One of the more interesting comparisons we’ve done in recent months was in the latest edition of Three On Three, in which we compared three really strong watches – all hand-wound, all chronographs, and all with in-house movements. As we noted then, in-house hand-wound chronograph movements in wristwatches have actually been something of a rarity in European watchmaking; chronographs are surprisingly challenging to engineer (I remember Cartier’s Carole Forestier once telling me that a tourbillon was actually much easier to do than a good chronograph movement) and in general, if you wanted to do a chronograph wristwatch you’d get a movement from a specialist supplier like Nouvelle Lemania. One of the biggest surprises to many watch enthusiasts, therefore, was the introduction by A. Lange & Söhne, in 1999, of the Datograph, which instantly became one of the most talked about watches in the world, and which was not only an in-house chronograph, but an in-house flyback chronograph – it had a very elaborately constructed and sophisticated big date display as well. A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph
The Datograph is still with us today, and it compared very well with the Vacheron and Patek chronographs we looked at in Three On Three, drawing a lot of praise for the general quality of construction and finish, and the really incredible beauty of the movement.
One of the criticisms levied against it, however, was on account of its thickness, especially in comparison with the Patek 5170G. It’s certainly true that the Dato is thicker, but quite a few readers were quick to notice and point out that while the Dato and 5170G occupy roughly comparable price points, the Datograph is really something of a different animal; in addition to being a flyback chronograph, it also has a big date display and a power reserve complication. The objection, therefore, was that in comparing the Datograph to the Patek 5170G, we were somewhat comparing apples and oranges to the detriment of A. Lange & Söhne – and ignoring a much more appropriate watch for the purposes of comparison, which is the 1815 Chronograph. So we thought we’d take a look at the 1815 now – not just for the purposes of evaluating it against some of its peers, but also to take a look at it in its own right.
The 1815 chronograph is the simplest chronograph wristwatch Lange makes, and it is, essentially, the Datograph minus the big date complication and power reserve. The original version of the 1815 was introduced in 2004 when it generated quite a bit of attention in its own right, though not as much as the Datograph, of course – however, for those looking for a somewhat simpler but still very high quality chronograph from A. Lange & Söhne, the 1815 chrono fit the bill very nicely indeed. Somewhat thinner than the Dato, largely owing to the omission of the big date display, it still gave you exactly the same peerlessly gorgeous view through the caseback (the big date works are under the dial). The original version came with a pulsometric scale, which is something of an old fashioned thing, though very popular exactly for its vintage, old-school charm (it’s a lovely reminder of a time when the average doctor could actually, you know, afford a luxury wristwatch). A pulsometric scale is used to measure heart rate when feeling a patient’s pulse – most are graduated for 30 pulsations; you start the chrono when you begin counting, stop after you reach 30 beats, and whatever number the second hand is pointing to is the patient’s heart rate.
The newer version of the Datograph debuted in 2010, and omits the pulsometric scale, which lets you have larger chronograph subdials, although the effect of the dial is somewhat flatter. Still, the pulsometric scale is enough of a collector favorite that A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph has reintroduced it in the boutique-only edition of the 1815, with blue and white dial, that was announced last month at Watches and Wonders in Hong Kong. The only real objection I’ve ever heard anyone raise to the 1815 Chronograph has to do with the position of the subdials; it’s clear that they were placed below the midline of the dial in order to form a symmetrical arrangement with the big date window.
However, I don’t think it’s a serious objection to the watch, and in practice, I have to admit I never even noticed this, or thought about it at all, until just a week or so ago and I’ve been looking at the watch on and off since 2004. The only other difference between the old and new models is the case diameter; the new version is 39.5 mm, vs. 39 mm for the original version but in practice it’s almost impossible to tell unless you have them side by side, and even then, it really doesn’t jump out at you.
Forced to choose between the two, I’d personally prefer the older model just as we shot it for this story: in rose gold, with a black dial, but I also think they’re both irresistibly beautiful watches and that preference is just a matter of personal taste. Certainly, in a side-by-side comparison, I think it is clear that the new model has better legibility and overall, a slightly more classic and harmonious design, though there is an idiosyncratic charm to the original model. The nice thing about the boutique-only 1815 just introduced is that you now have a choice – the distinctive boutique edition if you want a pulsometric scale; the standard model if you don’t.
So let’s talk about the 1815 and the 5170G. As it turns out, despite what you might think, they are virtually identical in dimensions. The 5170G is 10.9 mm, cased, and 39.4 mm in diameter; its movement, Patek caliber CH 29-533, is 29.6mm x 5.35mm. (If you’re curious, the Lemania 2310, as used by Patek as caliber 27-70, is 5.57 mm thick). This is a pretty comfortably thin watch, although it’s still by no means an extra-flat or ultra-thin chronograph per se; Piaget’s 883P, for instance, as found in the Altiplano Chronograph, is a flyback, column wheel caliber and comes in at 4.65mm thick.
The 1815 Chronograph is 39.5 mm in diameter, and it is actually slightly thinner than the Patek 5170, at 10.8 mm. The movement is the Lange caliber L951.5, and it’s 30.6 mm in diameter, and 6.1mm thick. Here we have a very pleasantly slim, really refined hand-wound flyback chronograph movement with all the wonderful visual impact of the Datograph but with a bit less bulk. I am really not sure why A. Lange & Söhne is sometimes thought of as a maker of bulky watches – now, it’s true that some of their watches, especially high complications, can be rather thick affairs but they’re hardly alone in that.
Honestly, I think part of the problem is that a good-sounding narrative can sometimes obscure reality; the idea of “massively overbuilt German watchmaking” has stuck to A. Lange & Söhne like glue, but they make some very slim, elegantly simple watches as well – the Saxonias are a perfect case in point – and the 1815 as it turns out is actually slightly slimmer than the most technically comparable Patek. (A better comparison with the Datograph might be something like the Patek 5905P annual calendar chronograph, and as it turns out, that watch has a 33 mm movement that’s 7.68 mm thick, which is in the same ball park as the Dato’s movement, at 31 mm x 7.9 mm.)
And lest we forget, the Patek 5170G is $81,000; the 1815 Chronograph is $51,500. So if we look at the actual numbers, the initially plausible-sounding argument that in going to A. Lange & Söhne for a chrono, you are going to get stuck with something Germanically stolid and unpleasantly bulky, vanishes into thin air, and you are left with one of the most beautifully made chronographs on the planet, that actually costs $30,000 less than its closest competition. Obviously at this level of pricing and finish, comparison shopping and bargain hunting are not primary considerations, but thirty thousand bucks is a lot of money even by the admittedly irrational standards of today’s luxury watch pricing.
A. Lange & Söhne has, in the 1815 Chronograph, what is something of a bargain in today’s watch world (to the extent that you can call a fifty thousand dollar wristwatch a bargain without inviting social unrest and inflaming socialist zeal). To avoid considering it out of a misplaced notion that ALS only makes massively overbuilt watches in the German tradition of elevating engineering over aesthetics (or something) is to miss out on a spectacularly accomplished piece of very elegant watchmaking.
The comparisons we made between the Datograph, the 5170G and the Vacheron Harmony Chronograph remain valid on a price parity basis, of course. But perhaps it’s not a bad idea – as some of our readers suggested to us – to bear in mind that there’s a bit more nuanced narrative when it comes to A. Lange & Söhne, and that while the story of its in-house chronographs certainly began with a bang in 1999 with the Datograph, it’s grown considerably since then, to encompass a very diverse range of watches, with a broad appeal – including the beautifully accomplished (and beautifully wearable) Lange 1815 Chronograph.