Review: A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst
There are special watches, like the A. Lange & Söhne 1815, for example, then there are exceptional watches like the 1815 Tourbillon—and then there are masterpieces, like this 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst. To celebrate 175 years of precision watchmaking in Saxony and the launch of the new 1815 collection, A. Lange & Söhne has given us access to one of the rarest and most exclusive 1815 models ever made—and it just might be my new favourite watch.
Based on the 2015 1815 Tourbillon, released to commemorate what would have been founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s 200th birthday, the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst is one of the finest displays of watchmaking ability on, well, the entire planet.
This can be said of both the watch’s mechanical complexity and its finishing, the former drawing from A. Lange & Söhne’s 1997 introduction of the zero-reset function and the 2005 introduction of the stop-seconds device for the tourbillon.
Before we delve too far into what those features actually do, let’s take a little look at why they’re even present. Back when mechanical watches were primo technology, manufacturers used to get together to see who was best at it. These observatory trials, so-called because they were held at—well, you figure it out—were the perfect opportunity for manufacturers to demonstrate their capabilities at the very limit. Think of it like how car manufacturers show off their technological prowess with something like F1.
These trials were, in watchmaking terms at least, brutal, torturous tests of not just accuracy, but resilience as well. Three different temperatures and four different positions were tested over a forty-four-day period to sort the timekeeping titans from the watchmaking weeds, and it was to the tourbillon that manufacturers sought to eke out every last drop of precision.
This constantly self-adjusting mechanism fought away the negative effects of gravity in award-winning watches for Omega, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, crucial in the positional testing. When budget’s no limitation and every fractional performance gain is on the table, it’s watches like those that result, and the 1815 Tourbillon is pretty much the modern equivalent.
You won’t find A. Lange & Söhne quoting any accuracy figures, but you can be sure that the handiwork that’s gone into the 1815 Tourbillon would give the winners of the observatory trials a good, old-fashioned run for their money—and the calibre L102.1, beating at a period 21,600vph, gets a few nifty tricks to make the most of it.
That stop-seconds function mentioned earlier, that’s essentially hacking, like a pilot’s watch would do to pause the seconds hand for accurate synching—only here it’s for a tourbillon. You only have to look at the crazy complexity of a tourbillon to know why that’s impressive.
The second and more astounding aspect of the 1815 Tourbillon is the zero-reset, the return to zero of the tourbillon-mounted second hand when the crown is pulled, a feature that makes the stop-seconds hacking even more intuitive for accurate setting. It’s essentially like turning the tourbillon cage into its own little chronograph, with a reset lever steering a cam back to the first position when the crown comes out.
That’s all very well and good, but this watch isn’t just the 1815 Tourbillon, it’s the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst—let’s find out just what that means exactly.
If we approach the concept of Handwerkskunst quite literally, it’s a word that means artisanship in German. The real irony here is that one of the most impressive watchmakers in existence considers its standard line of watches, if you can say such as thing, as not artisanal, but if anything, that only goes to tease exactly what they get up to when they really pull out all the stops.
It’s a phrase A. Lange & Söhne has been using since 2011 for a very select few pieces, and when I mean a few, I don’t mean by the Omega definition. This particular entrant to the Handwerkskunst collection, for example, is limited to just thirty pieces. Thirty.
There’s a distinct reason where there are so few of these pieces, and it’s not down to any artificial regulation or anything like that—even by A. Lange & Söhne’s standards, they are very, very tricky to make. It’s all in the decoration—if the original 1815 Tourbillon mastered the technical complexities of watchmaking, the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst absolutely dominates the aesthetic.
The calibre L102.1 differs for the Handwerkskunst with increased black polishing—that’s a mirror finish to you and me, a perfectly flat, distortion-free one, and a very time consuming process to achieve—on the bevels, an irregular grain on the plates over the standard striping, and skeletonised bridges for the tourbillon for a better view through. There’s black polishing on the tourbillon bridge and upper cage as well.
But it’s with the dial that the Handwerkskunst really comes alive. Most dials, even the really, really good ones, achieve a sense of depth by applying layers one on top of the other, giving dimension and contrast to the readability. The 1815 Tourbillion Handwerkskunst goes about it a different way—a very different way.
Each of the thirty dials starts off as thick piece of rose gold, thicker than your average dial. Then, using a burin chisel—essentially a very sharp, very fine engraving tool powered by nothing but elbow grease—the dial is chipped away piece by piece, flake by flake, revealing the detail from its depths. The numbers, the text and even some of the linework are all revealed in this very time-consuming and unforgiving way. One mistake and it’s back to the start.
The texture left behind demonstrates just how fine each cut is, just how painstaking the process must be, gradually removing material down to a perfectly level recess that lets the detail of the dial stand proud. By hand, as you can imagine, it’s very slow going, and the reason A. Lange & Söhne can only make thirty.
Once the dial has been engraved, it’s rhodium plated and then refinished to reveal the rose gold of the proud detailing. It’s a look that has no parallel, that takes what we know about A. Lange & Söhne’s abilities and moves them up to a level that, if anything, is undersold by simply calling it artisanship. It’s also a look that makes the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst my new favourite watch ever.
As you probably know, I get to experience a lot of watches, a lot of very nice watches, and it takes something truly special to stand out from that crowd. The A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Handwerkskunst has achieved that goal, not just by being beautifully engineered and incredibly executed, but by also standing out as completely unique. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else; you won’t see dedication to quality like this anywhere else; and with just 30 examples in existence, I’ll probably never get to see another one again.
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