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Watch Dogs: Wilhelm Schmid, A Lange & Söhne

How do you modernise a brand that was originally founded in 1845? That’s the question A Lange & Söhne CEO, Wilhelm Schmid, has pondered during his decade at Germany’s finest watchmaker. Ben Winstanley reports

Interview: A Lange & Söhne CEO, Wilhelm Schmid

There is a reason why Wilhelm Schmid looks so at home at Hampton Court’s Concours of Elegance, Europe’s premier rare car exhibition. As the son of a car dealer and fuel station manager, you might say petrol runs through his veins. But we are not here to talk about vintage motors or his beloved AC Ace – built just around the corner from here in Thames Ditton. Instead, we’re here to talk about how – having left a series of high-powered jobs at BMW – he entered the world of haute horology, and set about transforming Germany’s finest watchmaker into a brand fit for the modern day.

Schmid is a modest man. He pushes the brand’s successes onto his team, while resting the posterity of this historic name – founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange and reestablished by his great-grandson Walter Lange in 1990 – on his shoulders alone. He’s a shepherd guiding his charge through changing times and a world that is scarcely recognisable to the one he found at the beginning of his tenure a decade ago.

“My main aim is always to make a company more resilient,” he tells me. Having navigated the perils of the pandemic, more than one economic crisis, and launched a host of astonishingly beautiful watches along the way, it’s safe to say he has succeeded.

You’ve been with A Lange & Söhne for a decade now. How has the world changed?

The world has changed dramatically on the one hand and on the other certain things are still the same. I believe it’s very important to identify the things you don’t want to change, and usually I think that’s value based: camaraderie, trust, the way we treat our customers, and of course the way we design and build our watches. It doesn’t matter whether there’s Covid, or Brexit, a ruble or a dollar crisis, these are things that are so fundamental that you mustn’t change them.

On the other hand, we realised that in the last two years we’ve probably changed our company more than in the 20 years before. We’ve been a very successful company, and there’s nothing more difficult than changing a successful company, but the Covid crisis exposed us to something where we had to deal with new circumstances. That started an acceleration of change in the company that even I am surprised about, which is good because it made us more resilient and more independent. Digitalisation, e-commerce, boutiques getting closer to customers, all of this we said we’d do, and we’d do at full speed.

A Lange & Söhne CEO, Wilhelm Schmid
A Lange & Söhne CEO, Wilhelm Schmid

The watch world had enjoyed the safety net of traditional forms of marketing and selling timepieces. Covid seems to have forced the industry to get with the times…

I think it’s even more fundamental than that, because we sell something that outlived its usefulness long ago, and so tradition is this big trap. If you do everything the way you have always done as a company you run the risk that you may become obsolete, because you’re simply not relevant anymore. I think that’s the challenge, at least at the high end, every watchmaker is facing this: to reinvent yourself without changing yourself totally.

Has that been fuelled by the pandemic? For sure, it has. We were exposed to a network that for months was shut down totally. We pride ourselves at being very close to our clients, and then we faced a situation where the opposite was actually the case. All of that didn’t work out to our disadvantage, actually to our advantage, because it helped us to change and update the company in that regard.

We’re Germans, we like things to work; function for us will always come first

When you joined Lange, what were your hopes for your tenure?

When I arrived at Lange, I found a great company with a fragility that I do not think was good at the time. My main aim is always to make a company more resilient. I’m not a big fan of massive growth, but I’m a big fan of controlled profitable growth, because I know it makes a company more resilient. To be honest, two of the three crises in the last ten years we didn’t see in our numbers – the pandemic we did see, but we finished successfully, and made up what we lost.

Beyond that, I have to make sure Tony [Anthony de Haas, director of product development] and his team have the resources to do the job, and that we have an atmosphere that allows them to push boundaries.

I’ve been a very privileged person because I joined such a talented team. A Lange & Söhne is not about one person, it’s about a team. It’s a team effort, it’s a team spirit, and it’s devoted to watches. Individual personalities don’t play a role in our life, it’s only watches.

As a Saxon watchmaker, is there any competition with Switzerland?

No, it’s not the case. I’ve been asked this before and, in truth, there is no ‘Swiss watchmaking’ and there is no ‘German watchmaking’. There is fine watchmaking at the high end, and that can come from Switzerland and it can come from Germany, and there’s also many independents in England and Japan.

Of course, the design language might change slightly. Our watches tend to be a little bulkier and more robust, because we’re Germans, we like things to work; function for us will always come first before anything else. Some like that and some don’t, but it’s very important to stay true to yourself.

I had that discussion plenty as we launched the Odysseus when people said to me that they didn’t like the watch, and I explained to them that’s OK, it’s not meant to be attractive for everybody because we’re not a mass producer, we’re not in a fast-moving consumer good industry. If you don’t like this watch from us, but you like some of our more traditional models, they’re still available, too.

A Lange & Söhne Odysseus sports watch

The Odysseus was a change from what we’re used to from Lange – a sports watch. What were the motivations behind the design?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a sports watch as such, but it is a sporty watch. It deliberately doesn’t look like some of our traditional models. But it goes back to what we were saying earlier, you have to define what you don’t want to change. If you look at the movement and the thinking that went into that movement – moving from a balance cock to a balance bridge, and increasing the frequency from 21,600 to 28,800 to make it more robust.

That’s all typical Lange. We didn’t take a standard movement and put a waterproof case around it and call it a day – it was a thorough thinking a-to-z approach. It took so long to reach the market because we couldn’t settle on a face that we believed was sufficiently different from anything we launched so far, and is different from anything that is already in the market, and on top of that is a design that’s good enough to build a family [of watches] around.

The last part is perhaps the part that people underestimate, because if we think about a future complication and you have that sort of dial design, you better start thinking about that before you launch the watch. The hands will come out where the hands will come out, the date windows will always be there, so if you want to do anything you need to understand how to work around that to put, let’s say, a perpetual calendar, a chronograph, or whatever else into it.

That is very German, we didn’t launch a watch, we launched an idea, which we will now slowly but surely develop over time.

How much did the sports watches of the 1970s factor into your design decisions?

Not at all. You know, if you look to the competition, you will always end up copying. The world doesn’t need another Gerald Genta iteration watch – and it wouldn’t have been A Lange & Söhne. It had to be different, it had to be strong, it had to be recognisable, and a little controversial. And it was.

We didn’t launch a watch, we launched an idea, which will now develop over time

One phrase that comes to mind when I think of Lange is ‘limited edition’. Could you talk to me about the exclusivity of your watches?

Let me take Honey Gold as an example. Honey Gold is a beautiful material, very robust, it looks different in artificial light and daylight, so why don’t we use it all the time? It’s simple. It’s very hard to machine and it’s more difficult to treat in aftersales, so we have to limit the number of watches we use it in. If there’s a big date coming, like our 175th anniversary, then that combination of using something we usually can’t use in great numbers plus that specific numerical significance, that’s something that works.

We only do things for a good reason, and the good reason usually is limited resources, which can be the material or in the case of our Handwerkskunst models the people that have the skillset to produce these watches.

On top of that, what I always say is we have about 75 active references, we build around 5,500 watches a year, so you do the maths: on average that’s a lot less than a hundred watches per model annually. But we have a very luxurious problem, which is the demand for our watches is outstripping production.

I think we found our niche which is big enough to give us a great future, relevant enough to attract all age brackets, and different enough to set us apart from other watch manufactures, and that’s where we want to stay. Frankly, I don’t see a limit for that, so why would we start doing something more industrialised or bigger numbers? You might win for the first few years, but in the longer scheme of things you lose a lot more.

A Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar watch
A Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar watch

Patek Philippe is rumoured to only allocate high complication watches to collectors who already own one or two other models. Is that the case for Lange too?

I would say that is mostly the case. We’re not after the one-time buyer. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not arrogant, that’s not who we are, and if somebody has been saving money their whole life to get that one beautiful watch and he buys one of our watches, I am hugely grateful for that. But I can’t operate a brand like ours on that single premise. We are a collectors’ brand, first and foremost.

I don’t want ‘flippers’, these people looking to make a quick buck from our watches and then move onto the next best thing. When I think of the young watchmaker students, I know for a fact the rest of their life they’re going to be making watches. It’s my job to make sure there’s enough demand in their life to build watches. You can’t do that with one-time buyers, not in our price bracket.

Tell me about your favourite watch. Do you have a favourite Lange model?

It’s like the question for the preferred child, so you have to be careful with your answer. However, there’s always a first, and the first watch I was deeply involved in was the Datograph Up/Down. That watch will always have an emotional sweetspot for me. I have three Datographs in my personal collection, but because I always wear our latest model, I don’t wear them as much as I should!

We’re at the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court. Tell me about the similarities between cars and watches?

Even for a brand like A Lange & Söhne, you need to expose it to the right audience. You need to connect with people that didn’t know who you were before, and you want to do that in an environment that’s as small and exquisite as Hampton Court.

I think there’s a great correlation between vintage cars and watches so that’s why we chose the Concours of Elegance. If you look at these cars, whichever one you look at, they all have a great history, they all were ahead of their time, they are usually a work of hand and labour, and they carry their value. Simply for that reason, it’s quite a good match.

For more information, see alange-soehne.com

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