Why I Bought It: A. Lange & Söhne Pour Le Mérite Tourbillon
One of the absolute high points of my late 2016 trip to Geneva for the auction weekend (see Year-End Auctions 2016: I Came, I Saw, I Learned, I Bought) was coming home with the auction piece I had on my “buy” list: the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon.
When the hammer came down at Phillips and I had become the new owner, the feeling was one of complete joy, representing the culmination of a multi-year chase. But what exactly made this watch a must-have for me and why might it also be something for you to add to your list of objects of desire – or not?
Why I bought it
In my friend Terry’s taxonomy, the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon is most definitely an “investment” piece: it is a watch that can serve as one of the solid foundations of a well-constructed collection for the long run.
More than that, as a Lange enthusiast I found that the absence of this particular timepiece from my collection gnawed at me. While I think it a bit arrogant given the cost and rarity of the piece to suggest, as some do, that “any serious Lange collector needs one,” I certainly felt for many years that I couldn’t be fulfilled as a lover of Lange’s watches until I scaled this particular peak.
It’s all about the people
And in the case of the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon, what people! The PLM story, of course, starts with Günter Blümlein and Walter Lange, who worked together at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall to revive fine German watchmaking under the Lange brand (see The Life And Times Of A. Lange & Söhne Re-Founder Walter Lange).
I didn’t know Blümlein, but over the past several years I did have a number of opportunities to meet Walter Lange. His recent passing at the age of 92 has left a void in the world of watches and deeply saddened me in ways that I hadn’t really anticipated.
Over the years, any time I’ve written about the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon there’s been one constant: the mention that “Herr Lange wears one.” One of his daily wearers was a yellow gold PLM just like mine; his was Number 1 of 150, and his ownership of the watch was a major driver behind my desire have one.
I was so eager to arrive at SIHH this year and seek out Herr Lange for a shared wristshot like the one I took a few years ago of his wrist with those of two of my collector pals; I won’t ever have that chance now, but I can certainly think of him and all that he continues to mean to all of us each time I strap on my PLM.
The list of people continues with Giulio Papi, who was heavily involved in the development of the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon. Papi told us the tale at the SIHH of Blümlein calling him a scant two weeks after the Wall fell asking for his help in realizing a dream: a recovery from “fifty years of nothing” in watchmaking in eastern Germany showcasing a watch that would demonstrate that “the ideas and know-how” of watchmaking had returned.
The Pour le Mérite Tourbillon was the realization of that dream brought to life by Blümlein, Lange, Papi, and many others including a pair of young Dutch watchmakers, the Grönefelds, who at the time worked at Renaud and Papi.
I can’t entirely imagine what it must have been like to be in the room on October 24, 1994, seeing the first four Lange watches, including the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon, unveiled. But I imagine that for many who were there it was the horological equivalent of the amazed sense of revelation that members of the audience felt on the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943.
Would Lange have burst into the top echelon of watchmaking that day without the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon? There’s no way of knowing, of course, and thankfully we don’t have to find out.
The list of people goes on, too: friends Peter Chong, who wrote and photographed the definitive book on the Pour le Mérite series, and Edwin Heusinkveld, co-chair of the Lange enthusiasts’ page on Timezone and longtime Pour le Mérite Tourbillon owner, come immediately to mind.
Most recently, I was extremely touched when after my purchase of this watch, my friends at A. Lange & Söhne in Glashütte reached out to congratulate me and offered to search for the numbered 96/150 copy of Peter Chong’s book to accompany it.
Not only did they find the book, but the prior owner of the watch and book, a real gentleman, kindly agreed to swap his for another copy.
Why I love it
The people make the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon special, but it’s a great watch on its own merits! Let’s start with the fusée and chain assembly, which appeared for the very first time in a wristwatch right in this model.
The tiny chain, shown in part at the lower left of the photo above, proved incredibly difficult to make with the right level of suppleness until the watchmakers determined that a thin piece of rice paper could be inserted between the pins and links on one side during assembly and then burned away to create a small gap.
Combined with the Pour le Mérite’s tourbillon, the constant force fusée and chain assembly makes it clear that the emphasis of the Pour le Mérite movement is timekeeping; and since I’m a firm believer that a great watch must keep time well, I couldn’t be happier that A. Lange & Söhne adopted this combination of elements in its first showcase watch.
Of course, the Pour le Mérite also has the now-classic Lange design cues, including three-quarter plate construction and an ornately engraved balance cock. The Pour le Mérite’s tourbillon boasts an additional twist as its endstones are bearing jewels made of diamond.
On the dial side, the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon is balanced and pretty in a sober sort of way, with fonts and graphics including the three dots at 12 o’clock that are now identified with Lange’s 1815 line.
One thing that I love about my particular Pour le Mérite Tourbillon is that it has obviously been well cared for over the years, at the same time developing a lovely patina on both case and movement.
The German silver movement components have taken on a fascinating character, in some lights appearing silvery, in others almost dark grey, and in many conditions exhibiting the soft yellow we’ve come to know in more mature Lange movements.
Did I mention that it’s all about the people? Many of my friends, including three other members of our little Northern California “gang,” are proud Pour le Mérite Tourbillon owners, and it was a treat to take a first group wristshot with mine after a recent lunch.
As with most watches, the more time you spend with the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon the more you see: if you look carefully at the right edge of the movement in the image below, you’ll see that the perlage is very fine; in my friends’ later Pour le Mérite Tourbillons, the beads are somewhat larger, lending them a different (but still fantastic) look.
For me, the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon is one of those watches that you immediately want to put on when you see it on the table and that you’re reluctant to take off and put on the dresser before you go to bed at night.
At this point, it’s way too late to be mentioning potential improvements on this watch!
That said, if we could turn the time machine back to the early 1990s, I might put in my requests for two minor changes:
- A slightly more “live” look to the dial: even though the subdials are grooved and the larger dial surface is silvered, in some light the dial takes on a flat appearance. In the light tent, some watches just pop; it takes a bit more work to coax out the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon’s beauty
- More openings in that big plate on the back to let us see more of the details of that wonderful fusée-and-chain system
Is it right for you?
At our group’s traditional post-SIHH Friday dinner this year, I picked the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon as one of the top three watches in my collection. You might want to start your own quest for one of the 199 remaining examples across all metals (one of the original watches has since been turned into the Blue Merit by Grieb & Benzinger) of this remarkable watch if:
- Like me, you see it as one of the most important modern wristwatches, worth owning even if your collection doesn’t yet feature A. Lange & Söhne in a big way
- You are an A. Lange & Söhne enthusiast and want to complete your set of landmark Lange pieces
- You are intrigued by different approaches to improving timekeeping accuracy and the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon’s position as the first chain-and-fusée wristwatch speaks to that fascination
- You want a tangible link to the great figures who were involved in creating the watch
No watch is right for everyone! You might choose to apply your energies elsewhere if:
- You’re strictly devoted to present-day watches and aren’t sure about owning a piece that was launched 23 years ago this year
- The classic look of the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon’s dial is not to your taste
- Another grail piece has been calling your name in the same way that the Pour le Mérite Tourbillon called mine
For myself, all that I can say is that every time I wear, admire, or even think about this watch, I’ll repeat one phrase to myself: “Herr Lange wore one.”
Case: yellow gold (106 examples), platinum (50), pink gold (24), white gold (19), and stainless steel (1); 38.5 x 10 mm (with one smaller exception in pink gold)
Dial: silvered on yellow gold version with painted Arabic numerals
Movement: manually wound Caliber L902.0; frequency 2.5 Hz/18,000 vph; power reserve 36 hours; one-minute tourbillon; chain and fusée subassembly for constant force
Functions: hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds; power reserve indication
Limitation: 106 in yellow gold; 50 in platinum; 24 in pink gold; 19 in white gold; and 1 in stainless steel
Year of manufacture: 1994
Original retail prices: 125,000 German marks (yellow gold), 140,000 German marks (platinum)
Recent auction result prices: $154,000 to $180,000 (yellow gold), $275,000 (platinum)