While today’s watchmakers offer a wide variety of timepieces without the hour and minute hands most of us are accustomed to, one collection of modern Haute Horlogerie stands out in particular. We are talking, of course, about the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk, with its rather unique jumping digital time display. And since the brand has just released an updated version of the classic Zeitwerk, it’s time to have a closer look at the entire collection, from its creation in 2009 to the very latest watch presented in 2022.
Of all the alternatives to traditional hands and dials, a digital indication, also known as an aperture indication or jumping display, is considered by many the most pleasing esthetically. This way of telling the owner what time it is was popular in pocket watches of the past; in the 1960s, “digital indication complication” regained its popularity and found its way into wristwatch collection and remains a wonderful opportunity for anyone who dares to explore possible combinations of design and technology. As we said, the offer is plenty, but still, each specimen is bound to attract attention.
Zeitwerk, the basics
A. Lange & Söhne presented the first iteration of its Zeitwerk in 2009. Back then, the hallmark of the revived Saxon manufacture was its Lange 1 collection. Innovative and contemporary, the Lange 1 quickly gained the status of a classic and rightfully occupied an honourable place in the hearts of watch aficionados. While the Zeitwerk collection now seems to all of us absolutely organic for A. Lange & Söhne and in perfect harmony with everything this German brand has to offer, I dare say that 13 years ago, many were surprised. And what a pleasant surprise it was.
Zeitwerk was and still is a stunning watch with an exceptional mechanical digital display. The model presented in 2009 was equipped with the manual-winding calibre L043.1 with jumping hours and minutes indicated by three discs and apertures aligned from left to right. The numbers and apertures, as could be expected, were reminiscent of those found on the 5-minute clock that tops the stage of the Semper Opera House in Dresden, and which was built by Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, the mentor, and if memory serves me right, father-in-law of Ferdinand Adolf Lange. The very first A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk and since then, all Zeitwerk family watches have a power reserve indicator at noon and a sub-dial for the seconds at 6 o’clock. Interestingly, when the winding crown at 1 o’clock is pulled out to set the time, the mechanism is stopped by the constant-force escapement lever, a fine deviation, as people at Lange call it, from the traditional system.
Now, a watch movement combining jumping hours and jumping minutes – meaning that the minutes would also be displayed on rotating discs, making one sharp forward jump once every minute – was for a long time considered a flight of fancy. There are a number of technical challenges here: to jump-turn one hour and two minute discs (one for tens with numerals 0 to 5, the other for units with numerals 0 to 9), additional energy is required, and a lot of it. The watch movement must regularly wind the springs to move the disc indicators, and you need to maintain a stable transfer of energy to the balance – and these extra springs take energy from the main. As a result, the amplitude of the balance wheel oscillations starts to fluctuate at will, which affects the accuracy of the movement.
The solutions presented by A. Lange & Söhne calibre L043.1 successfully solved these main problems. A new barrel design provided increased mainspring power for the high-energy bursts needed to move the discs instantaneously, and the use of a gear train reduced friction when unwinding. The second innovation, designed to protect the regulator from energy fluctuations, is the constant-force escapement, or a remontoire. In essence, a remontoire is in the secondary spring placed between the wheels of the running gears. The spring is wound and releases energy at regular intervals, which guarantees a stable flow of power to all the key elements of the escapement system – the escapement wheel, anchor and balance, regardless of the mainspring torque. Its fluctuations become almost imperceptible, and the amplitude of balance oscillations can be maintained at an optimal level. The constant-force escapement makes very precise one-minute disc turns possible to the second.
Today, the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk is a collection of eight models, with variations in case material, dial decoration and functions, including acoustic time indication. Let us take a quick look at all in the family and welcome a new 2022 edition of the signature watch.
2009 – The Original Zeitwerk
The original Zeitwerk of 2009 was released in yellow, white, pink gold and platinum with dials subsequently in solid silver with ivory argenté, black, argenté and rhodié, to use the brand’s terminology.
2010 – The Zeitwerk Luminous
A year later, a limited edition of Zeitwerk Luminous (ALS didn’t yet use the Lumen name) in platinum literally saw the light. The semi-transparent sapphire crystal dial with a special coating charged the luminous parts of the jumping disc system with light so that we could enjoy the glow-in-the-dark effect. This effect was dramatically increased by the black PVD coating on the German silver time bridge.
The official presentation of “Lumen” turned out to be a bizarre event as the guests were guided into a pitch-black pavilion in Berlin. Unaware of what to expect – a watch, for sure, but what kind of complication would require a dinner setting with black hole lighting (=none)- most attendees expected an acoustical complication, but that was to come in 2011.
2011 – The Zeitwerk Striking Time
The Zeitwerk Striking Time became the first watch with sound indication ever produced by the company. The black dial with the silver time bridge in the middle included a black design of the seconds counter, all to bring attention to a pair of black-polished steel hammers positioned at 5 and 7 o’clock – and yes, you can see them at work.
The movement, L043.2, was built so that with each jump-turn of the disc, the hammer that is set to strike next is slightly lifted, causing tension to the spring that triggers the blow against one of the two gongs. The left hammer is for hours, the right one hits the gong to indicate the quarter hours. In 2011 two references were released, in white gold and a limited edition of 100 pieces in platinum, with a pink gold model presented in 2014.
2012 – The Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst
In 2012 the Saxon manufacture produced a Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst edition, limited to 30 pieces, and as the name would suggest, it was a show of craftsmanship and decorating traditions.
Hand-engraving was applied to Handwerkskunst’s platinum case and white gold/black rhodium dial and movement parts. It should be noted that not just one kind of engraving technique was used to create this watch: historic tremblage engraving produced a granular texture effect on the dial; the A. Lange & Söhne logo and the power reserve indicator’s “ab/auf” are a beautiful result of relief engraving; and there are free-hand engraved parts of the movement, all yours to enjoy looking at. May I suggest using a loupe or a magnifying glass – and a true watch connoisseur should always have one at hand, don’t you agree?
Apart from fine artisanal execution, Handwerkskunst was a typical Zeitwerk, equipped with manually wound calibre L043.4, with characteristics in line with other “family members”. Note the power reserve of 36 hours, true for all the Zeitwerk watches mentioned so far. For A. Lange & Söhne, which in 2007 presented Lange 31 with 744 hours of non-stop marching capability, perfecting Zeitwerk movements in that direction was only a question of time – certainly not to that degree, but as we know already, a newly designed movement with 72 hours power reserve was to appear in five years, but let’s not get too far ahead in our story.
2015 – The Zeitwerk Minute Repeater
With the Striking Time, A.Lange & Söhne’s adventures (well, research) in the field of acoustic complications did not end and materialised again in 2015, when the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater was revealed at the SIHH, proudly making melodious ringing sounds to indicate hours, ten-minute intervals and minutes.
The jumping numerals system of this elaborate masterpiece of watchmaking is connected to the strikework so that the hammers “know” what time it is, and the chiming is activated with a button rather than a slide; you’ll have a slide when a separate spring barrel is needed to provide power to the striking mechanism.
This Minute Repeater’s movement L043.5 is designed to deliver the energy directly from the mainspring barrel. When the repeater button is pushed, the ratchet wheel disconnects from the winding gear train and powers the striking mechanism – if this sounds all too easy, mind that the system uncoupling the ratchet wheel from the winding train is one of five patented features in calibre L043.5. Note how the gongs are positioned along the shape of the time bridge and the inward-facing hammers, and the activator button at 10 o’clock, to mention just a few visible differences from the Zeitwerk Striking Time model. In 2015 Zeitwerk Minute Repeater was presented in a platinum case, and in 2020 a limited edition of 30 in white gold was added to the collection.
Now, for an intermission. Like intermissions in the theatre, which are used to build anticipation of what’s to come in the acts to follow and let audiences relax, let’s cover a fun subject. You must have noticed that all Zeitwerk images released by the manufacture show 7:52, and surely there must be a reason for that. Internet users offer a variety of explanations but nobody remembers an official one from A.Lange & Söhne. Is it the time when the bell rings for you to take your seat at the Semper Opera House in Dresden? Wrong, the starting time is usually 7 PM. Try this: it represents 7 days of the week, 52 weeks in a year. Sounds good? Ah! Intermission’s over, time for the second act, and the signal comes from Zeitwerk Decimal Strike, another “musical” masterpiece from Saxony.
2017 – The Zeitwerk Decimal Strike
In 2017, the Zeitwerk Decimal Strike complemented the acoustic line and was presented in a case material created and used exclusively at A. Lange & Söhne, a special alloy romantically named “honey gold”. A well-executed technical concept of two differently tuned gongs to indicate full hours and 10-minute intervals in between calls for applause, but this piece also stands out for the use of colour combinations and decorations. Honey gold has been in use by the manufacture since 2010 for selected models only, and this particular one, a limited edition of 100 pieces, is no longer part of the collection.
Let us admire the dial crafted from solid silver, with the time bridge in colour, and hammers in polished steel with tremblage engraving also applied to the hammer bridge. A nice touch – the seconds hand and the power reserve indicator are made of honey gold, as is the case that provides a massive frame to this harmonious display.
2019 – The Zeitwerk Date
In 2019, the 10th anniversary of the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk family was celebrated with the launch of the Zeitwerk Date. The watch was equipped with a new hand-wound movement providing a solid 72 hours of power reserve and a date indication function, both features very well received by virtually everyone. The original date display going around the outside edge of the Zeitwerk dial and the colour scheme chosen provided this model with a very modern look, which was called for as previous variations, no matter how beautiful and technically advanced, started to look way too classic to some members of the public.
The Zeitwerk Date’s peripheral transparent glass ring has numerals from 1 to 31, and the current date is highlighted in red – a very rare colour indeed in this collection – by a small red segment on a ring beneath that moves with a very soft click when the time jumps at midnight. To achieve this sort of precision is not an easy task, and to power up such a jump without a negative effect on balance amplitude constitutes a problem, it is as in other models, solved by the use of constant-force escapement (remontoir), which is also a switching mechanism that puts hour, minutes and date indicators in action.
The date is set by a pusher at 8 o’clock, the hours are corrected using a button at 4, and the minutes, you guessed it, are set with a crown. The movement, newly designed calibre L043.8, as with all Lange models, is visible from the back and is nothing short of exemplary: clean, not too complex, contemporary looking, completing the overall feel of this A.Lange & Söhne reference.
2021 – The Zeitwerk Honeygold Lumen
Last year we saw another addition to the Zeitwerk model series, not a totally new watch, but a successful combination of two special “features” developed by A.Lange & Söhne for their proprietary use. The Zeitwerk Honeygold Lumen played to those in love with the 18k gold alloy case material, which in contrast to the rather dark semi-transparent dial in this watch, really shines. We did not mention this earlier when we described the first “Lumen” from 2010, but the trick that makes charging the luminous parts of the jumping discs system possible is the coating that filters out part of the visible light spectrum and lets UV radiation pass through since it is this range that charges luminous pigment. Watchmaking is fun, don’t you think?
The Zeitwerk Honeygold Lumen is a limited edition of 200 pieces, the watch enjoys 72 hours of power reserve and, all in all, is a perfect “Lange”. An eye-catcher, in the dark especially, which benefits from the mechanical evolutions found on the Zeitwerk, also including the hour corrector on the side of the case.
2022 – The Updated Zeitwerk
Never stand still – such was the motto of Walter Lange – and the A. Lange & Söhne brand he revived when history presented him with a chance (the fall of the Berlin wall) is a fine successor to his legacy. This year, the ever-curious and industrious manufacture introduced updated editions of the iconic Zeitwerk, and a perfect watch got even better with two new variants.
Unique and easily recognisable from a distance, the Zeitwerk did not need a facelift, so not a lot of difference in the appearance of the 2022 update, just a slight redesign of the power reserve indicator and the small seconds display. And the new references come in colour combinations that are new to the original Zeitwerk design. The new Zeitwerk watches are released in pink gold with a matte black dial, and there is a platinum version with a rhodium-plated dial; perhaps some other colour combinations will follow.
The update is very technical and the one we all sort of expected since the introduction of Zeitwerk Date. Remember, that watch had a new movement with 72 hours of power reserve and an easier time-setting system, with a push button at 4 o’clock to set the hours. The new generation Zeitwerk references are equipped with calibre L043.6, which must be a close relative to the L043.8, so the desired features are both present. Orders are taken from those willing to purchase right now; prices, however, are “upon request”.
The new generation of Zeitwerk completes this short review of the Zeitwerk family, and we all may have another intermission, waiting impatiently for the next act. As in a theatre, an act to follow is always more interesting than the previous one. Let us see if this applies to our beloved watchmaking.
For more details, please visit www.alange-soehne.com.