
More than once someone thought they had put the “clues” together, and the speculation would begin anew. This may have been the smartest move of the week on A. Lange & Söhne’s part, since it made the young watchmakers focus on everything they heard or saw since nobody knew if it would end up being important: many interesting things were discussed and seen during the three and a half days of activities, and it was fun to watch the young students try and soak it all in.
From day one we heard about the brand’s history, visited multiple production areas, and spoke with watchmakers focusing on specific collections. We learned about the history of time measurement, clocks, and watches at the Mathematics & Physics Salon at Dresden’s Zwinger, sat down with nearly the entire collection to examine the watches at length, and spent an evening with de Haas listening to stories of development, watchmaking, and anecdotes about life.
This was followed by an in-depth presentation from de Haas detailing the entire product development process at A. Lange & Söhne, which included so many nuggets of useful information (at least for someone like me who works in product development) I dare say it was one of the best discussions of the entire week. And we hadn’t even eaten lunch yet.
From there we spent an afternoon in workshops at the Lange II manufactory building learning about bevel polishing and hand engraving. Those with previous backgrounds in gold- and silversmithing breezed through the bevel polishing exercise, but nearly everyone had a “fun time” attempting to hand engrave the 5:1 scale balance cock (did you hear the sarcasm?).
We were provided with the graver designed to produce the tremblage engraving (see more on that in The A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst: I Can Just Feel It!), which proved difficult to engrave with, but is supposedly safer should one slip and mess up. I am glad to say that nobody drew blood that day.
Finishing off day two was a guided tour of the German Watch Museum in Glashütte where we saw the extensive history that is German watchmaking in the region and learned of the tragic moments surrounding the war.
But that mood was fortunately not permanent, and the next day we were back in the swing of things, starting with a more than two-hour watchmaking workshop in which the students assembled the new Saxonia Dual Time movement, a very cool but delicate movement that is a step up from the previous, more basic three-hand movements used in the past.
Given that I don’t have an official background in watchmaking and am largely self-taught, A. Lange & Söhne deviated from the plan and had me first assemble an ETA 6498 to make sure I knew what I was doing. So while the students were slowly putting together automatic winding mechanisms and keyless works for the Saxonia Dual Time, I put together my basic movement in a fairly short amount of time (for a non-watchmaker), even soliciting a few “wows” from our watchmaking instructor.
I like to think he was impressed by my speed and not by the fact that a “journalist” could actually put together a movement (that I had disassembled and reassembled a few times before).
Once my basic skills were demonstrated, the instructor came back with a Saxonia Dual Time movement for me to partially disassemble and reassemble, so at least I had the chance to work on an actual A. Lange & Söhne movement, even if not to the level the students did. Of course all the students did very well and made the instructor ponder whether the increase in difficulty was sufficient or if they should push a little more next year.
After that workshop, we had a chance to look at all the competition entries from previous years, which clearly showed that not every finished project is to the same level, but also that watchmaking students never fail to be creative when given a task to achieve. The variety of solutions for each year’s task was impressive, some showing extreme promise for development into full-fledged movements.
After this, the moment of truth had arrived: the reveal of the task for this year’s competition.
We had all come up with a variety of ideas for what it might be, and I ended up being the one guessing accurately when I predicted early in the week that it might be a chiming/striking complication since Lange hadn’t gone in that direction before and the brand had been successful in recent years with the Zeitwerk striking watches.
De Haas revealed that the task for the students would be to create an “acoustic indication, and all that that implies.” The students looked excited and slightly worried, and so a long discussion about the requirements and possible directions followed. And this is where the essence of the competition was revealed.
The task: an acoustic indication and all that implies
The Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award isn’t just an award for great watchmaking skill; it is a crucible that forges the talent and creativity of young watchmakers into nuggets of horological inspiration, foundations that will propel the students forward, hopefully into noteworthy careers. It also is the only competition that sees eight young watchmakers tasked with the same goal and the same starting point, each given a fair and relatively equal shake at producing something awesome.
The competition also provides a somewhat broad task, like this year’s “acoustic indication,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The discussion following the reveal of the competition task showed that even de Haas and the team at A. Lange & Söhne feel this is a fairly broad direction.
“Acoustic” simply means that it makes a sound, and that does not mean it needs to chime a gong in a traditional manner. Of course that is one of the main sound-producing mechanisms, but one could create an alarm that rings a small bell, a music box-style function, a bellows-style chirping mechanism, a vibrating or buzzing mechanism, or even a dead knock with a hammer hitting the inside of the case (a very early alarm mechanism).
And within those directions there are loads of creative applications for the mechanisms to indicate various things. It was even mentioned that the “indication” could simply be that you pressed a pusher to make a sound. Obviously this is a much more basic direction, but it shows that A. Lange & Söhne doesn’t want to have eight students attempting to create repeaters (though undoubtedly one or two may try just that), but instead eight students assessing their capabilities and time constraints to create something interesting and unique within that one constraint.
This is directly in the spirit of product development, which, by the way, is de Haas’s department.
The focus for the students is instead that they are supposed to use their skill and creativity to produce a functioning, intelligently engineered and unique (if possible), well finished horological mechanism, in that order. De Haas emphasized this repeatedly: the mechanism’s functionality is of the utmost importance; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how clever it is or how beautifully it is finished.
Of course, once it works, the next step is to finish it to the best of their ability. This, to me, is more of an indication of how quickly and expertly the mechanism was constructed so that the student could move on to the finishing phase. Components that are painstakingly finished show a significant amount of time able to be dedicated to finishing (something that is a point of pride at A. Lange & Söhne), and that the prototyping and refinement of the mechanism was accomplished well ahead of the competition’s deadline.
And just how long do the students have? About 27 weeks, which comes out to the first week in November 2018.
By November 6 the finished entries need to have been postmarked and on their way to Glashütte, where they will be inspected and judged by de Haas, journalists Peter Braun and Gisbert Brunner, and the director of Dresden’s Mathematics and Physics Salon, Peter Plaßmeyer.
While a little over six months sounds like a lot of time to complete a task, that work is on top of full-time watchmaking study and any testing or apprenticeships scheduled during that time.
Of course it is also over the summer, so there will more than likely be some time where the students are not in class. But that presents a different problem: a possible lack of access to the equipment necessary to fabricate their ideas.
Also, making custom watch components can take time with days or weeks focused on a single difficult part, leading to months flying by while hunched over a lathe or carefully shaping a spring by hand with a file. The students definitely have their work cut out for them.
They have restrictions and allowances for the builds, including exclusive use of metallic materials for the movement parts, the ability to use purchased or existing components, and any tool or machine can be used to create a part.
No case is required, and the display can be anything the student desires. The final entry must include written explanations of the design and movement operation as well as a few drawings of the movement plan and photos of the assembly. A. Lange & Söhne provides each student with an ETA 6498 movement as a base caliber and €200 for materials.
Most importantly, though, the work must be completed without external help (aside from an outsourced component), and only an instructor can help with the realization of the project. This forces students to step up and work through a serious project on their own – in preparation for life as a professional watchmaker, one might say.
Self-reliance is an important trait for a watchmaker since the profession itself is rather spread out these days, and being able to work through complex problems in isolation might be a reality in many places.
The Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award is meant to showcase exceptional talent, but it is also meant to showcase problem solving lessons for the students, hopefully making them into much more skilled craftspeople by the end of the project.
That is the true purpose of a competition like this: to mentor and motivate the next generation to accomplish great things. The winner from last year, who was a quiet but skilled man, ended up blowing away the judges with phenomenal work and is now touring across Europe showcasing his watch and very possibly building his future on the reputation of hard work and excellence, backed by A. Lange & Söhne.
Winning or even just participating in the competition can lead to opportunities and jobs, even possibly with A. Lange & Söhne. A previous competitor (who didn’t even win) has been working with the Glashütte icon ever since he graduated, showing that this competition could also be seen as a showcase for watchmakers that will help build the entire future of watchmaking.
This is why we need to pay attention to competitions like this and why they are so important in this day and age. It is too easy to get trapped in old ways of thinking and doing, and competitions that emphasize creativity and passion can quite literally show us the future.
Speaking of the future, I am so excited to see the directions that the students go. I will stay in touch with each student over the course of the project to get updates about ideas and directions. And once fabrication starts, I will follow their progress, pitfalls, and successes, so when it all comes down to the end we can see what it really takes to be a part of the Walter Lange Watchmaking Excellence Award.
So far only a couple of students have a somewhat defined direction, most are still in the sketching and research phase, which can take a few weeks to a month or more. Ideas are ranging from alarms to chiming date functions, repeating mechanisms, and more.
The €10,000 prize for the best entry is enough to motivate the students to do their best, but as most people know, when you have passion like these students do motivation is easy to find. The next six months will be a hard road for the eight young watchmakers, but it may just define the future for a lucky few.
I want to close by extending an enormous thank you to the entire A. Lange & Söhne organization for allowing me the opportunity to join the students as they were introduced to the next half-year of their lives.
The time spent with the students and my kind hosts from A. Lange & Söhne was a truly exciting experience and a cherished period for this nerd writer. I know I left inspired more than ever to continue pursuing my passion for watchmaking, and even though I am not a part of the competition, I feel it may lead to some great things in my own future as well.
But as with anything worth doing, only time will tell.
Also published on Medium.