Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne is a pleasantly grounded, very sovereign and refreshing optimistic person, that is symbolic for the proud manufacture from Glashütte. For Schmid, there has never been a better time for watch enthusiasts than today, thanks to the digitalized world. And still, the thoughtful CEO and car aficionado is not to keen about the connected fuss of modern times, at least when it comes to the distribution of his watches – e-commerce still doesn’t play a major role for Schmid. He prefers to invest his resources into the product that he calls ‘art on the wrist’, into the many sophisticated details and technical refinements that are reasons enough for his customers, to spend around 90.000 Euro on a watch with digital display. We met Wilhelm Schmid for lunch in Berlin and also wanted to find out, if there will ever be a A. Lange & Söhne sports watch.
1. What does a mechanical watch mean to you? Which watch are you wearing today and which one do you wear the most?
My first experience with a mechanical watch was a rather brief one. I got it from my godfather as a traditional gift for my communion. I put it on for church but as we played football in the afternoon, it was already broken at night. I got my next watch with 17 and I was absolutely fascinated by the mechanics, a watch without batteries, where you can watch the gear wheels work. I kept two hobbies until today based on mechanics: cars and watches.
I have been wearing the Zeitwerk Date for about half a year now. To be able to wear and try the prototypes is one of the many nice privileges of being CEO. I got so used to this watch by now that I have decided to add it to my collection. However, I am also a big fan of chronographs. That’s why I am mostly wearing the Datograph Up/Down in platinum with a black dial.
2. What are the main tasks of your daily business as CEO in order to ensure the successful development of Lange & Söhne?
Every CEO’s first priority is to create a work environment for your team, that allows them to satisfy the customer’s needs and help to develop the brand. I have to offer the tools and resources to do so and organize all processes. That is the strategical part. The other part is mainly administrative und includes several meetings with customers, staff, board members, endless signatures and many business trips. Half of the time I am traveling. We are a national company with international customers. 80% of our team is based in Glashütte, but most of our customers are not even from Germany. In order to connect these two worlds, you need to know what’s happening in Hong Kong, New York, Geneva, London or Dubai. We have to bring Glashütte to the world, but also the world to Glashütte.
3. It seems that cars play an important role for A. Lange & Söhne, considering the partnerships with Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d‘Este, the Classic Days Schloss Dyck and the Concours of Elegance Hampton Court Palace. Where does the connection come from?
We always had platforms connecting people and watches. Before my time, the brand emphasised on its cultural heritage by cooperating with the Salzburger Festspiele. We are still focusing on that and engage with the public art collection in Dresden. But we have learned, that not everyone interested in culture is also keen on mechanical watches. Therefore, we started looking for different options. People who care about vintage cars and are ready to invest time and money into their restoration are naturally interested in topics such as arts & crafts, traditions, performance and mechanics. Hence, we bring our customers to events that they enjoy, and we get the chance to meet people appreciating what we do. Furthermore, we have the press and social media to multiply the effect.
– What would you say vintage cars and your watches have in common?
First of all, these vintage cars are handmade – just like our watches. Each car has a fascinating story and most of them were way ahead of their times. We see strong parallels to our watches, which I like to call “art on wheels and art on the wrist”.
4. As a very traditional German brand, why did they decide to be acquired by a large Swiss group in 2001 and which advantages and disadvantages did this bring for A. Lange & Söhne?
A Lange & Söhne had already been part of a group before. The Holding LMH (Les Manufactures Horlogères) – part of Mannesmann with Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC and Lange, had been sold to the Richemont group after Mannesmann was acquired by Vodafone in 2000 and had given away all sectors except telecommunications.
– Would it not be better for a brand such as A. Lange & Söhne to be independent?
It is a tiring topic to discuss as we won’t ever be able to prove the opposite. However, I know that looking at the important topics in modern times such as IT infrastructure, security, logistics, intellectual property and custom formalities, which we have to consider within the global context, we much more profit from being part of the group than being an independent brand. In a large group we have the chances to acquire the best professionals of all the different fields. As Richemont lets us decide and work independently in our everyday business, I really do have the best out of both. We also treat our team and customers like being in a family business. At the same time, we have the great resources of the Richemont group that we could never afford being an independent brand.
5. You are manufacturing very complicated watches such as the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”, the chronograph “Triple Split” or the Zeitwerk Minutenrepetition. How well do your customers understand the mechanics of your watches? And how important is it for you, that they do?
The majority of our customers understands what we do and appreciates the love for details, the design and mechanics – the simultaneous advancing of the display of a perpetual calendar at midnight, the exact advancing of a chronograph’s minute hand and so on. To understand what a “Triple Split” does, one needs to be a real watch enthusiast though. And our customers are, because they are willing to invest a lot of money to buy a watch, that looks rather modest from the outside, but they truly appreciate what’s inside, its mechanics. That’s why it’s essential for us that all our staff consulting customers fully understand all technical aspects. It’s very likely, that the customer knows it just as well.
6. Let’s imagine I live in an isolated village in the north of Sweden and would like to purchase a watch from A. Lange & Söhne. How do I proceed? Is e-commerce an issue for you?
We usually try to meet all our customer’s expectations. So far there is no demand for buying a Lange watch online. However, our customers do expect to find detailed information about our products online, including the phone numbers of our distributers and stores. In this case, the customer picks up the phone or writes an email and we find a solution. So right now, e-commerce is not important to me. We still operate mostly in an analogue world.
7. Why should I rather choose a chronograph or any other complication from A. Lange & Söhne, than from another brand?
I take the Zeitwerk Date as an example. If you are willing to pay around 90.000 Euro for a watch with a digital display, you know very well what you can expect. If you don’t know much about mechanical watches, you will probably think it is a digital quartz watch. We do the unexpected and turn a digital watch into a mechanical one, which is technically extremely challenging.
Furthermore, we offer a combination of German precision and German engineering. It is very laborious to set a perpetual calendar, unless you have a universal pusher in order to switch all indication by one push – that is our way of thinking. There is a hierarchy in the importance of the display. There are plenty of perpetual calendars where you find it hard to capture all the information at a glance, simply because there are too many hands on the dial. What is most important? Date and time. Hence, most of the perpetual calendars at A. Lange & Söhne have a big date display, which is associated to its individual design.
8. This year, you celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Lange 1. What means this watch to A. Lange & Söhne?
Without the Lange 1, our manufacture and the town of Glashütte would not have the relevance as they have today. I would not be sitting here today talking to you without the success of this very special watch. I believe, the Lange 1 was the stroke of a genius. It was in the right place at the right time with its technical innovation, its craftsmanship and its timeless and distinctive design. It has been our bestseller for the past 25 years and still is today.
– Many collectors have expressed the wish to have a sports watch in their A. Lange & Söhne collection. Will it come?
I tend to only talk about things that already exist. Our customer appreciate that we know how to surprise them and if I would tell you anything about this now, all the surprise would be gone.
9. Looking at the communication of A. Lange & Söhne, there is always a focus on the product. Why does the brand A. Lange & Söhne never work with any testimonials?
Simply because all our customers are VIPs to us. We don’t want to distinguish between someone who has to pay for his watch and someone who doesn’t. Furthermore, we are watchmakers above all. No matter if you visit us at our exhibition booth, come to one of our boutiques or go to our vintage car events, the focus is always on watches. As our capabilities are limited, we need to use them most purposefully. That means to us: if you buy a A. Lange & Söhne watch, you exchange your well-earned money for one of our watches. That is the moment of truth to us. Before, it was all just promising, but now it’s time to dance. And the dance is more important to us than any promise.
10. A. Lange & Söhne is well known for many patents. Which ones are your personal favourites and why?
The patents are important as they protect our inventions from being copied. My favourite patents are those innovations, that you don’t see from the outside. Like the seconds-stop mechanism for the Tourbillon or the constant-force escapement of the Zeitwerk. We are especially proud about our know-how, the knowledge gained from our long term experience of how to avoid mechanical conflicts in a Grand Complication, how you built the delicate chain for the fusée-and-chain transmission or how you finish the different steel parts of a watch in a way, that they can fully unfold its aesthetical appeal in an assembled movement. If you take a Lange timepiece apart in all its components, you know exactly what’s in it, but you don’t know how it is made. You cannot protect this by any patents, but it is still inimitable.
– You prefer talking about evolution instead of revolution, according to several interviews. Can you explain this based on the brand A. Lange & Söhne?
The evolution takes part on different levels. For the development of our watch range we build on our obtained experiences to take on the next step. From this perspective, also the Zeitwerk was the result of an evolutionary process ten years ago, although many think it was a technical revolution.
For the brand, evolution means that we continuously become more international. We open new markets and boutiques and foster our partnership with leading jewellers.
For our team, we have built a modern manufacture in Glashütte that offers the best working conditions in watchmaking. In Berlin, we have a workspace paradise for digital nomads, creatives and designers. These are all correlated measures on how we continue to make progress.
11. You have your own Lange watchmaking school since 1997. How do you enthuse the next generation to become watchmakers?
By demonstrating that watchmaking is a profession with a future. Watchmaking traditionally plays an important role in Glashütte and its neighbourhood and it is well established there since 1990. We offer a safe job and an attractive environment in a profession that most enjoy. You can make a career with us if you are good. It all depends on talent and one’s dedication.
12. In your views, in what direction does the watch industry move?
I believe there has never been a better time for watch enthusiasts than today. I have been collecting watches since 1980. At that time, hardly any watch was equipped with an in-house movement. 98 percent came from ETA, with added chronograph- or calendar-modules. You did not have any trade magazines, not to mention internet. The possibilities to attain knowledge in order to establish a watch culture were very limited. Hence, it’s the best time now for everyone who enjoys mechanical watches.