A. Lange & Sohne Anthony de Haas

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]s a rule, the senior employees of conglomerate-owned luxury brands are pretty reserved. Many hardly say anything provocative and shun talk about their brand’s failed experiences. Anthony de Haas, A. Lange & Sohne’s director of product development since 2004, is not one of them.

For journalists who attend the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva every January, the Dutchman is a familiar face. De Haas is always at the brand’s podium, sharing its new creations with his irreverent humour.

At the end of our manufacture tour, we met him at the former Lange family residence down the road, where he shared his thoughts on doing things the hard way, winning over critics, and why Lange won’t be using silicon any time soon. Here, in his own words:

Why bigger facilities do not equal bigger production numbers

When people see the building for the first time, they go: “Whoa, it’s big.” And they might think, Lange is going to increase its numbers. But that’s not the plan. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. We made 5,100 watches this year. Next year, we might make 5,300 watches,

if everything goes okay. Our turnover is low because we have been making more complex watches – the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, for instance; if we’re lucky, we can make 10 a year.

On Lange’s youthful talents…

At our factory, you probably saw many young people. We have a watchmaking school, and we train young, talented people, but, when they start working with us, they’re not going to start with the Datograph. They might start with (simpler) models like the manual-winding Saxonia, or an 1815. We watch how they develop. Some work a year on the 1815, and then you see it in their faces, like, “I want to do more. Give me more.” We are not going to say: “No, the ones who make complicated watches must be grey-haired old men.”

(RELATED: Change is coming to A. Lange & Sohne, says CEO Wilhelm Schmid)

How he combines technical and product design as the head of both

Technical and product design are very much related. We don’t have or need creative people who wear two different socks. This is pure watchmaking; it’s about details. There are people who think we are boring, because we are more watchmaker than fashion-week fashion. Then, there are people who are shocked when we bring out a blue-dial line. When we did that two years ago, some people went (adopts a shocked tone): “Why did they bring out four different watches with blue dials at the same time?”

On the occasional need to provoke

When we made the Saxonia with an aventurine-glass dial, nobody expected it, not even our own colleagues. But sometimes, you need to provoke people a little – within boundaries. When the idea first came up, the designers were unsure, and were (de Haas mimics hemming-and-hawing noises), and I said: “Just order it. You need to see it in real life. And if we don’t like it and decide we don’t want to work with it, ciao! – we just put it away in a drawer. That’s it.”

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The experiment that became a Lange pillar

To develop, you need to try different things. You can’t just say, “No, we can’t do that because it won’t work.” Making the Zeitwerk (Lange’s watch with jumping numeral discs) was a big challenge, technically and aesthetically. We thought it would be a niche product. The initial reaction was very polarised.

Much more than a ‘niche product’

In May 2009, when we launched the Zeitwerk, a German journalist – a well-known, decent and humble man – said to me: “Tony, you guys have been doing great things, but this missed the mark.” I said: “Okay, I respect that, it’s a matter of different tastes.” In January 2011, he came to the SIHH like he did every year, and I looked at his wrist – he was wearing a pink gold Zeitwerk. Sometimes we lend watches to journalists so they can review it, so I asked him: “Ah, you’re writing an article about that?” He said: “No, it’s mine.” I said: “No. Don’t fool me. You hated it.” He replied: “Yes, I hated it. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then, you guys started delivering the watches to shops. And I went and ordered one.”

(RELATED: In Perfect Tune: the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater)

A challenge that drove even his skilful team crazy

We don’t do certain things in-house because of capacity reasons. Although we don’t make our own rubies, we know how to make and cut them. There’s a story in that. We had a 30-piece special edition, the Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst. It was a nightmare. We wanted to make a Glashutte lever escapement used in old Lange pocket watches. Instead of gluing ruby pallets to the lever arms with shellac, as in standard Swiss lever escapements, the Germans totally integrated the stone into the gold and cut it in a special way.

We thought, we should do that, since (our founder) Ferdinand Adolph Lange invented it. But we didn’t know how to cut the ruby and gold. We found an old lady in Glashutte who was 92 years old, and who used to make them for Lange pocket watches. She showed us how to do it using a lathe. We took three days to make the first escapement. I’m not going to tell you how long we took to make those 30 pieces. But we did it. We also made them for our six Grand Complication watches. Then we stopped doing it. You’re not earning your money in a way people understand. (Laughs.)

New doesn’t always mean innovative

In my department, I have 10 watches running on a silicon hairspring, but we don’t see any advantages to it. Dresden is like the Silicon Valley of Germany, so we went to those big suppliers, and they asked us: “How many escapements would you like to have? 17,000? 20,000?” We went, “Errr, 10 is okay.” Making them is an industrial process; each of these hairsprings costs nothing. A silicon wafer can (yield) hundreds of hairsprings. No watchmaker can do adjustments on them; if you touch it, it breaks. Some brands ask a higher price for a watch with a silicon hairspring – I think it’s a shame because a silicon hairspring costs a tenth of a regular hairspring. But silicon is useful against magnetism, which is important because of all the gadgets around us today. We should be working on how to make a regular watchmaking material resistant to magnetism. That’s watchmaking.

New and notable

A look at the latest pieces from Lange.

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