Warm Glow: A. Lange & Söhne’s Connection to “German Silver”



A. Lange & Söhne pocket watch no. 17534 with a three-quarter plate in German silver

The editor of this magazine discovered a little-known fact about A. Lange & Söhne recently: it has a unique machine in the basement of the manufacture in Glashütte that no other firm has. Developed by the brand and the university in Dresden, this is effectively a washing machine, but it does not keep the staff in pristine white overcoats. Instead of clothes, this specific washing machine cleans German silver parts. All this invites plenty of questions, the first of which should be what exactly is German silver anyway? Well, it is not silver and it is not really German, but it is a hallmark of Glashütte watchmaking, and of A. Lange & Söhne in particular.

To begin with, what we call German silver has a number of names, of which these are just a few: nickel silver, maillechort, argentan, albata and alpaca. Some of those might be familiar to watch nerds, but how about “pakfong,” or perhaps “paktong?” This name hints at where this alloy was first used: Qing Dynasty China. It was known in Europe by the 16th century, thanks to an aggressive trade in the material for use in making cutlery and, eventually, in micromechanics. We know from A. Lange & Söhne’s meticulous records that Ferdinand Adolph Lange (pictured right) was using German silver for pocket watch calibre parts by the 1850s.

A variety of decorations on movement parts in German silver from the contemporary collection

As you might know, brass and steel were already widely used in watchmaking at this point, but F.A. Lange had good reasons for choosing German silver. More on that a bit later because we still have to tell you why the alloy is so-named. By the 18th century, manufacturers had realised that the material imported from China was really an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc; today the formula in industrial applications is copper (60 percent), nickel (20 percent) and zinc (20 percent), and it still bears a striking, if superficial, resemblance to silver. The business of making this alloy was a deeply German affair, with foundries in Suhl, Thuringia able to make an approximation by 1770. In 1823, the German Confederation (the successor state to the Holy Roman Empire) sought to perfect and standardize the production of German silver. It held a competition to achieve this goal, with the manufacturer Berndorf eventually becoming famous for its version of German silver, trademarked as Alpacca.

Coming back to Glashütte and F.A. Lange, the legendary watchmaker recognised the virtues of German silver for his movements. The alloy was just as easy to decorate as brass but marginally harder, while also being more resistant to tarnishing and corrosion. It also has a natural sheen to it, and thus it did not need to be gilded as brass did. Like brass, German silver also develops a patina over time, but in a gentler and more elegant manner. In short, the material proved just right to be the canvas – the now-famous three-quarter plate – for A. Lange & Söhne to literally shine. A. Lange & Söhne uses untreated German silver for its parts and these are easily blemished, especially at the machining stage. It also means that the watchmakers have to be extra cautious, hence the manufacture is obliged to do its famous double-assembly of movements.

Tino Bobe, Director of the Manufacture, explains why the brand goes to such lengths: “German silver is part of all our manufacture calibres, amounting to more than 70 that have been developed and built since the re-establishment of A. Lange & Söhne. Hence, its consistent usage is typical of the Lange way of crafting watches. It underscores our commitment to never take the easiest path but always the one that leads us to the best result. For the benefit of quality, aesthetics, and functionality of our movements, we
are prepared to invest the utmost artisanal effort – with a view to German silver but also far beyond.”

This article first appeared on WOW’s Spring 2024 issue.

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