The appeal of the Datograph by A Lange & Söhne shows no sign of dimming – in fact, it only gets brighter, says Chris Hall.
Chronographs are everywhere. Most watch brands make at least one, and several – TAG Heuer, Zenith, Omega and Breitling – have built their modern reputations on them. A lot derive their status from crucial endorsements in the pre-digital age when things needed to be timed: motor racing, bombing raids, space flights and the like. But the appeal is wider and, to watch fans, also purer.
Chronographs are popular because they are significantly challenging to engineer: a perpetual calendar is often seen as impressive because of its rudimentary “brain” that knows when a month has 28, 29, 30 or 31 days, even in a leap year, but it is at heart a logical expansion of keeping time for hours, minutes and seconds. Making time stop and start at will – and in doing so subjecting a miniature engine, that is at all times delicately poised and lubricated, to repeated blunt shocks ad infinitum – well, that is the watchmaking equivalent of behaving like an Old Testament God.
For a long time, not many companies actually made chronograph movements. It was the work of specialists: names like Venus, Valjoux, Lemania and Minerva. While the automatic watch was invented by the British watchmaker John Harwood in 1924, it would be a further 45 years before the combined (and competitive) efforts of the world’s biggest watch brands managed to marry automatic winding with a chronograph movement.
Nowadays, the majority of chronograph watches are still powered by a third-party movement, or a clone thereof: the Valjoux 7750, Sellita SW 500 and ETA 2824 are at the root of most mid-market chronographs. What was true in the 1960s is still true today: you’ve got to be brave, or a little bit stupid, to invest in your own chronograph calibre. Even more so at the upper levels of watchmaking, where the pinnacle of chronograph craft is to produce an “integrated” hand-wound movement. (There are two ways to make a chronograph: one is to add a module to an existing movement that just does basic timekeeping, the other is to design a new movement from the ground up with the chronograph functions built in. Hence, integrated.)
And why hand-wound? Given all the energy expended in creating automatic chronographs, it seems perverse, but then much of watchmaking is. A hand-wound movement is more traditional, and has one other clear advantage in the modern age of watches with sapphire crystal casebacks: it’s easier to see what’s going on, and with chronographs there is always something going on, as the various levers, springs and wheels do their thing, slicing time up into neat little chunks.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that if you want to be taken seriously at horology’s top table, bringing out an in-house manual chronograph is the way to do it. In 1999, a mere six years after re-emerging from the ashes of the Cold War, that’s exactly what A Lange & Söhne, part of the Glashütte brand, did with the Datograph. It looked great from the front – modestly sized at 39mm, a mixture of technical and classical influences – and spellbinding from the back, a multi-layered labyrinth of curves and points, polished and engraved to the very highest standard. No less a heavyweight than Patek Philippe – 160 years in continuous business – had only released an equivalent movement the year before. A Lange & Söhne had just walked across the playground and given it a bloody nose.
Nearly 20 years on, the Datograph is one of many superb watches to the Glashütte name. But it stands alone as the watch that really gave the brand its footing in the haute horlogerie world, and successive versions have done nothing to dilute its appeal.
On the contrary, it now glows brighter than ever – literally, in fact. The dial has been replaced with a disc of smoked sapphire crystal, through which enough UV light can penetrate to charge a veritable festival of SuperLuminova: the edge of the dial has an entire ring of the stuff, making the tachymeter scale glow in the dark; it is joined by the two chronograph subdials, the date discs at 12 o’clock, the filling for the hour and minute hands, and the entirety of the chronograph seconds hand. Oh, and the power reserve indicator – that’s what the “Up/Down” of the name refers to.
On a lesser base design, it might have been overwhelming – gimmicky, even – but the Datograph can take it. The end result has a life and character – albeit of a dark, moody sort – rarely found in watch brands that take themselves this seriously.