Timeless watches In conversation with Astrid Stüger-Hübner

Viennese master watchmaker tradition for over 100 years. How Astrid Stüger-Hübner got her first wristwatch and what makes watches so special.

Michael Sicher: We are at your store located on Wiener Graben, number 28, and are looking back on a master watchmaker tradition since 1914. It all started with a small shop nearby, on Petersplatz.

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: Yes, founded by my great-grandfather, but for my grandfather. Because at that time he was still too young to be able to start a company himself. We are the fourth generation on paper, but we call ourselves the third because our great-grandfather was an appraiser and had nothing to do with watches as such. My sister, with whom I run the company, and I unfortunately did not get to know our grandfather because he died very early. Our father was only 19 and the truth is that it was actually him who made our company what it is now. Until he was 74, when he died suddenly, he worked here in Vienna, Am Graben, day in and day out.

Michael Sicher: When did the fascination of watchmaking get you?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: Because our parents built the company together, we grew up in business. So, you get a lot in the cradle. Both the positive and the negative. It makes a difference whether I am employed or run my own company. At some point, our father asked us to decide whether we wanted to take over the company or not. We both made up our minds to do it, together it is a lot is easier. We got so much from our father, and it was a very educational time. It was just nice to have his experience, his knowledge, his inner calm as a role model and to fall back on him.

Michael Sicher: Do you still remember your first wristwatch?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: Of course! It's a funny story. As the daughter of a watchmaker or, I would almost say, the watchmaker in Vienna at the time, I naturally strived to get a watch as quickly as possible. My father made it very easy and said that if I can read the time, I'll get my first wristwatch. After school, when I was in the second or third grade of elementary school on Judenplatz, I always walked to our store. At that time there were still buses driving on Seitzergasse. At the bus stop I pretended to be waiting for the bus and asked a lady what time it was. She said it was seven minutes past 4:30 pm. I started off so that I could be in our store within the minute and tell my father I know what time it is: seven minutes past 4:30 pm. That's how I got my first wristwatch. Funnily enough, not a mechanical watch, but a quartz watch that I still have.

Michael Sicher: You have a very special pocket watch from Lange & Söhne. What's it all about?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: My father, born in 1941, came from a time when a pocket watch was the much more essential and important time indicating instrument, and has always had a passion for it. In the past, the only high-quality German pocket watch came from Lange & Söhne. At some point he discovered this big old pocket watch that his father had on display as an exhibit to show passers the exact time. At that time there were of course no cube clocks (“Würfeluhren”) in Vienna that we still have and love. And so, the watchmakers often had the exact time on display. Not everyone had a watch on their wrist or a pocket watch in their pocket. This pocket watch is still sometimes on display. She is, so to speak, our original connection to Lange & Söhne.

Michael Sicher: Do you have a special connection to Lange & Söhne?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: The watch manufacturer Lange & Söhne is in Glashütte near Dresden and was bombed and razed to the ground on the last day of World War II. People in the GDR were dispossesed, and Walter Lange, who lived until a few years ago and played a key role in rebuilding the company, has fled. He always had a connection to Austria because he attended the watchmaking school in Karlstein. On the day the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Walter Lange, the great-great-grandson of the then founder of this watch manufacturer, decided to rebuild the brand together with the strength of IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre. The company was registered in 1990 and the first watches came onto the market on October 25, 1994. Our father had heard about it and was convinced that it only could be a success and bought the whole collection. We became Lange & Söhne dealers from the very beginning and are one of the few companies that have consistently managed and represented Lange since 1994. That makes us very proud of course. 

Michael Sicher: The measurement of time has an incredibly interesting story. From church tower clocks and the determination of the longitude up to the GPS. In your opinion, what are the milestones in wristwatches?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: The original idea of placing a watch on the hand came from the world of women. Thus, the first wristwatches were built for women because men had their suits and vests and could therefore wear their pocket watches. There are great developers in history like Abraham-Louis Breguet, to whom many technical advances can still be traced. But here, too, the wheel of time does not stand still. In the last 10, 20 years, new escapements, the most important part of the wristwatch that dictates precision, have been developed. The Swiss lever escapement that was used up until then was developed from a pocket watch and is well over 200 years old. George Daniels invented the co-axial clockwork, but it was ahead of its time. He offered it to many major watch brands, but didn't meet with interest until Nicolas Hayek, founder of the Swatch Group, picked it up and developed it further. There are now new inhibitions and materials.

Michael Sicher: Do we have different demands on wristwatches today?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: The demands that we place on a wristwatch have changed enormously over the past 40 years. We have cell phones, we work with computers, we cook with induction. 50 years ago, magnetism in the watch industry was not a big issue for many watch wearers. There was only the IWC Ingenieur, which had a strong anti-magnetic protection, and the pilot's watches from IWC, which were extremely important for pilots to navigation, a combination of course and time. The parts in the watches were made of metals that had no anti-magnetic properties. Today silicon is used in different areas of the clockwork to be able to protect against magnetism as much as possible. The Magnetism in a wristwatch is not a defect that cannot be repaired. We don't even have to open the watches, we just demagnetize them by pulling them through a coil with a magnetic field that destroys the other. It might be, in quotation marks, an annoying way to go to the watchmaker, but when the watch goes half an hour ahead in one hour, you lose the time.

Michael Sicher: What developments do you see for the future?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: There are great collaborations and developments, research, partly with universities, partly with the automotive sector. Girard Perregaux, for example, has just entered a cooperation aimed at utilizing findings from automotive research. Because a lot of research and development has always been done with materials, especially in racing, because weight is always at issue. I'm a tennis fan and when Rafael Nadal is playing at the French Open with a watch that has a tourbillon that makes the watch even more precise, or when golfers wear a watch that can take a load of up to 3G when teeing off, I am thrilled about it. I think there are exciting times ahead of us.

Michael Sicher: Which watches are icons that you should know or have seen?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: If you start at what is probably the world's largest watch brand, Rolex, it's a Submariner, but also a normal “Oyster” model. From Jaeger-LeCoultre, of course, the Reverso and the Memovox, the watch with by far the most beautiful alarm clock sound. It's almost difficult with IWC because e they have brought a few iconic watches onto the market in their long brand existence. Like the pilot's watch, from Mark 9 to Mark 18, but also a Portugieser. At Cartier every type of a Tank.

Michael Sicher: What makes an icon?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: To me an icon is a product that is closely linked to the brand's DNA. From Lange & Söhne, that would definitely be Lange 1, that's an icon. Its development, which it goes through, is so delicate and sensitive that basically the actual exterior of the watch is not changed. From Breitling the Navitimer, from Omega the Speedmaster Professional Moon. To me, iconic means that I can tell which model is on the wrist, but I cannot say whether the watch is 10 years, 8 months or three days old 

Michael Sicher: So timeless watches?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: Exactly, a beautiful play on words, a timeless watch, is a good term.

Michael Sicher: Whether an iconic or another watch, they all tell the time. What are the different motivations of your customers to buy a watch?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: They are really very different. There are customers who say I use a cell phone, but I like to wear a watch so that I can see the time immediately without removing the cell phone and pressing a button. For many, apart from cufflinks and a wedding ring, it is the only socially acceptable piece of jewellery a man has. Then there are the technology freaks who really find the fascination in mechanics. Often just because of the looks. I think there are a lot of chronographs on the wrists that have never been operated. Sometimes it is simply the desire to own something that has had an iconic meaning in its long lifespan. Or something that one likes to pass on. Something that you would like to have fot yourself but actually buy for future generations. The nice thing about a wristwatch is that it can be kept in such a state that it will be functional for many decades to come.

Michael Sicher: There is an incredibly wide price range for watches. Where do you see the main differences?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: There are many. For example, I can completely encase watches with stones to increase their value. In principle, you must look at the production environment in which a watch is made. If Rolex probably produces eight hundred thousand to one million watches a year and we compare Lange & Söhne, who produce a few thousand watches a year in the four-digit range, then the value of a watch has already been defined a bit by its production volume alone. And it's not about gold or steel at all and having a complication, an “additional function”, or not. For example, let's compare a chronograph with a watch with jumping second, which is something very rare. We optically transform an automatic watch into a quartz watch. The mechanism that is required to make a hand, which, due to the construction of the clockwork, creeps, leaps, is almost as complicated as a chronograph. You would never suspect that, however, because you may not know the technology behind it, or you may not even know that there is a jumping second. The price range must be viewed from many different angles. If a watch brand like Lange & Söhne builds a steel watch, it will not cost much less than a gold watch, because the value is not in the case, but in the capacity to produce the movement. At a company like Omega with a few hundred thousand watches a year or Longines with over a million, albeit with many quartz watches, it is something completely different. One cannot say that one watch is expensive with a complication and the other is cheap with a complication. Nomos or Oris, for example, are brands that offer a very reasonable price segment and still offer a lot of watch for the money.

Michael Sicher: What does time mean for you personally?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: Time has always determined my life. Be it lifetime, but also professional or leisure time. I love time and hope that it will show me many more wonderful hours for me to come. In my professional life, too, time is a huge part of my life.

Michael Sicher: Finally, a completely different question: What do you like to show your visitors about Vienna?

Astrid Stüger-Hübner: If seeing it professionally, I would at least show him the (unfortunately not barrier-free) watch museum, because it really is a little gem of downtown Vienna. Otherwise, I tend not to look for “hotspots”, but would rather walk through all these small, winding streets that are typical Viennease. The “Wiener Prater” without guests also has a special flair. But I would rather not look for the large gatherings of people, but rather these hidden secrets, like these small, typically Viennese alleys. With my visitors, although I appreciate the Plachutta or the Figlmüller, I would rather go to the tiny restaurant around the corner, like Reinthaler, for a schnitzel. Not where you generally say that you must have been there.