A. Lange & Söhne Lange 31
You may know A. Lange & Söhne as a brand that follows the long and steadfast tradition of German watchmaking, and that would be very much correct. A Lange is a German watch through and through, respectful of its past and undeterred by the whims of the present. But that doesn’t mean the watchmakers at the brand’s Glashütte headquarters are averse to trying something different. Let me show you what I mean.
The Lange 31 looks very much like, well, a Lange. A. Lange & Söhne is famed for its clean, simplistic style, eminently readable and immediately distinguishable. It’s a watch that, despite being so devoid of clutter, can be picked out of a group at ten paces, no sweat. It just has that special something about it, and the Lange 31 is no different.
It’s not the cleanest A. Lange & Söhne dial, nor is it the busiest. There’s an hour and minute hand, as you would expect what with it being a watch, plus a running seconds sub-dial and even a big date display, which is something of a Lange calling card. You’ve got the power reserve too, all sharing space together across that bleak, open dial in such a way only the Germans seem capable.
It’s a lovely watch, but so far it hardly seems like the reserve of greatness. Yet somehow the brand has the audacity to charge some £115,000 for one. An A. Lange & Söhne isn’t cheap, but for a pretty straightforward watch, this is a huge departure from the norm. Either the price of German silver has gone up a hundred-fold or there’s something about the Lange 31 that’s more than meets the eye.
The first clue is in how the watch is wound. For a start, there’s no automatic winding rotor. This is a hand wound movement, yet it does without the Jean Adrien Philippe—of Patek Philippe fame—devised mechanism of 1842—the winding crown. Yes, this watch has devolved back to the nineteenth century and requires a key to wind.
So, is that what you’re paying for, a watch that’s not as good as all the others? Not exactly. Whilst it’s true that the winding process has been rewound back the 1800s, the reasoning is a little—how should I put it—unexpected. Have you ever wound a watch with a tiny crown? It’s a complete pain. You just can’t get enough grip in your fingers to overcome the torque of the spring, which only gets greater the more it gets wound.
The same problem occurs with the Lange 31. If you were to try and wind the mainspring with the crown, your fingers would be in shreds in minutes. And if you think minutes sounds like a long time to be winding a watch, think again—because the twin mainsprings in this thing measure up at almost four metres long. That’s ten times the length of a standard mainspring, which provides ten times the power. And so the name becomes clear; it’s called the Lange 31 because it has a power reserve—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—of a month.
So what, big whoop, right? Stick two outrageously long mainsprings in a watch and add a zero to the price, is that it? Not quite, because it isn’t just a case of simply adding two tape-measures-worth of spring and hoping for the best; as they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and this watch has a lot of power.
Consider this: in a normal watch, one that lasts for, say, three days, there’s a bit of a problem with power. Watchmakers wish that mainsprings delivered lovely, juicy, linear power from start to finish, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t. The power delivery isn’t just uneven, it’s downright atrocious. It’s called a torque curve. When a spring is fully wound, it’s like a bull on opioids in a box—this thing is raring to get out.
So, for the first chunk of the mainspring’s wind, it’s doing overtime, ten to the dozen. Some manufacturers even lock off that topmost part of the powerband just because it’s so inducive to bad timing. But we’re not out of the woods yet; for the bulk of the mainspring’s capacity, it’s a gently declining slope down in power, the shove getting weaker and weaker and weaker. Then, right as the tank is running on empty, it drops off a cliff. There’s a few more hours to spare here, but again, many watchmakers choose to block this bit off to stop the timing of the watch going completely out the window.
And all that’s just for a mainspring measuring in the tens of centimetres, let alone metres. You can see why this thing needs a key to get it all the way to full wind, because you’d need the pinch strength of an Olympic thumb war champion to get there with the crown alone.
But the bigger problem is accuracy. A normal mainspring can be considered unsuitable for precise timekeeping at the extremities of its wind, so imagine how that translates to this beast? At full capacity, there’s probably enough torque inside the Lange 31 to crank the Bugatti Chiron’s W16. I mean, physics is physics and you can’t make more power out of nothing, so the empty end of the mainspring is locked off as you would expect. But things get interesting for the rest of that power reserve—all thirty-one days of it.
To overcome the enormous problem of torque deficiency between full and near-empty, A. Lange & Söhne has adopted a secondary, intermediate spring between the mammoth mainsprings holding the power and the balance spring feeding it out to the hands at regular intervals. Imagine the mainspring as a big barrel of water leaking through a hole in the bottom, running down onto a waterwheel—the balance spring. When the barrel is full of water, the weight forces the leak to run at a higher pressure, which spins the waterwheel quickly. As the barrel runs dry, the rate at which the leak flows decreases to a dribble, slowing the waterwheel.
This intermediate spring acts as a constant force mechanism to even out that flow from start to finish. Think of it like a bucket between the barrel and the waterwheel, collecting water until it is full, tipping the contents onto the waterwheel when it is. No matter how fast or slow the water leaks from the barrel, it won’t reach the waterwheel until the bucket is full and tips over, applying a uniform amount of force each and every time. That’s how you reign in nearly four metres and thirty-one days of power.
The Lange 31 is a fascinating demonstration of “what if?”, an engineering challenge posed and overcome at the most extreme. With winding crowns and self-winding movements, a thirty-one-day power reserve isn’t exactly a necessity, but the thinking behind the journey to getting it here? Absolutely one-hundred percent worth it.
Looking for an A. Lange & Söhne watch? Click here to shop now