The Blue Merit: Grieb & Benzinger Makes An Ultra-Rare A. Lange & Söhne Tourbillon Pour Le Mérite Rarer Still
On October 24, 1994, following more than 45 years of involuntary hiatus thanks to the historical division of Germany, A. Lange & Söhne celebrated its triumphant comeback as an iconic German luxury brand with the introduction of four modern wristwatch models.
Two of these models are now generally acknowledged as having attained the status of haute horlogerie icons: the Lange 1 and the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite. We will certainly return to explore the history and future of the Lange 1 later; however, in light of current events I will focus here on the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite.
Quill & Pad has the extreme honor to introduce you to the Grieb & Benzinger Blue Merit, a unique collector’s item created from one of the rarest serial movements in watch history: A. Lange & Söhne’s Tourbillon Pour le Mérite.
Rare, costly, original
In production for just four years from 1994 until 1998, there are only 200 serial pieces of the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite in existence.
Peter Chong’s definitive A. Lange & Söhne collector book, The Pour le Mérite Collection, clearly lists its denominations: 50 pieces in platinum, 106 pieces in yellow gold, 19 pieces in white gold, 24 pieces in rose gold, and one single stainless steel piece.
The extremely rare 200-piece series includes the seven pieces found in A. Lange & Söhne’s showrooms, but not unnumbered prototypes.
In 1994, when this masterpiece took center stage, the ripple of excitement was tangible among collectors. Tourbillons were still a rarity at that point in time; there were perhaps only a handful in any sort of regular production.
By combining the “whirlwind” patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801 with a vintage-style chain-and-fusée transmission, engineers of newly reborn A. Lange & Söhne – which included Giulio Papi of Renaud & Papi at this stage – ensured that the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite would be both very accurate and an extraordinary technical talking piece.
Ingeniously, such a construction had never existed in horology to that point. But it has certainly been copied since.
This historic timepiece was originally named to honor Walter Lange’s great-grandfather: during his lifetime, Ferdinand Adolph Lange was not a fan of personal honors and is said to even have refused a title of nobility that was offered to him.
The words Pour le Mérite are French for “for the merit,” signifying the posthumous honor Walter Lange wished to bestow upon the man who was not only the founder of the company, but also Glashütte’s entire watch industry.
“Pour le Mérite” also refers to an order established by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842 for tasks carried out in times of peace, often pertaining to the arts and sciences.
The Tourbillon Pour le Mérite not only honors Ferdinand Adolph Lange, but was also understood at the time as a thank-you to global Lange collectors, who “with their passion have saved the name of A. Lange & Söhne from oblivion for the last fifty years” (quote from an early company catalogue).
Walter Lange’s favorite watch
At important functions and fairs, one often sees Walter Lange wearing his Tourbillon Pour le Mérite, his favorite watch. Lange meritoriously revived his birthright at the age of 63 (when most are thinking of retirement) with business partner Günter Blümlein, together turning it into the globally renowned luxury brand it is today.
Just five months ago he told me during an interview, “It has remained my favorite watch right up to today,” before launching into the story of how this particular model came to reside on his wrist.
On October 24, 1994, Lange, Blümlein, Hartmut Knothe and a few other key figures involved in the early days of the brand’s resurrection had shown the nascent collection of four models to twelve hand-picked retailers, all hailing from German-speaking Europe. They were naturally unsure as to how these “guardians” of Germany’s horological history would react to their interpretations of history.
“But they broke out into actual cheers,” Lange related. Relieved, Lange and Blümlein later prepared for the introductory event. “And I told him that we should take the opportunity to wear one of the watches,” Lange remembered. So Lange chose the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon, naturally the number 1. “That watch is connected to history for me, and it is my watch.” Indeed, it has remained his until this very day.
Georg Bartkowiak, the partner in charge of sales and marketing at German boutique brand Grieb & Benzinger, explains that his company’s reinterpretation of the original Pour le Mérite movement is a sign of great respect. “A. Lange & Söhne is a strong symbol of a reunited Germany and remains a brand that leads the way here in our country and in the luxury watch industry at large,” he said. “And within that framework, this watch is representative of its remarkable comeback. It was very important to Hermann [Grieb], Jochen [Benzinger], and I to make sure this amazing homage is absolutely perfect in every single detail.”
The original timepiece was offered in a case measuring 38.5 mm diameter and 10 mm height. Grieb & Benzinger’s Blue Merit is housed in a 41 mm platinum case, lending the timepiece a bit more volume and, of course, weight.
The original was topped off by a solid silver dial, but here only the bare skeletonized framework of a Sterling silver, frosted dial remains.
It comes as no surprise when you peruse the beautiful handcrafted embellishment to learn that Mssrs. Grieb and Benzinger needed a full twelve months to complete the transformation of manually wound Caliber L 902.0.
The original dimensions of the movement remain 30 mm in diameter and 6 mm in height, but where whole, untreated German silver plates and bridges once filled out the space inside the case, we now find a more complete view of the actual mechanics.
This was made possible by completely hand-skeletonizing the German silver base plate, cutting away all that is mechanically possible using a small hand-saw and a file. After Benzinger added his characteristic geometric guilloche decoration, the plate is coated with blue platinum. Following skeletonization and guilloche, the remaining bridges were coated with rhodium and rose gold.
More modification occurred when Grieb had to add a new bridge into the movement as the skeletonization work had significantly changed the functionality. Additionally, due to the fine guilloche work a few original holes were “moved” by less than 50 microns (0.05 mm)
The tourbillon, now a rose gold color to match the color of the hands instead of the original polished steel, is highly visible at 6 o’clock. A traditional screwed balance wheel beats at 2.5 Hz (18,000 vph) within the tourbillon cage.
They rotate on the back of the movement underneath a balance cock and on the front under a graceful steel bridge secured to the dial with large screws; the latter were consciously worked into the entire design of the dial – both then and now.
A power reserve display on the dial at 3 o’clock alerts the wearer to when it is time for winding: if the movement is not rewound, the watch stops running after 36 hours − even though it could run for longer − so that only the flattest part of the power (torque) curve is used.
This ensures that precision is not compromised as the mainspring winds down, while the tiny chain moving between the barrel and the fusée hold the tension necessary to receive another dose of power from winding.
Authentic visual markers
While practically every visual characteristic of Caliber L 902.0 has been altered, there do remain a couple of markers signifying the authenticity of this timepiece. One of them is the chain-and-fusée system so ingeniously devised by Papi in the early 1990s.
Another is the tourbillon with its typical Lange carriage and prominent horizontal bridge, which Grieb has embellished by bluing the screws at 4 and 8 o’clock.
Yet another is the original verbiage surrounding the movement on what’s left of the now-skeletonized German silver plate: “neunundzwanzig (29) Rubine, zwei (2) Diamanten,” which means “29 rubies, two diamonds.”
The latter refers to Caliber L 902.0’s 29 jewels, five of which are at home within gold chatons fastened to the plate by blued screws. Two more jewels are actual diamonds serving as endstones for the tourbillon carriage. Respectfully bedded in gold chatons, these most precious of all gems fulfill their task by limiting the upward arc of the tourbillon carriage, simultaneously decreasing loss of energy due to friction of steel pivots.
The “beauty mark”
The most significant visual element, however, is the hand-engraved balance cock visible on the back of the timepiece. This is one of A. Lange & Söhne’s characteristic elements, and the one making each and every timepiece crafted by the Glashütte-based icon a unique one.
Chong even calls this element the “beauty mark” in his book, The Pour le Mérite Collection.
In a move that I can only applaud, Benzinger has opted to leave the German silver balance cock in its original form so that it proudly displays the 20-year-old, freehand artwork. Anyone employed within the engraving department at A. Lange & Söhne can recognize its creator with just a cursory glance.
Though the very traditional floral engraving of the balance cock is as different from the geometric guilloche patterns Benzinger has placed on the skeletonized movement parts as night from day, I find the juxtaposition quite harmonious.
Grieb & Benzinger’s Platinum line was created to contain special timepieces such as the Blue Merit. These are masterful, traditional movements reworked by vintage watch specialist Hermann Grieb and his business partner Jochen Benzinger, one of the premier specialist artisans in the arts of guilloche, engraving and skeletonization.
The boutique brand has often used vintage movements in its one-of-a-kind creations, and two years ago even audaciously utilized a Patek Philippe Caliber RTO 27 PS with minute repeater and tourbillon, which is still in current production, but remains rare as rare can be. You can read about that in this story: German Watchmakers Irreverently Refurbish Patek Philippe Tourbillon Minute Repeater.
For the German boutique brand to utilize such a rare and historic movement from the Olympus of Teutonic horology is nothing other than audacious with a pinch of irreverence thrown in.
“Would you change the Mona Lisa?” Chong, now editor-in-chief of Deployant and noted collector and expert on A. Lange & Söhne, asked me when I recently told him of the upcoming arrival of this Grieb & Benzinger specialty.
Grieb & Benzinger’s Platinum line with its vintage movements refurbished in the boutique brand’s own unmistakable style tends to polarize the collector community. Some are abhorred at the idea of changing a valuable vintage movement, while others love the idea of owning an absolutely unique timepiece with impeccable provenance and incredible visuals – a timepiece no one else will ever be able to own.
For the opinion of our resident collector, GaryG, please read his story An Enthusiast Collector’s View of the Grieb & Benzinger Blue Merit.
Fore more information, please visit www.grieb-benzinger.com/.
Case: 41 mm, platinum
Movement: original A. Lange & Söhne Caliber Caliber L 902.0 with one-minute tourbillon and chain and fusée, highly modified by Hermann Grieb and Jochen Benzinger
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; power reserve indication
Limitation: unique piece
Price: U.S. $530,000 / € 385,000