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Let’s Build a Time Machine

If you want a taste of what it’s like to be a watchmaker, attend the Connoisseur’s Akademie of A. Lange & Söhne.

As you step into the work area of a Connoisseur’s Akademie run by A. Lange & Söhne, you feel, before everything else, a sense of composure and exactitude. There is a perceptible hush over everything—not exactly the sort you would find in a sacred place, but close to it. Even breathing too hard seems gauche amidst the immaculately arranged workstations, the precision tools, and definitely the stunning Lange movements and complications on display.

“It’s not possible for everybody to come to Glashütte and see where our watches are built, and how we build the watches,” explained Herr Robert Hoffman, veteran watchmaker and the head of A. Lange & Söhne’s Zeitwerk department, at the start of the workshop. “So, it’s important for us to transfer this knowledge, and to let people see the tools and our movements all over the world.”

The Connoisseur’s Akademie is conducted in countless locations worldwide by A. Lange & Söhne’s watchmakers, giving watch enthusiasts and laypersons alike the chance to learn what it means to build and appreciate precision timepieces. While it does serve as a vehicle for the brand to showcase its current collections, the emphasis remains firmly on the learning and on underscoring the essential principles of watchmaking.

All eighteen of us guests that afternoon were appropriately equipped with lab coats, finger gloves, and watchmaking loupes. Thus garbed, we learned the basics of watchmaking from Hoffman before he guided us through our main purpose for being there: to learn how to assemble a basic movement. Not a Lange movement just yet, Hoffman explained, but an ETA movement, to allow us to better grasp the fundamentals.

For over an hour, we each painstakingly assembled our individual ETA movements at our padded, pristine workstations, noting how everything needed to balance, to fit together just so, in a process that was as exacting as it was enlightening. There was a growing sense of marvel (and anxiety, to be honest) with each delicate, near-microscopic piece we added to our movements.

By the time we were done, though, able to turn our winding stems and see the wheels turn gracefully under the bridges to the satisfying rhythm of the clicks engaging with the ratchet wheels, we were humbled and in awe of the commitment and proficiency required to be a proper watchmaker.

“It’s a very interesting job, being a watchmaker. It has a lot of different sides,” Hoffman pointed out. “You have to think very technical, you have to calculate certain things. You need very still hands, you have to be very patient, and you need passion as well. It’s fun to do, and it never gets boring, because complicated movements, every single movement is unique. Not all of the movements are the same, especially with Lange.”

After the Connoisseur’s Akademie workshop wound down with a breathtaking rundown of the 2018 collection (including a look at one of their latest technological marvels, the Triple Split), Hoffman entertained the two biggest questions the workshop spawned in my mind:

How does one become a watchmaker, and is it too late to start as an adult?

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“If somebody really wants to become a watchmaker, you first need to apply for watchmaking school,” Hoffman stated good-naturedly. “There are different watchmaking schools in Switzerland, in Germany, in England. Of course, you have to be good, and if you are good, you can progress in your career as a watchmaker.”

As for the age barrier, apparently there isn’t one: “We have young watchmakers who started at the age of 16, like myself, and we have watchmakers who are 30, 40, and sometimes we even have people who were already 42 when they started their apprenticeship. You can start basically at any age. You still need good eyesight, you need steady hands, of course, that’s very important.”

Watches are so commonplace today that it’s easy to take for granted just how much goes into the best precision timepieces—not just in terms of engineering and style, but passion and commitment as well. Those very human qualities are best seen through an eyeglass while observing complications, Hoffman reminds everyone who attends a Connoisseur’s Akademie, and given the chance, we should always strive to see the timeless beauty that a profession as unique and as complex as watchmaking can create.

Judging from the liveliness and enthusiasm that we departed the work area with, in contrast to our initial hush of uncertainty, we all agreed wholeheartedly.

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