Watchmaking firms have a lot of fast talking to do whenever economic headwinds gather strength. Obviously, the pandemic has brought on a storm that might produce long-term changes in how we live, work and play. It even cancelled the Swiss watch fairs this year and changed the schedule of new releases – both of which typically only happen in the event of a global conflict, like World War 2. In times of severe uncertainty, the grand old watchmaking firms turn to the tried and tested, and so do magazines like this one. Our fortunes are inexorably linked, you see. No matter our circumstances though, it is always a pleasure to have a nice long conversation with old friends in the trade. That is exactly what we found in our chat with veteran A. Lange & Söhne Director of Product Development Anthony de Haas.
Held as it was in the depths of our season of discontent – otherwise known as the Circuit Breaker – we had to be content with a Zoom call. In a season of firsts, it was gratifying to see de Haas in his office at the manufacture in Glashütte. Everyone at the manufacture was healthy, and so was everyone at de Haas’ home. “Health is what’s important now,” said de Haas in sombre tones not usually associated with watch talk. He was also coming to grips with working from home, which he did not find inspiring, and handling the brand’s first digital-only launch, which was an experience for everyone. On the occasion of this chat, it is fair to say that neither of us probably wanted to talk novelties. Not right then. It is not as if there were more pressing things to do – interviews like this one are standard fare for us. But at that moment, going about business as normal seemed disconnected from reality.
Reality, of course, is what brings this issue to you (or you to this story if you found it online) so we have to press on with the usual tales of watchmaking excellence. This is where a stalwart figure such as de Haas, and indeed A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid too, makes a big difference. Both have been at the manufacture for some time, with de Haas starting his tenure there in 2004. In fact, my first proper meeting with a senior executive at A. Lange & Söhne was with de Haas, back in 2007, along with Arnd Einhorn and Tino Bobe. Considering all the changes in the world since that time, it is gratifying to know that they are all still there. In a related way, you get the same feeling looking at an A. Lange & Söhne watch today as you would have in 1994, when the world rediscovered watches made by the brand.
It has been an interesting season for de Haas and team this year, going from novelties earlier in the year to all new models later, and the novelty of physical watch events in China just recently. Happily, this story allows us to revisit all the new pieces, a couple of which we have not introduced at all in the magazine. To begin with though, we will open this story with the new Lange 1 Time Zone, because this was de Haas’ first watch for A. Lange & Söhne in 2005. He revisited it in 2015, and now brings the world a new and improved version in 2020, this time with reconfigured indicators and a clever daylight savings time marker. This breaks the chronology of releases this year a little but this is not important for this story.
“There is no way you can tell the guys in marketing two months before (Watches & Wonders), hey I’m sorry but the watch is not ready”
Indeed, the timeline of A. Lange & Söhne and de Haas with Richemont also has its own meandering ways that obscure interesting information. For example, de Haas did have some inside information about the brand even before it was relaunched in 1994 – he was working at IWC in the 1990s. It was here that he first encountered the bracelet link system that would find its way into the execution of the Odysseus watch (2019). De Haas is quick to point out that A. Lange & Söhne uses this same IWC system but applies its own level of finishing, and developed the bracelet in-house (it is produced by a third-party specialist). He also shared that he left IWC for Renaud & Papi in the 1990s because he was looking for new challenges in watchmaking. The late great Gunther Blumlein showed him a prototype of something that would eventually become an A. Lange & Söhne watch, to persuade him to stay with the group. It may not have been an immediate success, but de Haas did eventually find himself where he belonged.
It has been 16 years for you at A. Lange & Söhne. How do you keep challenging yourself?
It goes in waves. In the beginning, you have a lot of ideas, and a lot of things might not happen because of the cost or the idea is too crazy, or whatever. At other times, there might not be so many ideas, and this used to worry me. You have to do some things (outside of work) to keep the pressure off, because (at work) it is us who decides when we want to do things. We wanted to launch the Odysseus in October, 2019, so we worked towards that. Because it (marked) 25 years since we launched the first watches. You just have to start early. It’s easy!
The thing of it is that if you have enough in the pipeline, you can always (adjust), in case something doesn’t work out for whatever reason. You always have to have something. There is no way you can tell the guys in marketing two months before (Watches & Wonders), hey I’m sorry but the watch is not ready. There are millions of dollars that go into this so we need to have a plan B. I’m lucky to be here in Germany because (contingencies are) our thing. It is not really something on the technical level, actually (that can go wrong).
“The Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is idiot-proof…you can’t break it! Under normal use circumstances ya!”
So, if it isn’t something technical, what can go wrong?
If something doesn’t work out it is usually a matter of price that the market decides. For example, if we wanted to add a daylight savings indicator to our perpetual calendar…this would make the watch too expensive. Collectors would ask for a justification, and that is bad. When people see our watches, they should say, hey that’s cool…or they should ask how we did it (not how we decided to price it). We have to create curiosity, but for a normal price (at market levels). If our perpetual calendar costs double what Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, and our other peers are charging, this is a problem.
Speaking of complexity at that sort of level, let’s talk about the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. How do you address all the cool technical details behind that watch in a way that is relevant to the market, and that doesn’t overwhelm the customer?
The exception (to my earlier point) is this watch. There are six patents in this watch. We started on the repeater in 2011, when we were working on the grand complication, which was our first striking complication. Of course we were going to make a minute repeater after that…because everybody just expected that we would do that. They thought we would strip the other complications away and bring out a very classical minute repeater…but we wanted to surprise everyone. The Zeitwerk was already a complicated watch, but for real reasons. We had to have the constant force mechanism, just to make the display of time work…and that digital display (for the Zeitwerk) changed how we would do the repeater. Decimal is digital.
With the Zeitwerk, the same huge barrel that made the watch overpowered for the escapement also meant we had enough power to run the minute repeater gear train. So we could also make the watch water-resistant by using a pusher instead of the usual slider. Then we had to introduce safety mechanisms because we had a pusher, and that made everything more complex (because it had never been done). The watch is idiot-proof…you can’t break it! Under normal use circumstances ya!
A couple of questions on new materials then. First of all, honey gold is exclusive to A. Lange & Söhne. But one thing you do not use is advanced ceramic. Even in the movements, if I’m not mistaken. Why is that?
We do use the ceramic ball bearing, in the movement of the Odysseus (above), and I don’t like it! It makes a lot of noise (a well-known issue with automatic movements that use ceramic bearings – Ed). If there was one thing I could change, this would be it, but that’s just me. We went with ceramic here because it was the right choice for robustness and giving our collectors peace of mind, which is important.
So as far as materials go, ceramic is off the table, in terms of a new case material for example?
At the moment we have no plans but I would be a bad developer if I (dismissed out of hand) the idea of using any material…it must fit with who we are or serve a useful function. Maybe there could be something useful, in terms of the case, but not at the moment; we have so many ideas already to work on (without starting on advanced ceramic). Whatever it might be though, we won’t do anything as a gimmick. You know we do honey gold of course, and we wanted to do that because it is harder than normal gold, and it had a specific look.
And finally, the rubber strap, which is another first for A. Lange & Söhne. Will we be seeing more rubber straps then, because it is a useful material, especially in our environment here in Singapore?
This is a problem for me because I am with A. Lange & Söhne! The rubber strap is not a good fit for us in most things – maybe it works for the Datograph. When I come to Singapore, or anywhere that it is more humid, and I have a watch with a leather strap it is not comfortable. Your leather strap here is gone after five months! We might be able to do something that looks like alligator but is protected against humidity and sweat…It is very difficult for us because we do not make straps or bracelets. Maybe I’m not allowed to say this but (these suppliers) are not that interested in doing stuff that lasts longer because they would have less business (in terms of eventually replacing worn down straps)! The Odysseus is for us an important watch For this reason too (with regards to sustainability) because we have projects ongoing with regards to the straps (and alternatives to exotic skins).