The A. Lange & Söhne 1815

The A. Lange & Söhne 1815

Homage to Tradition


by ei8htohms
© 11-15-2002

Introduction

When A. Lange and Söhne reentered the world of high horology in 1994 with four new watches, each with dedicated, high-grade mechanical movements, they made a bold statement the repercussions of which are still being felt. Under the careful guidance of Walter Lange and Günter Blümlein, this "new" company could claim the heritage of the Saxon watchmaking tradition in Glashütte while benefiting from the vision, dedication and marketing genius of these charismatic men.

Just as Ferdinand Adolph Lange created the watchmaking tradition in Glashütte in 1845 when he began manufacturing high-grade pocket watches there, so did A. Lange & Söhne create a new tradition. An intense dedication to an aesthetic vision coupled with a "spare-no-expense" approach to movement decoration helped the timepieces of A. Lange & Söhne to redefine the haute horlogerie landscape. With a shrewd understanding of the changing watch market, Lange rapidly climbed to the top tier of the high-mech renaissance on the strengths of their stark German styling and the ethereal beauty exhibited through their display backs. They quickly achieved the fierce fan loyalty, critical acclaim and up-market financial success that has earned them the admiration and respect of the rest of the industry.

If there is a stroke of marketing genius behind Lange's success, it is letting the watches do the advertising, indelibly imprinting an image of a grand Saxon watchmaking tradition in the minds of watch enthusiasts who gaze upon their display backs. The creamy waves of the German silver 3/4 plate; the lustrous rubies, polished gold chatons and heat blued screws; and the elaborately engraved balance cock with swan-neck fine regulator offer a fanciful look into the horological past executed to a degree of perfection never before attained. Using the most modern production techniques, Lange embraced the anachronism of modern mechanical horology, offering an expression of luxury and craft that is as much a simulacrum as an homage.

While lacking the iconic design status of the groundbreaking Lange 1, the 1815 is nevertheless immediately recognizable. Possibly the most distilled form of A. Lange & Söhne's aesthetic vision, the 1815 simple handwind is also the most affordable watch the prestigious company produces. As such, it serves as many collectors' entrance into the world of A. Lange & Söhne and serves here as our introduction to the horological approach of this enigmatic company.

The Case, Dial and Hands

The first impression of the 1815 is one of quintessence. It has exactly the elements necessary to make it a wristwatch, with nothing lacking and nothing added. Its subtly Germanic proportions are classic and understated, so much so that they initially escape notice, rendering an instantaneous reading of the time almost unavoidable. Upon closer inspection, a feeling of tremendous quality is bestowed by the exquisite details, their harmonious relationships and flawless execution.

The softly frosted dial, stoic Arabic numerals and classic minute track are highlighted by the bold, alpha shaped hands in blued steel. The only hints of ornamentation on the dial are the minute flourishes at twelve, three, six and nine and the diamond shaped, extended tail of the sub-seconds hand. "A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte I/SA" and "Made in Germany" are perfectly printed on the dial and the quality of the hands is beyond reproach.

This example, in platinum, is understated and elegant, luxurious to the wearer without attracting undue attention (except from other admirers of Lange's watches). The high polished bezel and back are set off by the satin finished caseband that is punctuated by a white gold crown with the Lange signature. The curved lugs with straight sides are as classic and understated as the rest of the case and the black crocodile strap, while a little stiff, is a fitting accompaniment. The look and feel of a perfectly integrated aesthetic vision pervades every visible aspect of the 1815.

Of the two sapphire windows in the case, the rear window is even more compelling. Secured by six screws, inscribed "A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte, Sachsen" and the serial number, it exposes the appropriately sized cal. L941.1 movement. With the back removed, the superb quality of the massive, 950 platinum case can be appreciated [1]. Five screws for securing the bezel pierce the hefty caseband that has milled recesses for the two case clamps (to support the movement). While typical of modern high-grade case designs, it is perfectly executed. These are possibly the finest case, dial and hands that I've had the pleasure of examining.

The 3/4 Plate

The 3/4 plate bridge is a signature of Saxon watchmaking and Lange in particular. Although arguably sturdier than a full bridge design, it is a moot point in the case of the massive movements used by Lange & Söhne. The aesthetics of the 3/4 plate design is a matter of personal preference but it is clearly favored by Lange and other Glashütte manufacturers because of its connection with the Saxon tradition.

The finishing and elaboration of the 3/4 top-plate is unparalleled. Lange's use of untreated German silver (maillechort, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel) for the bridges gives them a very soft, creamy quality when decorated with the perfectly applied Glashütte stripes. Most watch movements use bridges and plates made of brass that is then plated with gold or rhodium for corrosion resistance. While German silver will not corrode with simple exposure to air, these unplated bridges must be handled with the utmost care as they can easily be scratched and even more easily stained by oil or other contaminants.

The power train jewels on the top-plate are secured in beautifully polished gold chatons with blued screws [2]. The chatons while quite attractive, are purely decorative, the jewels themselves being the same friction-fit variety used in other modern movements. The straight edged, rubbed in jewels found in antique pocket watches are completely impractical for modern production. The highly polished chatons of course also must be handled with the utmost care. The blued screws are a slightly lighter and brighter shade of blue than was once thought desirable for watchmaking purposes but this more electric color has become the industry standard for heat blued screws. They are perfectly executed, with beveled heads and chamfered slots.

The cap jewel for the escape wheel is secured in a gold chaton set into a black polished steel setting that fits seamlessly into the main plate [3]. The chamfer on the outer portion of the jewel setting also blends in perfectly with the highly polished anglage of the bridge, which is likewise perfectly executed although lacking any of the more challenging, sharp or interior corners. Anglage that includes sharp, well executed interior corners is an irrefutable sign of highly skilled handwork, whereas anglage applied to rounded shapes can be perfectly executed with polishing wheels. From an engineering and production standpoint, sharp corners are to be avoided if possible. In fact, the only reason to include sharp corners on movement bridges is as a demonstration of craft and skill. Instead, Lange focuses their attention on a polishing process involving as many as six different steps for the anglage alone, with breathtaking results.

The combination of colors created by the highly polished steel, the soft German silver, the gold chatons, the rubies and the blued screws is truly breathtaking. This ethereal effect is brought to life through a meticulous, redundant assembly process. Adjustments and final checks are performed on the assembled movement after which it is disassembled so the final decoration can be applied. The finishing of the top plate is all of the absolute highest quality and the elaborate design features convey the image of exquisite, traditional Saxon watchmaking.


Under the Dial

Upon taking the movement out of the case and removing the hands and dial, the hidden bottom plate can be examined. The unplated German silver is fully perlaged with the exception of the milled out portion for the keyless levers and dial train, which is matte finished. A stark contrast to the elaborate, screwed in, gold chatons of the top plate, the jewels on the bottom plate are pressed into unchamfered holes [4]. Polished countersinks are not a functional necessity any more than gold chatons, but similarly, they are a demonstration of fineness and craft that would seem appropriate here. The edge of the plate around the keyless levers and dial train is also unchamfered. While the machining is of the highest quality, other than the nicely applied perlage, no elaboration or refinement is applied to the bottom plate. The screws on the bottom plate, while not blued, are highly polished and beveled with chamfered slots.

The keyless works are nicely grained on top with a small polished chamfer on their non-functional edges and perfectly straight functional edges [5]. This maximizes the contact surfaces of the levers for secure functioning and is sensible as well as traditional. While the functional surfaces (the sides) of the clutch lever and detent are somewhat polished, the sliding surface of the set lever detent spring portion of the set bridge is unfinished [6]. The rough edge shows some slight burnishing from rubbing against the post on the set lever.

The undersides of the keyless levers do not show a decisive finish of any kind [7]. Somewhere between matte and polished, they also show some rounding at the edges, functional or otherwise. A flat, mirror polished surface would seem more appropriate here. All the sliding surfaces were lubricated with Molykote (a thick grease), appropriately, if heavily, applied [8].

While the keyless levers are not stamped and use no wire springs (as found in standard grade watches), they lack some of the fine touches one might expect of a watch in this price range. The cannon pinion, minute wheel and hour wheel are nicely executed, with circular graining on top and all their functional surfaces are well polished.

The basic execution of the bottom plate is of the highest standard and the surfaces are all virtually flawless. Still, it lacks some of the refinement found in other high-grade watches. While it cannot be faulted for its workmanship, it is a drastic departure from the top-plate finishing. While some degree of contrast exists between the top and bottom plates of watch movements of every grade, the perfect and elaborate execution of the top-plate makes the lapses in the bottom plate more readily apparent.

The Barrel and Power Train

Only visible through a small circular opening in the 3/4 plate [9], the click and spring are attached to the underside of the main bridge [10]. The German style click is highly polished and chamfered on the barely visible topside and straight grained underneath.

The click mechanism, while offering the same functions (maintaining power and allowing recoil at full wind) and being more attractive than some contemporary designs, is possibly prone to more wear as well. I found a very small amount of debris in the grease near the click's engaging beak [11]. It seems the dragging and sliding action of the click creates more wear than the pivoting action of other click designs. This is a minor issue and likely not a potential cause for failure or even part replacement over the course of the life of the watch, but it is more wear than I would expect to find around this component in a new piece. Doubtless Lange decided to use this traditional Germanic click because of its beauty and its connection with the Saxon tradition.

The barrel is nicely made, with decorative snailing on top [12] and bottom. The pivots and working surfaces of the barrel arbor are highly polished and the arbor runs in jewels on both sides. The inside of the barrel has a circular satin graining on the top and bottom [13]. While a perfectly acceptable finish for the sliding surfaces of the mainspring, a polished surface would result in less friction and smoother transmission of power.

The power train is nicely executed and laid out in a very straightforward manner. The spokes of the wheels are nicely crossed out and slightly beveled and the epicycloidal teeth of the gears are highly polished as are the steel pinion leaves. In addition to the circular graining, the wheels also have a brightly polished track near the hub. In all respects, the train wheels appear to be of the highest quality.

The crown wheel in the 1815 is not attached to the underside of the 3/4 bridge as might be expected, but rather has it's own freestanding bridge underneath the main bridge. The large, nicely made, copper beryllium hack lever passes between the center and third wheels in the power train so that its delicate, curved end can lightly press against the balance and stop the watch when the crown is pulled into the handsetting position.

The Balance and Escapement

The L941.1 movement uses a 8.4 mm Glucydur balance with timing screws (measured including the screws) and a flat, Nivarox 1 hairspring. The balance is very nicely polished on the topside while the underside is unfinished [14]. The balance wheel is computer poised initially by removing mass from the rim itself but the timing screws are used to dynamically poise the balance and hairspring combination using an 8 position dynamic poising process. This time consuming process results in maximum consistency of rate in the vertical positions and in addition to Lange's final 10 position adjustment and regulation accounts for the excellent timekeeping Langes are known for.

The screws in the balance rim are also used to bring the balance to time with the addition of timing washers. Because Lange uses a very traditional one-piece regulator arm/index assembly, gross rate adjustment must be made using timing washers while the swan-neck fine regulator can be employed for fine regulation. In this example, one pair of screws has timing washers and these screws show some evidence of having been handled [15]. This is some of the only such evidence anywhere on the movement. Oddly, the same screws that have timing washers on them also appear to have had some material removed from them in the form of a small bevel. The reason for adding weight in the form of timing washers while also removing weight in the form of a bevel is impossible to ascertain as the timing washers were not sufficient to center the index finger on the stud anyway [16], a goal of Lange's final regulation process that was somehow not realized in this example.

The placement of the roller (on the underside of the balance [14]) appears somewhat haphazard at first glance but is actually carefully thought out with regard to how the balance arms will line up when the mainspring has completely unwound. Although typically the impulse jewel is placed directly in between the balance arms (at 90°), the impulse jewel in the 1815 is aligned so that the balance arms will come to rest in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing in relation to the balance cock and stud carrier [16]. This is a nice subtle touch that is characteristic of the attention to detail Lange is known for.

The balance cock is wonderfully hand engraved and features a nicely executed swan-neck fine regulator[16]. The engraving stands out as the only visible handwork on the movement, and is of a very high standard. The swan-neck mechanism is a beautiful touch and provides for very precise regulation.

The hairspring stud is an old-fashioned triangular pinned stud [17] while the collet is a modern, Greiner style collet [19]. The well-made stud offers some vertical adjustment (to ensure the hairspring is perfectly flat) but makes centering the hairspring more difficult. While a Geneva stud (which cannot be adjusted vertically) can be allowed to relax into a natural position before it is locked into place, and an Etachron stud can be rotated to optimize the centering of the hairspring, the hairspring in the L941.1 must be manipulated at the stud or at the end of the regulator curve to correct any centering issues. This stud design, held in place with a locking movable stud carrier [18], was clearly chosen for its traditional look while the hairspring collet (which cannot be seen through the display back) is entirely modern.

A Greiner style collet [19] lessens the possibility of hairspring errors associated with a traditional, pinned, split collet while sacrificing the serviceability of the former (Greiner collets cannot be easily removed from the balance staff). Greiner collets are almost completely ubiquitous throughout the industry while possibly inferior in some respects to the laser welded Nivatronic collets used by some manufacturers.

The curb pins in the L941.1 are a very traditional variety with two curb pins and a regulator boot (to keep the hairspring from slipping out of the pins) [20]. The execution of these components is not particularly fine and the curb pins are adjusted improperly. The curb pins are planted quite far apart from each other (relatively speaking) and should be bent towards each other and then slightly outward again so that they remain parallel yet very close together where the hairspring contacts the pins. Instead, they are simply bent inward without any attempt at making them parallel [20].

Curb pins must be parallel so that the contact with the hairspring will be consistent between the dial up and dial down positions. As gravity shifts the precise vertical alignment of the balance and hairspring from one horizontal position to the other, it will change the manner in which the hairspring interacts with the curb pins if their spacing is not consistent. In this example the improper curb pin adjustment resulted in a timing variation of several seconds between the dial up and dial down positions. This variation made the dial up position the most divergent rate of the six common testing positions, a consequence that is unsatisfactory in light of the ease with which it could have been corrected in an otherwise exceptionally well adjusted movement.

Yet another nod to the past is the presence of banking pins for the pallet lever [21]. Modern production methods make precisely machined fixed banking walls (in the pallet bridge or the mainplate) more convenient and easy to produce and all but ubiquitous in current production watches. Banking pins, however, allow for adjustment of the banking of the pallet fork, something that was sometimes necessary in watches that involved more handcrafting. Lange's decision to use banking pins, while likely a nostalgic consideration, is possibly also a subtle response to the impermissibility of banking pins within the criteria of the Geneva Seal (where fixed banking is required).

The escape wheel is consistent with those found in most modern watches, perfectly functionally finished without exhibiting any extraordinary craft. The pallet lever in the L941.1 though, is a more complex design than those usually found today, even in very high grade watches. It has an elaborately formed safety dart and horns and is nicely polished and chamfered. Suprisingly though, there was some debris on the fork horns [21].

Possibly some particles of pithwood that were left over from the assembly process, it is embarrassing to see a lack of cleanliness on this critical component. Upon close examination, I found some of the same debris on the roller table and impulse jewel as well. This would doubtless cause some inconsistencies in the functioning of the escapement at some point.

 

Conclusion

There is something very interesting about Lange's postmodern approach to high horology. The L941.1 movement is designed with every detail geared towards the appearance of traditionalism and, while there is something glorious about the quality exhibited by the elaboration and decoration of the top plate, my overall impression of the watch is that it is a bit like an exceptionally well-made, wrist-sized reproduction of a 19th century German pocket watch.

Although offering the appearance of utterly old-world horology executed to standards of perfection that are heretofore unseen, underneath, the high-tech production methods (CAD design, spark erosion and CNC milling for example) are more evident. While the results of these modern techniques are remarkable, they do not benefit from the same (extraordinarily) lavish finishing of the top plate. The movement is an homage to Saxon watchmaking that is torn between modern goals and methods and an aesthetic sensibility from another time.

This neo-Saxon approach, as defined by Lange and now mimicked by other German manufacturers, is in some ways a breath of fresh air in this often staid realm. What is even more refreshing is Lange's commitment to excellence in bringing their vision to fruition. The end result though is a curious mix of signals that, while not to my tastes exactly, is intriguing because of its unprecedented success with collectors and watch enthusiasts as well as for its implications for the future of high horology and luxury goods in general.

It is important to remember that as fine as the watches of A. Lange & Söhne are, they are ultimately still serially produced pieces. While we still value the concept of handcrafted goods as being somehow superior or finer than industrially produced objects, the modern consumer by and large does not appreciate the subtle inconsistencies that are inherent in true handcraftmanship and Lange does not deliver such inconsistencies (the inconsistencies in this example being of a wholly other kind), intentionally or otherwise. If Lange's watches do not suffer from (or enjoy) any of these idiosyncracies, it is a testimony to their excellence even while it belies the industrial methods that they (and all other serial production watch manufacturers) now employ.

_john 


Counter-Point:

I understand that the finish of a movement is both functional and aesthetic. The top plate is exquisitely finished to attract the eye but does the finish of the non-visible parts of the movement have any affect on the correct functioning of the watch? From what is written the answer is no. 

Probably if the movement finish (I'm referring to aesthetics) on the non-visible parts was as developed as the top plate the price of the watch would need to be adjusted accordingly. 

Secondly, what is the market standard and where does Lange stand? I don't mean to be provocative and I don't want to be considered as some kind of Lange groupie, but are the "imperfections" avoidable? A watch (at least a mechanical watch) like any other object where the hand of man plays a great role cannot be perfect since man is imperfect.... but it can get pretty close. If Lange is cutting corners and selling us beautifully finished top plates then please check Trading Zone since I'll be shortly putting all my Langes for sale; on the other hand if they are doing all that is possible in conception, assembly and finish of the watch to propose the best possible product (in that price range) then they keep all my respect. 

The problem with Lange is that they've really habituated us to the very best: in-house movements used in ALL their models, a new movement for each model (except the Langematic perpetual and Lange 1 moonphase), form movements in form watches, 2 truly innovative movements: the Datograph and the Pour le Merite Tourbillon etc, etc...what other brand offers as much in the same price range? Well not that many. 

alex


For me, the Lange wristwatches are a conundrum of conflicting appearances and realities. While the display back reveals clear historical references to Saxon watchmaking (the three-quarter plate being the most obvious), in substance they are only very remotely related to Lange's pre-war pocket watches and look very little like them. Unfortunately, where traditional elements are used for appearance, they often impair the technical distinction and sometimes the function of the watch. The barrel click, the use of nickel-silver plates, and particularly the traditional-looking escapement would all be better off had less attention been paid to appearances and more to functional excellence. So, while this watch appears to partake of a certain tradition, the relationship is relatively superficial and not entirely in the interest of the final product.

Another area where appearances and realities diverge in these watches is on the issue of handcraft. The Lange is an extremely well-made watch and what is visible through the display back is also extremely well finished. This watch, however, is not the product of handcraft, but rather the best late-20th century, hands-off production technology. The result is a watch movement that is eerily perfect on the top plate, but lacking most of the charm, grace, and stylistic consistency of watches born of real handcraft tradition. The lack of significant handwork was, no doubt, the motivation behind chasing the balance cock. Easily visible through the display back and virtually shouting handcraft, the chasing was unfortunately prone to snagging the regulator index and making rate adjustment a bit of a nuisance in several samples I have adjusted.

In the most critical area of any mechanical watch, the escapement, the Lange is just plain undistinguished. The use of traditional-appearing poising screws makes the balance too small; the rate and beat adjustments both function only adequately (because they utilize some surprisingly badly finished parts, particularly the regulator index screw and beat adjustment plate); and in every Lange I have examined (six or eight) the regulator curb pins were so poorly conceived and adjusted that they wouldn't earn passing grades for a first-year watchmaking student. That Langes generally run well is little surprise, for low-cost, modern escapement technology (particularly in the forming of balance springs) allows even $20 ETAs to perform remarkably well.

Despite what I've said so far, I find that the Lange watches are, in many ways, beautiful and appealing. They are obviously the product of substantial skill and devotion and there are even a few ways in which they define horological excellence. What perturbs me is that all this has gone into producing this kind of watch, one that seems less a real watch than a marketing concept. It is as if Daimler Chrysler mustered all its' considerable resources to produce an immaculate, high-grade, and expensive SSK replica and equipped it with fairly good contemporary mechanicals. It would be interesting, it might be beautiful, and it would probably be a decent car. But it wouldn't, in some disturbing way, be a real car. It would appear to be something it wasn't and its' real accomplishment would be belied by its appearance. It would be a "replicar." Lange clearly has the means to make a real watch and a great watch. I wish they'd do that so I could have one.

Walt Odets


It was early 1996 when I saw the very first batch of Lange-1 watches from Sincere Watch Singapore. I remember my first impression as a strong one; I asked myself how such an ugly watch could come with the best looking movement I have ever laid eyes on!

Given the opportunity to own the very first Lange in Singapore, I turned down the offer as I considered the watch to be inelegant and bulky. After that fateful day, I could not sleep at all. Images of the Lange movement were deeply implanted in my mind. Several days later, I finally succumbed to temptation and bought the watch, thus ending restless nights.

I am now fortunate to have extensive experience through wearing and testing various Lange watches, including Lange-1, Langematik with date, Langematik Jubillee, Kabaret, 1815 Moon Phase, Datograph and Lange-1 Tourbillon. I am very happy to say that except for my first Lange-1, (it had a minor power reserve indicator problem, which has since been resolved by the factory) I have found all of my Lange watches consistently accurate and problem-free. Langes, after all, are the only watches which are double-assembled! 

I love the look of all Lange watches now. They have grown on me well. For anyone who has seen the near-perfect manual-finished movements of any Lange from the case-back, the less elaborate, lack of gold chaton, chamfered hole and blued steel on the dial side will tend to be understandably disappointing. With the help of watch-maker friends, I have seen many movement top-sides and are satisfied that Lange still maintains the best standards in a production line setting. 

The Patek 3796 dial side shown here, for example, failed to match the Lange 1815 to my untrained eye using a 5x loupe.

I have spoken to a number of watchmakers who have lots of professional experience with Lange watches, and they are frequently impressed by the ease of regulating a Lange, especially with the regulating tool provided to every Lange trained technician.


(Special Tools provided by Lange, the one on the right is used for regulation and beat rate adjustment)


(One of the diagrams on Lange watch regulation)

While the manual polishing of Lange or any major watch house cannot match the quality of a real hand-polishing using files and polishing wood (done in the manner of my idol, Mr. Philippe Dufour) I am happy that the Lange-finished movement remains a sight to behold.

And I am glad that Lange went to the extent of using un-plated German silver in compliance with the Saxon tradition, even if it means more effort as all qualified Lange technicians were specifically told to touch ALL Lange movements with gloves on! This to me is an indication of Lange's determination to bring back the Glashutte watchmaking at all cost!

My personal judgment is that general movement qualities have improved in the last 8 years as this serious house has set a very high standard for others to follow!  

Jaw


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