In the land before time

The birthplace of German watchmaking: that’s what Glashütte is called. Not surprising, considering the number of watchmakers in this picturesque little town that’s a 45-minute drive from Dresden. It’s cold and drizzling as we reach the manufactory of A. Lange & Söhne, a 121-year-old high-end watch manufacturer.

I, along with a couple of other journalists, am here for a look at the new premises. Right from the foyer, the place is steeped in tradition and celebrates the history of the brand. A bust of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the Dresden watchmaker who started precision watchmaking in the Saxony region, looks out of the entrance genially. The timeline and photos of the company’s highlights adorn one wall.

In a statement, CEO Wilhelm Schmid says, “The new building is a response to employment growth in recent years, and represents an investment in the manufactory’s future. The focus was on a modern, energy-efficient building that would offer appealing surroundings and ideal working conditions. This will help us further enhance the quality of our watches and optimise our production processes. All the while, we strive to minimise our ecological footprint and resource consumption.”

The two-part complex, inaugurated by Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2015, has a 5,400-square-metre production area, with a bright and clearly-structured façade. Slightly-inclined atelier windows ensure ample lighting without direct sunlight affecting temperature. A corridor — called a double-skin walk-in façade — helps in climate control. Conditions are virtually dust-free: they even have specially-designed jackets to be worn in certain sections. Machines and equipment used to manufacture movement parts are located in the lower-slung front part of the building, while departments in which small components are manually engraved and decorated are housed in the new building. The building houses Saxony’s largest geothermal energy plant, with 55 downhole heat exchangers extending to a depth of as much as 125 metres. The electricity used to operate the pumps is green, making the place a CO2 emission-free facility.

After stashing our bags and jackets, we start at the finishing department. It’s where the minuscule parts of the inner working of the watches are put together. Everyone works with a magnifying lens strapped over one eye and bright lights at their desk. It’s quiet and there’s an air of efficiency about the whole place. We line up carefully, making sure not to bump into any of the tables, and observe them as they pick up barely-visible parts and deftly assemble them.

This is followed by the engraving department (more on that later), and then the milling centre, where huge machines precisely cut out holes in the base plate of the watches. It’s mesmerising: the drills change automatically, the drill bits turn red-hot and are cooled constantly by a jet stream of water, and it’s pretty much the definition of clockwork.

The final assembly, chronograph and zeitwerk construction departments are a whirlwind of technical terms. But it is awe-inspiring to see how these wristwatches are assembled from scratch. Each watchmaker shows immense dedication and involvement, no matter which part of the process he works in.

After lunch with PR director Arnd Einhorn at Lange’s older manufactory, we walk back down the cobbled pavement to the engraving department.

Here is where some elaborate engraving and design work is done by the smallest team — there are only six people. One of them gives us a basic class in engraving.

With one tool, a magnifying lens and a disc of german silver, we are taught to make straight lines within a border. It’s harder than it sounds, and we are eons away from being anywhere near as good — or patient — to be on this team. But it’s a great way to wrap up the tour, as we get a first-hand experience of being part of the great watchmaking tradition.

(The writer was in Glashütte at the invitation of A. Lange & Söhne)

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Printable version | Oct 5, 2022 8:50:16 am |