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A poetic tribute

Timothy Chiang
Timothy Chiang • 7 min read
A poetic tribute
Walter Lange’s dying wish was to see a wristwatch with a stoppable jumping seconds function being produced. Now, 16 months after the A. Lange & Söhne honorary chairman’s passing, a unique edition of such a watch will be offered up for auction, with p
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Walter Lange’s dying wish was to see a wristwatch with a stoppable jumping seconds function being produced. Now, 16 months after the A. Lange & Söhne honorary chairman’s passing, a unique edition of such a watch will be offered up for auction, with proceeds going to charity, says CEO Wilhelm Schmid.

SINGAPORE (May 14): On Jan 16, 2017, at the end of the first day of SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid raised a toast to honorary chairman Walter Lange during the company’s annual Monday evening cocktail.

“I remember saying, ‘This is the first time Lange would not be joining us for SIHH, but I heard that he was on the road to recovery, and that we should all raise a glass and wish him a speedy recovery and good health’. And that’s what we did,” says Schmid, who was in Singapore recently to meet with Lange collectors.

“The next morning, at about 7.15am — the time I was at the booth to check that everything was working — I heard from a colleague that Lange had passed away two hours [earlier].” Lange, 92, was hospitalised after slipping down a flight of stairs just before the company’s Christmas party.

“I couldn’t describe it. At his age, you have to expect and accept it. We had prepared everything — the communications, the condolences. But preparing is one thing and execution is another. Imagine if we hadn’t prepared anything — it happened during SIHH! I said the show must go on. We couldn’t put on a sad show.”

Lange was a key figure in the watchmaking world. A survivor of Nazi Germany, he witnessed the destruction of his family business during World War II, but organised its resurrection after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1994, the first A. ­Lange & Söhne watches of the new era entered the watch collecting realm.

“Lange was really old-school in many ways. Very straightforward, very German,” says Schmid, recalling his memories of the grand old man. “There was no guesswork. He wasn’t great in giving compliments. If he wasn’t [harsh] on you, that was compliment enough.”

Two years into the job, however, Schmid received a pat on the back. It happened on the last day of SIHH 2013, on a Friday night, when all exhibiting brands pack up and leave. It is a big hassle for A. Lange & Söhne. Unlike other Swiss brands, the company has to pass through customs on its way from Geneva to Glashütte.

“We were counting gloves and what to take back home. At the end of it, he looked at me and said, ‘You’re doing a good job’. That was the best I ever got from him. But I also knew that if I needed any advice, I could always approach him. I just needed to call him, and he would be there.”

Paying homage

In December 2017, the company announced a wristwatch in Lange’s honour: the 1815 “Homage to Walter Lange”. Inspired by a 19th-century pocket watch made by the firm, it features a central hand that is a stoppable deadbeat seconds hand. The pusher at two o’clock allows wearers to start and stop this hand.

“It’s a very unusual combination,” says Schmid. “To my knowledge, I haven’t seen another wristwatch with stoppable jumping seconds and normal seconds.”

It was always Lange’s wish to see the manufacture produce an independent jumping seconds complication. But the complexities involved in its making meant that plans tended to be shelved. Lange’s passing put those plans firmly back on track.

“We took nine months to come up with that watch, starting from scratch. All we had were the old pocket watches, [from which] we wanted the aesthetics of the movement.”

The watch is available in strictly limited editions: 145 pieces in white gold, 90 in pink gold and 27 in yellow gold. The numbers bear significance: 145 refers to the number of years between the company’s founding and its revival; 90 denotes the year of its revival; and 27 indicates the span of time from the revival to Lange’s passing.

The new movement, Calibre L1924, is also a nod to Lange: 1924 was his birth year. Schmid says the movement will not be used in any other watches — a testament to how much the company values his legacy.

Rarest of the rare

There is also a unique piece in stainless steel with a black enamel dial. This will be auctioned by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo on the weekend of May 12 and 13 in Geneva. Proceeds from the sale will go to the Children Action Foundation, a Swiss charity that seeks to improve the lives of children worldwide.

Steel A. Lange & Söhne watches are among the most sought-after collector’s pieces on the planet. The company typically produces watches in precious metals. It is estimated that there are only about 25 steel variants in circulation, with the rarest of the rare being a Lange 1 in steel with a black dial. Rumour has it that only three exist.

“We hardly build any steel watches, and we very rarely use black enamel dials,” explains Schmid. “So, the combination is very unique. [Enamelling] is the most expensive way to produce a dial. We could have used platinum, which is far more valuable as a material than steel, but it wouldn’t be that different from what we normally do.”

As a consequence, steel watches do phenomenally well at auction. In 2013, a steel Double Split sold for €380,000 at a Christie’s sale in Geneva. To put things in perspective, that is more than four times the price of a Double Split in platinum.

Since then, the market for luxury watches has gone through the roof. Last year, actor/racing legend Paul Newman’s own Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona Reference 6239 fetched a staggering US$17.8 million ($23.7 million) at a Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo sale in New York. It holds the record for the world’s most expensive wristwatch ever sold at an auction.

One cannot help but wonder if the company is hoping to achieve similar feats of success with the steel Homage.

Schmid says he is hopeful for a spectacular result because all proceeds will go to charity. But he has been advised by auctioneer Aurel Bacs not to comment on any price estimation. “It should be more than €49,000 ($78,170) because that’s what the other watches will set you back,” he offers.

Schmid is currently on a five-city world tour to raise collectors’ interest in the auction. Besides Singapore, he is visiting Hong Kong, New York, London and Geneva.

Ultimately, it is the idea behind the watch, and not the watch itself, that resonates strongly with Schmid.

“The idea to give all the proceeds to children in need. The idea to go down roads that no one has taken so far, with the double seconds display. To make combinations that are unusual and unexpected [with the steel case and black dial]. That’s all very much [Lange].

“[The catchphrase] ‘Never stand still’ — came from the Lange family and is still part of our culture and will always remain part of our culture. And, to some extent, it epitomises what [Lange] stood for. He wanted things that may not make sense today — like the stoppable jumping seconds — but you love it for what it is. And that’s why we respect him.”

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.

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