Whether through their intricately carved dials, delicate tourbillons, or elaborate complications, the world’s most special watches usually have a way of announcing their importance at a glance. In the case of A. Lange & Söhne’s Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite,” however, its relatively plain appearance is deceiving. With its 40 mm case, black enamelled Roman numeral dial, small-seconds subdial at six o’clock, and no complications — not even a date — you’d never suspect that this watch is a coveted collector’s edition, limited to just 218 pieces and priced at about $120,000. For anyone looking to understand A. Lange & Söhne, the Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” is a good place to start.
“People say, ‘€95,000? It’s only got three hands! Not even a moonphase!’” says Anthony de Haas, director of product development at A. Lange & Söhne. Indeed, for that price, many watch collectors would expect a little more bang for their buck, or at least a couple of diamonds. But A. Lange & Söhne (called simply “Lange” — pronounced long-UH — by devotees) is not a brand for most collectors. “For me, it’s like, ‘Money talks, but wealth whispers,’” de Haas says. “If you want to show the world that you’re successful in your business or whatever, you’re not gonna buy a Lange, because nobody knows it. You buy it for yourself. It’s more for the nerds and the geeks.”
In this way, de Haas says, the Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” is the ultimate expression of A. Lange & Söhne’s philosophy of watchmaking. Its manually-wound movement features a fusée-and-chain transmission, an unusual detail originally created for marine chronometers and prized for its exceptional accuracy. To fit such a movement into a wristwatch measuring just over 10 mm thick, however, requires exceptional skill. The chain itself is made of 636 tiny parts and measures just 0.6 mm wide by 0.3 mm high, and like every piece that comes out of Lange’s workshop in Glashütte, Germany, each of those parts is polished and assembled by hand. “It is a celebration of watchmaking handcraftsmanship,” says de Haas. “That is absolute Lange.”
This philosophy underlies all of A. Lange & Söhne’s creations, which showcase old-world flourishes like hand-engraved balance cocks (each one bearing an individual watchmaker’s unique style), dials and other key components made from German silver, and jewels secured by gold chatons and blued screws. Each movement, meanwhile, is assembled, tested, and dismantled before being reassembled and retested for ultimate quality control and accuracy. This level of finishing, taken directly from a bygone era of watchmaking and attainable only from a handful of modern brands, is what sets A. Lange & Söhne timepieces apart, and has won them a small but fanatical following.
“It’s a total commitment to watchmaking,” says R.J. Kamatovic, a Canadian watch collector and Lange devotee. “The real magic is in the parts of the watch that only the owner will ever see, and the romantic idea of assembling each piece, confirming its precision and accuracy, and then disassembling and reassembling just to be sure. It’s that ‘functional obsessive–compulsiveness’ that resonates with collectors who suffer from the same degree of obsessiveness — which has resulted in achieving the levels of success that allow for buying a Lange.”
The story of how A. Lange & Söhne came to be is no less unusual than the pieces it creates. Founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the brand immediately established itself as an innovator of watchmaking craft, becoming the first watchmaker in Europe to adopt the metric system, redesigning tools, and reorganizing the manufacturing process to encourage specialization. The Lange workshop continued making highly refined pocket watches in Germany until 1945, when its production building was destroyed by a bomb on the final night of World War Two. A. Lange & Söhne remained shuttered during the Soviet occupation of Germany that followed, and if not for the efforts of Walter Lange (Ferdinand’s great-grandson), the brand would have disappeared altogether.
In 1989, however, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Walter Lange — a skilled watchmaker himself — saw an opportunity to revive his family’s legacy. In December of 1990, exactly 145 years after his great-grandfather founded the company, A. Lange & Söhne was reborn in Glashütte. “They started from scratch,” says de Haas. Equipped only with pictures of the antique pocket watches the company had made, Lange and his small team got to work. “There’s a difficult thing in sitting in front of a white piece of paper, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity. And they took that opportunity,” de Haas says.
The result, released in 1994, was the Lange 1. “It was a very strange bird at that time,” says de Haas. If the Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” is the ultimate expression of A. Lange & Söhne’s watchmaking philosophy, the Lange 1 is the piece that best represents its unique approach to design. With an asymmetrical dial featuring two off-centre subdials and a large date window, the Lange 1 established a bold new design language while paying tribute to the brand’s roots. Modelled after the unique “digital” clock at the nearby Dresden opera house (a clock that F.A. Lange helped to design in his early days as a watchmaker), this oversized date would become a defining characteristic of A. Lange & Söhne’s watches.
More than 25 years later, A. Lange & Söhne’s line has grown to six distinct families, from the simple, classical Saxonia to the sporty Odysseus to the awe-inspiring Triple-Split. The latter, released in 2018 and updated in 2021, is the world’s first mechanical split-seconds chronograph that, thanks to a “triple rattrapante” mechanism, can time two concurrently started events (two separate marathon runners, say) for up to 12 hours to an accuracy of one-sixth of a second. With a movement whose complex architecture of 567 hand-finished parts has earned it the nickname “the micro-city,” it’s the kind of thing that a certain kind of watch collector dreams of, and most others will struggle to understand. Which is exactly what Lange is all about. “It’s not a rational thing,” says de Haas, “but we are good as we are.”