On the Road to Lake Como



Photographer: Ben Gierig
A. Lange & Söhne Como
Wei Koh, Alexander Kraft and Philip Rathgen with Wilhelm Schmid and Andrew Hildreth in the background

Sometime in my mid-forties, as a result of constant non-stop 24/7/365 travel, and some small but powerful shift in brain chemistry, I stopped doing things. I stopped meeting people and became largely misanthropic. Which means to paraphrase the great thespian Mickey Rourke in the seminal film Barfly, it’s not that I hate people, “I just feel better when they are not around”. And, while John Donne’s oft quoted saying goes, “No man is an island”, I began to feel a profound emotional affinity for lone bodies of land surrounded on all sides by water.

As opposed to Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy, if I were an island I would not want to be Ibiza. I hate crowds, detest the sun and do not like music created after 1988, which coincides with the release of Straight Outta Compton, whilst the charmingly provincial habit of spraying mediocre champagne drives me to near homicidal rage. I would rather have bamboo driven beneath my fingernails and be lit on fire than find myself in Ibiza surrounded by assorted Veuve Cliquot spewing vulgarians and troglodytes that litter its shores like human detritus. If I were an island, I’d be like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude erected on a barren tundra so remote that no man, woman or child would be capable of accessing my inner recesses, its silhouette like a raised middle finger against the bleak sky.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
Wei Koh and Alexander Kraft driving a Mercedes 280SL

I’d like to be St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides where even the scant 36 inhabitants had enough in 1930, shouted “screw this”, and collectively packed up and deserted this most remote island in the British Archipelago. I would of course arrange for airdrops of Sylvain Cathiard and Comte Liger-Belair Vosne-Romanée, Partagas Maduro No. 1s, tins of Iranian caviar and the collected works of erotic literary greatness by Anaïs Nin. Give me a dog, a wily border collie and my wardrobe of bespoke finery, the collected works of Charles Bukowski, my 1967 Triumph TR6C and an ample supply of petrol for scouting the precarious shores, a .50 calibre Barrett sniper rifle, a few decent watches and I’d be fine. Goodbye humanity. I’ve had it. You can go fxxk yourself.

So, it was with some amount of trepidation that I accepted the invitation proffered by A. Lange & Söhne’s Head of Communications, the steadfast Arnd Einhorn, to join a small group of gentlemen accompanying CEO Wilhelm Schmid to drive in vintage cars from Munich to Lake Como where we would attend the world’s most famous vintage car show, the Concorso d’Eleganza, which is held at the stupendous Villa d’Este. To be honest the invitation has a lot going for it. Driving in vintage cars sounded like picturesque and civilised fun, and you’d have to have your soul amputated not to be deeply moved by the majesty and beauty of Lake Como, while attending the Concorso meant bearing witness to some of the most enthralling works of automotive art.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
A Mercedes 190SL and an AC Bristol took part in the road to Como.
A. Lange & Söhne Como

True Great

In addition, I’ve always liked Wilhelm Schmid and have had an immense respect for the sheer aesthetic originality and technical prowess of A. Lange & Söhne. Much of this is thanks to two extraordinary horological heroes that were behind the resurrection of the brand in 1994. The first is Walter Lange, the heir to the eponymous marque who tragically passed away this January. The other is one of the greatest geniuses of the watch industry, Günter Blümlein who, upon the reunification of Germany, decided he wanted to reposition Saxon (read East German) watchmaking at a heretofore never-achieved level to rival the mighty Genevois juggernauts – namely Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin – that ruled the day.

What he achieved was breathtaking to behold, unleashing an unceasing cannon salvo of the most ethereal horoloigical marvels by tapping the watchmaking geniuses that had laboured in silence in the state-run watchmaking collective named the GUB during communist rule. Because what he realised was that mechanical watchmaking in East Germany unlike Switzerland had never been affected by the rise of quartz watches, and the savoir faire and knowledge for all things mechanical still resided within the vibrant minds and deft hands of those who laboured indefatigably there.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
A Lange & Söhne’s CEO Wilhelm Schmid prepares his AC Bristol for the trip

Soon he’d launched the Lange 1, a watch with a distinctly asymmetric dial and the world’s first grande date mechanism, inspired by the five-minute clock at Dresden’s Opera House. The watch professed its double-barrelled status proudly with the declaration “dopplefederhaus” on the dial, which in more light-hearted collector circles led to a delighted comparison to fellow German export Heidi Klum and her gravity-defying décolletage. Everything, the untreated German silver (which would stain irreparably with the single touch of the human hand) bridges and plates, the hand-engraved balance cock the black polished swan neck regulator, the chatons – the gold sleeves held in place with flame-blued screws and in which jewels are fitted – defined an all-new horological language that the world had never seen. And my God, it was mesmerising in its ambition.

Grand Lange 1 in yellow gold
The Grand Lange 1 in yellow gold

Next came the Datograph, the child of watchmaking demigoddess Annegret Fleischer, the world’s first “in-house” laterally-coupled, column-wheel operated chronograph movement featuring a grande date as well as a precise jumping-minute counter at a time when Patek and Vacheron were content to rely on a 1940s-era Lemania movement. I’ll put it this way: anyone that loves truth, that loves authenticity and that loves originality is destined to love Lange.

Particularly moving is the reposed purity of the dial configuration contrasted with the mesmerising and seductive depth of the movement details. At a time when most brands were still fumbling in high-complication darkness, Lange launched Blümlein’s masterpiece: the tourbillon with chain-and-fusee, a first in wristwatches and understatedly named the Pour Le Mérite.

So moved was he upon setting eyes upon the Lange Datograph that the man considered to be watchmaking’s greatest living master of finishing, and the first human being to create a grande & petite sonnerie wristwatch, the ever fastidious Philippe Dufour, reached into his own pocket to buy one. When asked about his watch, he expressed with heady admiration: “The hands of those women in Germany [referring to Lange watchmakers, the majority of which are women] they are touched with genius.”

A. Lange & Söhne Datograph with flyback chronograph
The A. Lange & Söhne Datograph with flyback chronograph
Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” in platinum with enamel dial
The Richard Lange “Pour le Mérite” in platinum with enamel dial
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como

Wacky Races

On a jog through the park in Munich with Schmid, we reminisced about Lange’s history even as we discussed the origins of his brand’s association with the Concorso d’Eleganza. He responded with a chuckle: “Well, my predecessor decided to sponsor the Salzburg Music Festival, but it quickly dawned on me that there could be another way to reach a new audience that better fit the identity of Lange.” His diplomacy had me laughing as I replied: “I get what you’re saying Wilhelm – honestly the idea of having to attend the Salzburg Music Festival fills me with dread. I would rather hit myself in the face with a ball-peen hammer than attend the operatic rarities and symphonies that it comprises of.”

As it turns out, another reason for the association with the Concorso is Schmid’s incredible breadth of knowledge about all things vintage-car related, as well as his genuine enthusiasm for both collecting – he brought along his own classic AC Bristol – and driving, which he is much more than capable at. I get it. Lange is about substance. It’s about innovation. It’s about authenticity and in the car world there is no beauty competition that unites these values more than the Concorso. And the assembled guests were the perfect audience to transmit the extraordinary authenticity of Lange.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
(From left) Wei Koh, Philip Rathgen, Wilhelm Schmid and Andrew Hildreth
A. Lange & Söhne Como
Wilhelm Schmid and Andrew Hildreth

But my one concern was who would be the group of guys on the drive. Because anyone that’s got even the slightest notion of social anthropology or has read Lord of the Flies understands that on a three-day drive through remote mountain passes the guy that begins as slightly irritating at its onset is going to end up buried in some remote, desolate grave at altitude or flung out of a car door and down a ravine. That’s just the way the group dynamic works. Hell, it could even be me buried face down if things went wrong.

The mystery of who my fellow drivers were was unveiled to me just before the welcome dinner the night before the drive. And miraculously the group comprising of Alexander Kraft, President of Sotheby’s Realty France, the sartorial rock star often featured in the pages of my other magazine The Rake, Johann “Philip” Rathgen, the editor of Classic Driver and judge at the Concorso, and Andrew Hildreth who was once the moderator of the Richard Mille forum at ThePuristS.com. So fantastic was their company that in the end the experience of driving with them may have damn well restored my faith in humanity.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
Wei Koh, Alexander Kraft and Philip Rathgen with Wilhelm Schmid and Andrew Hildreth in the background
A. Lange & Söhne Como
From start to finish, the A. Lange & Söhne road trip was the ultimate showcase for travelling in style

Interestingly, though our paths had crossed innumerable times, this was the first time I had actually spent a significant amount of time with Alexander – soon bestowed with the sobriquet Krafty – and our affinity for all things civilised as well as our shared penchant for toilet humour rapidly cemented our friendship. Philip with his booming, commanding voice, larger-than-life persona and extraordinary knowledge on anything and everything related to cars, watches and tailoring was an invigorating balm to the group. I quickly marvelled at the sheer depth of brilliance of Hildreth. He was a math professor until one day he was called up by a law firm representing one major credit company against a group of other credit companies. When asked if he could do the math to demonstrate the former had been taken advantage of by the latter he simply said, “yes”, and shortly after secured a $1.5 billion settlement for his firm’s client.

Basically, if I was going to rob a museum or a casino or dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme or implant a behaviour modification chip under Donald Trump’s wig, it is these guys that I would want to do it with. Because we’d get all this done while having fantastic meals, cigars and wine accompanied by ribald, esoteric and wildly entertaining experiences.

The trip through the winding alps from Germany to Switzerland to Italy was stellar. Accompanied by scenic picnics with dirndl-clad fräuleins, a trip to the artisanal Zai ski factory and an incredible helicopter ride to the top of a snow-covered Swiss mountain. Never one to read the itinerary, I wore my Rubinacci Gurkha shorts throughout all of this. The trip offered valuable lessons such as never try to overtake a tour bus uphill in a Mercedes 190SL; you might as well be riding a donkey on cold medication.

The Driving Seat

One of the best moments of the trip was acting as Schmid’s navigator – the tour book soon abandoned for Google Maps – as he raced to get to Lake Como to be in time for a dinner to welcome his VIP customers. As he ably put his AC through its paces I learned of his general disdain for other German drivers (every time traffic came to a grinding halt it was due to someone with a Teutonic licence plate put-putting along) and that in general Porsche drivers are considered in Europe to be massive dicks – made abundantly clear when a convoy of them decided to overtake the car in front of us on a blind corner with near disastrous results, and about his deep passion for all things Lange. We got a kick discussing the famous steel Lange 1 – one of which would later appear on my friend Hodinkee-founder Ben Clymer’s wrist at Lake Como – of which apparently 20 or so had been made for Orologia Pisa in Milan. In addition, there was one steel Double Split and one steel Pour le Mérite in existence.

Lange occupies enviable real estate in the horological world, because a major shift has occurred in the global luxury universe. The era of logo-oriented flashy marketing and big branding has begun to wane as consumers – and this includes the new generation of mainland Chinese consumers – are casting their eyes toward authentic, artisanal craft-based companies with understated charm. And perhaps no brand in modern watchmaking expresses this better than Lange. Just before the trip we were brought to the Lange boutique in Munich to witness the unveiling of a new 1815 chronograph, a monochromatic masterpiece with white-gold case and black dial, which is a perfect expression of the brand’s understated charm.

“In addition,” explained Schmid, “we are a brand that possesses at least three of the great iconic watches of our era. The Lange 1, the Datograph and I would even say the Zeitwerk.” For those of you who don’t know, have been living in a cave lifting rocks with your dicks or freshly returned from a decade of transcendental meditation, the Zeitwerk is a watch with all digital display, the ultimate evolution of the grande date mechanism created by Blümlein used now for time telling. But because of the dip in amplitude caused by activating the watches digital indication it utilises a constant-force mechanism derived from the one featured in the Lange 31, which is, believe it or not, a watch with one huge-ass barrel that runs consistently for 31 days.

Arriving in Como, you can’t help but be dazzled by the stunning emerald water and the larger-than-life James Bond film set architecture. In particular Villa del Balbianello, where scenes from Casino Royale were shot, is so otherworldly beautiful that you have to pause occasionally to ensure you’re not having some stunningly-appointed, Prosecco-induced hallucination. Last owned by Guido Monzino, a man reputed for expeditions to Everest and the intelligence to never get married, Villa del Balbianello has become a popular spot for weddings. One thing to note is that for those of you too overcome by shyness to ask for a prenuptial agreement, Villa del Balbianello is not consecrated ground and, therefore, your marriage there is not legally binding: a fact that could have a hilarious comedic pay-off if you should ever discover your wife in bed with her tennis teacher. “Well guess what honey, I got a surprise for you too.”

A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
Friendships forged through a mutual love of fine cars and watches were sealed in Como with cocktails and cigars

The days and nights at Lake Como, ensconced in the nurturing womb of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo drinking Aperol Spritz, were halcyon. Elevating things to ever more ethereal heights was the arrival of Krafty’s wife Sibylle and my dear friend Shary Rahman and his wife Anouk replete with their Lange 1 tourbillon and Datograph perpetual calendar. At Villa d’Este the cars were sublime. Except for the Blower Bentley formerly owned by Tim Birkin and purchased from Dorothy Paget by the great watchmaker George Daniels that has become the property of a German businessman clearly in league with the dark lord Satan. What was said German’s crime? As pointed out by both Rathgen and Hildreth, he’s taken it upon himself to falsely patina a car that already was beyond a shining example of true patina, a British national treasure having set the lap record at Brooklands.

But this aside, I cannot think of a better time I’ve had in the past decade. So, I may not be Ibiza but I might not be St Kilda after all. In fact, I may not be an island at all. Thanks to my new perspective I think I would be the isolated peninsular that Marconi’s Villa del Balbianello sits on. I might not welcome everyone, but affable, elegantly-countenanced female models and the companions on my trip would always be greeted by my doors flung wide open. And in the study of my villa, the watches would be Langes.

A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como
A. Lange & Söhne Como