A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk: A ‘Date’ With History
In 1994, A. Lange & Söhne entered the German market with a watch that was well ahead of its time – though at that time this status was not apparent.
A few years later, fairly entrenched in the world’s connoisseur markets and undisputed luxury leader in Germany, it was clear that the Lange 1 had become one of the most iconic wristwatches, establishing an understated, though high-profile, face for the brand in collector circles.
In 2009, completely established as the brand making perhaps the best that serial watchmaking has to offer, A. Lange & Söhne surprisingly launched the next remarkable face – and a mechanical technology to match. That was not without some trepidation: introducing a whole new model family that was so incredibly different from the rest of the established line was no mean feat. And could have had serious consequences had it failed.
It is only possible to say in hindsight if something is a classic; attaining this sort of status is not especially predictable. And the brand already had such a watch in its inimitable Lange 1, which 25 years down the road remains as fresh as the day it was introduced despite – or perhaps because of – its interesting design that went against every convention known to that point.
Original A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk 2009: first impressions
Though A. Lange & Söhne is usually pretty good at naming its timepieces so that they convey their Germanness without straining the sensibilities of non-German-speakers, the Zeitwerk’s name did end up being something of a mouthful that most still cannot pronounce.
Its complicated technology was no less a handful.
But its beautiful displays were immediately understandable.
Zeitwerk is an artificial German compound word made up of the nouns Zeit and Werk: “time” combined with a second word with several different meanings, among them “(watch) movement,” “work,” or even “opus.” The brand leaves that interpretation up to each individual to discern the real meaning for him- or herself.
The most striking thing about the Zeitwerk is its incredible look that combines much that is familiar about A. Lange & Söhne and some less familiar.
Digital watches have not enjoyed great popularity among serious watch collectors and aficionados in the era of the mechanical renaissance and beyond. And, with very few exceptions, the few that have appeared in recent years have been almost direct copies of vintage timepieces.
Therefore, it was more than courageous of A. Lange & Söhne to base a whole new philosophy on this look.
At the time of the Lange 1’s introduction in 1994, with its asymmetrical look it was a distinctive new face in the world of watches. The Zeitwerk was also a watch that had not yet existed with a style and technology found nowhere else.
Its uncompromising look is clear and digital, with the hours on the left and the double-digit minutes on the right in instantaneously jumping windows. A German silver bridge connects the two, symbolically shaped like unfolding wings.
An “auf und ab” power reserve display smiles out at the wearer from the top of the dial, while subsidiary seconds balance out the dial at 6 o’clock – familiar elements that grace many of A. Lange & Söhne’s other watches.
The original font of the large, legible digital numerals was also the same as the double-digit large date introduced on the Lange 1. The look of these elements is based on Gutkaes’s famous five-minute clock hanging above the stage in Dresden’s Semper Opera.
A. Lange & Söhne’s designers kept to their established design codes, not looking to older or other digital watches. The design of the Zeitwerk keeps the numerals in an organic reading flow.
The case, available only in precious metals, is larger than what Lange had issued to that point at 41.9 mm in diameter.
Looks easy, but . . .
The speed of the whispered click of the digital numerals sliding into place is what gives the complicated technology seen only through the sapphire crystal case back away. The movement chiefly designed by Nils Bode, 33.6 mm in diameter, fills out the full space of its case.
Aficionados immediately understood at the time that the most important element of this movement was the amount of energy it could produce to move all three numeral disks at the top of each hour. This was aided by a new type of spring barrel A. Lange & Söhne had developed for the purpose, containing an extra-strong mainspring and innovative bearing allowing the entire barrel to turn as the mainspring’s tension is reduced, with the result being much less friction and much more torque.
Also important is the precise interaction of the disks to ensure the instantaneous jumping action. This is enforced by the constant-force escapement, precisely portioning out energy and ensuring that the movement’s rate is stabilized across the entire 36-hour period of its power reserve, driving the balance as close to uniformly as it gets despite the energy-consuming disk motion that occurs once every minute.
The regulating system, beating at a frequency of 18,000 vph (2.5 Hz), boasts an in-house balance spring and a balance wheel with eccentric regulating weights.
The Zeitwerk’s complexity and innovation remains true to A. Lange & Söhne’s established MO, with only a glance through the sapphire crystal case back revealing Caliber L043.1 in all its glory, including a three-quarter plate (though slightly different looking than the brand’s established norm), a hand-engraved balance cock, and two screw-mounted gold chatons to house some of the movement’s 66 jewels.
Once again, A. Lange & Söhne has mastered the art of making complex technology simple – an aura propagated by a refined dial cloaking the complexity of the movement’s 388 components.
The Zeitwerk was a watch to fit the times ten years ago, a new era of complicated watchmaking, inside the Saxon brand and elsewhere. The Zeitwerk was a watch that reached the hearts of people with its passion and beauty. And it still does as the extended family of these watches shows.
Zeitwerk family extended: five variations between 2010 and 2018
The year after the original Zeitwerk appeared, the brand brought out the Luminous variation in 2010, which made the switching process of the jumping numeral disks visible to the owner. Its semitransparent sapphire crystal dial was specially coated to allow the luminous elements in the disk mechanism to charge using light – and causing them to glow intensely in low-light conditions.
In 2012 came the Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst with its unbelievable texture created by the tremblage engraving technique that this model also introduced to the brand’s repertoire. As the Zeitwerk broke the brand’s stoic classicism, so this engraving technique did the same for its typical art of engraving. Read more in The A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst: I Can Just Feel It!
The Zeitwerk Striking Time of 2011 was the forerunner to the brand’s long-awaited chiming pieces, including the Grand Complication (2013) and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater (2015), and featured its amazing gongs on the front.
The unbelievable Zeitwerk Minute Repeater came along in 2015, a masterpiece of a chiming watch with its sonorous decimal repeating system. I’d even call it genius. Read more in A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater: A Decimal Repeater With Attitude!
The Zeitwerk Decimal Strike of 2017 combined the ultra-sensible idea of the decimal minute repeater with the Striking Time of 2011 and measured dollops of tremblage engraving to make yet another masterpiece. Read more about it in Chime In Passing Excellence: A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Decimal Strike.
Zeitwerk family extended with Zeitwerk Date in 2019
At SIHH 2019 – ten years and six model variations after its introduction – A. Lange & Söhne introduced another significant new variation to the model family: the Zeitwerk Date.
While “adding a date” sounds like a simple undertaking for most watches, do remember that at A. Lange & Söhne nothing is “simply” done, instead very authentically done regardless of how difficult that might be, and that adding a date display to a clean, carefully designed mechanical digital watch with an uber-complicated movement is a more-than-difficult undertaking not only on a design level, but also on a mechanical one.
The movement of the Zeitwerk was not “added to” at all to achieve this; one must really say that this movement is new.
So, first, what is it about the date that is so special? What it looks like is a ring around the perimeter of the dial. But look closely and you’ll soon see that that while that’s true, there is no hand pointing to the date numeral so as not to disturb the minimalist aesthetic of the Zeitwerk Date’s dial.
Instead, there is a red segment underneath a glass ring printed with the numerals 1 through 31; the red segment highlights the current date. And at midnight it precisely jumps to the next day’s numeral, meaning that over the course of one month it makes a full trip around the dial.
The date jumps precisely at midnight; there is no creeping up to it.
I don’t need to tell you that this is a completely new design approach at A. Lange & Söhne.
The case buttons are used to set and adjust both the date and the time: the date’s button is located at 8 o’clock, while the hour indication’s is at 4 o’clock. The crown at 1 o’clock sets and adjusts the display of minutes.
This also differs from the original Zeitwerk’s technology, where all the time displays are set and adjusted via the crown.
Time and date-setting 2.0
The additions of these two new buttons – which immediately recall the look and feel of the date-setting button of the Lange 1 – called for modifications to the movement. First and foremost among these, a patented clutch mechanism was added to uncouple the hour ring from the mechanism controlling the jumping numerals when the button is pressed.
The displays only move upon the finger’s release of the button, though, which has the advantage of the same amount of pressure being applied to the switching mechanism regardless of how hard the owner has pressed the button.
Pressing the button tensions a small spring, activates the clutch system, and pushes the switching mechanism over the corrector without moving it – in essence charging it without moving anything. Only when the button is let go does the patented system jump into action.
The Zeitwerk Date also includes a clever new notching system for the numerals that affects their positions within the windows, keeping them right in the center at all times. It also ensures absolute instantaneous jumping (the old system saw the minute numeral begin to move about ten seconds before it was to change).
This slightly modified jumping mechanism was developed after the release of the original Zeitwerk, which allowed the power-hungry movement to save more energy. This subassembly was not released within a certain model but rather evolved over time; however work on this began after the team started the Zeitwerk Date, which helped prompt the development (and which has been included in Zeitwerk models leaving the factory since then).
Constant force: concept untouched, mechanics touched
One essential concept remains untouched from the original Zeitwerk, though its implementation has been fundamentally changed. The patented constant force escapement oversees two important jobs: providing the balance with uniform amounts of energy and delivering the switching impulse to the three time-telling disks once every minute.
The three time-telling disks, by the way, are arranged so closely to each other in the movement that the play between them (above and below) is a mere 0.2 mm. It goes without saying that they must be completely flat and poised to avoid any additional friction to the movement (or damage to the display disks) while appearing to be right next to each other from the outside.
The constant force element is important to the movement as the powerful watch with its powerful displays need a lot of energy to function properly; this is helped by particularly strong mainsprings (which are also characterized by steeply declining torque), but also the remontoir whose spring reloads every 60 seconds, providing an energy impulse to the displays once every minute.
One very significant change is the addition of twin serial spring barrels for double the amount of power reserve (72 hours as opposed to 36). As the watch is manually wound, turning the crown tensions both mainsprings at the same time.
The two mainsprings are connected at the upper barrel core and the lower barrel drum, the advantage of which is a smaller amount of friction loss while winding and optimized utilization of the stored energy.
The addition of a second barrel also precipitated a new winding bridge.
Also, there has been a very, very slight reworking of time display numerals – so light in fact that if you didn’t put the Zeitwerk Date next to a previous Zeitwerk you wouldn’t notice it. I personally only noticed the slight difference when I was at the factory and saw the two side by side. Even the technician had to stop for a moment and ponder my question regarding the numeral design before confirming.
What hasn’t changed in this movement is that – like all movements made at A. Lange & Söhne – it is assembled twice. And it offers the very finest serial finishing available today.
For more information, please visit www.alange-soehne.com/en/timepieces/family-zeitwerk.
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, 388 components, 66 jewels (2 in gold chatons), 36-hour power reserve, hand-engraved balance cock, assembled twice, untreated German silver three-quarter plate, 2.5 Hz/18,000 vph frequency, swan-neck fine adjustment, in-house balance spring
Functions: jumping hour, jumping minutes, (hacking) seconds; power reserve indication
Quick Facts A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Date
Case: 44.2 x 12.3 mm, white gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber L043.8 with constant-force escapement, 516 components, 70 jewels (2 in gold chatons), 72-hour power reserve, hand-engraved balance cock, assembled twice, untreated German silver three-quarter plate, in-house balance spring, 2.5 Hz/18,000 vph frequency, swan-neck fine adjustment, twin serially operating spring barrels
Functions: jumping hour, jumping minutes, (hacking) seconds; date, power reserve indication
* This article was first published on October 5, 2019 at A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk: A ‘Date’ With History