The Zeitwerk is by far A. Lange & Söhne’s most modern collection. Its concept is simple: time is presented horizontally in a digital format, exactly like how you’d read or write it.
The idea may be straightforward, but executing it with a mechanical movement is anything but. For one, the display format itself is a hurdle to overcome. As three separate number wheels are needed, fitting them under the dial while keeping them close to their respective apertures is no mean feat. Driving these wheels and making them jump instantaneously, whether singly or all three at once, is also difficult given the energy demands placed on the barrel. There’s also the issue of keeping the timepiece’s form factor manageable – it is a wristwatch after all.
A. Lange & Söhne has succeeded despite these technical challenges, with solutions ranging from the Zeitwerk’s signature winged “time bridge” on the dial to the remontoir d’égalité constant force mechanism. Thus, the Zeitwerk family continues to grow, with new models sporting different complications being unveiled every few years.
The latest addition is the Zeitwerk Date introduced earlier this year at SIHH. In this watch, the current date is highlighted using a red marker under the flange, which has been printed a la a “regular” date wheel, except in negative. It’s an elegant addition to a timepiece that already has a large digital display, and certainly fits in with the Zeitwerk family’s atypical interpretation of watch complications.
Put 2019’s Zeitwerk Date beside the original Zeitwerk from 2009, and you may be hard-pressed to find many differences. Apart from the additional date complication, what’s probably most obvious is the Zeitwerk Date’s size – at 44.2mm across, it’s slightly wider than the Zeitwerk, which has a 41.9mm case. The devil is in the details: if you were to examine the numerals that indicate the time, you’ll find that those on the Zeitwerk Date are almost imperceptibly smaller, with each one produced using an ever so slightly thinner coat of paint.
As the story goes, this tweak happened by accident during the development of the Zeitwerk Date. Robert Hoffman (above, left), head of the Zeitwerk department, was then assembling a prototype when he used the wrong component kit that had number wheels meant for another watch. The mistake didn’t go unnoticed. Hoffman and his colleagues, however, agreed that these “wrong” wheels updated the prototype for a more contemporary look (albeit an unplanned one) and thus decided to keep this change. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hoffman himself shared this story during the recent Lange Connoisseur’s Akademie watchmaking class that was held in Phuket. The anecdote, along with other insights into the Zeitwerk Date’s development, made up the initial “theory lesson” that opens every session in the Connoisseur’s Akademie series. It is here that you learn how obsessed the watchmakers at A. Lange & Söhne are with the minutiae in every watch, and how progress is a constant at the manufactory. Case in point: even the tried-and-tested remontoir d’égalité system used in the original Zeitwerk has been tweaked, both to reduce its energy requirements and to refine its aesthetics.
The Hands That Shape Time
The theory lesson of every Connoisseur’s Akademie is always followed by a hands-on session centred on a single aspect of watchmaking, from winding a mainspring and transferring it into a barrel to engraving a balance cock by hand. There is nothing quite like trying out a seemingly simple task by hand, only to find out the high level of finesse required to perform it. What’s more, these tasks have already been simplified and their requirements lowered – just imagine the exacting standards demanded of complex operations like adjusting a rattrapante chronograph.
Beyond just gaining an appreciation of the people and skills that create A. Lange & Söhne’s timepieces, these practical sessions often serve other treats. The personal highlight for me was Hoffman’s disassembly of a Zeitwerk to allow attendees a rare look into the time bridge’s architecture. Beneath the hood, the dial side of the movement was also elaborately decorated – never mind that this view would normally only be seen by a watchmaker. It speaks volumes about the attention to detail for the brand, even in areas that supposedly matter less.
Our task in Phuket was to wind up the Zeitwerk Date’s mainspring and fit it into its barrel. It wasn’t easy, but then I had expected this. What I didn’t expect, however, was to work with actual components as there were no “dummy” parts for practice.
A cursory glance revealed, once again, that the inner surfaces of the barrel’s drum and cover had been finished to the same standard as their exteriors. It’s yet another testament to A. Lange & Söhne’s quality of work – and one that should never, ever be overlooked.