Our classics include the models that have grown to become the image of durability and confident style. They and their discreet yet inimitable nature represent the A. Lange & Söhne brand.One of the biggest before-and-after moments in contemporary horology was the introduction of the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph, which launched in 1999, during a time when there were very few developments taking place in the evolution of chronograph movements. The Datograph instantly raised the bar for in-house, high-end chronograph movements, and while, since then, in-house haute horlogerie chronographs have increased in number, the Datograph is still considered a standard against which other chronographs can be judged.When A. Lange & Söhne was re-launched in Glashütte in 1994, it immediately earned a stellar reputation. The debut of the Datograph, five years later, created enough buzz that it brought many new collectors into the world of Lange – everyone from watchmaking legend Philippe Dufour to basketball icon Michael Jordan.
When you put on and operate a Datograph, the feeling sticks with you, and you’re instantly under its spell. The emotional impact of the Datograph and the excellence it embodies is the reason Philippe Dufour pulled a Datograph out of the safe when asked by HODINKEE’s Ben Clymer, during a visit to his workshop in 2013, what he thought was the best serially produced wristwatch in the world. Clymer wrote, “He paid for it himself, and he’s unabashed in his praise for it. He says what makes this watch so special is the amount of extra value you see in the movement architecture, the finishing, and the design. It says a lot that one of the Vallée de Joux’s greatest sons says the best chronograph in the world is German. It’s an endorsement Lange doesn’t take lightly, either. When I visited the Lange manufacture a few years back, one of their talking points was Dufour’s appreciation for their work.”And, of course, in 2002, Michael Jordan famously was seen wearing a first-generation platinum Datograph with a matching platinum bracelet.Since its introduction, the Datograph has expanded into a family of models including the Datograph Perpetual and the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon, as well as the Datograph Lumen and related models like 2004’s 1815 chronograph on one end of the complexity scale, and models such as the Double Split (also from 2004) and the Triple Split on the other. Common to all is the placement of the chronograph sub-registers at 4:00 and 8:00, rather than 3:00 and 9:00 as is often the case in two-register chronographs. The reason for this goes back further than you might think. The Datograph is a flyback chronograph with a big date complication – the watch’s name is a portmanteau of “date” and “chronograph” after all. When Lange was reborn, the big date was its signature complication (it is far more complex than an ordinary calendar, with over 60 parts), with its inspiration coming from the 1800s. The Semper Opera House’s five-minute digital clock in Dresden is world-famous as the source of the idea for the big date in the Lange 1. But there is a more direct connection too: The clock, which was installed on April 13, 1841, was made in the workshop of Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, whose apprentice at the time was none other than Ferdinand Adolph Lange, who would go on to found A. Lange & Söhne. F.A. Lange would go on to become Gutkaes’s son-in-law as well.The Datograph houses the Lange in-house flyback chronograph caliber L951.1 – a movement that was part of a changing landscape in terms of how enthusiasts, collectors, and the industry think about chronographs. Before its debut, little had occurred in the way of development of classic high-end chronograph movements for many years. We take it for granted that “high horology” is synonymous with “in-house,” but historically, it’s not true. Patek Philippe’s first in-house chronograph movement, for example, the CH R 27-525 PS, was only introduced in 2005. There were developments in more widely produced calibers like the Valjoux/ETA 7750, which came out in 1973, and there were, of course, the first automatic chronograph calibers of any kind, in 1969. We should also remember the F. Piguet ultra-thin chronograph calibers, 1180 and 1185, which came out in 1987. But mainly, high-end manufacturers relied on supplied calibers from chronograph specialists like Lemania. The Royal Oak Offshore is one example of this and illustrates the standard practice during the 1980s and 1990s, and even before. From launch, it used a movement based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 889 with a Dubois-Depraz chronograph module.This was very much standard practice for much of watchmaking history, but by the 1990s, an emerging preference for “in-house” movements made having one a mark of distinction. The first in-house high-end chronograph movement of the mechanical renaissance era did not come from Switzerland. Instead, it came from a sleepy German town in the state of Saxony.The first conceptualization meetings for the Datograph were between the legendary Günter Blümlein, who had re-established Lange in 1990 with Walter Lange, and then-director of product development Reinhard Meis. Lange’s CEO, Wilhelm Schmid, says, “Few people know that the conceptualization of the Datograph started with the dial. The idea to arrange the outsize date and the two sub-dials in a way that they form an equilateral triangle was born during a creative meeting headed by Günter Blümlein.” Whether this was his intention or not, Blümlein, in establishing this direction, safeguarded the design of the Datograph from being copied, as the shift of the sub-dials from the conventional positions at 3:00 and 9:00, meant rethinking the configuration of a traditional, lateral clutch column-wheel chronograph.The problem of engineering a movement to fit the design directive went to Lange engineer and movement designer Annegret Fleischer, who is not well known to many watch enthusiasts, but who is a household name among Lange collectors. Fleischer had begun her career at VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe, but upon hearing that Lange was re-emerging after a long absence, she immediately applied for a position and was accepted. What would become the Datograph caliber L951.1 was one of her earliest projects, and it is still one of her most well-known contributions to horology; although, in her years at Lange, she’s worked on everything from the moon-phase complication used in the 1815 Moon Phase to the Double Split, and much more.The main problem in creating the L951.1, according to Lange, was that the sub-registers placement had been established in terms of design, which meant the movement had to be organized around their placement. Annegret Fleischer remarked, “It was one of the many challenges we were faced with. The difficulty was that the axes carrying the hands of the small seconds and the minute counter had to be arranged very close to the units disc of the outsize date, which left less room for the chronograph mechanism. The idea to arrange the outsize date and the two sub-dials in a way that they form an equilateral triangle was born during a creative meeting with Günter Blümlein and the former director of product development Reinhard Meis. It should be mentioned that the dial layout was developed first before I had to find the solution to fit in the mechanisms.”In a standard chronograph mechanism, the minutes counter will start to move just before a minute elapses, and when it does elapse, snap into place. In the L951.1, however, the chronograph minute hand doesn’t move until the exact instant a minute elapses. This is thanks to a snail cam attached to the chronograph minute hand that’s activated by a jewel-tipped lever which pushes the minute counter forward at the exact moment it passes zero. Of this mechanism, Fleischer says, “The principle was already known. It had been realized in a few pocket watches, but never before in the smaller dimensions of a wristwatch. At the time, there were only chronographs with slowly jumping minute counters, which can be made out by the star-wheel rocker. The precisely jumping minute counter is a unique feature that assures an unambiguous reading of the measured time and is therefore in line with Lange’s ambition to increase precision.”The final result was a movement comprised of 405 parts, with an overall diameter of 30.6mm. For all its technical interest, the movement is equally enjoyable from a visual perspective. Fleischer told HODINKEE that the chronograph movements of historic pocket watches served as an inspiration for the aesthetic of the movement, and of course, it has that signature Lange flair that comes from the use of German silver bridges and plates, in contrast to the highly polished steelwork, polished gold screwed-down chatons, and a touch of color from heat-blued screws and movement jewels. The movement has a remarkable three-dimensionality that leads some to describe it as a miniature metropolis, as observing it from above is akin to peering down into a minute city.The movement is a first-class technical achievement, but it is also widely praised as one of the most flat-out beautiful movements of all time. Lange CEO Wilhelm Schmid says, “It’s a watch people want to wear upside down, because the movement delivers what the dial promises, or maybe even surpasses expectations raised.”