Dating A Grail: A. Lange & Söhne Datograph

By LK

My whirlwind affair with the drop-dead desirable Datograph may be summed up as follows: Boy meets grail, pursues grail, attains grail, then parts ways with grail.

But like The Godfather, this affair deserves to be chronicled in all its glory. You fully appreciate Coppola’s genius by viewing the original 3-hour version, not some “The Godfather in 5 minutes” clip spliced together by an enterprising YouTuber. So let’s go back to the start…

Soon after I learned to appreciate movement finishing – perlage, bevelling, black polishing and the like – I wondered what the most beautiful movement out there was.

Google supplied a myriad of answers, but it was the image of the Datograph’s now-legendary calibre L951.1 that set my pulse racing. From then on, I pored over every article on the Datograph, touched (nay, caressed) the Datographs of the friends, and even took to buying old catalogues for the Datograph “centrefolds” (I kid you not; they contain blown-up images of the movement).

Why was I so enamoured of the Datograph? The product itself is near perfect — gorgeous movement finishing, harmonious and distinctive dial, solid case construction. But above all, it is a historically significant piece from a manufacture with one of the most inspiring comeback stories in recent memory.

THE AURA

Regular readers of my blog (if such a species exists) will know that I typically structure my reviews in three parts – Body (case, buckle, dial), Mind (movement) and Soul (the whole package). But the Datograph is a classy and complex lady whose reputation always precedes her. It is therefore fitting to first discuss her history in a separate section here.

999ebae8-ce74-4b94-9964-2e6b510db8a9

Hodinkee does an admirable job of describing the genesis and importance of the Datograph in this article:

“… neither Patek nor VC made its own manually wound chronograph movement until well into the 2000s – Breguet purchased theirs when Swatch acquired Lemania, and Audemars Piguet still does not have a manually wound straight chronograph – they do indeed have one with a tourbillon, though.

… At Baselworld 1999, a little German watchmaker that was forced to share a booth with big brother IWC showed a watch that was truly revolutionary – it was a watch that, in my opinion, changed the course of modern watchmaking for the better. I’m talking about the Datograph.

The Datograph’s caliber had been under development since the moment A. Lange & Söhne re-launched itself in 1994 – and while the Lange 1 and Pour Le Merite Tourbillon sent shockwaves through Switzerland, nothing could prepare the Swiss for what lay on the underside of that 39 mm block of solid platinum called the Datograph.

The depth, the angles, the architecture, that balance cock! What we saw in 1999 was the first completely new, built-from-the-ground-up, in-house, manually wound chronograph in a generation, and absolutely the very first to be aimed squarely at the very high end… “

There is even a story behind this particular variant of the Datograph in rose gold with a black dial. Again, I will let Hodinkee do the talking:

“… When you ask him a question, he gives you the answer without considering who he might offend. Like when I asked him what he thought the best *serially produced* wristwatch available was, and he said “I’ll show you.” He then went to his safe and pulled out a Lange Datograph.

This is his Datograph. He paid for it himself, and he’s unabashed in his praise for it. He says what makes this watch so special is the amount of extra value you see in the movement architecture, the finishing, and the design. It says a lot that one of the Vallée’s greatest sons says the best chronograph in the world is German… “

The “he” in the above anecdote is none other than Philippe Dufour, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest watchmakers alive. Dufour picked the rose gold / black dial variant now nicknamed the “Dufourgraph”, prompting me to do likewise. This happens to be one of the rarer variants. It was produced from 2003 to 2005, and Lange will only confirm that fewer than 100 were made.

THE BODY

The rose gold case has a diameter of 39mm — which I consider to be the perfect size for my wrist. While its thickness of 12.8mm is less than ideal, it sits fairly well on my wrist. I can also attest that the Datograph slips under a shirt cuff without difficulty.

I think rose gold helps to achieve that bit more comfort on the wrist compared to platinum, although I prefer white metals as they are less conspicuous. I also think white metals look better on Asians, as it complements our black hair. But I digress.

ad122f9f-81fc-4588-a6cd-76170925bcd0

Unlike the Saxonia, which sports a refined and almost delicate look, everything about the Datograph case spells robustness. The diameter of its crown is a good size, similar to the length of the chronograph pushers at two and four o’clock. The date pusher at ten o’clock protrudes less than the chronograph pushers, which I think is a nice touch. Otherwise the timepiece would look more like a rattrapante. The lugs are typically Lange, as is the signed crown.

The dial layout is faultless, and a lesson on how visual balance can vanish clutter. Just imagine — there is a tachymetre, applied batons and roman numerals, two sub-dials, a big date window, the words “Datograph Flyback” and the brand name spelled out in full! Yet the dial does not appear busy. Lange are masters at achieving this (just look at the Lange 1) and I think it boils down to balance.

In the case of the Datograph, the centres of the two sub-dials and the outsized date form an equilateral triangle. This is counter-balanced by the equilateral triangle formed by the three roman numerals. The subdials and outsized date are predominantly white while the roman numerals are in rose gold, which emphasises their “grouping”. I suspect roman numerals were used in lieu of batons to lend weight to portions of the dial that would otherwise have been empty, again to achieve visual balance.

d9fe861b-9e9f-4515-99d6-fb13dd100e89

I will share a tidbit. The outsized date is a distinctive feature of post-1994 Lange timepieces, and the incorporation of this feature makes the Datograph look indisputably Lange. Lange pretty much invented the outsized date, drawing on the five minute clock in the Dresden Semper Opera House (which its founder F. A. Lange actually worked on) for inspiration.

Lange fans will know how the outsized date works — it actually comprises two plates, each displaying a single digit. One plate sits lower than the other. What most Lange fans do not know is that the digits of the lower plate are actually slightly larger than those of the upper plate, so that both digits appear to be the same size when viewed together. I myself only discovered this when I visited the Lange manufacture in November last year. What a glorious trip that was. But I digress, again.

THE MIND 

The calibre L951.1 is the product of a plethora of finishing techniques  — hand-applied Glashütte ribbing on the three-quarter plate, gold-filled engravings, jewels set in gold chatons, bevelled and polished edges, contour grinding on the walls, perlage on the baseplate, flat polishing on the end-piece of the escape wheel / the chronograph works / the swan-neck regulator, linear graining on the other steel parts, and of course Lange’s signature hand-engraved balance bridge.

But superlative finishing is only half the story. The magic lies in how the movement architecture and mix of materials show off the finishing to best advantage. Let us talk architecture first.

eedbd9ff-e817-4949-804e-5308b38e3e46

The Datograph houses a column wheel-actuated chronograph mechanism with a horizontal clutch. I find this to be the most aesthetically-pleasing mechanism type because it employs the use of long arms and levers, which Lange polishes beautifully. The column wheel itself is not capped, allowing the user to view the entire chronograph mechanism in action. And that, dear reader, is pure bliss.

Another aspect of the movement architecture that stands out is its depth. There is not a lot to say, other than that it is multi-layered and very three-dimensional. Which is a great thing for movement-finishing geeks. A third point to highlight is that parts of the movement are clearly designed to exhibit the exceptional finishing. For instance, the sharp “V” on the chronograph bridge (see image below) is totally unnecessary but created to form an interior angle to showcase Lange’s hand-finishing expertise (interior angles cannot be machine-polished to this degree).

dd4446da-07b8-4c97-9e6b-9fafdf1a57fb

Now let us discuss the materials of the calibre 951.1, using the analogy of an artwork. Lange’s palette of colours is drawn from many different materials — German silver, steel, red jewels, heat-blued screws, gold chatons and copper alloys. From this palette, Lange coloured the three-quarter plate and certain bridges in German silver, the chronograph works in steel, the chatons in gold, the jewels in red, the screws in blue, the gears in copper alloy. Thereafter, Lange refined it with hand finishing – notably the chronograph works are flat polished while linear graining is applied to the other steel parts, creating a nice contrast. Finally the completed masterpiece is set in a rose gold frame, which further accentuates its beauty.

cc321d6b-668a-4cfc-8d89-da9bf54ca417

Already fallen for her? I would add that the stunning looks of the calibre L951.1 are complemented by her equally-formidable intellect. The Datograph is a flyback but more impressively, it was one of the first to introduce an instantaneously-jumping minute counter. Which means that the minute counter jumps from one marker to the next exactly when the large second counter hits twelve o’clock. This is unlike most mechanical chronographs where the minute counter slowly progresses from one marker to the next.

The movement beats at a leisurely 2.5Hz. I believe even this is intentional – such a frequency ensures that the seconds counter will stop precisely at a marking on the dial perimeter, allowing the user to measure up to one-fifth of a second with ease.

Beyond her beauty and brains, the Datograph is also capable of bringing a light touch to any situation. Literally. The chronograph pushers deliver hot-knife-through-butter smoothness . The Patek Philippe 5170 comes close, but I have otherwise not encountered this quality in any other timepiece.

THE SOUL

The acronym G.O.A.T. comes to mind — Grail Of All Time.

65c3b24d-be42-4c90-b9f2-ac7dd07ac388

THE FINAL TICK

So what possessed me to split with my Datograph a year after we hooked up? It wasn’t her — it was me.

The timepiece did not get much wrist time for a few reasons. For one, the rose gold / black dial combination is rather striking and not quite my style. Also, while I do not have a major issue with the case height of the Datograph, it does not sit as snugly as say the Saxonia or the Chronometre Bleu. Perhaps I have been spoiled by those. Which is why you should never compare your life partner with your exes. But I digress, yet again.

Finally, on a subconscious level, I could never truly enjoy wearing the piece without worrying about damaging it. The same may be said for any timepiece, but at this price point, the fear is ever so real.

Simply put, in my hot-blooded pursuit for the Datograph, I forgot to consider a very personal aspect — wearability.

And so, we went our separate ways after an intense romance. She ultimately became a G.H.O.S.T. — Grail Held Over Short Term.

© 2018 Ticking Notes. All rights reserved. All images of my timepiece in this article, are courtesy of Luxglove . Used with permission.

Factsheet

Acquired – September 2017
Divested – August 2018

Case diameter – 39mm
Case thickness – 12.8mm
Case material – Rose gold
Dial – Black with silvered sub-dials
Hands – Rose gold with luminescent coating
Indices – Rose gold applied hour-markers

Calibre – L951.1
Movement parts – 405
Jewels – 40
Movement diameter – 30.6mm
Movement thickness – 7.5mm
Frequency – 2.5Hz (18,000 vph)
Power reserve – 36 hours

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: