Wilhelm Schmid came aboard as CEO of the German luxury watch brand A. Lange & Sohne in January 2011 after eight years in senior sales and marketing positions at BMW. Recently, WatchTime sat down with Schmid at the New York City offices of Lange’s parent company, the Richemont Group, for a conversation about his growth plans for Lange, his passion for watches, and the challenges of keeping the brand’s flagship Lange 1 model fresh while retaining its classical look.
WT: You came to watches from the luxury automobile business. How are the two businesses similar and how are they different?
WS: Frankly, even when you think you know about an industry, it’s can actually be quite different. I was passionate about watches, but that didn’t qualify me to be in the watch industry. I think the industries do share a few similarities. I’d like to believe that many people who invest a lot of money in cars also like watches. So, from a customer perspective, I can identify some kind of common ground. But if you take a look at the manufacturing process in the car industry, it’s greatly different, much more about industrialization, whereas [with watches] we are very much about the art of manual craftsmanship.
WT: Both BMW and Lange are German companies. “German engineering” is a phrase that means a lot when it comes to cars. In your view, is it your mission to attach that same reputation to watchmaking?
WS: I don’t see it that way, per se. Germany is regarded as the finest for the car industry and Switzerland the finest for the watch industry. I think there are probably 4,000 people working in the watch industry in Germany, while BMW alone has in excess of 100,000 employees. So, to make that kind of a statement is, I think, a bit ambitious.
WT: So you’re comfortable with German watches having more of a niche following?
WS: You raise an interesting point. Is there “Swiss watchmaking?” I don’t think so, because in Switzerland you have the Patek Philippes and the Vacheron Constantins and you also have brands that produce 250-euro quartz watches. The same goes for Germany. You have people that assemble watches that sell for 100 euros, while our cheapest watch costs 14,200 euros. I don’t think that one nationality is more qualified than another to make watches, as long as it has the proper training and engineering background. You need a culture of craftsmen and artisans, and I believe that in Germany, we are rich in that.
WT: How did your passion for fine watches develop?
WS: Well, my first watch wasn’t a Lange & Söhne, because I bought it at age 17, and I had never heard of Lange during those days because it was nonexistent. I was very happy with the watch — not mentioning any brand names. Unfortunately, I would love to say I still have it, but it was stolen along with a car that I owned back in the late ’90s. I was at a lake, swimming, and I didn’t want to carry the watch because it was not waterproof and I didn’t want it lying around while I was in the lake. So I put it in the trunk of the car — a BMW 5201, brand-new, only six months old — never considering that the car itself might get stolen. I never saw the watch or the car again.
WT: Being relatively new in the position, and having looked at the collection and the business in general, which of the families do you see are doing well as they are and which in your opinion might need some attention from a creative or marketing perspective?
WS: That’s a very difficult question for me, for two reasons. The first is the demand is so strong for all the watches, regardless of what we produce. So how do we evaluate which is the most sought-after watch? We literally have no stock. Whatever is through the testing and is ready for transport goes into the shops. And when I visit the shops, I don’t find any of the watches. The second reason why I can’t answer the question properly is that people would assume immediately what we’re working on and spoil the surprise at next year’s SIHH!
WT: Fair enough. Obviously, the Lange 1, which I think most would consider the flagship of the brand, has influenced the look of other watches, German and otherwise. How do you approach the challenge of keeping that family fresh and new while still keeping its classic look?
WS: I think the Lange 1 models that we launched at this year’s SIHH — like the Lange 1 Tourbillon perpetual calendar — are a perfect example of how we carefully work on an icon, helping it to become even more recognizable without making the original one look old or moving away from what you’d typically perceive as a Lange 1 design. On the other hand, I think it’s amazing that the classical Lange 1 has been untouched since 1994. There’s no good reason to change that watch because the likelihood is much higher that you actually worsen it than gain anything with it. I think it’s a perfect example of a design that’s timeless and iconic. Of course it is being copied; we have to live with that. If somebody wants the real thing, he know where to find us. Those that are copying us, if you look to the design of their dials, you will not find the perfect triangle that you can find on our watches, which gives it a symmetry even though it’s a very asymmetric watch. I’m very happy with the Lange 1 family. The Grande Lange 1, for which we changed the proportions but made it flatter and more elegant, is another example of how to evolve an icon without destroying it.