Regular readers of this magazine will be very familiar with some recurring themes and, for some brands, characters. First of all, if that description rings true for you, thanks for still being interested in what we have to say about watchmaking. Seriously though, you will recognise not only Tino Bobe, Production Director at A. Lange & Sohne, whom we have interviewed multiple times over the course of the last 10 years, at least, but also the image we are using of him. The Glashutte manufacture has not refreshed its publicity image bank, and Bobe looks a fair bit different since this shot was taken. While we still think of Bobe as looking as he did in 2004, the first time we saw his image in a magazine somewhere, time has advanced a fair bit since then.
Ok, so why do we return to the usual suspects at A. Lange & Sohne? For one thing, the brand only offers Bobe, Anthony De Haas and Wilhelm Schmid for interviews, and we have cycled back to Bobe this year. We do also enjoy our chats with the guys, though we do not really expect them to remember us or our previous engagements. Well, maybe Bobe does which is why we are looking forward to catching up with him in Glashutte by the time you read this story. Tino, if you are reading this, we will take you up on the long-overdue beer.
At Watches and Wonders Geneva, A. Lange & Sohne only released one properly new watch, the Odysseus Chronograph so we had a lot room to talk things through with Bobe. We share his passion for watchmaking, and the preservation of traditional know-how. As such, we had a bit of fun unpacking Schmid’s comment to us about the brand’s duty of care, as he put it, to the profession of watchmaking. We did manage to get in an important note about the Odysseus and really any hot watch from A. Lange & Sohne, but we mostly stuck with the subject of the brand’s values and people, whom Bobe candidly calls family. This is not a small matter for a Glashutte native such as Bobe, whose dearest wish is that A. Lange & Sohne will be as strong in 20 years, as it is today.
If that makes you think Bobe is concerned about his legacy, think again. As someone who has been with A. Lange & Sohne since the beginning, Bobe is much more interested in the legacy of the firm and the brand. With, we will jump right into the questions and let Bobe take it away.
Let us begin with the watchmaking profession, and how A. Lange & Sohne handles the issue of attracting new talent, and keeping the culture of watchmaking healthy.
Last year, the 25th anniversary of our own watchmaking school, shows a little bit that we were obliged to organise training ourselves. Or it was necessary for us to do this ourselves because in opposite to the Swiss situation, where maybe you just can go out and hire people, we never had this (luxury).
Yes, there was, just at the beginning when Walter Lange reestablished the company, a state-owned company existing with many, many watchmakers (this was the GDR firm that produced watches for the communist GDR state). But what did they do? They produced mass production movements. There was no knowledge for finishing and no knowledge of high-end watchmaking (as A. Lange & Sohne intended on doing), or at least it was very rare because there were still a few people who had to take care of servicing old pocket watches (even at the GDR collective).
It was a hard task to reestablish A. Lange & Sohne at that time, and that is why, even during the first months some people were sent to IWC to learn there (Walter Lange and Gunther Blumlein restarted the A. Lange & Sohne brand when the iron curtain came down in 1989; Blumlein already ran IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre). But then we saw the successful development of the company and we said no, we have to take care of our own future, and this is what made apprenticeship happen at A. Lange & Sohne (in the form of the aforementioned school).
So we have between 10 to 12 young people each year for a three-year apprenticeship and it has to be organised properly (the understanding is that some people may advance faster than others, meaning up to 36 people could graduate in a single year) and that’s why our former production director took over the responsibility for this whole watchmaking school (Bobe is currently Production Director).
What’s the profile of the people going through the programme? Are they all watchmakers?
We have even each year one or two tool makers and, since last year, even young ladies from our office in the HR and finance roles, doing a (watchmaking) apprenticeship in this direction really, because you need good, well-trained people and it’s not easy to find outside. We are in Germany so you can’t compare watchmaking here (with the Swiss situation). It’s rare you that you find full-time people in the region, and even when you expand to include the whole country, Glashutte is still the biggest. You can imagine that of the brands that are here, each one fights to develop and keep their own talents, and we try not to take people from (our neighbors).
So we are really on our own to organize ourselves to secure our future. This is why we are doing a partnership with the regional watchmaking school, the independent watchmaking school, and we have our own watchmaking school (as mentioned) because (standard watchmaking courses cover things like quartz that A. Lange & Sohne does not need, and provides training on working with standard calibres produced by the likes of ETA and Selita, which is also an aspect of watchmaking not required at the firm). Our current deputy head of movement assembly came from our apprenticeship programme, although he went elsewhere first, before joining us eventually.
This sort of training is an expensive investment though, and also quite specific to your needs…
If you remember your visit to Glashutte, you saw a lot of young people, and this is the result of our watchmaking school, because there is no ready market for watchmakers (as there is in Switzerland). So yes, we spend money on this; it is maybe even the biggest investment each year. It’s about how you can find young people who are interested in watchmaking…maybe 15 years ago, you just put a small advertisement in a newspaper…or you go to one school and presented job opportunities. What we are doing today, I think we have around 22 to 24 fairs where we present career options in watchmaking…we try to show them what watchmaking is about, and what might be interesting about it (as a career). In the end, (even if you find those who are willing), we need people with a certain talent to work in a concentrated way, eight hours a day. Even if they have golden fingers and the right ‘brain’ for the work, not everyone can do it.
We have to find the right people so from the beginning, we have two days of tests, covering everything from mathematics to German language skills! (laughs). But really it is about manipulating really small things, and so on. If people are not successful in this test, we don’t continue with them because it is not fair…to them. If they fail the test, they will not have a successful apprenticeship. We want to have young people have a successful apprenticeship so they can have a really good start in their future career. This is something we are doing for watchmaking because (as mentioned earlier) they might not stay with us.
But anyway those who stay with us, they love the work, and the company, because we are still small. We have activities where people of all departments can get to know each other, and learn a bit about each other, including their job functions. In this way, they see how they can grow in the company. When it comes to the watchmakers themselves, they can easily see what the next challenge might look like for them, or what the future of their career path holds. They can also get excited about being able to one day work on a tourbillon movement, for example.
So you are saying that investing in people is long-term at A. Lange & Sohne?
Our biggest asset at the company is not patents, buildings or machines – it is our people. I have at least two or three presentations of up to two hours long for our new people. And in these presentations, I explain a little bit about our collections, where we come from, etcetera. And I always end with this message: Look, you are really new but I want you to know that we see our team as the biggest asset this brand has. Without you, nothing is possible.
Now, as we spoke about before, we need even people who know how to finish parts; how to know to produce on the CNC machines; how to write the programs. To make watches, we need each one person, with each specific skill. Think of it as you would a mechanical movement: take out one pin or one wheel – what’s happening? Nothing happens. The movement is not running anymore and it’s the same thing for us as a team.
This is why we (it is frustrating to discuss) the watchmaker who handles complications as more special than a finishing specialist. There is a little bit of truth in it because it’s harder to get the complication job done – you need 10 to 15 years of experience. For finishing, maybe it’s easier because you only need one or two years. Regardless, you need both. We even need good people in our boutiques (to keep the movement of our business going, to use the same analogy). They are the ones who have to explain why there is a shortage of some watches…who have to work to maintain the goodwill of collectors.
On that note, you have a new Odysseus Chronograph and it is a true limited edition. That will take some explaining.
We have to be careful to always explain even that we are not artificially capping our production. In fact, we are fighting every day to have one watch more. Sure, we could make more Odysseus watches, but then we would have to make fewer Lange 1 watches etcetera. This is not what we want, so this means there are natural limitations. We should explain this better, in the sense that making more of one model means we will make fewer of another.
This article is published in the #69 Summer 2023 issue of WOW
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