A Different Beat For A. Lange & Söhne

CEO Wilhelm Schmid explains why bucking trends has worked so well for the historic German watchmaker.
text by Anandhi Gopinath

A. Lange & Söhne

A challenge that many watchmakers face is demand that far outstrips supply, particularly after the pandemic. No matter how much production is ramped up and distribution channels streamlined, the issue endures. But for German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, operating in an environment where too many buyers are clamouring for too few watches is its default mode. In fact, having more ready buyers than watches to sell them is a reality the brand has faced since it was revived in the 1990s by Walter Lange, the great-grandson of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange.

That, however, doesn’t mean taking a step back from engaging with its customers, though. The team at Lange, headed by CEO Wilhelm Schmid, is continuously on the lookout for ways to communicate with the watch-buying public in fresh and exciting ways. The House of Lange exhibition, which took place in The Starhill, Kuala Lumpur, from 16 to 29 November, is a relatively new idea it is trialling – a previous edition in Singapore in 2018 had a slightly different focus – to connect with consumers. In Kuala Lumpur recently for the launch of this immersive pop-up, Schmid sat down with The Peak to talk strategy, sales and the changing face of watchmaking.

“I believe strongly that there is merit in two people having a chat, talking watches over a drink and establishing a relationship. The digital world for us is more about content than transactions.” – Wilhelm Schmid

It has been a busy few years for the brand, especially in terms of retail, as the company has adjusted the number of points of sale. Can you tell us about this part of your growth strategy for the company?

When we started in 1994, it was from humble beginnings. We were a brand that worked with retailers in a multi-franchise environment, which was very much in vogue back then. It made us who we are, and we had great times with that sort of business model until we realised – at about the 2016, 2017 mark – that the missing link for us was that we didn’t know who the final customer was. For us, our final customer was the retailer and they sold to whoever it was that they sold to. We were so cut off from who the owners of our watches were.

With the launch of the Datograph Lumen in 2017, we changed our strategy because we started to understand that the future belongs to those who understand the customer but, also, those who are accessible to these customers. Covid-19 came and we could accelerate our strategy dramatically and, in a short time, turn our distribution model around from a wholesale approach to a more retail- driven one. This changed the brand in many ways, because it made us realise having 250 points of sale and just five watches on display wasn’t a good idea. We are still slimming down the number of points-of-sale – I think it would be 55 or 60 around the world, and each one will actually have watches to sell.

The House of Lange is our way of reaching out to our collectors in Malaysia, where we cannot afford to have a point of sale at this point. This is a pilot project to see how we can connect with consumers in a country where we don’t have representation.

A. Lange & Söhne

E-commerce was established during the pandemic – is this platform still something you are looking at maintaining?

It’s quite funny – the customers who bought watches online were the first to visit the boutiques once they reopened. Maybe I am old- fashioned but I believe strongly that there is merit in two people having a chat, talking watches over a drink and establishing a relationship. The digital world for us is more about content than transactions.

After the Rolex-Bucherer deal, the topic of certified pre-owned (CPO) watches has moved to mainstream. Is this something you’ve discussed internally?

We don’t need to – all our watches have a case number and a movement number; we have complete reports; we know exactly which watch left the manufacture. For us, this is not something we even considered because we work with such small numbers. The CPO market is dominated by the larger companies, and rightly so. I guess in a way we have been doing this for the longest time, because we document everything and we offer after-sales service for every single watch. Also, we don’t see a lot of fakes, so we don’t have the trust issues that other brands have. Honestly, if I see a fake Lange that is believable, I would hire the watchmaker immediately – we need skilled people like that! (laughs).

Have your production numbers changed very much, and how are you balancing demand and supply?

A. Lange & Söhne

Production numbers fluctuate. The hours we have are restricted so the more complex watches we produce, which takes more time, by nature the total number will go down. In terms of balancing supply and demand… well, I can tell you that we are managing, but we aren’t, really; we just do what we can. That is why we want to know our customers because the better we know them, the better we know what they want and therefore be able to produce the right watches.

In terms of the watches that have left the manufacture, do you have any favourites, or any that have done especially well?

That is a gift of hindsight. There are watches that aren’t popular at the time of launch, like the Datograph in yellow gold with a black dial. We only produced very few because no one wanted them. Today, they are one of the most-sought after of all our watches because so few are available. Predicting what will sell and what won’t – that is a science that no one entirely understands.

The Odysseus seems to be a very polarising collection for the brand, but these diverse opinions result in very vibrant discussions. What has been your view on this?

When you only produce 5,500 watches a year, you cannot be everyone’s darling. Seventy references, that many watches in total – we’re talking 80 watches a year. It can’t be our aim to produce watches that makes everybody happy. What I say is most important is: is this a real A Lange & Söhne? You may not like the design of the watch, but does it represent what we stand for? Does it come with all the bells and whistles, the same quality of craftsmanship and decoration, the same double assembly? Everything in our watches is there because it serves a purpose. If you don’t like a particular design, its fine! Not a fan of the bracelet? All good! That is why we have the other traditional families to choose a watch from. The Odysseus is a playground for us to try materials we don’t ordinarily use, like steel for the case or a rubber strap. This creative freedom is important to us, but we also acknowledge that what we make – and this applies to more than the Odysseus – is not meant to be liked by everyone. Sheer beauty does not have longevity.

Tell us about the collectors – how do you maintain a relationship with them, and how important are they to the company?

Collectors are our main group of clients. Honestly, we don’t make watches for people who buy only one watch in their lifetime. And I do not mean that arrogantly or disrespectfully, but that is simply not our business model. We cater to collectors, and to stay close to them is to give them what they want, which are novelties. They want new watches, and they want to see us pushing boundaries. And that is what we do. For example, the chronograph we released this year, which was quite controversial because an automatic chronograph is not something we have done before. We only produced 100 pieces and, trust me, there are far more people than that who want it. If collectors are your target, you make watches that all of them want – different complications, sizes, styles… you don’t make only one kind of watch.

Speaking of collectors, you collect classic cars, which somewhat explains the brand’s involvement in the Concours de Elegance. Are watch and car collecting all that different?

It’s mechanical art. And we are quite deliberate about this – Lange doesn’t go into classic cars; we go into Concours de Elegance, which is a beauty show for car manufacturers. All these cars require skilled people to make them. This is very much representative of the values that Lange stands for, and that is why we use that platform to bring our customers and expose them to something they may not see. The car collectors can also easily understand what we offer – the two industries are very complimentary.

A. Lange & Söhne

How have things changed over the years since you arrived at Lange?

Everything has changed! When I was arrived, it was SIHH in January and not Watches and Wonders in April. We even had a pre-SIHH release to produce, so the magazines that came out before the fair would have something to run. That is all obsolete today, because everything is digital, and very immediate. Distribution has and is constantly evolving. We are now a global brand, and that wasn’t the case back then. Our customers have changed too.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is this: double-assembly, made by hand, the emphasis on skill and craftsmanship – these will be our constants. This will be what A. Lange & Söhne stands for.

This story first published on The Peak Malaysia February 2024 issue.


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