A. Lange & Söhne Prioritizes U.S.

Wilhelm Schmid, ceo of the venerable watch company, visited Miami Beach, New York and Boston during a whirlwind weeklong trip.

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NEW YORK — Wilhelm Schmid, chief executive officer of the quiet, venerable watch company A. Lange & Söhne, visited the U.S. last week — a rare event for the 167-year-old brand. And there could be a lot more visits in the future.

This story first appeared in the June 25, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“This is one of the most important markets, and I’ve neglected it for too long,” Schmid told WWD of his reasons for visiting the U.S. during an interview at the Peninsula Hotel here while on a whirlwind weeklong trip to Miami Beach, New York and Boston. He was in town to exhibit the six new styles the brand unveiled at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, in January at an event last Tuesday at the Museum for German and Austrian Art Neue Galerie.

The trip reflected Schmid’s commitment to the American region — one he contends is of the utmost importance to the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned company.

Despite not having a freestanding door in the U.S. — the brand is carried in just 20 doors in North America — he said the demand for A. Lange & Söhne timepieces is still outrunning the brand’s manufacturing capacity. As a result, the company is about to increase capacity significantly, nearly doubling its current space in the Saxony, Dresden area of Germany (the manufacturing facility is in Glashutte, a village in the mountains near Dresden).

“We’ve outgrown our existing facility and increased capacity at our watchmaking school and we need space,” Schmid said of the staff headquarters, where about 200 of the 400 people on the production staff are trained watchmakers. “But I am carefully optimistic — I’m not naïve. There are so many bad signs on the wall, and eventually it might have an impact, but not yet. Our customer is more resilient against an economic crisis. So are we affected in the short term? No. In the long term? Maybe.”

WWD reported earlier this month that the market for European luxury goods will steadily grow between 7 and 9 percent a year, and according to a study conducted by the European Cultural and Creative Industries Alliance, or ECCIA, it’s estimated that luxury goods can contribute up to 983 billion euros, or $1.1 trillion, to the region’s economy.

But Schmid’s careful optimism morphed into the slightly vague when asked which region is the most significant businesswise for the company, emerging or otherwise. He rattled off six markets — Germany, Asia, the U.S., the Middle East, Singapore and Russia — stressing that this list is in no particular order.

Four of the brand’s five freestanding doors are located in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo, indicating the importance of the Far East. The first store opened in Dresden in 2008, and shops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai will open in September.

He dispelled the stereotype that the Asian consumer doesn’t like a “big watch.”

“That’s history. The playing ground is more leveled now,” he said, noting that the one difference he has observed is that the Asian consumer does not like a chronograph. “The U.S. loves them, and so does Europe, but they just don’t do well in Asia.”

Is there a freestanding door on the horizon for the U.S.? Perhaps one day, according to Schmid, who said he’s “always screening the market.” For him, it’s a balancing act not to jeopardize sales at the brand’s retail partners here, such as Wempe and Cellini.

It’s not a “numbers” game to Schmid, and opening new points of sale in the region isn’t a strategic decision. It’s more about going for the best doors and finding ideal locations, although he wouldn’t mind bolstering retail partnerships here.

“I don’t want to open too many [stores], and I don’t want to make mistakes,” Schmid said, seated beside the selection of newly introduced timepieces.

He finds it nearly impossible to choose the most innovative one, though.

“It’s not like a car, where a stronger engine means it’s a better or faster car. It’s more complicated than that,” he said of the about 70 styles (divided into five families) offered by the brand that range in retail price from just under $20,000 to $500,000.

Complicated indeed. Take the new Lange 1 Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar, whose movement is comprised of 624 movement parts — with functions that range from a tourbillon movement with patented stop-seconds mechanism to a calendar with outsize date, day of the week, month and leap year notifications.

Then there is the Lange 31, a $127,200 to $168,300 timepiece with a monthlong power reserve that the company released in 2008 — or even the $95,800 to $117,500 digital Lange Zeitwerk Striking Time that has discs that tell time mechanically. The latter has a power reserve of only 36 hours but the movement is very complicated.

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