28 October 2014
As the dust settles on the celebrations at A. Lange & Söhne, it’s clear that the company’s celebratory watch is a hit … albeit a low-key one at that. The gorgeous tourbillon issued to mark 20 years since the brand’s rebirth is so discreet, so subtle, that one can’t help but contrast the event with Patek Philippe’s 175th Anniversary gala a few days earlier.
It really is comparing like-with-like, and the speeches at Lange’s party even made reference to Patek Philippe as inspiring the reborn brand from Glashütte to aspire to the greatest heights. Both maisons threw impressive parties, catered to perfection, with attendance from the cream of the world’s watch community. Oh, and the press, too.
Both showed eye-popping films of their new watches. Both used massive rectangular venues with high ceilings, reminiscent of grand theatres. Both exhibited such achingly perfect taste that one felt like an unwashed interloper if one was not of the financial strata that defines their clients.
But then they diverge. Lange marked the occasion with a single model, of which only 20 will be issued, at around the €200,000 mark. Patek Philippe chose to issue an astounding Grand Complication, of which seven will be made and which carries a seven-figure price tag, along with a half-dozen less terrifying pieces.
Again, like-with-like: both companies produce watches that vie for the title of the World’s Finest, and arguing as to which is better would be like battling over Ornellaia vs Sassicaia. Personal preference is the final arbiter, rather than any qualitative measure. But perhaps the greatest division between the two is size.
Both companies are too discreet to issue numbers, but an educated guess would place Patek Philippe’s unit sales at roughly 10 times that of Lange’s. On a Venn diagram, Lange is closer in production volumes to the new wave brands than it is to the venerable brands in most closely resembles. And this puts it in a rather wonderful position, if sheer turnover matters less than prestige.
In a word: exclusivity. Patek Philippe manages to maintain its exclusivity because, relatively speaking, it is a small producer compared to, say, Rolex. Its prices ensure that it will never be mass market. For Lange, it’s the same, but with even greater rarity on its side … if such things matter. And to some, they do.
In an upcoming interview in Revolution with London gallery owner Tim Jefferies, a well-known watch connoisseur, he points out that all watch aficionados – indeed, all collectors – love owning something that few others can acquire, e.g. true one-offs, a.k.a. “pièces uniques”. Thus, if moved by the uncommon, you are far less likely to see a Lange & Söhne on someone’s wrist than a Patek Philippe. Yet it’s important to remember that quantity does not preclude quality, so I repeat: choosing between the two is never going to be simple.
But it’s all relative. Some years ago, when I interviewed Angelo Bonati, CEO of Panerai, I asked him, how can 45,000 watches per year be considered exclusive? He replied, “Because I can sell 46,000.”
To Lange and to Patek, Happy Birthday(s). And thanks for championing unbridled excellence in a world that worships mediocrity.