Today, Lange crafts only a few thousand wristwatches in gold or platinum per year. They are endowed exclusively with proprietary movements that are lavishly decorated and assembled by hand. In a period of little more than 20 years, A. Lange & Söhne developed 51 manufacture calibres and secured a top-tier position among the world’s finest watch brands. Its greatest successes include innovative time-keeping instruments such as the LANGE 1 with the first outsize date in a series produced wristwatch as well as the ZEITWERK with its supremely legible, precisely jumping numerals. In the meantime, both models have become icons of a brand rich in tradition.
Ferdinand Adolph Lange
Ferdinand Adolph Lange was a Dresden-born watchmaker who in 1845 inaugurated the first manufactory in Glashütte, Germany. The gifted watchmaker, whose pocket timepieces are still highly coveted today, dedicated his life to the establishment of a watchmaking business in a structurally weak region and thus laid the foundation for Saxon fine watchmaking.
In May 1844, Ferdinand Adolph Lange wrote a letter to the Saxon Ministry of the Interior saying that his ambition was to perfect timekeeping instruments. The Dresden-born watchmaker planned the establishment of a modern manufactory along the lines of what he had seen during his travels to the watchmaking centres in France, England and Switzerland. His main motivation was to create a branch of industry that would“subsequently provide thousands with sustenance and prosperity”. Ferdinand Adolph Lange was not only a well-educated individual but also a deeply religious man with a social conscience.
The destitution in the structurally weak region of the Ore Mountains, which the Saxon government failed to mitigate, prompted him to act in 1844. With letters, petitions and negotiations, he lobbied for his project of developing a watchmaking company in Glashütte with such fervour that the Royal Saxon Ministry of the Interior in Dresden finally agreed to draft a contract. It obliged Lange to train 15 youngsters from Glashütte as watchmakers within three years. In return, the government granted him a loan of 6700 thalers, including 1120 thalers for the procurement of tools. The apprentices were expected to continue working for Lange for five years and repay the cost of their training in weekly instalments. The first personnel journal listed “one assistant painter, twelve straw weavers, four domestic servants, one farmhand, one quarry worker, and one vineyard worker” as those picked to become watchmakers.
Due to a lack of aptitude, some of the young men had to be dismissed after a short trial period, but the others persevered and constituted the core of Lange’s original crew; soon thereafter, the team consisted of 30 novices. Initially, he hardly had qualified personnel, except for Adolf Schneider, who later became his brother-in-law.
Born in Dresden on 18 February 1815, the son of gunsmith Samuel Lange, Ferdinand Adolph Lange did not have his career laid out for him. His mother and father, described as a “coarsely hewn man”, separated early on. Another family gave the intelligent youngster a new home, encouraged him, and arranged to have him trained by acclaimed court clockmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes. This would soon prove to have been a wise decision. It did not take Gutkaes long to recognise not only the above-average manual skills, but also his protégé’s eagerness to excel, with a far stronger urge than was commonplace for a clockmaker in Dresden in those days.
During his apprenticeship, Lange attended the up-and-coming technical college and learned English and French in the evening hours. He quickly came to the conclusion that he would hone his skills only in the highly evolved hubs of horology: in France, Switzerland and England. Creative watchmaking, practised mainly in the Germans peaking centres in Nuremberg, Augsburg, Schaffhausen and Strasbourg during the Renaissance era, had meanwhile migrated to London and Paris. Embedded in the illustrious lifestyles of royal courts, but also spurred on by the demand for ever more precise timekeeping instruments aboard naval and merchant ships, horology was actively supported by the sovereigns there.
The journeyman period
In 1837, three years after having completed his apprenticeship in Dresden, Ferdinand Adolph Lange packed his belongings, including his journey- and workbook with a recommendation by his mentor Gutkaes, and signed up in Paris with famous chronometer maker Joseph Thaddäus Winnerl, once among Abraham Louis Breguet’s finest students. The planned study trip ended up being a three-year tenure during which Lange was promoted to foreman. Ultimately, he even had to turn down Winnerl’s request to stay on, because his itinerary still included England and Switzerland.
During this period, his famous journey- and workbook was filled with movement sketches and detailed drawings as well as mathematically sound ratio calculations for wheels and pinions. Ferdinand Adolph Lange was not an adherent of the trial-and-error principle which at the time still governed much of a watchmaker’s work, making it impossible to assure consistently reproducible quality levels. Determined to change this, he returned to Gutkaes’ workshop for fancy clocks, married the owner’s daughter Charlotte Amalie Antonia in 1842, and became co-proprietor and horological architect in his father-in-law’s business. Precision regulators for observatories were crafted there during this era. For some 60 years, one of them – No. 32 – delivered the precise time for Switzerland, the quintessential watchmaking country, from a Swiss observatory. Today, it is on display at the Musée d’histoire des sciences in Geneva.
Apart from his decision in favour of the metric system, Lange brought a further decisive insight home from his travels. It is mentioned in a letter he wrote to Saxon Privy Councillor von Weißenbach in January 1844, when he first requested support for his project in Glashütte. “With the handsome form of the Swiss cylinder escapement, I can combine the ample reserve and the long-recognised accuracy of the very expensive but rather inconvenient English lever watch.” The legendary Glashütte lever escapement was to become his trademark. It also illustrated his unfolding approach to watchmaking. He was always fixated on improvement and perfectionism. His journey- and workbook makes this clear.
In 1851, Ferdinand Adolph Lange wrote a letter to the government describing his accomplishments so far: “My first and decisive step was to design a gauge for executing with the greatest accuracy any calculated ratio in the smallest of scales. This was followed by my work on the ratios of pinions and pieces as well as the respective machines, and I finally established the principles to be observed when building watches and designing escapements in accordance with scientific fundamentals, and introduced methodologies and reliable processes where previously arbitrariness, prejudice and disaccord had reigned. These are the fruits of twenty years of painstaking deliberation and labour, parts of which have found practical application in our factory and make our watches good, but many others, whose time has come, remain unexecuted.”
Upswing in Glashütte
Glashütte, the impoverished town in the Ore Mountains that in 1845 had merely faint memories left of its erstwhile prosperity as a silver-mining village, was connected to the world only via a dilapidated roadway on which a postal coach travelled once a week.
When the illiterate coachman arrived, he would empty the bag and let the people find out for themselves to whom the letters were addressed. The townscape was accentuated with muddy goose ponds and manure heaps. This is where Lange set up a workshop, taught his apprentices and initiated the production of watches while at the same time designing better machines for manufacturing precision parts. He also handled the correspondence and took care of the bookkeeping. His daughter Emma pointed out that Lange, who worked day and night, would occasionally collapse, and that he sacrificed his entire savings, those of his wife, and even prize money from horological awards, to keep the jeopardised enterprise alive.
But his ambitious concept began to take shape: besides his own company, Glashütte whose infrastructure he had decisively improved during his 18-year tenure as its mayor now counted many small specialised workshops that produced jewels, screws, wheels, spring barrels, balance wheels and hands. Case makers, gilders, guillocheurs and three additional manufactories, with which Lange sometimes collaborated, were able to establish themselves thanks to his encouragement. They were often founded by people who had previously apprenticed with and worked for him. So gradually, hundreds of safe and well-paid jobs changed the hardship into modest affluence. Lange’s company, which rarely had more than 100 employees, remained the nucleus of German precision watchmaking that grew in and around Glashütte. With the German school of watchmaking (DUS) initiated by his friend Karl Moritz Großmann in 1878, Glashütte completely detached itself from Switzerland and France as regards the practical and theoretical training of specialists, and consolidated its reputation as the German hub of fine watchmaking.
Vita of Ferdinand Adolph Lange
- 18.02.1815: Ferdinand Adolph Lange is born in Dresden as the son of a gunsmith
- 1829–1831: Attends the technical college in Dresden
- 1830-1835: Watchmaking apprenticeship with Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, graduates with honours
- 1835–1837: Assistant to Gutkaes
- 1837–1841: Journeyman years; travels to the watchmaking centres in France, England and Switzerland; this is when he compiles his journey- and workbook with drawings of interesting movements and different calculations; becomes foreman at the manufactory of Joseph Thaddäus Winnerl in Paris; attends lectures of the famous physicist and astronomer Arago
- 1841–1842: Returns to Dresden; joins Gutkaes’ company as a co-proprietor and helps build the five-minute clock for the Semper opera house; designs and crafts astronomical pendulum clocks, chronometers, complicated watches
- 1842: Certifies as master craftsman; weds Antonia Gutkaes, his mentor’s daughter
- 1843: Receives a precious stick pin from the Russian Tsar Alexander II, as a gesture of gratitude for a perfect chronometer that Lange had crafted for him; in return Lange sends a photograph of himself wearing the stick pin
- 1844-1845: Different letters to Privy Councillor von Weißenbach containing thoughts on reforms in watchmaking and the establishment of a manufactory in Saxony
- 31.05.1845: Contract between Lange and the Royal Saxon Ministry of the Interior: Obligates to train 15 apprentices as watchmakers, Ministry pledges a subsidy of 6,700 thalers, including 1,120 thalers for the procurement of tools
- 07.12.1845: Incorporation of “A. Lange & Comp.” company in Glashütte, dials are labelled “A. Lange & Cie.”
- 1845–1864: Introduction of metric system to replace the Parisian ligne system; Lange develops proprietary dependable and robust movements
- 1848–1866: Serves as mayor in Glashütte (builds roads, embankments, bridges, etc.)
- 1851: Watch presentation at an exhibition in London, where he is awarded for his watches; an illness forces him to stay there for a few weeks
- 1867: Granted honorary citizenship by Glashütte
- 1868: Lange’s son Richard joins the company as co-proprietor; Company name changes to “A. Lange & Söhne”
- 1869–1875: Representative of the Saxon Landtag (lobbies for the construction of a main road and a railway line through the Müglitz valley)
- 1870: On the occasion of the 25thanniversary of the establishment of the watchmaking industry in Glashütte. The population establishes the Lange Foundation to fund retirement benefits for local watchmakers
- 1871: Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s son Emil joins the company as co-proprietor
At auctions today, precision timepieces signed “A.Lange & Söhne”, among them highly complicated watches, fetch exceptionally high prices. For connoisseurs of mechanical timekeeping, they preserve the philosophy of a man who wrote many chapters of horological history and significant parts of Saxony’s history. The new watches from Glashütte signed “A. Lange & Söhne” carry this proud legacy forward into the future.
A Saxon inventor
Ferdinand Adolph Lange is regarded as a pioneer in watchmaking. The Dresden born watchmaker introduced the metric system in horology. He invented measuring instruments, devised new tools and different constructions for which he applied a patent. With all that he was following just one aim: To build the best watches in the world. His innovative concepts created the foundation on which the A. Lange & Söhne brand gained international fame.
In summer 1851 Ferdinand Adolph Lange introduced his watches made in Glashütte in London at the World Exhibition, hoping to delight an international audience. It was the first time that he exhibited his watches at such an event and became a huge success: His watches were cheaper and more precise than the ones of his competitors. He even received a first prize and a medal for them. But then he has to pay a heavy price for his long lasting efforts: he becomes seriously ill and has to stay in London for a few weeks. It is probably for the first time in six years that he has the opportunity to consider his situation calmly and without distraction. He realises that he has dedicated himself in the past years and not just risked his company but also the existence of his family.
In a letter to the Saxon Ministry of the Interior he reflects about his accomplishments so far: “My first and decisive step was to design a gauge for executing with the greatest accuracy any calculated ratio in the smallest of scales. This was followed by my work on the ratios of pinions and pieces as well as the respective machines, and I finally established the principles to be observed when building watches and designing escapements in accordance with scientific fundamentals, and introduced methodologies and reliable processes where previously arbitrariness, prejudice and disaccord had reigned. These are the fruits of twenty years of painstaking deliberation and labour, parts of which have found practical application in our factory and make our watches good, but many others, whose time has come, remain unexecuted.”
Ferdinand Adolph Lange's Most Important Innovations
The introduction of the metric system
In Lange's journey- and workbook, he used to record detailed calculations for each individual gear-wheel size, using French lignes as units. On returning from his travels, he started to use the metric system instead of the French ligne units that had previously been the norm.
Precise measuring instruments
Tools like this dixième gauge invented by Lange made it possible to determine depth, length and external diameter with even more precision – to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimetre. The measuring results are shown on an arc-shaped scale by a metal arm.
This dial gauge was used to measure filigreed components that required particular precision, such as arbors and pivots. The component to be measured is clamped between the two jaws of the dial micrometer, which then measures with an accuracy of one hundredth of a millimetre.
Lange introduced the watchmaker's lathe to replace the traditional rotating arc. A pedal could be used to turn circular parts such as pins, pinions, wheels and discs at a constant speed – ensuring high-precision manufacturing.
The design of wheels and pinions
To reduce friction and thereby minimise abrasion, Lange calculated and designed the form of the teeth on gear-wheels and pinions to optimise their interaction.
Lange developed the three-quarter plate over a period of many years. It improved the stability of the movement. This distinctive component became one of the characteristic features of his pocket watches. Today it still forms a major component of the watches made by A. Lange & Söhne.
Decorating the watch
By implementing high quality standards for any watch he made, Lange was following the motto of his teacher, Gutkaes: a watch must be perfect – from each individual component to the case. Fine engraving, guilloché work, finishing and polishing of his pocket watches still bear witness to this today.
Glashütter lever escapement
Lange aim to make his watches more precise also led to the construction of an escapement system, the so called „free lever escapement“. Each pallet was made from one piece and the contoured pallet-stones were set blanketed.
This innovative technology replaced winding by means of a key, making it much easier to wind up the watch. An example is this early pocket watch (No. 1340), which Lange and his brother-in-law, Bernhard Gutkaes, produced in around 1850.
The jumping second
The “seconde morte” mechanism makes the seconds hand easier to read. Lange developed a mechanism, that makes an independent big seconds hand jump every second from the middle. His sons further developed this idea and a patent application was filed in 1877.
In the new build manufactory of 1873 Lange realised a house clock with a 9-metre pendulum that oscillated uniformly. He personally designed the lever escapement of the movement and relied on his son Richard for calculating the pendulum.
Chronology - A. Lange & Söhne
- 1815: Ferdinand Adolph Lange is born in Dresden on 18 February.
- 1830: Lange begins his apprenticeship with Gutkaes who is later appointed Royal Court Clockmaker.
- 1837: Lange embarks on his journeyman’s years, which take him to Paris, England and Switzerland. During this period he begins his journey and workbook.
- 1841: Gutkaes builds the world-famous “digital” Five-Minute clock in Dresden’s newly built Semper Opera.
- 1842: Lange acquires master’s rights, becomes a partner in Gutkaes’ watchmaking business, and marries his former apprentice master’s daughter, Antonia.
- 1843: Lange proposes to the government of Saxony that industrial watchmaking be established in the impoverished region of the Ore Mountains.
- 1845: Lange founds the Glashütte manufactory “Lange & Cie.” on 7 December, laying the foundation for precision watchmaking in Saxony. Only a few days later, his first son Richard is born.
- 1846: Lange introduces the metric system into watchmaking, thereby enabling the exact calculation and manufacture of movement components.
- 1848: Lange offers his services to the town of Glashütte as mayor and holds this appointment for the next 18 years.
- 1864: To improve the stability of movements, Lange introduces the three quarter plate.
- 1867: Lange is granted the freedom of Glashütte.
- 1868: Richard Lange becomes co proprietor of his father’s company, which from now on operates under the name “A. Lange & Söhne”. A few years later, his younger brother Emil also joins the company.
- 1873: The Lange headquarters is built, comprising both the family’s residence and the company’s workshops. It features a precision clock with a nine-meter long compensatedpendulum.
- 1875: Ferdinand Adolph Lange dies on 3 December. His sons continue the family business.
- 1895: In honour of the company’s 50th anniversary, the town of Glashütte erects a monument to Lange.
- 1898: On a state visit to Constantinople, Kaiser William II presents his host with a lavish pocket watch created by A. Lange & Söhne.
- 1902: Emil Lange receives the Knight’s Cross from the French Legion of Honour in recognition of his contribution to watchmaking.
- 1906: With Emil’s son Otto Lange, the family company enters its third generation. Otto’s brothers Rudolf and Gerhard later also join the company management.
- 1924: On 29 July, Walter Lange is born. After completing his training, he works as a master watchmaker in the Lange family business.
- 1930: Richard Lange discovers that admixing beryllium to the alloys commonly used for balance springs improves the spring’s quality, and he applies for a patent.
- 1945: On 8 May, Lange’s main production building is almost completely destroyed in an aerial bombing raid.
- 1948: The company is seized and expropriated by the communist regime. Walter Lange is forced to flee to the West.
- 1990: On 7 December, Walter Lange founds Lange Uhren GmbH and registers the “A. Lange & Söhne” trademark worldwide.
- 1994: Lange debuts the LANGE 1, SAXONIA, ARKADE and TOURBILLON “Pour le Mérite”, the watches featured in its first collection of the new era.
- 1997: The patented ZERO-RESET mechanism of the LANGEMATIK reaffirms the company’s innovative spirit.
- 1999: The DATOGRAPH sets new standards in the construction of high-end chronographs.
- 2001: Following several years of restoration, the Lange headquarters reopens. Today it is the seat of Lange’s own watchmaking school.
- 2003: The balance spring developed in house by Lange is manufactured in the new Technology and Development Centre.
- 2007: A. Lange & Söhne presents the LANGE 31, the first wristwatch featuring a 31-day power reserve and uniform power output. A. Lange & Söhne opens their first monobrand-shop on Dresden.