The A. Lange & Sohne Datograph is a watch that needs no introduction. It’s one of the iconic watches of the modern era. It’s never been copied, simply because it can’t be. And even though the movement was first conceived in 1999, it has the feel of an incredibly fine 19th century pocketwatch – the layout is 100% traditional, with German silver bridges, screwed chatons to hold the jewels, a side-coupling column wheel chronograph with instantaneous jumping minutes and flyback function, and a very archaic screw-poised balance wheel with a swan neck regulator sitting atop a hand-engraved balance cock.
There are few concessions to modern design. One is the big date function, which was originally a Jaeger Le-Coultre innovation shared with Lange when they were sister companies under LMH; though Lange claims with some legitimacy that even that presentation of digits dates back to the jumping clock at the Dresden Opera House installed by F. A. Lange himself. They certainly look similar. The others are less easily seen – antireflective coating on the sapphire crystals, and a tiny nick in the inside of the balance rim where material was removed with a laser to adjust poise. And that’s about it.
Ever since I first saw the Datograph in 2001, I knew this would be an extrodinary watch – even the pictures looked stunning. And who else publishes a watch catalog with a Playboy-style centerfold, containing nothing but an enormous picture of the movement? I was hooked by the mechanical precision about it all. The dial, I wasn’t so sure about; roman numerals and two-tone subdials have never been my thing. Which is why I was rather excited by the 1815 Chronograph that had a much cleaner, simpler dial; the early version was proportionately off in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. The current, 2010, version is much, much better though – and personally, my pick of the Lange chronographs. But up til this year, the watch remained a dream, financially very much out of reach and only to be fondled occasionally at a dealer during the unlikely periods of them having one in stock.
But I digress.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to photograph and wear the Datograph for a couple of weeks by a friend of mine; I will remain indebted to him for that, even if the real reason he wanted me to wear it was to check it out mechanically and pass a second opinion on whether he should personally acquire that piece.
This article is going to take the form of a diary and photo essay, in which I will record my thoughts over the period of wearing the watch, and hopefully give the reader an insight into what it’s like to finally achieve your grail – or as close as you can come to doing so.
Day -1: Friday, 4 November 2011: Sushi theory
An interesting used Lange 1 came up on a forum for sale at a good price. I was tempted, but in the end decided that the idea and anticipation of ownership would be better than the actual ownership – there’s no freedom to change your mind afterwards, or at very least, it’ll cost you. You’re stuck with the watch and sometimes a slightly sick feeling like you just spent too much money on an irrational impulse.
So I decided to go out and have sushi instead. Just as many choices, just as fun in the anticipation, and fulfillment is cheap enough for a do over or repeat, in case you’re not satisfied. And no buyer’s remorse, either.
After an hour in a local sushi bar, my desire for the Lange 1 faded. I’m collecting a Datograph tomorrow from a friend; it’s on loan. My grail watch. Ever since I first saw one, early in my collecting days. Would it be disappointing? Addictive? Require me to take another mortgage? Or would it be like sushi?
Day 1: Saturday, 5 November 2011: Rekindling an old flame
I collected the watch at a local coffeeshop from the aforementioned friend. Sadly, I’m reminded that it isn’t mine to own, just to look after for a while. The case contained two watches for me to enjoy – a Vianney Halter for Goldpfeil, and the Datograph. Needless to say, the Vianney didn’t get a lot of attention. I remember thinking on the way home, if I was totally crazy, I could probably find the funds to buy a second hand Datograph – I’d just have to sell everything else in my collection and start taking the bus, I suppose.
Arrived home, opened the pouch. Wow. It’s just as beautiful as I remember from the brief periods of handling the watch in the past; the antireflective coating on both sides makes the dial sing and sparkle, but the movement is truly sublime. It’s difficult to fathom how something like this can be made by hand, and so consistently – I believe there must be at least a couple of thousand Datographs out there by now. My friend is right: it’s the kind of watch that even a person who knows nothing about watches can appreciate. I landed up missing dinner, staying at home and spending hours photographing the Datograph instead.
Later I realize it’s intimidating; the cost…the size…the weight…the near perfection of the finish, on every single one of it’s hundreds of surfaces. How does one go back to wearing mere mortal watches after this? I’m almost afraid to wear it. My friend doesn’t want it back yet. I strap it on anyway, suddenly concerned about protrusions, swearing short sleeves, and door frames. My wife thinks it’s like the lone albatross from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. It seriously intimidates the hell out of me. What on earth was I thinking when I considered buying one? I’d be a permanent nervous wreck, like a person with a wrist-based tic or deformity.
But damn, it’s utterly gorgeous. I don’t think I’d be able to settle for an 1815 chronograph anymore.
Day 2: Sunday, 6 November 2011: Intimidation
Woke up early to join some friends for a spirited drive. I decided not to wear the Datograph in case something happened, like me getting into an accident being distracted by that huge shiny lump of metal on my wrist. Afraid to leave it at home, too. How am I ever going to own one with neuroses like these? I go for the drive. It’s still there when I get home, and relieved, I strap it on. It’s just as lovely as before.
Somehow all the elements work in perfect harmony; I hate roman numerals but they look right here. If there were batons on the dial, the empty spaces wouldn’t balance out the big date aperture and the chronograph subdials. Same thing with tachymetric scales; why clutter the dial with something you’ll never use? And white date wheels and subdials on black dials. Yet…somehow the balance here is perfect. It wouldn’t be right if anything was changed. I seriously cannot see how the aesthetics of this watch could be improved.
A vague nagging feeling pulls at the back of my mind; there’s a Vianney Halter to photograph, but that pales against the attraction of the Datograph. I guess that’s why it’s a grail watch; I could really see myself even looking at any other watches if I’d had one of these.
Day 3: Monday, 7 November 2011: On perfection
It seems perfection is not quite perfection. The chrono minute hand is slightly off 30 when reset. But only a really anal person would notice (or somebody photographing the watch under extremely high magnification; here, you see all of the micro-dust, too.) In a way it’s comforting to know that Langes are still assembled by humans, not robots; and there’s a little bit of individuality in each one. Still, absolute perfection would be nice.
It’s odd, but at times I feel unworthy of this watch. It’s like the damn thing is judging me: I’m not an industry magnate or an aristocrat, but somehow lucky enough to be in its company by virtue of my horological obsession. I’m just a working man with an appreciation for fine mechanical things. Maybe discovery of that teeny flaw has humanized the Datograph a little.
The score is 1-1.
EDIT: I just re-read this entry, and I now think the watch is like the moon; it’s making me a little mad. 2-1 to the Datograph.
[Later in the day] This dial is really, really thick. I’m pretty sure there are entire movements that are thinner than this. Not sure how I like how far down the date windows are recessed into their apertures.
It’s a beautiful watch and photographs well, unlike some others whose transcendence is difficult to capture. But 800 attempts later, I still feel I haven’t successfully captured its essence. Maybe it’s like a German supermodel (not that I’ve ever photographed one). Or maybe it has no essence? Much more likely, it is intimidating my psyche and putting a damper on my style.
Day 4: Tuesday, 8 November 2011: Some random thoughts
I love the feel of the movement when winding it. There’s just enough feedback but still buttery smooth; also, have you seen how thick the crown stem is? That is one solid crown and winding mechanism. And to wind it every day is a must, because the power reserve is just 36 hours. (There’s a Maltese cross on the barrel top to limit run time and ensure optimal amplitude.) I wonder if the huge balance with high rim mass from the poise screws has something to do with that. The 2010 1815 chronograph has the same basic movement, but an updated fully free-sprung balance with adjustable weights and new hairspring; it runs for 60 hours. Why not the flagship Datograph?
I think I’m getting used to the weight of the platinum. It’s a reassuringly solid lump of something on my wrist. This is worrying.
It’s easy to take great photographs of an amazing subject, but much harder to make amazing photos of an amazing subject because the subject will just dominate the composition. The Datograph is nearly impossible to photograph to my satisfaction. It’s an amazing subject and I’m having trouble transcending it.
The day ends with me understanding how Gollum felt about that ring.
Day 5: Wednesday, 9 November 2011: Time flies, or in this case, jumps instantaneously
It’s day five already?! Feels like I just got the watch. But that means it has to go home in little over a week. Rats. And here I was falling in love with the instant jumping minutes. Specifically the idea that there’s a complex multi-component system specifically designed to ensure that when the chronograph is running, the minute hand jumps exactly as the second hand passes zero. No regular detent spring and finger, this – too much drag on the movement. Instead, a snail cam and ratchet pawl advance the minute gear (with wolf teeth) tooth by tooth. There’s even a ruby feeler to interact with the snail cam to reduce friction. And then there’s a separate set of levers to disengage the mechanism to allow rest and flyback functions. Did I mention that this is one of the few conventional side-coupled chronographs that doesn’t jump when you start or stop it? That’s thanks to the chronograph seconds wheel that has twice the number of teeth on it as the intermediate transfer wheel.
Does anybody know how much a kidney, lightly used, would fetch on the trading forums these days? Would “WTT: Excellent condition male kidney for Lange Datograph” get any takers?
Another thought: there are SO many parts in the Datograph…what if something goes wrong or breaks? The tolerances must be so tight in there for everything to function properly (and to justify that incredible finish; it’s still flawless when I’m looking at an 0.5mm screw occupying the entirety of my 15” laptop screen). Am I going to have a heart attack at the repair bill, then file for bankruptcy?
Fortunately that would only be a problem if I do buy one of these things.
Day 6: Thursday, 10 November 2011: The devil’s in the details
It’s weird, but I woke up this morning feeling like I’d gotten used to the watch. Except, of course, it still isn’t mine, and I’m not a lot poorer for it. On an unrelated note, I’m still smitten by the visibility that antireflective coating adds – the watch just sparkles. It feels so much more premium than a watch without; if only my Reverso had it.
There are a lot of other nice details throughout the watch that you can only appreciate after spending some time with it. The perfect feel of the pushers. How start/ stop and reset buttons have exactly the same resistance and travel, and how the date corrector button at 9.30 is easily reachable, yet stiff enough to prevent accidental pushes when using the chronograph or handling the watch. Despite the hands being mirror polished, they always remain legible thanks to a combination of their subtle curvature, and the antireflective coating and the matte black dial. Even though the date window is very recessed, it never gets dark (unlike my Reverso) because the window frames are mirror polished and reflect light on to the numerals. By design or accident? Who knows.
Day 7: Friday 11 November 2011: Thinking about the date
I’m trying out focus stacking. It’s an ideal technique for shooting the Datograph due to the depth of the movement, and high level of finish. It’s tricky to do because it requires perfect alignment, consistency in magnification and consistent lighting; I seldom do this because there are few watches whose movements justify it. Works well with the Datograph, though.
I find myself wishing for a perpetual calendar for today, preferably one that shows the year, too. It’s 11/11/11, and at 11:11.11 there’ll be more ones than you can shake a stick at. However, the pleasing symmetry of the 1s in their polished frames is very nice; for some reason they remind me of a pair of curious eyes. 22 is just too sly for my liking.
Day 8: Saturday 12 November 2011: Indifference?
The weight of the watch is no longer uncomfortable. Instead, it’s a comforting sort of heaviness, but one has to be careful not to inadvertently whack it into a door. I’m even wearing it with short sleeves, now.
At times the two-tone dial looks a bit disharmonious, at others, it’s very elegant. I can’t decide. But what I do notice is that the watch feels like it’s been part of my wrist forever. However, that also means that the novelty factor has worn off somewhat, and a small but noticeable degree of indifference is beginning to set in. I suppose it’s similar to ten years of marriage: you’re so used to the other person you can’t live without them, but that little sense of wonder and infatuation has been replaced by something more akin to a mixture of tolerance and dependence.
Day 9: Sunday, 13 November 2011
A worrying indifference is definitely setting in. But, after happening to see some other watches of various descriptions and manufactures, one is reminded of just how good the Datograph really is. It’s frighteningly easy to get acclimatized to this.
Day 10: Monday, 14 November 2011
I didn’t wear the watch today; was doing some messy jobs around the house and archery practice. Unusually for me, I didn’t wear a watch at all; I usually have a Sinn or Seamaster handy for those times I don’t want to wear a watch. It makes me wonder though: where does a collector go from here? There isn’t anything else that will be better than the Datograph in every way (except perhaps water resistance or power reserve, but those aren’t that important). In many ways, owning a Datograph represents the end of the line for this hobby. At least for me.
I met up with a business partner who’s an engineer (but not a watch enthusiast); I had to do a test. He said a person would have to be insane to buy one, after I told him the price tag. I merely smiled and handed him a loupe. Half an hour later, he admitted ‘Frighteningly, I could see myself justifying one of these. And I don’t even like watches that much.’
That says a lot about what Lange has achieved with this watch.
Day 12: Wednesday, 16 November 2011
You really do get used to the Datograph’s refinement and perfectly balanced aesthetics. It’s at home anywhere, with a suit or shorts and a t-shirt. However, one only realizes it when they put on or look at another watch. I’m wearing my IWC Ingenieur AMG Chronograph for an IWC even today – at the time of purchase, I thought the polished applied markers on the dark dial were incredible, and gave the watch a very nice three-dimensional pop. But it really pales in comparison to the Datograph’s applied markers, polished hands and different dial levels, which are somehow all just shinier, sharper, more luminous. It actually looks crude and rough by comparison; I didn’t want to wear it.
Day 16: Sunday, 20 November 2011
Amazing how much more the balanced the dial looks with a ‘2’ in the left hand date boxn instead of a 1, or heaven forbid, a blank space. I can’t believe I’ve been wearing it for over two weeks now; I guess you can become accustomed to having one of these things around. It no longer intimidates me. It actually feels pretty at home on my wrist, and it’s the perfect size. Everything else feels too light by comparison to this massive platinum ingot.
Or maybe I’m distracted by the M9-P and f0.95 Noctilux on loan from Leica.
Still, I’m going to be sad to see the watch go home.
Day 18: Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Today is my last day with the Datograph. It returns home tomorrow. I’ll definitely miss it – but I’m not sure I’ll miss it enough to buy one, with the huge number of sacrifices that would entail (not to mention, potential for divorce!). The last two and a half weeks have been an enlightening experience: my grail watch turned out to be every bit as good as expected. No, better, even; yet I think for many reasons it will remain just that. One always needs something to aspire to, else there isn’t much point in continuing. And just often, the idea of owning something is better than the reality of actually doing so – it doesn’t leave you with (an admittedly stunning) platinum lump and huge hole in your bank balance.
In the end, even the 36 hour power reserve is a non-issue. You actually don’t care because you just want to wind the darn thing because it feels so good.
Before I returned it though, the watch had one final surprise for me: the lug holes have a tiny bearing in them that seats the springbar ends. Whether this is to make the strap pivot smoothly or just so it can be changed if loose, I do not know. But it speaks of an amazing attention to detail all round – even in the things that the owner will probably never see. It’s these little things that confirm, for me, the Datograph undoubtedly remains one of, if not the best watch ever made. If you can afford it without having to sacrifice too much, buy one. It’s pretty much all the watch you’ll ever need or want. You can appreciate it now, and grow into the details as your knowledge as a collector furthers.
Coda: Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Fittingly, I met up with the generous friend who arranged the loan to return the watch – over Japanese. There I explained my theory of human psychological desires encapsulated in sushi. There we ate one of the best meals I’ve experienced, but at the end I pointed out there was a reason for the menu: there was no sushi in it, yet we were still more than satisfied by the experience. And I think perhaps that’s what collecting is all about; it’s the anticipation, the hunt, the hope that there’ll be something new and more exciting.
To me, the Datograph is like sushi: I love the idea of it, and the satisfaction at the moment of biting into and tasting a perfect piece of sushi completes the anticipation of eating it, but ultimately – I can be just as happy without.
I think my friend will probably buy the watch, though. MT