Glashütte is a small town in a deep valley in Saxony. Originally a mining town, it became the centre of German watchmaking following the founding of the A Lange & Söhne factory by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in 1845. As I speed along the valley towards the modern Lange factory, a fine mist falling on the trees either side of me, I am reminded of a story I was told over dinner the previous evening, of a flood that rushed through the valley 15 years ago, trapping some of the staff and submerging parts of the factory’s archive, and of how the company rebuilt from that with much the same spirit that Ferdinand built up the brand over 170 years ago.
I am no watch obsessive – I know I’m not, because I’ve witnessed obsessives argue about watches; the minutiae of movements, the technical details, the references to models old and new – but visiting Lange last month, my first time inside a watch factory, brought me dangerously close to understanding how people develop such an obsession.
Many mechanical watches have transparent case backs, allowing a glimpse of the inner workings of the movement. Lange’s, however, usually have less on display thanks to their three-quarter plate – a distinctive touch. Cogs, wheels and arms are all visible, with levels separated by the most infinitesimal of gaps. These workings had always seemed rather remote to me – the brushwork of a painting, perhaps, rather than the artist in action – and it was only when I witnessed Lange’s experts make and remake a movement (the brand, unusually, assembles every movement twice) that the beauty and delicacy of it hit home, most notably on the Zeitwerk Striking Time (£88,400).
I watched as a Lange balance cock on an 1815 Annual Calendar model (price on request) was carefully engraved, stroke by stroke. And when I say watched, I was looking at a TV screen that was relaying the work from a tiny camera next to the engraver. The work would have been too small to see, let alone appreciate, at actual size. It appealed to me, too, that Lange’s production is relatively small – thousands rather than hundreds of thousands a year.
I also observed a maker take apart and reassemble an extraordinarily intricate Tourbograph Perpetual model (Pour le Mérite, €480,000), testing the action of the date wheels as the days progressed. Pushers were pressed again and again, each time triggering a tiny concert of movements, until the eye could pick out each step of the engineering.
Eventually, it became hypnotic. The accumulation of so many microscopic observations meant it was disorientating, when one looked up, to be met by the vastness of the wet, green valley outside. The elegance of watchmaking had finally sunk in.
This revelation has been dangerous – I’ve already spent hours browsing the Lange brochure (the classic and distinctive off-centre display of the Lange 1, £26,000, is a favourite), as well as working out how I could ever afford one. Or two.
Simon Crompton is a men’s style writer and consultant. He is the founder of the award-winning website Permanent Style and author of Best of British: The Stories Behind Britain’s Iconic Brands and The Finest Menswear in the World: The Craftsmanship of Luxury. To read more of his How To Spend It columns, click here.