Through the lens of new Watches & Wonders novelties, Anthony de Haas, Head of Product Development at A. Lange & Sohne talks to Augustman on how the smallest improvements are usually monumental leaps in the world of fine watchmaking.
The Grand Lange One is a house classic. Working on the watch case to make it slightly thinner, Lange managed to reduce the thickness by 0.6 millimetres. I know what you’re thinking, “that’s not much” but to a watchmaker, it’s a monumental.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes a common refrain and to many, the Grand Lange One is emblematic of a brand icon that nobody believes needs improvement (or fixing for that matter) and yet, according to Anthony de Haas, Head of Product Development, Lange & Sohne has opted to reduce the thickness of the hour markers by half. Combined with a thinner bezel and thinner hands, what results is one of the world’s perfect dress watches made even dressier. “There’s great risk in reducing the thickness of the indexes. Half as thick, you run the risk of needing the high polished surface creating very strange reflections on the warped surface,” describes de Haas. He continues, “I’m proud to be part of the brand that is home to such an icon but it can also make things very difficult because it puts pressure on you when you want to further develop watches like the Lange One. That said, I like challenges.”
Indeed, the Grand Lange One which made its first appearance in 2003, was entirely revamped in 2012 and then now, 10 years on, relaunched at the first Watches & Wonders since the global pandemic, the jovial Dutch watchmaker-drummer is quick to point point that the improvements are purely aesthetic and that the challenge in the process was creating bigger differentiation without altering its design identity or touching the movement. “Half the magic was in creating visual illusions via ingenious deep 45 degree angle chamfering around the subdials that give the impression of utmost thinness and elegance,” says de Haas describing the process, “not many people know this but on the movement side, the 2012 Grand Lange One has 72 hours power reserve on a single barrel because we took what we learned from working on the Saxonia Thin, a dress watch would be really thick with two barrels. There’s an incredible amount of synergy between movement designers and the design team.”
When you consider the immense fecundity of ideas and creativity in the Saxony manufacture, it makes it an easier to leap to consider the immensity of accomplishment in the context of the Richard Lange Minute Repeater, another technical novelty and dare we say, one of the major highlights of the Geneva watch fair.
Lange made their first minute repeater in 2013, it was grand sonnerie quickly followed up in 2015 with the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. Seven years later, the Maison has conceived of a thoroughly classical minute repeater in the latest timepiece to bear the name Richard Lange. Giddy as a school boy de Haas asks, “Would you think I am proudest of the minute repeater movement?” But before I can answer, he follows up, “You’d be wrong, because it’s the enamel dial. Not just any enamel dial but an in-house three piece enamel dial.”
Comprised of at highest level with Roman numerals, a second segment with the printed logo and finally, the third layer – a subsidiary seconds dial, each layer needs to be fired, and each visit to the kiln introduces the potential for something to go wrong. Depending on the character of the colour, it takes between 6 and 9 layers of enamel to achieve the desired finish. Even in classic white, part of the reason for the decline in enamel dials is the unforgiving and time consuming process, you can do everything correctly and still have minute particles from the kiln landing on the dial while being fired, marring an otherwise pristine surface.
The essence of incremental perfection
Augustman: So many improvements, why didn’t you guys make it perfect right from the start?
Anthony de Haas: [laughs] That’s the evolution of things! Why did the Lange 1 in 2015 have an instantaneous jumping date when we didn’t do it in 1994 when we launched? We ask ourselves this question a lot and I’m always the devil’s advocate because, “guys, we need to stop and deliver products because we’d never be satisfied with them.” Of course we thought of adding an instantaneous jumping date to the Grand Lange 1 which would have made it slightly thicker but it would also have reduced the differentiation between the regular Lange 1 and the Grand Lange 1. From a design point of view, it could be that we make this a reality in ten years from all things we learn from different projects. It is also a price thing because it requires a complicated mechanism but you can’t always make it a price thing.
You say evolution but a cynic would say, if you made a watch with all the right elements at launch, people wouldn’t be buying extra watches, would that be a fair statement?
I think that would be going too far [Laughs]. We are not a pure commercial brand. We are not dictated by finance and I can tell you it’s not an easy environment. The big boss is fine with the direction but we have middle managers and financial guys always looking at the bottomline. We have to keep reminding them that this is not a standard movement, each watch we make has its own movement and there’s a difference in margin; if we change this, it is at the brand’s own demise. I’m a watchmaker and you can’t make a watchmaker in a financial environment otherwise I would be broker or banker.
I think the hurt feelings come primarily from buying something and seeing a newer better model come onto the market…
I mean we would never force someone to buy our watches but if we created desire even with a slightly modified watch, that’s a damn good job done. I think when you love watches, you often catch yourself thinking about the road not taken. When we redid the Lange 1 in 2015, we also wanted to redo the Lange 1 Moonphase and I said, “no guys, this is too much of the same.” So, we went to the drawing board and built in the day and night indication with the moon phase. There was some initial unhappiness but when the final project was released, everyone was overjoyed. Watchmaking is always about wanting to do better from an engineering standpoint.
When I first came to Lange in 2004, we have two movement designers, today we have 11. We started to work more in parallel. There are enormous amounts of synergies between all the projects: in trying to make the Zeitwerk work, the Lange 31 helped us with the remontoire system. These things are all connected.
Does this direction also mean you’re looking to do a slimmer Double Split perhaps?
[Laughs] I think the “thinner Double Split” is called the Triple Split because the Double Split has 36 hours power reserve and it is exactly the same size as the Triple Split with an additional function on top. The interesting thing is that there are projects which share a lot of synergies and some which appear to share commonalities have none at all like in the case of the Richard Lange Minute Repeater, it has nothing to do with a Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. I’m happy that we got it 39mm wide by 9.7mm thin and a platinum waterproof to boot!
How much more difficult was it to do the enamel dial than before on the 1815?
When we made the 1815 homage, we made the enamel dial but used a supplier for the printing. We’ve been working on enamel since 2010 and the first model was the Handwerkskunst in 2014. Then we had a 1815 Perpetual Calendar Rattrapante, it’s been a long process of acquiring the know-how but now we managed to do the printing and the baking perfectly in-house.
An enamel dial is thicker than a regular dial and set on a minute repeater less than 10mm thick, how did you do it?
[Takes a breath] It’s not a battle with Piaget or Bvlgari. Thinness is their thing but we wanted something to follow a technical beast like a grand complication in the Zeitwerk and for many people, a minute repeater is cool but too thick. It’s a statement but not dressy.
Water resistance on a minute repeater is unheard of…
Yes, that’s a real secret. You want the sound to get out of the case but you want it to be waterproof. If you work with rubber joins and gaskets, it will absorb the sound vibrations and so we had to get creative. It’s easier to make a water resistant chronograph because they’re just pushers. With a minute repeater you have a slider to keep greased and lubricated that we had to waterproof the entire slide.
You went the route of Richard Lange rather than the 1815 watch family (a reference to the year in which Ferdinand Adolph Lange was born), how did you come to this decision?
You can make concept art but we found we already had grand complication in the 1815 and we found that with the Richard Lange design, we could really lean into the classics. Three piece enamel dial and the opportunity (and pride) to do it 100% in-house, we’ve finally mastered all steps of the enamel process, but still you need to make six dials to finish one.
Introducing Lange’s pinnacle: Richard Lange Minute Repeater
We are probably more familiar with A. Lange & Söhne’s split-seconds chronographs, perpetual calendars, and tourbillons. That’s not to say that they don’t make chiming watches but the reality is that they haven’t made that many and when Anthony de Haas puts his mind to something, boy he gets it right.
Lange first released their interpretation of the chiming complication in 2011 with the Zeitwerk Striking Time in 2011, which chimed once every 15 minutes rather than on-demand like a conventional minute repeater. The technology was then applied to 2015’s Zeitwerk Minute Repeater but what we witness today is the most traditional implementation of a chiming watch at A. Lange & Söhne yet.
With its white, three-part enamel dial, the 50-watch limited edition platinum timepiece is delightfully appealing, not only acoustically but also visually; unlike its predecessor relations, the new Richard Lange Minute Repeater puts the focus on the chiming mechanism as a singular complication.
Based on traditional architecture: when the slide integrated into the left-hand case flank is actuated, the chiming mechanism strikes the hours, the quarter hours, and the minutes. It follows a mechanical programme that with two differently tuned gongs can strike 720 different sequences – one for every minute in the twelve-hour cycle. The hours sound at a lower pitch, the quarter hours with a double tone, and the minutes that have elapsed since the last quarter hour with a higher-pitched tone.
When the repeater sequence is activated, the sapphire-crystal caseback reveals exactly how the mirror-polished gong hammers execute the respective sequence of strikes on the two gongs that are wrapped around the movement. A refined system of artistically choreographed racks, snails, levers, and wheels controls the 191 part mechanism.
The hammers are each finished using black polishing techniques creating a mirror effect; the gongs themselves are bent by hand and polished to match. The bridge positioned directly above the centrifugal governor regulating the speed at which the hammers strike the gongs – is skeletonised for to showcase the ballet dance when the music plays. According to Lange, the centrifugal governor inside the caliber L122.1 undergoes more than 2,000 revolutions per minute when the striking mechanism is engaged.
Three technical feats separate the Richard Lange Minute Repeater from “traditional” classic minute repeater: Chiefly, the chiming mechanism has a pause elimination feature, skipping the otherwise common pause between the hour and minute strike when no double tone must be struck for the quarter hours in the first 14 minutes after the top of the hour. To prevent damage to the chiming mechanism, it was equipped with a safety device so that the minute repeater cannot be activated while the crown is pulled out. Further, the crown cannot be pulled out when the chiming mechanism is active. Finally, the patented hammer blocker causes the hammers to dwell in their home position for fractions of a second after the gongs have been struck. Thus, the re- bounding hammers cannot bounce and strike the gongs again.