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Review: Johannes Kallinich Meisterwerk

I’ve seen a lot of watches. A lot. Some of them are fine, some are good and some are great. The ones that are great are so because they’re the cheapest or the best quality or the most complicated or inventive. This watch by master watchmaker Johannes Kallinich isn’t necessarily any of those things, yet it is, to me, the best watch I have ever reviewed. Let me explain why.

Background

Several years ago, in 2013, a young watchmaking graduate started his first proper watchmaking job in the sleepy town of Glashütte. His name is the same name you see on the dial of this watch, a watch I first saw proudly posted in a small corner of Reddit a few months ago: Johannes Kallinich. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that today, the date of this review, is 2021, just eight years after Johannes started his first watchmaking job—and herein lies the story that makes this watch so utterly incredible.

Since 2013, Johannes has worked for a little German watchmaker you may have heard of called A. Lange & Söhne. There he did what any junior would do: he made the teas and coffees, fetched the skirting board ladder and ran down to the shops for a long wait. He also assembled watches. The easiest watches, of course, being new. But he didn’t stay new for very long.

Just four years later, Johannes was promoted to the Lange 1 department, his knack and enthusiasm propelling him to ever more complicated watches. By the time he was just 24, he was the Lange 1 team leader, in charge of a group of thirteen people assembling one of A. Lange & Söhne’s most iconic watches. We still don’t need the input of a genius to figure out that something rather unique and special was happening there, a fact that hadn’t escaped the attention of A. Lange & Söhne either.

Now, a little about business in Germany. There are certain trades for which you need to become a Master to run your own business. You can’t just knock up any old crappy table and sell it like you can in England—you have to be a Master Carpenter. This involves training, examination and qualification, and is a distinct cultural feature that has made German manufacturing so highly prized.

Watchmaking is similar. Whilst the details of the Master qualification are complex and, frankly, boring, it is safe to say that, if you want to make and sell watches—make, as in craft the parts yourself, not just assemble them—you need to be, officially, a Master Watchmaker. In seeing the potential in Johannes, A. Lange & Söhne offered to make him a Master Watchmaker.

Whilst there is a very in-depth theoretical aspect to the Master Watchmaker exams, the ultimate goal is to practically demonstrate watchmaking ability by producing a watch, a Masterpiece—or Meisterwerk, in German. For many if not most budding Master Watchmakers, that entails procuring an existing movement, say, an ETA 6498, and modifying it to add a small complication, like hacking seconds or a date.

Johannes could have done that, taken the easy way out if you like, done the minimum required to pass and carried on. But he didn’t. He had an altogether more ambitious idea, and that involved asking A. Lange & Söhne if they wouldn’t mind him borrowing their equipment. They said yes. And so began a journey that, quite frankly, you won’t believe.

Review

For Johannes, becoming a Master Watchmaker started in 2018 with a decision. He could go the easy way, or he could go the virtually impossible way. And so, with a student copy of Autodesk Inventor loaded onto his laptop, he chose the latter. For that first year, not a single piece of watchmaking was done as Johannes taught himself how to design a watch in CAD from start to finish.

First came the movement. Like other students, Johannes started with an ETA 6498, from which he harvested a few parts like the mainspring barrel, wheels, escapement and balance—parts he’d have need about a million dollars to develop himself—and then promptly threw the rest away. Everything else he designed from scratch.

And he could have quite simply replicated the 6498, but he didn’t. He didn’t want it to look like an ETA. So that meant moving the mainspring barrel and ratchet system behind the three-quarter plate, which meant separating the winding mechanism into three distinct wheels, which meant thinning the plates and repositioning the hand-setting mechanism in order to make it fit—just so it looked better than an ETA.

But he didn’t stop there. Hacking seconds went in, too, a complication that was good enough to pass with alone becoming a footnote in a long list of features that Johannes decided to burden himself with. Then he added eccentric banking pins on the pallet fork for fine adjustment. And then he added a centre second. We’ll get to why that’s significant in a minute.

With the movement designed a year later, Johannes submitted the data to the machinist producing the blanks for the plates. Johannes said he was sat in the canteen eating his lunch when the machinist entered, that first raw part in hand—and even recalling the story, you can see the emotion he felt then flooding back. Fear, pride, excitement, panic—it hit him then, in that moment, that what he was doing was very real indeed. And that was just step one.

Step two came in the assembly of the watch. Remember that centre second we spoke about? Well, to make it happen, Johannes had to bring a shaft all the way through the middle of the watch—and through both the centre wheel and the hour wheel. This resulted in a week sat at a small lathe set up on his dining room table, turning a shaft with a diameter of just 0.2mm, over and over again until he got it right. Some were too big, some too small, some broke during hardening—it was a case of trying and trying again until he got the perfect result.

And then, when he assembled the movement for the first time, Johannes noticed something: the centre second hand, at its highest and lowest points, fluttered a little back and forth. I’ve seen that in watches before, and it was almost imperceptible—but Johannes just wasn’t happy. And so he developed a mechanism within the centre second train to absorb the slack between the gears by layering one wheel atop another and using a spring to put tension between them, reducing that slack to zero.

Every step for every part carried its own unique challenge. And with all that work behind him, Johannes needed a case to put the watch in and a dial to read the time from—both of which he designed and produced as well. In fact, upon pondering the colour of the dial, his choice was made for him by his frustrated girlfriend who was keen for once to have him put the watch down and go out and do something. I think she made the right choice.

All that was left to do seems like the most daunting task of all: finishing. Finishing is what defines the true masters from everyone else, yet here was something that Johannes taught himself as well, having picked up the skill from his colleagues. He only had one movement, and so, with the engraving of the plates done by a local artisan and the balance cock by a friend, Johannes set about blasting, graining and polishing the entire movement himself. The results, I think you’ll agree, speak for themselves.

The unstoppable grit and determination Johannes demonstrated in producing this watch—whilst still maintaining his full-time day job, by the way—put me in mind of other Masters such as François-Paul Journe and Philippe Dufour. Johannes didn’t just do what was needed—he went so far beyond that what he has created and the story that goes with it has become the most impressive watchmaking experience I’ve ever personally encountered. Talking to Johannes you can see and feel the passion he has injected into this watch, and it’s absolutely contagious. I asked him why he did what he did, why he set himself such seemingly insurmountable challenges. He said, “People keep asking me why I don’t make it easier for myself. They don’t understand. I don’t want it to be easy.”