German silver, outsize date, honey coloured gold and double assembling are terms that are quite unique to A. Lange & Soehne. But this is not just it. We found out more during our visit to their manufactory in Glashutte
By: Soumya Jain
Posted on: September 24, 2012
When I asked Mr Anthony de Haas, Director Product Development at A. Lange & Söhne, to tell us five innovations they have done in watchmaking, he coolly asked back, “Do you have some time?” and started recounting the names of all their watches with a small description of what makes them unique.
“It all began when we restarted the brand in 1990. In 1994 the first watch collection came out. One of them was Lange 1 with the outsize date. It was an innovation at that point. And the Tourbillon [Tourbillon ‘Pour Le Merite’] with the fusee and chain mechanism was at thar point a big bomb,” said Mr de Haas excitedly.
In their Langematik calibre, launched in 1997, if you pull the crown to set the time, the little seconds hand jumps to zero through the zero reset mechanism. So after adjusting the minute and hour hands and pushing the crown, the watch runs from 0 seconds, thus giving precise timing. Their 1999 Datograph has the exact jumping minute counter which was never done before. In 2001 they created the first perpetual calendar with outsize date. Then in 2004, they made the Double Split which was a novelty. In 2005, they created the Tourbograph with the split second chronograph and the Tourbillon. “Imagine since 200-300 years Tourbillons have been made and everybody says its precision. But it became true only in 2008 when we presented the Tourbillon where, again, when we pull the crown, the Tourbillon cage stops so it allows you to adjust the watch exactly on the seconds, which was not possible before!” said Mr de Haas.
Even after being shrouded for 45 years after World War II, it is incredible that A. Lange & Söhne has devised these major developments. Their quintessential German meticulousness aids in the process too as I found out during my visit to their manufactory in Glashütte.
The time trail
Driving from the small, charming city of Dresden, we reached the centre of German watchmaking – Glashütte – by passing through vast, lush fields of greens. We parked outside the unassuming white building that serves as the first point of our tour. But before we were ushered in, our eyes caught a large A. Lange & Söhne board adorning a field opposite. We were proudly informed that the foundation of a new manufactory building had just been laid a day before on this land. After a short meet with the PR Team and gasping at their watches, we were led towards the manufactory area, to witness how some of the most beautiful watch complications are made.
The milling and drilling room was humming with high-tech machines as we watched Lange’s ‘signature’ three-quarter plate being made. The three-quarter plate is what we see gliding gracefully under the sapphire case back. It accommodates the bearings of the going train. During assembly, it must be accurately positioned over several arbors to add stability to a movement. It also makes movements more resistant to soiling.
After the plates are done, they are taken to the measurement department. The Optical Comparator machine checks whether all the 100+ little holes are in place while the Video Laser Measuring Device checks if the size is perfect or not. Measuring up to 1/10th of a micrometer, any discrepancies are shown through red dots. Too many of them and the plate is made again completely. The fixation of quality control is so strong, in fact, that this machine sits on a granite slab weighing a ton, so that it is not disturbed by the vibrations caused by heavy vehicles passing by on the road.
Before we could proceed to the finishing department, we were given a glimpse into the Wire Electrical Discharge Machining, where the tiniest of parts are made, including, clicks, levers and jumpers. About 25 parts take three hours to be made! Considering each movement has about 200-500 parts (at times more), one can only calculate the amount of time needed to craft a complete set…
The finishing department is where a flurry of polishing and decorative activities take place. And this is where the work of machines is minimised and human hands take over to eradicate any possibility of a mistake, for Lange’s craftsmen are more hawk-eyed than any machine could be, owing to their immense passion for watchmaking.
The Lange finishers were engrossed in ‘chamfering’ to ensure that all the edges are smoothened out. The Lange Zeitwerk date display alone takes 1.5 hours for deburring, chamfering and polishing. Other kinds of polishing Lange excels in are flat polishing and black polishing. In flat polishing, tiny watch parts are polished with diamond abrasive paper, the success of which is dependent on how long you are doing this and which kind of diamond paper you use. Black polishing, which is done for the Tourbillon bridges, is a technique which is handled well only by very few watch brands. It is the most difficult kind of polishing which has been mastered by Lange.
There are also six kinds of finishes that Lange gives to all its watch parts: circular graining, solar graining, contours satin finish (done with a diamond stick), Glashütte ribbing (equi-distant stripes on the three-quarter plate), straight graining, and the Perlage. For the Perlage, tools with different diameters are used to give the desired effect. The ‘biggest’ one has a diameter of 5mm. With their loupes perched on their eye, one can only wonder how intricately these watchmakers work on the finishing, considering that each and every part is finished, polished and/or engraved. Lange’s superiority is evident by the fact that 80-90 per cent of polishing is done only for visual, decorative purposes!
Engraving, however, is the tour de force of Lange watches I think. They have six master engravers, who first made their own engraving tools according to the shape and size of their hands, and then went on to engrave. The balance cock, which is just a centimeter long part of Lange watches, is the epitome of their engraving capabilities. After all, carving elaborate patterns on such a miniscule piece is not a simple task. Lange engravers employ two different techniques of engraving. In the flat technique, engravers cautiously remove chip after chip with their tool, to make complex patterns. The other is the relief technique. The balance cock however uses flat engraving technique.
Like handwriting, each of these six engravers, have a distinct design character. So much so, that if you were to take your watch years later to Lange to figure out exactly who engraved the balance cock in your watch, you’ll get your answer fast enough!
Engravers have another, more important task, as well. Many watch connoisseurs like to have their initials engraved on the balance cock. The engravers ensure that not only is the balance cock embellished with beautiful floral design, but also with the initials. And this hidden ‘monogram’ is not easily seen or discernable – a true mark of watch sophistication. Need a larger hallmark? Remove the sapphire crystal back, and get a precious metal back lodged instead. Engravers can then etch the initials on the back or even an entire family crest. Believe us, they have done it before!
Engraving the minute lavish floral patterns need superhuman power I think. But Lange puts it in simpler words – artistry, dexterity and perseverance. More so because the material of the balance cock, German silver, is very soft. If it is chipped the wrong way, it has to be re-done entirely.
A beating heart
Parts made, measured, polished, finished and engraved. Then comes the most crucial step of actual assembling. In another mark of quality control, Lange has two separate assembling rooms – one for their classic models, and the second one for their complications. In the classics room, first there is a pre-assembly of individual parts into sub-systems which are then integrated together. The specialists first mount the levers, shift the pallet stones in the arms of the lever, adjust the active length of the hairspring, measure its frequency, bend the terminal curve, attach the balance to its cock and then insert the balance spring. But it is only an elite group of watchmakers who are able to assemble a Tourbillon.
After the first assembly, it goes to the regleurs, sensitive experts, who achieve perfect accuracy, by eliminating any potential deviation. They regulate the movements in five directions – horizontal with dial facing up and down, and vertical with the crown pointing up, down and right.It doesn’t end at the first assembling. Lange is especially known for double assembling. The watches are disassembled and then re-assembled again to ensure that each and every part is placed perfectly. At times, it is during the second assembly, that the parts are polished and given the final finishing. The blue screws are also put during the second assembly only. All gold chatons are polished by hand and positioned in the plate. The watch mechanisms are then sent to the next department for encasing into the gold or platinum cases. The encasing room has a special air system, which avoids the circulation of any particles in the air – absolutely clean space – because even a tiny little particle could ruin the movement or the parts and their communication with each other. And, by the way, we did not enter this room – just peeked longingly through the windows.
Having said that, the master watchmakers for complications are still are on the top of the game. They not only do the first assembly, but also the second assembly and the encasing. No multiple hands are trusted with these complex mechanisms. Only two hands are what make the Lange complications.
The process does not stop here. After the watch is made, it is put through rigorous testing. The first one is the ‘Windmill test’. Lange watch cases are strapped on to the different hands of their small windmills which revolve and rotate. Every Lange watch runs eight weeks on this windmill. Out of the 86400 seconds a day, only an error of 1-2 seconds is tolerated by the Lange team. If the watches don’t pass this test, they are sent back to the assembling department to be re-adjusted.
Lange also likes to talk about their final step in the cycle of watchmaking, much like from the Q in James Bond series, where the precious watches are made to go through “every possible thing that can happen to your watch”. They are given exposure to extreme temperatures, thrown ruthlessly on the floor, and left into depths of water to check whether the watch is able to endure these processes.
And once the watch finally passes the mark, and reaches your wrist, Lange recommends that every 3-5 years, watch owners should send their mechanical watch to the service department. Here, the watch will be disassembled, grease will be applied on all moving parts, and then re-assembled. Any scratches outside are also removed. The servicing becomes mandatory because after five years, the balance wheel oscillates nearly a billion times (or 30,000 kms). Each little part goes through immense pressure during this period. At this stage, Lange personnel ensure that each part is able to work perfectly for the next five years.
In short, even my four-page ‘summary’ of what goes into a Lange watch, hasn’t done justice to their watchmaking quality. This is something which you see, be in awe of, and then believe. And after actually trying our hand at chamfering and engraving (in which I was extremely bad especially), I have turned a true loyalist of this brand. Leaving the manufactory with our very own, slightly enlarged German silver balance cocks, chamfered and engraved by us, I can assure you that Lange doesn’t compromise at any step. No wonder then that watch purists swear by an A. Lange & Söhne creation.