How in the world can a watch cost so much? It’s a question asked by many—and a fair one, given the price can be the equivalent of a child’s college education or even a decent apartment. It’s also a question luxury watch brands take comfortably in their stride. They’re more than willing to address the issue with a rundown of the numerous factors that contribute to the creation of their masterpieces: the high-tech and precious materials, the features, the complications, the intellectual input, the craftsmanship, the long hours of painstaking work and the limited production runs.
A Lange & Söhne, whose timepieces cost from HK$116,000 to more than HK$16 million, goes to extra lengths when it comes to revealing the intricacies of its craft, staging regular Connoisseur’s Akademies around the world since 2007. The German watchmaker recently flew close to 100 watch collectors and media representatives from the Asia-Pacific region to Thailand for its latest akademie, a two-day workshop held at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai.
While the location may seem to have been a random—though wonderful—choice, it was far from it, exhaustive discussions having taken place on a range of destinations. “The beauty of the location was important, but more so was the kind of connection we can make with the brand,” says Gaëtan Guillosson, Lange’s Asia-Pacific managing director. “Ultimately, we picked Chiang Mai, and the Four Seasons in particular, because it’s one of the most well-preserved resorts in the region and is highly respectful of the environment. Our newly opened manufacture in Glashütte is very environment-friendly as well, designed and built so that natural light flows freely into the building and there’s hardly any need for electrical light. The manufacture also runs on geothermal energy.
“Also, the Four Seasons isn’t flashy, which again is very Lange—our pieces are impeccably made but very discreet and understated. Further, the Chiang Mai people have such a high appreciation for local craftsmanship, which again is such an important aspect of what we are as a brand.”
The akademie’s first session was a workshop on engraving presided over by one of the six master engravers at Lange’s Glashütte manufacture, Peter Lippsch, who has been with the brand for 15 years. Executed under a microscope with a magnification of at least 10 times, the art of engraving requires three years of rigorous training—and decades of practice to become a true master. To put this skill into perspective in the context of a watch, a master engraver would typically spend up to 90 minutes hand-finishing a balance cock no bigger than a fingernail. And that is just one of the 300-plus parts of a movement that need to be hand-finished. In total, one watch could occupy weeks, even months, of an engraver’s attention.
For our workshop, Lippsch has us try tremblage, in which a fine-tipped chisel is used to make a series of minute pinprick marks on a metal surface. It’s a demanding technique that requires not only skill but enormous patience. Then we try our hand at polishing and attaching quarter plates using tiny 3mm screws. Needless to say, it’s tough, so imagine our astonishment when watchmaker Robert Hoffman tells us that every movement is assembled twice. After it’s first put together, he explains, the movement is dismantled and each part is cleaned. Only at this stage are some of the components finished, such as the gold chatons and quarter plates, which are decorated with Glashütte stripes.
Even among avid collectors, ownership of a timepiece from A Lange & Söhne often remains an aspiration rather than a reality. “Not all collectors yet own one, and those who do pretty much already own pieces from every other fine watch brand out there,” Guillosson says. In the wider community, many people know little about the brand, and that’s by design. According to Guillosson, Lange shies away from massive marketing campaigns. “The idea is, Lange is and should remain a secret,” he explains. “All we’re doing here, with these exclusive events, is to share that secret with a few more people. We don’t want to be a mass brand, but we don’t want to be so obscure either. And one of the objectives of this akademie is that our guests become our ambassadors. Our hope is that when you leave this place and go back to your homes and workplaces, you can share this experience with others.”
Not surprisingly, the akademie exposed my watchmaking skills as less than stellar. And I wasn’t alone. A fellow participant threw his arms in the air at the end of our sessions and declared, “Okay, your watches just aren’t expensive enough!” The rest of us, with trembling hands, strained eyes and aching backs, nodded in agreement. I will never again question the value of a Lange timepiece.
This article was originally published in the January 2017 edition of Hong Kong Tatler.