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Feature: $500 vs $200,000 Luxury Tourbillon Watch

You can always find disparity in everything. Take the $9,000 Dacia Sandero and the $2million Bugatti Chiron, for example, a pair of cars that have a price ratio of over two hundred to one. You think that’s a lot? Then take a look at these: the $500 Sugess Tourbillon Master and the $200,000 A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst, which have a price ratio of double that of the Sandero and Chiron. Two watches that are, on paper, the same. What on Earth is going on?

The Brand

You might think that the biggest discrepancy between these watches would be that one is made in Switzerland, the epicentre of fine watchmaking, and the other somewhere else. Well, that’s half right, because neither of the watches are made in Switzerland and both are made somewhere else. The A. Lange & Söhne, as the name might suggest, is made in Germany, in the sleepy valley town of Glashütte, and the Sugess in the not-so-sleepy Chinese province of Tianjin.

But the Sugess, like Tianjin itself, is not quite what you’d expect. Tianjin’s colourfully modern metropolis is almost as much of a surprise as the fact this Sugess has a fully functioning tourbillon—but what’s no surprise at all is that the brand that comes from China is many hundreds of times cheaper.

Where watchmaking in China has only been a relatively recent endeavour—starting in 1955 with a national initiative that founded the very company that makes the tourbillon movement in this Sugess, Seagull—A. Lange & Söhne has a different story to tell. Much like Seagull, A. Lange & Söhne is a pioneer in its own nation of Germany, establishing watchmaking in the region in 1845 and quickly earning a reputation for some of the finest ever—even if it wasn’t in Switzerland.

So, there’s far more in common between these two watches than you might expect. Both are made by brands that established watchmaking in their respective areas, both are made in places you wouldn’t expect high-complication watchmaking to come from and both have achieved the pinnacle of watchmaking engineering: the tourbillon. But with a difference in price of basically all the cost of the A. Lange & Söhne, can the two possibly hope to compete?

The Case

It seems the easiest place to even begin to describe the difference in price between these two watches is the case. Why? Because one is made of rather ordinary steel, and the other is packing an expensive-looking dollop of rose gold. I won’t bother telling you which is which, because of course you’re not expecting to see it in a $500 watch.

How much value is there really in that gold? The A. Lange & Söhne weighs in at around 150g, which if we’re generous and associate entirely to the weight of the case, gives a gold price, again being generous, of some $10,000. Whilst that’s still twenty times the cost of the Sugess, in relative terms its far closer to the Chinese tourbillon than it is the asking price of the A. Lange & Söhne.

But that’s not entirely fair, because there’s more to the case than the raw material costs. Where the Sugess is plain and simple, roughly formed and indiscriminately polished, the A. Lange & Söhne demonstrates what will become something of a theme of this comparison: craftsmanship.

It may not seem like much in a casual glance, but it’s there regardless: gentle facets on the lugs, which tip inwards to meet the central barrel; mirror-finished surfaces that make the Sugess look like it was polished with a brick contrasting against pencil-straight brushwork. All applied by hand, of course, all by people who have spent many countless hours getting very good at it. Very good indeed, as we’re about to find out.

The Dial

For the Sugess, the dial does two things: one, it tells the time, as it should—it wouldn’t be much of a dial if it didn’t—and two, it reveals the tourbillon, of which we’ll speak about later. It’s white, shiny, printed with simple markers and patrolled by simple hands. It’s actually surprisingly elegant, and even more surprisingly, made with enamel. I couldn’t tell you if it’s the kind of enamel high-end watchmakers typically use or the kind plumbers paint baths with, but it’s clean, bright and shiny. For $500, you won’t be disappointed.

Next to the A. Lange & Söhne, however, it may as well be the side of a bath, because this is no ordinary A. Lange & Söhne, if there is such a thing. This is the next model up from the 1815 Tourbillon, the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst, and being limited to just 30 pieces, you have to be as careful with it as you are when you say its name.

What Handwerkskunst means in this context is that A. Lange & Söhne has allowed the finest of the finest watchmakers to go ham on it, take the already high art of watch finishing all the way to the top floor. The fact that there are only 30 is dictated by just how damn hard these watches are to make.

It’s all in the dial: what looks like a textured backdrop with markings applied to it is actually a solid rose gold plate that is hand sculpted away to reveal the markings in the material, then plated in rhodium and polished back to reveal the rose gold once more. This is what’s known in the trade as a massive pain in the butt, with every piece of metal taken away flake by microscopic flake—by hand. No electricity is involved in the excruciatingly painstaking process of crafting this dial. Make a mistake? It goes in the bin.

The Movement

As if the watchmakers had nothing else better to do, the backs of the watches get a similar treatment. For the Sugess, radial stripes break up the plates into a shimmering pattern not unlike the spokes of a moving bicycle, interspersed with blued screws and brass wheels. It’s not unattractive in the slightest; in fact, I’d say quite the opposite. The eye is well pleased by what it sees here.

It is, of course, all applied by machine, however. Even the gentle bevelling that breaks up the edges of the plates is applied by the bit in what is probably a very expensive milling machine—but a machine nonetheless. What this means is you’re looking at a watch like this for half the price of an iPhone—and it’s the complete antithesis of the A. Lange & Söhne.

Time-telling duties in the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst come from the calibre L102.1, what might best be described not as a watch movement, but an optical enigma. It looks perfect in a way normal things have no hope of looking. It’s almost uncanny, like the crystal in the back of the watch is a lens that has shrunk something much bigger into the 39.5mm case. Look at anything ordinary afterwards and your eyes feel like they’ve aged a decade.

This level of perfection comes exclusively at the hands of the same skilled artisans who have just finished up hand-carving the dials. When I barely have the patience to wait for a one-minute microwave rice pot, it boggles my mind that an actual human being can take the time and have the skill to bring the details in the calibre L102.1 to life. The polished areas are like liquid mercury, the texture like Saharan sand. There is not a single detail out of place. It is, in a word, extraordinary.

The Tourbillon

But the main event, the thing we’re all here for, is the tourbillon. It is the very embodiment of human ingenuity, an object that can only exist thanks to the unquenched curiosity that continues to this day in projects like the incredible James Webb Space Telescope—only this one was created with nothing more than the brilliant mind and hands of watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet all the way back in 1795.

Since then, the replication of the tourbillon continues to be a benchmark for a watchmaker’s prowess, a symbol of the industry’s peak when it was at the very forefront of science and technology. That’s one level of impressive, but taking the crown is the fact that modern ingenuity means all that can be produced for just $500. Abraham-Louis Breguet would have soiled his sheets.

This is no trick; the Chinese Sugess has a genuine tourbillon that works and works reliably. And it doesn’t even look like a piece of crap when it’s doing it. It’s an attractive watch, finished nicely, that operates reasonably well. For $500, it’s absolutely brilliant.

In isolation, at least, because compared with the A. Lange & Söhne, it may as well be a sun dial. The same expertly applied finish found on the rest of the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst is to be found deep in the tourbillon itself, from the four-sided bridge to the sweeping cage. If you wanted to try hypnosis, this would be the mechanism to do it with.

It’s not just good looking either, because A. Lange & Söhne has seen fit to give the tourbillon a very unusual function. Pull the crown, and the second hand mounted to the front doesn’t just stop, it snaps back to zero to make setting the time exceedingly precise. That may not seem like much, but in watchmaking terms, a big old tourbillon is a lumbering, dim-witted thing, and sending it spinning to twelve like that takes some doing. As if to credit the little device for this extraordinary performance, it wears a diamond in place of the usual ruby.

Perhaps you might be thinking that if the Sugess can even exist, the A. Lange & Söhne’s comparatively outrageous cost is completely unjustified. Perhaps you might even think that the existence of such an expensive watch is outrageous in and of itself. But here’s what I think: there are many things that make the human species an abomination, but the artistic endeavour of such an exquisite piece of craftsmanship is not one of them. It is, indeed, the opposite, a demonstration of what’s possible when the only prerequisite is achieving the very best, a vision of a eutopia where art doesn’t come second to cost. It will live on for years, decades—even centuries—a celebration of this little moment in time and some of the good that was achieved. I’m just glad the $500 Sugess exists as well so we can all enjoy a piece of it.

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