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VIEW FROM THE TOP: A. Lange & Söhne chief Wilhelm Schmid shifts the brand into steel sports watches

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A. Lange & Söhne surprised the watch collecting community late last year with the launch of its first ever luxury sports watch, the Odysseus, in a steel case with matching bracelet no less. Predictably, it generated significant buzz on social media, with seasoned collectors and novices alike chiming in to debate the new model’s merits. Or air their grievances. Whilst not perhaps as polarizing as some might have anticipated, this new model has certainly split opinion. Is it a not so subtle attempt to capitalize on the red-hot market trend for steel watches with blue dials, which is showing no signs of abating? Or is it a key step in a longer-term plan for the German watch manufacturer? In London to promote the new model, WatchPro sat down with A. Lange & Söhne Managing Director, Wilhelm Schmid, to try and get answers to these questions and more.

The term game-changer often feels like an over-used cliché, but it seems somewhat appropriate when describing the launch of the new Odysseus model by A. Lange & Söhne. As the first, serially-produced steel watch ever to issue forth from the high-end German watch manufacturer, it would seem to signal a not insignificant change in strategy. Mr. Schmid, however, suggests that the genesis of this new collection is a little less dramatic than that.

“A lot of our customers told me, “We love your watches! We wear them all the time. However, when we go on a holiday and want to undertake sporty activities, we cannot wear it.” That got us thinking — actually we thought about it for many years: if we can’t offer them something for what we believe is the most important and most precious time of the year, we had better work on that.”

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The issue, it seems, is the fact that Lange watches are traditionally worn on leather straps and feature cases made from precious metals. Two characteristics that have made (and continue to make) them highly attractive to collectors, but that do not necessarily lend themselves to outdoor activities, like hiking or swimming. This of course is not news to Lange. The idea of making a more casual steel watch was first floated decades ago by the late Günter Blümlein, the industry veteran who played an instrumental role in helping Walter Lange revive the brand in the 1990s. Lacking a clear way to execute to Lange’s high standards, however, the idea was shelved.

That changed in early 2015, when Mr Schmid set his team of designers and engineers to work to find a solution to this repeated request from valued customers. It would be nearly five years, though, before they were finally ready to bring something to market; evidence of Lange’s famously uncompromising approach to quality and a willingness to wait until they have something right before releasing it.

As it turns out, the end result wasn’t quite what anyone expected – not that anyone was really expecting a luxury steel sports watch from the German manufacturer in the first place. Although, Mr Schmid challenges the categorization of the Odysseus in this way. “I do struggle with the term sports watch – simply because it is not. We actually call it a sporty-elegant watch.”

 

 

 

And, to be fair, he has a point. At 40.5mm x 11.1mm high, the steel case of the Odysseus is ideally sized for relaxed wear. Yet, it is clear an incredible amount of attention has been paid to every individual aspect of the case. From the highly polished and slightly curved bezel, to the brushed case middle, to the polished chamfered edges. Sitting on either side of the screw-down crown are pushers responsible for adjusting the calendar indications on the dial. Rather than sticking out like traditional pushers though, they are cleverly integrated into the design so as not to affect comfort on the wrist. These, along with the crown, are sealed with special gaskets to ensure a water resistance rating of 12 ATM (120m), the highest ever for a Lange timepiece.

Likewise, multiple finishing techniques lend the stepped dial a sense of sophistication not often seen in watches belonging to this category. These include a grained texture in the centre, a concentric pattern on the hours and seconds chapter rings, and a metallic brushed surface on the minute flange.

Hours and minutes are displayed centrally by luminous hands, with running seconds shown on a dedicated sub-dial at six o’clock. Large, faceted, polished applied markers filled with a fine line of luminous material denote the hours. Drawing inspiration from the iconic digital display of the Zeitwerk collection, the day of the week and Lange’s classic out-size date appear in large apertures at 9 and 3 o’clock respectively. These are jumping indications, meaning they change instantaneously.

 

 

Inside is the new Calibre L155.1 Datomatic, tailor-made from the ground up for this specific model. Measuring a case-filling 32.9mm in diameter and comprised of 312 parts, the movement beats at a frequency of 4Hz (28,800 vph). This is faster than most Lange movements, which tend to operate at 3Hz.

The reason for this is that the increased beat rate will provide greater stability to the balance if and when it experiences shocks. For example, if you wear the watch while playing tennis or golf.

To optimize the performance of the movement relative to the higher frequency, Lange’s engineers designed a new escapement system. It’s regulated with four countersunk poising screws, which sit flush with the outside of the balance-wheel rim. This design reduces turbulence despite the higher frequency.

Together with the freely oscillating balance spring made in-house, the minimized air resistance should have a positive impact on the movement’s rate accuracy and energy efficiency. As you would expect, finishing of the movement is to Lange’s exacting standards.

The watch is worn on a steel bracelet created specifically for this model. At first glance it looks like an integrated bracelet, a popular design choice in this genre. Yet, closer inspection reveals the presence of curved lugs, meaning you could theoretically put the Odysseus on a leather or even rubber strap, although Mr. Schmid remains tight-lipped on what future variations might look like.

The steel bracelet is closed via a deployant buckle, which features an integrated pusher embossed with the Lange signature. Gently pressing on the pusher allows you to adjust the length of the strap up to 7mm without having to open the buckle or take the watch off your wrist.

Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the new model from Lange. In fact, many took to social media immediately to share their less than glowing first impressions. It is worth noting though, that it appeared almost none of the most vocal critics had actually seen the watch in person prior to forming an opinion. This is the reality of the world we live in today though, and Mr Schmid remains rather philosophical about it all, saying: “I honestly think you cannot come up with something new, something you never did before and expect everybody to just say ‘hip-hip hooray’…if it had been a ‘hip-hip hooray’ from the beginning I would have been worried because that usually means there’s nothing with longevity in it. I think the Odysseus will grow on the customer. As it will grow with us. Of course, there will always be some people who do not like change or evolution, and that is completely fine. But I know for sure — so far at least — that the majority of our customers like it a lot.”

At $28,800, the Odysseus sits in the ballpark of other more established luxury sports watches, although some challenge its lack of legitimacy in this category. Not that Lange seems too concerned by that, and arguably nor should they. Others, meanwhile, were hoping this new steel sports watch would offer a more accessible entry-point into the brand. But that was never the intention of the Odysseus, as Mr Schmid explains: “If you take the time to carefully examine what we do, you will very soon come to the conclusion that building this watch is challenging. So it is not intended as an entrance to the brand.”

Of course, one could make the argument that given the extremely low production quantities anticipated on the new Odysseus, Lange doesn’t need to win any popularity contests for it to be a success. A fact that Mr Schmid is quick to confirm. “Don’t expect us to produce large numbers of this watch. We simply don’t have the capacity for it. Even though it has a steel case and a bracelet, inside it has the same production limitations that we have with all our other watches.”

It’s not much of a leap therefore to see that the Odysseus is likely destined to become one of the brand’s most sought after models. Interestingly though, despite the obvious appeal of the watch (to collectors and speculators alike), Lange is not just making it available exclusively through its own boutiques. They will be the first to receive their allocation due to the limited production quantities but eventually the Odysseus will be available through the brand’s retail partners as well.

This speaks to Lange’s larger approach to its distribution network. Whilst other brands are consolidating their retail partners or cutting them out altogether in favour of a monobrand boutique approach, Lange continues to pursue a multi-prong strategy. If there is a business case to be made for opening a stand-alone boutique, then this will be reviewed thoroughly. It is not a decision taken lightly by the brand and there is always a preference to grow together with existing partners. Such as is the case with Wempe in London, and Brudeen’s in Chicago, which have opened Lange boutiques.

“I do see an appetite of customers to go to [Lange] boutiques,” explains Mr. Schmid, “But I also know in certain parts of the world, multi-franchise is their preferred system. And to be honest, I look at what the customer wants, and how best to reach out to the customer. So, I think we will see these different business models for a long, long time. But I also believe the number of [Lange] boutiques will grow.”

About the author: Tom Mulraney is a 10-year veteran of the watch industry. He is the publisher and editor of The Watch Lounge, a digital magazine with a unique take on the world of luxury watches. www.thewatchlounge.com

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Rob Corder

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