For the first time, in the a lange and sohne 1815 tourbillon, A. Lange & Söhne combined the patented stop-seconds mechanism for the tourbillon with the ZERO-RESET time-setting mechanism. The dial exhibits the typical design elements of the 1815 watch family that recall historic pocket watches: the peripheral railway-track minute scale, Arabic numerals, blued hands and a recessed central segment.
Just a few days ago, we brought you news of a new watch from A. Lange & Söhne: the Handwerkskunst version of the 1815 Tourbillon. Let’s be blunt. This is a gorgeous watch that costs $181,000 and most of us are just going to have to be happy that we live in a world where something this uncompromisingly beautiful exists, instead of actually owning one, but the watch is so good that appreciation rather than ownership doesn’t actually seem that painful. Let’s have a look up close and personal.
The a lange sohne 1815 tourbillon Handwerkskunst was introduced at a ceremony held for international press and other guests at the Dresden Semperoper, which originally opened in 1841, with a design by architect Gottfried Semper. It’s had, like much of Dresden, a pretty tempestuous history; it was gutted by fire in 1869, and rebuilt; it was almost totally destroyed, again by fire, following the bombing of Dresden in 1945, but was rebuilt once again and re-opened in 1985. Lange fans know it as the home of the famous Gutkaes 5 minute digital clock, which was installed to keep people from disturbing performances by checking the time.
The clock was part of the original design of the Semperoper and was constructed by Johanne Christain Friedrich Gutkaes, and his apprentice, a young Ferdinand Adolphe Lange.
The A. Lange & Söhne Tourbillon Handwerkskunst has a dial decorated with so-called tremblage engraving. This is, as we’ve mentioned before, a technique in which the engraver uses a burin (a very fine-tipped chisel) to make a series of minute pinprick marks on a metal surface. It’s a demanding technique to master and, having seen it being done, I can’t help but guess it must make enormous demands not only on the skill of the engraver, but his or her patience as well, but the resulting optical effect is worth the effort.
The tourbillon movement is distinguished by a stop seconds function – very rare in tourbillons. The reason a stop seconds (or hacking) function is almost never found in a tourbillon is because the way a stop seconds generally works is to have a small lever that presses gently against the rim of the balance when the crown is pulled out to set the time. In a tourbillon, you generally can’t do this because the balance is inside a revolving cage, and the lever would jam against the cage pillars. The Lange design for getting around this is to use a pivoting y-shaped lever; if the tip of one arm hits a cage pillar, the other can still touch the balance and stop the cage from turning.
The watch also has a reset-to-zero function; when the crown is pulled out, the seconds hand resets to the zero/12:00 position.
It’s a watch that really begs to be seen in person. The quality of the dial, markers, hands, and movement is absolutely fantastic (HODINKEE Collectors Summit guest speaker Philippe Dufour has gone on record in the past as saying that in terms of industrially produced modern watches, A. Lange & Söhne is as good as it gets in terms of finish) and the result is a watch that never looks the same twice, with a seemingly infinite range of possibilities depending on light and viewing angle.
Part of the launch event was a visit to A. Lange & Söhne’s new factory in Glashütte. We covered the opening event last August (the ribbon cutting was attended by Chancellor Merkel, as well as the Free State of Saxony Prime Minister Stanislaw Tillich. My last visit to Lange in Glashütte was a couple of years ago and the contrast between old and new is dramatic; the old factory had quite a lot of charm, but like many charming old family residences, it was beginning to feel a bit cramped. The new building is very light, open, airy, and modern-feeling and at first, if you had visited Lange in its old digs, it feels almost too modern, but the same very high level work is being done here as in the original factory; only now the watchmakers can work without bumping elbows every five minutes. (As we noted back in August, the old factory will stay in operation and in use as well.)
A. Lange & Söhne is one of the very few manufacturers left that as far as we can tell (and it’s a very hard statement to make categorically, but this is the at least somewhat informed impression we have) still devotes the same level of attention to its entry level products as it does to high complications. They may or may not be the only one doing this but we can say for sure there are some manufacturers that don’t. This isn’t to say everyone needs to meticulously hand-finish and double assemble a watch for it to be a good watch, but at luxury level pricing and expectations, it’s nice to know someone’s really delivering.
On the bottom floor, all watch manufacturers (at least ones that make some or all of their own movements) are very hard to tell apart. Those among our readers who have looked through a few factory visit stories, here or elsewhere, would probably agree: rows of CNC machines, spark erosion machines, and so on look pretty much the same, whether the ground floor is in Le Brassus, Le Sentier, Geneva, Plan-Les Ouates, or Glashütte. As Mr. Dufour remarked at the summit this weekend, “These machines are all over the world… if (fine watchmaking) is going to survive, we have to add something from hand and mind.” Lange adds something – and then some.
Above is an example of one of the things A. Lange & Söhne adds: this is tremblage (“trembling”) finish being applied to a dial. As I said, tremblage is something I can only imagine requires not only undivided attention, but the ability to tolerate tedium, and that impression was very much reinforced by watching this gentleman at work.
Another area of the manufactory we visited was the complications section and on one watchmaker’s bench was a quite impressive work-in-progress: the Zeitwerk. Each one of these is assembled and tested by one watchmaker from start to finish (of course, movement fabrication and decoration, as well as casing-up, happens elsewhere, but for the nuts-and-bolts work of movement assembly it’s one guy or gal all the way through, for both assemblies). We’re told one of the trickiest aspects of the Zeitwerk is adjusting clearances on the disks, and it’s because there just isn’t much: the disks are a fraction of a millimeter thick and even slightly excessive force can bend them, which would make them foul against each other during the time change, stopping the watch.
Above, you can see some of the many parts that go into this very unusual watch. Below, highly magnified, you can see two components of one of the Zeitwerk’s most essential components. In order to ensure a steady flow of power to the escapement, the Zeitwerk uses a remontoire d’egalité (constant force mechanism). A remontoire d’egalité consists of a spiral spring in the going train (usually on the fourth wheel) which is periodically wound up by the main gear train’s mainspring. The purpose of the remontoire d’egalité is to ensure a constant flow of power to the escapement despite variations in mainspring power, and in the Zeitwerk, its role is to ensure that even though power from the mainspring varies during switching of the disks (especially at the top of the hour, when all three disks have to switch simultaneously and instantly) the rate of the watch is not negatively affected.
On the right is the remontoire d’egalité itself (actual size is a bit smaller than your pinky fingernail) with the blued remontoir spring. On the left is the governor that controls the speed at which that spring is re-wound; the fins create air resistance, slowing the rewinding down to a speed that ensures the movement won’t be damaged. This is, by the way, a very, very traditional solution; air-resistance governors can be found on clocks with remontoires that are centuries old.
Above, we can see the movement of a Lange I Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar undergoing assembly. This is one of A. Lange & Söhne’s most complex watches (you can check out our coverage of the gorgeous Handwerkskunst version of the watch right here). The date disks are obvious, and just to their right and slightly lower, you can see the pivots for the hour and minutes, as well as, just below, the one for the power reserve. Getting to be able to work on one of these watches is a very long process; the gentleman working on this one told us that if you have the aptitude, it takes about a dozen years to go from starting to learn the basics of watchmaking, to being able to go home from work at Lange and tell your proud family you just qualified to put one of these together.
We finished with a chance to go hands on with virtually every watch in the current A. Lange & Söhne catalogue, and there we spent some time with a watch that one very, very rarely has a chance to see in person: the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna. This watch was announced in 2014 and since then it’s been one of the unicorns of the modern watch world, so it was very, very exciting to see one live, outside the confines of a trade show. It’s as gorgeous as I remembered, especially the rear view, which is, as you may remember, a tellurium – a complication that shows the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth as viewed from above (in the Terraluna, the balance represents the Sun).
There are a lot of different approaches you can take to making a watch, and as consumers, what we all hope to learn is what exactly constitutes a realistic expectation of the level of hand-work and care that goes into a watch. It’s not so much that every watch has to be hand-finished to within an inch of its life, and a solidly made, fairly priced tool watch has its own kind of charm as well. But at the high end, it’s more critical than ever to really be sure you’re getting what a company wants you to think it is getting, which is where a company like Lange comes in. Their work is not for everyone, both in terms of design, and in terms of cost. But we all benefit from knowing what first class work should look like. My dearest wish for A. Lange & Söhne after seeing them in their new home, is that they continue to do exactly what they are doing, because the temptation to scrape away at cost by scraping away at quality, and increasing production numbers, must be enormous. Right now, if you ask really serious connoisseurs – and by that I mean, people who really have some knowledge, not just collectors – who makes the best-finished watches in the world at the moment, the answer from an awful lot of them is going to be, A. Lange & Söhne. “Best” is a reputation very hard to gain, and very easy to lose, and it’s an accolade I hope Lange continues to treasure as much as it, and the company, and its craftspeople – and its clients – deserve.