View all articles

Review: A. Lange & Söhne Striking Time

Remember that Casio you had at school that went “beep” on the hour, every hour? No, I couldn’t figure out how to get it to shut up, either. As for a watch that you wouldn’t want to silence, I give you the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Striking Time—and it’s a watch fit to annoy a king.

For many of you, this unusual-looking timekeeper won’t be unfamiliar, but for those of you who are wondering what on Earth the watchmakers at A. Lange & Söhne were smoking when they designed this watch, I’ll give you a brief catchup.

It says it all that it was as far back as 2009 when the first Zeitwerk was revealed to the world, its styling as fresh and striking now as it was a decade ago. It feels just as conceptual as it did back then, a prototype put into production in more ways than one.

Yet, despite how cutting edge this looks a for a watch driven by such medieval technology, the inspiration behind it is anything but. The Semper Opera House in Dresden, just a half-hour car ride from A. Lange & Söhne’s Glashütte headquarters, contains a clock that looks remarkably similar. And that’s no accident, because that one-and-three-quarter-centuries-old clock is the direct inspiration for this watch.

Why a clock is fitted in the main theatre of an opera house, you might be wondering, front and centre above the stage no less, is the result of an impatient king—King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, to be specific. Sick to the back teeth of his patrons checking their repeater pocket watches in the dark, chiming away and disturbing the performance, he commissioned clockmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes to build him a clock that was visible to everyone in the theatre, even in the back rows.

A. Lange & Söhne is a brand from the small town of Glashütte in Germany

A. Lange & Söhne is a brand from the small town of Glashütte in Germany

The solution was a digital one, clear and crisp from the first row to the last, with hours on the left and minutes on the right, or rather five-minute intervals. The mechanism operated on two drums behind a pair of display windows, making it one of the first digital clocks in existence.

But Gutkaes didn’t perform this work by himself; he had help, a young apprentice by the name of Ferdinand Adolph Lange. The pieces start to fall into place and so the picture becomes clear. It was these origins, this beginning for the brand that A. Lange & Söhne chose to celebrate with the Zeitwerk, bringing a display that was as innovative then as it is now back to life—only the watch is far more complicated than the clock.

It’s a matter of physics, to be precise, because even on the scale of a wristwatch, things can be small and light or big and heavy. A slender hand, for example, is a featherweight, beautifully balanced and easily driven. The three disks making up the instant-change of the hours, tens and minutes of the Zeitwerk are Stonehenge by comparison.

A. Lange & Söhne could have made things easier on themselves by having the disks slowly and continuously move, but to fully give its founder the commemoration he deserved, it was only ever going to be the hard way. When the hours and minutes change, they do so in an instant, and I don’t mean in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, I mean in a don’t-blink-and-you’ll-still-miss-it moment.

A. Lange & Söhne was founded in 1845 by Adolf Lange

A. Lange & Söhne was founded in 1845 by Adolf Lange

There’s an arrangement of intermediary springs and teeth called a remontoire or constant force that build power before the big moment, holding fast and exploding on demand, accelerating each disk like a cat that fell in the bath. But what goes up must come down, and so to save a catastrophic explosion of very expensive watch parts, there’s even a little fan that acts as an air brake to slow everything back to a standstill.

That’s the Zeitwerk part, but this is the Zeitwerk Striking Time, so let’s get on to the Striking Time bit.

The party trick of the Zeitwerk is in making the complex look simple. There’s a maze of parts working together to give the impression of the digital display being motionless, and the same is true of the Striking Time part, too. It’s not usual to see the inner workings of any striking watch dial side, yet here we see a pair of hammers and a pair of gongs just chilling like it’s the most straightforward thing in the world. I think by now that you know if A. Lange & Söhne has anything to with it, it will be anything but.

To explain it, like explaining the visual portion of the time-telling indication of this watch, is very simple. When the watch ticks past the hour, the left-hand hammer and gong, the deeper of the pair, emits a tone. When the watch ticks past the quarter—that is, fifteen minutes, half-an-hour and forty-five minutes—the right-hand hammer and gong emits a brighter tone. Simple, clean, effective, just like the Casio you used to have. Only the Casio didn’t have 528 parts.

The calibre L043.2, on the other hand, does have 528 parts, and that’s a lot. A chronograph is a busy mechanism, and that barely racks up half that. Yet, from the back nothing looks too dissimilar from the standard Zeitwerk, and from the front, you don’t even need one hand to count the four extra parts. Despite only an extra 2.3mm in breadth and half a millimetre in depth, the L043.2 gains an extra 114 parts over the original, the watchmakers at Glashütte hiding them away in that sliver of extra space like fervent squirrels.

Along with other watch brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin, A. Lange & Söhne is owned by Richemont SA

Along with other watch brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin, A. Lange & Söhne is owned by Richemont SA

If you thought it was impressive how many pairs of shoes your partner can squeeze into a suitcase, that’s nothing on this. The striking mechanism is peripherally mounted below the dial in a way that makes the packaging of a Formula 1 car look like a Ford Cortina. There’s a twin stacked snail cam, one with three prongs to drive the quarters, the other with a single prong for the hours. It turns once every sixty minutes, and as the gently curved profile of each prong comes into effect, the visual treat of the respective hammer cocking begins to unfold.

Then, as the time approaches, as the constant force mechanism preloads, the prong reaches a sudden and sharp end, and the hammer springs back, striking the gong and sounding the time. From the front, beautifully simple, from the back—and sandwiched in between—it’s a masterpiece of synchronicity.

The real irony here is that the grumpy King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony deliberately commissioned the clock this watch is based on to prevent the chiming of watches disturbing his stories, and yet this very watch purports to do exactly the opposite. Maybe the King was a cruel master, and it was Lange’s last wish that his company build a watch just to annoy him, who knows. I just hope that someday, someone will wear a Zeitwerk Striking Time to the Dresden opera, and right in the middle of the quietest, most intimate and moving part of the show, it’ll go “ding!”.

There aren’t many within the threshold of modern watchmaking generating interesting, unusual and utterly desirable ideas like this one. It’s all very well and good following tradition and keeping things by the book, but tradition was only made by once trying something new, and that can’t stop just because of something someone said or did 200 years ago. A. Lange & Söhne is a continuous innovator and experimenter in the ways that made John Harrison, Thomas Mudge and Abraham-Louis Breguet legends today, and I sincerely hope that never changes. I mean, get this—unlike the Casio, you can press the button at four o’clock on the Striking Time and actually turn the thing off!

Looking for a A. Lange & Söhne watch? Click here to shop now