Richard Lange: The science of time

Scientist, innovator, inventor. When Richard Lange took over the Dresden watchmaking business started by his father Ferdinand in 1845, he could scarcely have imagined that the family vision for timekeeping – to make the finest, most precise, and most beautiful watches in the world – would resonate so strongly more than a century and a half later. That is thanks not just to the rigorously expressed tenets of haute horlogerie that define A. Lange & Söhne’s exceptional timepieces but also to the tenacity and ambition of Lange watchmakers – men separated across time, but united by a shared commitment of what the family name stands for. Such was the strength of this conviction that the brand was able to re-emerge in 1990 after it had lain dormant for 40 years, with not a single watch produced and the factory destroyed.

When Walter Lange, who sometimes referred to himself as a ‘bridge to the past’ made the decision to revive A. Lange & Söhne right after the Berlin Wall had been reduced to rubble, the world wasn’t really looking to the ‘distant’ past. That time, November 9, 1989, was breath-taking, tumultuous and uncertain and it captivated the imaginations of the world. It was a hugely significant moment, a dramatic transformation of post-war Europe that reinvigorated the nation. As East Germans poured over the newly opened border, the previously divided nation was reunited. The cultural differences and social inequalities of the two were marked – East Germans were worse off than their neighbours in the West, owned fewer properties and had less access to the rest of the world. It is remarkable that the assimilation of two generations went as smoothly as it did, considering how completely divided the country had been. Even more remarkable was how swiftly Walter Lange moved to rebuild something entirely more personal – a long-dormant family business.

For more than 40 years, the name A. Lange & Söhne had disappeared from watch dials, as the company ceased to exist – Soviet bombers destroyed the factory shortly after the end of World War II, and the Communist Administration nationalised the business a few years later. Its owner – Walter Lange, the great-great grandson of the founder – was forced to flee to the West, where he went into business and considered the family firm essentially obsolete. That was a tragic loss for horology; the firm represented one of the most significant watchmaking companies, not to mention one of the oldest. The firm had been in continuous operation since 1845, having been founded by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in Glashütte near Dresden, an area whose watchmaking history predated that in Switzerland. His two sons, Richard and Emil, continued the business, spearheading an ambition to excel in every aspect of haute horlogerie.
As a consequence, the pieces made by the Glashütte factory earned a reputation for pristine watchmaking, perfect attention to detail, beauty in design and peerless reliability. The name became synonymous with exquisitely crafted pocket watches, marine chronometers and navigation instruments and its achievements saw it considered the finest watchmaker in the world by connoisseurs of horology. Richard gave the finest A. Lange & Söhne watches a special categorisation, ‘A1’, and the watches, with their classical, harmonious proportions were worthy examples of some of the finest watchmaking in the world.

The A. Lange & Söhne Jumping Seconds in rose gold.

The reunification of Germany, when it finally took place, represented not just the end of one era, but an unfurling of possibility for the descendant of these skilled timekeepers. At an age when many men are looking towards retirement, Walter Lange set about rebuilding the family firm. He drew on his personal and professional connections, including the legendary Günter Blümlein of IWC and the assistance of Jaeger-LeCoultre and astonished the watchmaking world in 1994 with series of exceptional new watches – pieces that clearly drew on the heritage of the brand and embraced the highest values of fine watchmaking. Presented in precious metals and adhering stringently to the highest echelons of watchmaking savoir faire, the watches made a clear statement of intent: A. Lange & Söhne was back, and it meant business.
“We wanted to make timeless watches, with an unconventional design,” recalled the founder, referencing the unusual decentralised dial that gave the first Lange watch – the Lange 1 – its all-important ‘point of difference’. Continuing to craft just a few thousand wristwatches in gold or platinum each year, each A. Lange & Söhne wristwatch is endowed exclusively with proprietary movements and is lavishly decorated and assembled by hand. The company has been responsible for several notable achievements in watchmaking, such as its Lange 1 Tourbillon Calendar, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater and Tourbograph Perpetual ‘Pur le Mérite’ that all reflect the company’s determination to achieve new pinnacles in watchmaking. That ambition was started by Ferdinand, but it was Richard’s influence that ultimately cemented the company’s high watchmaking credentials.

Richard Lange (1845-1932) was a visionary whose talent in scientific observation, navigation and precision defined the work of A. Lange & Söhne. Lange carried on his father’s legacy by applying the latest insights in physics, chemistry and mathematics into watchmaking Many of his patents were embodied in the manufactory’s technically elaborate pocket watches. Under his steer, the company achieved numerous patents, various inventions and pioneering work in horology. Amongst the most famous is the balance spring, which Lange described in a 1930 patent application entitled “metal alloy for watch springs”. The scientist had read papers on certain alloys and recognised their potential for watchmaking, realising that adding beryllium to nickel and steel improved the performance of the hairsprings.

In 1901, famed geophysicist Erich von Drygalski had been the first German to lead an expedition to the South Pole. Along with the provisions necessary for this incredibly challenging voyage, he carried six A. Lange & Söhne pocket watches. These large observation watches inform the Richard Lange family today and the watch family that bears his name carries on this tradition of science and technical innovation.
The Richard Lange family of watches was added to the A. Lange & Söhne in 2006 and remains the company’s ultimate expression of the aesthetics of scientific observation, navigation and precision. The first of this line was the Richard Lange and it embodies A. Lange & Söhne’s scientific observation watches from the 19th and 20th centuries. All facets of this timepiece are dictated by two goals: superior precision and the utmost in legibility. Two notable additions to the family are the Richard Lange Jumping Seconds, and the Richard Lange ‘Pour Le Mérite. Both exceptional in their class, they represent a continuation of that fascination with science and technology.
The distinction ‘Pour le Mérite’ is reserved for only the very finest watches created by A. Lange & Söhne, and the Richard Lange that bears this name is only the third Lange watch to have been given this accolade, named after an old order of merit initiated in 18742 and still awarded to great scientists and artists. With a pure, balanced design, the 40.5mm watch expresses legibility and an unfussed, balanced elegance and has been produced in rose gold or platinum. The watch features a fusée-and-chain transmission, one of the toughest watchmaking mechanisms to master, with 636 tiny parts. The fusée-and-chain transmission compensates for the declining spring force, keeping effective torque constant; it looks like a microscopic version of a bike chain – a tiny cone-shaped pulley with a groove allows the chain to wind around it, and as the chain unreels from the fusée and back onto the barrel, the length of its lever increases by the same measure as the spring’s torque decreases. The result is constant torque. In addition to its dizzying technical mastery – there are several tiny systems integrated into the mechanism that all work perfectly together to amplify accuracy. Of course, as befits this exquisite work of horological art, every millimetre of the movement, inside and out, has been lavished with beautiful hand-finishing to the highest Lange standards.
The Richard Lange Jumping Seconds was first introduced to the science-inspired family at last year’s SIHH. Symmetrical and elegant, it featured the same dial design as a previous Richard Lange Tourbillon Pour Le Mérite that had originally come from a Dresden pocket watch design of the late 18th century. A rhodié-coloured regulator dial with large seconds circle at the top draws the observer’s attention to the smallest of the three units of time. Just below the centre, where the two hour and seconds indicators overlap is a small triangle for the power reserve, which turns red ten hours before the watch needs to be wound. Unveiled in platinum in a diameter of 39.9mm, in a limited series of 100, it featured two mechanisms working in perfect synergy: a one-second constant force escapement and a clever zero-reset mechanism that allows the watch to be synchronised quickly and comfortably; when the crown is pulled, the seconds hand jumps to the zero position. The jumping seconds mechanism ranks among the classic complications in precision horology.
The jumping seconds is an A. Lange & Söhne tradition that dates back nearly 150 years. In 1867, Saxon watchmaking pioneer Ferdinand Adolph Lange crafted a pocket watch with a seconde morte.
His sons Richard and Emil evolved the system and in 1877 filed a patent application for the mechanism they mounted on the three-quarter plate, naming it “seconds movement with jumping seconds”. Pocket watches featuring this technology were once used to determine sidereal or solar time as well as geographical longitude. The jumping seconds mechanism has played a pivotal role in A. Lange & Söhne’s history. Ferdinand Adolph Lange developed a “one-second movement with a jumping hand” as early as 1867. Ten years later, the newly founded Imperial Patent Office granted one of its very first patents for his invention to the manufactory.
As is often the case with A. Lange & Söhne watches, the relative sobriety of their design is just half the story – turn the watch over, and a sapphire caseback reveals the full extent of Lange passion with a dramatic view of the movement that has been decorated to full effect. five-point star, that controls the seconds jumps, rotates beneath a transparent sapphire bearing jewel in the middle of the mirror-polished end piece. The remontoir spring of the constant-force escapement can be seen through an opening in the three-quarter plate. The levers, springs and clutch of the Zero-Reset mechanism are readily visible as well.
The Richard Lange watches pay fitting tribute to Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s firstborn son, icons of the present that celebrate the achievements of the men that dedicated their lives to horology.