Scene: Lobby, Hotel Bulow Palais in Dresden’s old quarter. It’s late October and guests of A. Lange and Sohne are trickling in from the dark outside wrapped in scarves and wool coats. Trays of champagne float by.

I am chatting with Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange and Sohne. “Oh, about 150,” he replies to my query about the number of guests he’s expecting the following evening. That’s very cosy, I opine. “It’s big for us,” he says genially. “That way, you can walk around and talk to everybody.”

Like what he’s doing now, at the welcome dinner for tomorrow’s big bash – for the 20th anniversary of the brand’s first collection of watches, after it was re-established following German re-unification in 1990. We continue speaking, about Singapore, where he was in July to grace this magazine’s 30th anniversary gala, the effects of jet lag, and inopportune German strikes. It feels… cosy.

Small groups, as this exchange proves, are wonderfully effective.

In truth, size matters quite a bit to this brand in the Richemont group stable, which also includes watch names like Jaeger- LeCoultre, IWC and Cartier. A. Lange and Sohne is relatively small, producing fewer than 5,000 watches annually, but what it does, namely mechanical watchmaking, is executed at the highest level.

And for this reason, according to its executives, it needs to control output. “Even if we want to grow faster, we can’t,” says director of product development Anthony de Haas. “It’s all hand craftsmanship – you need good watchmakers for that and they don’t grow on trees.”

He adds: “In 20 years, we’ve reached the top position in the watch industry. We can’t afford any mistakes because it’s easier to reach the top than to stay there.” Indeed, the stakes are extra high for a German brand in an industry dominated by Swiss players. It has been so ever since the manufacture was set up in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange in the town of Glashutte, east Germany. The watchmaker had wanted to provide jobs for locals when the area’s silver mines were exhausted. Business thrived until it was shut down at the outbreak of WWII.

It wasn’t until the fall of communism in 1990 that Lange’s great-grandson, Walter, was able to resurrect the company and launch four watches to great acclaim four years later. (See sidebar)

One of them, the Lange 1, so named because it was the first timepiece to be introduced after the rebirth, aptly became the brand’s standard-bearing watch. Elegant in its design yet avant garde at the time for its decentralised dials and large date display, it has engendered several families of watches, including the Lange 1 Timezone, the Lange 1 Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar and the Grand Lange 1. The next evening will see another addition.

Scene: Courtyard, Dresden Castle, night. Some 140 guests from 26 countries have been invited to this historic site to celebrate Lange’s 20th anniversary.

Dresden Castle is the cradle for the brand in many ways. Royal watchmaker Johann Gutkaes was Ferdinand’s mentor and eventual father-in-law. And it was here in Oct 24, 1994, that his great-grandson introduced the four timepieces that define the A. Lange & Sohne name today.

Tonight, de Haas unveils the anniversary watch to the collective gasp of the audience. It is a Lange 1 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst. The elaborate German word means “craftsmanship”, signifying that the skills involved in the production of the timepiece are more complex than usual, even by the company’s lofty standards.

As it happens, this edition sports a black enamelled dial that is rare in watchmaking, as the colour easily reveals imperfections and consistency of hue across models is hard to achieve. The enamelling process itself takes several days, and requires repeated steps and pristine conditions as any speck of dust will spoil the smoothness of the surface. Only 20 pieces have been made.

There have been Lange 1 tourbillons before. The anniversary edition follows 2000’s rose-gold or platinum iterations and 2010’s honey-gold version celebrating the company’s 165th year. Commenting on the timelessness of the Lange 1 design, Walter Lange says: “We have about 20 models, but I am convinced we have not reached the final line yet. I don’t know what the next 20 years will show because some of these features you can combine and make a new model.”

Scene: A Lange & Sohne manufacture, Glashutte, morning.

I get a glimpse into the creation of an A. Lange & Sohne timepiece at the village of Glashutte an hour’s drive from Dresden. Men and women, young and mature, sit at tables raised to their necks, a loupe in one eye, assembling parts that can be smaller than a grain of sand. Movements consist of several hundred components but one pass at ensuring that they fit and work is not enough. In a process that’s unique in the watchmaking industry, the mechanism is taken apart to be cleaned of potential dust particles and assembled again with the filigreed parts embellished, even if they are not meant to be seen. This art is such an integral element of an A. Lange & Sohne watch that the finishing department is only second to assembly in terms of size.

Each timepiece bears traditional elements dating back to Ferdinand’s pocket watch-making days. Untreated German silver made from copper, nickel and zinc, for example, is still used to render a golden patina that both protects the metal from further oxidation and gives it the impression of age. Furthermore, balance cocks are all engraved by hand with the Glashutte floral pattern. As each artist has a different style, produced with tools specially designed to fit the palm of his or her hand, no two Lange watch are exactly the same.

This August, the manufacture employing about 700 people will move into one geothermal facility designed for watchmaking. Windows, for example, cannot be opened so as to keep dust out. There will also be climate-controlled quarters and air barriers that allow natural light to enter without the accompanying heat.

And A. Lange and Sohne will continue to produce what it does best, timepieces of the highest calibre coveted by collectors around the world. What it doesn’t offer is full-out customisation.

“We get a lot of requests to make customised pieces,” says de Haas. “We could do it, but we don’t. I have a development department of 55 people. If I start this, I won’t have time for our own projects. And, if you make one piece for one guy, everyone will want it. Then you have a big problem – you will be confusing and disappointing people.” And that’s something A. Lange & Sohne doesn’t do.