A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk: Digital Delight With A Mechanical Heart
Watches in general, and also in a way jewelry, have fascinated me since I was 18. This was when I received my first watch and cufflinks from my parents.
But my fascination for less conventional watches that display the time in more unusual ways began in the 1980s when I got a jump hour watch by Gérald Genta.
And while I usually write about Cartier, I’ve also written about Urwerk, Hautlence, and MCT – all brands specializing in wandering or jumping hour watches. Audemars Piguet was quite early with its Star Wheel and so was Vacheron Constantin with its Saltarello, a watch that I still long to see up close.
This brings me to A. Lange & Söhne, who in 2009 overtook the jump hour competition with the addition of the Zeitwerk to its collection, a watch with both jumping hours and minutes. This was a radical departure for the brand in the context of its previous designs. However, in the past nine years it has been part of the collection, claiming its place next to the popular and even more successful Datograph and Lange 1 models.
The Zeitwerk was the watch that made me follow A. Lange & Söhne more closely, but it still took me until last year before I finally got to handle one in the metal. And I became instantly addicted.
Until a few months ago the Zeitwerk was the only watch with both jumping hours and minutes. But that changed in January 2018 when IWC launched its version of the same complication: the Pallweber pocket watch redesigned as a wristwatch (see IWC Tribute To Pallweber Edition Celebrates 150th Anniversary With Brand’s Frist Wristwatch With Digital Display), which I’ll come back to at the end of this post.
While there are more complicated versions of the Zeitwerk available, such as the Zeitwerk Striking Time and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, for the purposes of this post I’m setting them aside and sticking to the über cool time-only Zeitwerk.
Housed in the fairly conventional round case A. Lange & Söhne utilizes for most of its complicated watches, the Zeitwerk has a diameter of 41.9 mm with prominent lugs and a height of 12.6 mm. So far nothing extraordinary to write home about. The crown, placed off center at 2 o’clock, makes winding pretty comfortable and gives the watch a perky, different look.
Inside the case, however, there is a different story: from a design point of view, this watch’s movement comprises a completely different architecture from the brand’s other watch lines. The Zeitwerk’s Caliber L043.1 is, like all other movements in the collection of A. Lange & Söhne, built in its own manufacture, but in a separate Zeitwerk department.
A. Lange & Sohne makes everything in house, except the cases and dials, which come from outside suppliers. Two cases, however, that of the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater and that of the Grand Complication, are sort of exceptions: these are modified by A. Lange & Sohne’s craftspeople because of the complicated construction required to transmit the sound of the chimes.
Zeitwerk: an unusual, but highly legible, display
Reading the time on a Zeitwerk is extremely straightforward thanks to the large windows showing the hour and the minute placed across the full width of the dial in the center. The time is displayed by three disks, one for the hours and two for the minutes.
A power reserve indicator is located above the time windows, while a fairly large subsidiary seconds subdial dominates the lower part.
Seven seconds before the small second hand finishes its full revolution around its subdial, the minute disk moves a fraction of a millimeter; at the moment the second hand hits the 60, the minute disk makes an instant jump. At the top of the hour, the hour disk jumps together with the minutes.
The minor detail I would like to call a pre-jump, which some collectors have found less than perfect, has now been modified, and the current Zeitwerks no longer have the fractional movement of the minute disk before it jumps. This modification was so extensive in terms of the movement’s construction that it is not possible for A. Lange & Söhne to upgrade existing models – just in case wearers might have wondered if that were possible.
One can only imagine what an enormous amount of energy is needed to have the minutes make their leap every 60 seconds and once an hour at the same time as the hours.
A. Lange & Söhne had to overcome this difficulty: to regulate the energy, the brand’s engineers developed a special escapement placed between the balance and the barrel wheel. The power required to move the disks every minute is held and then released by a remontoir.
Sizing up the competition
As I mentioned earlier, the Pallweber pocket watch, now redesigned as a stunning wristwatch by IWC, is the only competition the Zeitwerk currently has when it comes to the unusual digital display of hours and minutes.
Both have a magnificent jumping-hour-and-minute complication, but reading the time on the IWC is vertical – as was the original pocket watch – while reading the Zeitwerk is done horizontally, which I find more natural.
With a case size of 45 mm, the IWC is also substantially larger than the Zeitwerk – but the price is not. IWC designed its caliber without a remontoir, which made the production of this movement more cost efficient. That’s a large factor as to why IWC has been able to price the Tribute to Pallweber, which comes in steel, gold or platinum, more aggressively.
Zeitwerk in daily life
Even after months of wearing the Zeitwerk on a daily basis, it remains fascinating to see how precisely everything works at each jump.
With other jump hour watches, it has often been the case that the second hand had already passed the hour without the hour disk having done its job yet, something that always irritated me. Not so with the Zeitwerk, where everything happens simultaneously and at the exact moment.
In everyday life the Zeitwerk sits well on the wrist and wears comfortably, but I have to admit that it took me a few days to get used to the prominent case. I also had to strap it on more tightly than I am used to with my fairly light dress watches. Those who are used to wearing watches like a Cartier Santos or Ballon Bleu, like myself, will feel every bit of the watch in the beginning, but you get used to this rather rapidly.
From the day the Zeitwerk became available, I had a completely different perception of what the watch would be like. I was convinced that it was a stunner, but didn’t believe that it would work as a daily watch.
Here I have to admit that I was completely wrong and I hope a few pictures will prove that. My expectation was that the Zeitwerk would just look great with casual wear like sweaters, short sleeves, and leather jackets – and it does for sure. I was more than surprised to see that the watch also goes very well with more formal wear like suits and cuffed shirts with cufflinks.
A Zeitwerk can’t really be described as a dress watch, but it can certainly accompany you to business meetings, where the time can be checked discretely without pulling the watch out completely from underneath your sleeve.
So to make a long story short, the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk could very well be your only watch – and isn’t that what a watch like this should be?
For more information, please visit www.alange-soehne.com.
Quick Facts A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk
Case: 41.9 x 12.6 mm, white or pink gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber L043.1 with constant-force escapement, 415 parts, 68 jewels, 36-hour power reserve
Functions: jumping hour, jumping minutes, small seconds; power reserve indication
Also published on Medium.