Desire for distinction
We catch up with A. Lange & Söhne CEO, Wilhelm Schmid, to discuss cars, craftsmanship and the next generation of watch connoisseurs
From the moment Wilhelm Schmid took the role of CEO at A. Lange & Söhne in early 2011, he was entrusted with further developing the famous German brand. No easy task, given his background was in the automotive industry and that he was joining at a time when the luxury watchmaking industry appeared under threat from the push towards a digital age. While these challenges may have been daunting to many, Schmid simply saw them as a minor hurdle to be overcome.
And several years since his appointment, A. Lange & Söhne is developing more complications than ever before and expanding its network of boutiques around the world. But how has the son of a car distributor and a former BMW executive managed to excel in the world of horology? “In retrospect, I would say that my background in the car industry was the best preparation for my current position,” explains Schmid. “This is because hardly any sector is more effective than the automotive industry in managing a global brand with an emotional appeal that builds on heritage, innovation, performance and design. “For me, watches and cars go together seamlessly. It is not without reason that so many watch lovers are also car enthusiasts and vice versa.
At first sight, it seems that the fascination with them is rooted in their functionality, but what they have in common goes deeper. “Collectors often say that the most exciting aspect of cars and watches is the human factor: who designed the body or the case, who is the mastermind behind the engine or the movement, who was the previous owner of a particular treasure and, ultimately, where can I meet kindred spirits who share the same passion? “My love of motoring was handed down to me by my father and for as long as I can remember, I have seen watches as a natural complement to cars. Therefore, it was a stroke of luck when I was approached by A. Lange & Söhne because it allowed me to turn a hobby into a career.”
With a background in the automotive industry, it is perhaps unsurprising that Schmid is unconcerned with the trend towards people purchasing smartwatches. Much in the same way car enthusiasts are still prepared to pay huge sums for stripped back performance vehicles that are largely handcrafted, luxury watch collectors seek complicated movements that require the work of skilful artisans.
“I am convinced that if the current trend towards digitisation continues, and there is no good reason why it shouldn’t, there will still be an ongoing demand for fine mechanical timepieces, simply because they stimulate the mind and fulfil the desire for distinction, timeless beauty and lasting value,” says Schmid. “High-end mechanical watches are built and designed to last virtually forever, whereas most digital technologies that we engage with in everyday life will be obsolete by the time a mechanical watch receives its first service. The key to success is to know and understand the customer and his or her needs, and to never sit back and rest on what has been achieved.”
However, this does not mean that Schmid and his team are not looking at strategies when it comes to marketing A. Lange & Söhne to a younger audience. Traditionally, luxury brands relied almost solely on advertising on billboards or in magazines, but slowly they have begun to embrace a range of digital platforms, with Instagram proving particularly popular. The prominent ‘watchanish’ account run by Anish Bhatt, who brands himself a “horology and luxury digital influencer”, has 1.7 million followers and often features the most exclusive timepieces. Such is the popularity of his account that some of his wealthy followers will enter boutiques and purchase a watch simply after seeing it featured on their timeline. While this may be a rare occurrence, Schmid realises that the purchasing habits of customers are beginning to change. “We should keep in mind that the ‘digital natives’ are now in their twenties and will eventually appear as buyers of high-end watches in a several years’ time,” he says. “The current challenges lie mainly in the entry-level segment.
I see much progress here, especially in the development of new product concepts. Based on experience, I am confident that the industry will use all the creativity and technical know-how at their disposal to come up with exciting new ideas. “But in our market segment, the vast majority of customers want to sense, feel and touch the watch before they buy it. They come to our boutiques and retailers to seek personal advice, see how it looks on their wrist and buy it locally. I would not rule out that the purchasing habits may eventually change. But when they do, we will be prepared.” While Schmid is ready to tackle this almost inevitable shift, one aspect that will never change is that the German timepiece manufacturer will continue to produce elegant watches that contain exceptional movements.
The brand takes a great deal of pride in connoisseurs being able to identify an A. Lange & Söhne movement at first sight and the latest collection, launched in January at SIHH in Switzerland, perfectly showcases this meticulous attention to detail. “The distinctiveness and quality of our movements have the highest priority for us. After all, this is the backbone of our business model and the foundation of our success,” adds Schmid. “Finding the right balance between complexity and aesthetics is a key requirement for every new development. That is why our product and calibre designers work hand in hand right from the beginning.
“When it comes to design, we don’t want to be flashy. We rather respect our principles and take it from there. A new dial colour like the pink-gold dial of the 2019 DATOGRAPH PERPETUAL TOURBILLON must match our colour palette and a date display for the ZEITWERK must blend into the very specific dial layout. Ultimately, with movements decorated and assembled by hand, every A. Lange & Söhne watch is a truly unique piece.”
Discover more at the A. Lange & Söhne boutique in The Dubai Mall 04 3253923