Young watchmakers follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand A. Lange


Young watchmakers follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand A. Lange

Passing on the fire
La Cote des Montres - June 7th, 2010

David Weber at his workbench at the Lange headquarters
David Weber is happy. He has cleaned and regulated the customer’s watch, fitted and aligned the spring, and checked all the adjustments. He has assembled the movement and rechecked its accuracy over the course of a test run of several days. Now he is putting the watch back into its case. If it had been necessary, he would also have filed the bevelled edges and renewed the polish. He is trained to do so. In 2008 he passed his final examinations at the Lange Watchmaking School with flying colours.

Jan Helbig assembling a watch movement
The Lange Watchmaking School has been in existence since 1997, and has so far produced 66 graduates. The fact that of the 31 current trainees 70 per cent are women “owes more to chance than to emancipation”, says Katja König. She has been director of the school since 2004. “We do not select on the basis of sex,” explains 34-year-old König. “Once a year we invite the most promising training applicants to an assessment centre in our manufacture. They then have to prove their manual skills, by filing, cutting out a movement piece according to a drawing, and assembling a watch without instructions.” The main thing is to identify how much manual skills, patience and technical understanding an applicant has. “We also talk to the applicants about their motivation, how they assess themselves and how they view their future,” says Katja König.

For Jan Helbig it was the perfect training. After several training phases in the manufactory, he went on to assemble chronograph movements for the DOUBLE SPLIT and later the LANGE 31. For him this is an exciting complication “because it is the first watch to guarantee a reliable power reserve for 31 days. I worked out the assembly instructions for this watch together with a colleague from the prototype department who had trained me over a period of several months.” He often had to find out the answers to problems for himself. For a few days now, the individual parts of a TOURBOGRAPH “Pour le Mérite” have been lying on his workbench. The 24-year-old Helbig is proud of the fact that he is now permitted to assemble the most complicated Lange watch.

The learning process has been going on right from the first beginnings. When the young Ferdinand A. Lange founded his watch manufactory in Glashütte on 7 December 1845, he initially trained 15 young men. He taught them all basic skills, made use of their talents and urged them to specialise. Only by this means was it possible to increase the quality and precision of his pocket watches. Some of his apprentices went on to set up their own workshops, producing pinions, barrels and hands.

The foundation stone was laid for the centre of fine watchmaking in Germany. Later, Lange introduced the metric system into watchmaking and fitted swivel chairs with a foot operated flywheel, so that movement parts could be calculated more simply and components could be manufactured with greater precision. If he had just wanted to “preserve the ashes”, he would perhaps have become watchmaker to the royal court of Saxony, succeeding his father-in-law Johann Friedrich Gutkaes. This would have given him a privileged life with an apartment in the tower of Dresden’s Royal Palace. He decided instead to “pass on the fire” and to set forth on new paths.

As did his great-grandson Walter Lange who, 145 years to the day after the first manufactory was set up, continued the inheritance of his forefathers. This was to mark a new beginning. At that time, David Weber and Jan Helbig were five years old. Now they are part of the Lange tradition. And they are fanning the flames of that tradition. Jan Helbig, however, still does not wear a watch. “It is the technical challenge that fascinates me about watches,” he says. This is hardly surprising. His first memory of a timepiece is the green alarm clock on his granny’s bedside table. “I was about seven years old. The clock wasn’t wound up, because it had such a loud tick. It was only there for decoration.” Even at that age, he was bothered by this.

Director Katja König and trainees in the second year at the Lange Watchmaking School
For David Weber, watches have always been part of his life. His father is a watchmaker – a service watchmaker for Lange in Hong Kong. “So I have felt at home with watches, ever since I have been able to think”, he says. For him also, the trigger was a broken timepiece: “a digital watch from my sister’s toy chest,” he relates. “I didn’t mind that it no longer worked. I think I wore it secretly for almost a year.” He made his own first watch three years ago in Denmark while he was on a trainee exchange. But getting to that stage was a lengthy process.

For David Weber, the decisive factor that made him apply for an apprenticeship at Lange was a summer holiday in Germany. “We went on a trip to Glashütte and visited the manufactory. And I finally got to know the place where the timepieces were made that my father cleans and repairs in his service workshop in Hong Kong.” His early days at Glashütte were not easy: “I had to make a completely new set of friends. I sometimes really missed the international spirit of the metropolis, and speaking English.” He was trained in the dual system for three years, with theoretical instruction in the local vocational college alternating with practical weeks in the Lange manufacture.

The whole process was worth it for David Weber. He is glad that he has learned a practical profession: “Work done by hand, not machines – that is important for our customers and it defines my passion for the watchmaking profession. I love creating products that will last, that will still be valuable many decades from now.” And he now feels at home in Glashütte. “It’s a short distance to work: I can see the Lange headquarters from my flat. Tradition is something that is really part of everyday life here. And the informal companionship with his colleagues. Teamwork is very important to me,” he stresses. But where would he go if Lange were to offer him the chance to go abroad for a few years? “Hong Kong,” he says without hesitation. “I really value this city as a place where many different nations can live peacefully and harmoniously together.”

Since January 2010, the Lange Watchmaking School has had its own building again: the former school in Bärenstein, just ten kilometres from Glashütte, which was fully refurbished in 2006 and until now has been used as an office building. The available area has been expanded from 250 to 600 square metres. It therefore offers the possibility of expanding co-operations with international watchmaking schools and offering work experience places to young watchmakers from abroad. For it is this that Katja König wants to convey, in addition to the skills of the craftsman: “The enjoyment of working as a team, tolerance and a feeling of internationality.”

And perhaps for some of them it will be as for David Weber. He does not necessarily see himself remaining in the Glashütte manufactory in the future. “I would like to work for Lange in a service centre abroad sometime,” he says. “And be in touch with customers. Like my father.”

“Passing on the fire” as practised by the Weber family.