German watchmaker rebuilds luxury brand from post-war rubble

Thu Jan 17, 2013 7:26am EST
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By Silke Koltrowitz

GLASHUETTE, Germany (Reuters) - At the age of 66, when many are already enjoying retirement, Walter Lange was setting out to prove great luxury watches do not have to be Swiss.

In a remote corner of what was East Germany, Lange aimed to rebuild a venerable watchmaking business whose history reads like a chronicle of 20th century Europe, with its wars, dislocation, Soviet-era occupation and finally, unity and peace.

Now watchmakers in the small town of Glashuette again sit bent over work tables in whitewashed factory buildings, magnifying glasses strapped to their eyes, polishing three-quarter plates made of German silver and engraving balance cocks by hand.

"Back in the 1990s, when Lange & Soehne started making watches again, selling a German watch to a Swiss was like selling a fridge to an Eskimo," said Zurich watch retailer Rene Beyer. "But that has changed. At present, half of our Lange watches go to Swiss customers."

Collectors value the brand's characteristic old-style movements including a plate in the shape of a three-quarters full moon invented by Ferdinand Lange in 1864 to add stability, and screwed gold sockets, known as 'chatons', that today only serve decorative purposes.

The dial design - featured in the modern Lange 1 wristwatch - has become a classic.

Walter Lange tells how the factory started by his great-grandfather in Saxony's Ore Mountains was razed by bombs on the last day of World War Two.

"We had to dig the machines out of the rubble," Lange, now 88, said in a telephone interview.   Continued...

A worker engraves a balance cock of a "Datograph" by German watchmaker A. Lange & Soehne at the manufactory in the east German city of Glashuette November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz