Feature: Patek Philippe vs A. Lange & Söhne
This is it. This is the big one. In one corner, you’ve got Patek Philippe, king of the watchmaking trifecta, and in the other, you’ve got A. Lange & Söhne, the crisp, clinical perfectionist. It’s Switzerland versus Germany, classic watchmaking versus polished efficiency, and what better way to fight this fight than with some flagship watches from each brand. This is going to be good.
Where to begin with two watchmakers that have as much that is different about them as they do the same. Both practice what is arguably the highest level of watchmaking, both excel in making complications—yet also hold strong ground with their simple classics—and both command loyal, diehard supporters.
Even these two watches, on paper, have little to separate them. Both are 41mm, both are fashioned from white gold, both display perpetual calendars with chronographs and both source power from incredible hand wound movements. Even in the details, they match each other incredibly closely: both have offset sub-dials, moonphases at six o’clock, chunky crowns and squared-off pushers. Yet sit them side-by-side and they couldn’t look more different without one of them being an MB&F.
In the Patek Philippe, a 5270G, you get a strong sense of the French influences from sort-of Patek Philippe founder and Frenchman Adrien Philippe. I say ‘sort-of founder’ because the company was already established as Patek, Czapek & Cie before Philippe came on board, with the Czapek part of the original Polish pair leaving the business in 1844. So, while the company in one form or another started making watches in 1839, it wasn’t until 1845, the same year A. Lange & Söhne was founded, that Patek Philippe started trading under the name we all know today. You follow?
Anyway, turning our attention to A. Lange & Söhne’s Datograph Perpetual, and we immediately see strong Germanic angles; clean, unfussy lines; heavy Gothic lettering. Everything is neat and tidy, from the open, spacious dial, right down to the use of a singular font. I expect that if someone otherwise unaware of this brand were asked to guess where it hailed from, they’d get to Germany pretty sharpish. In this inverted colour combination of white text on a grey dial, it makes for a very sombre-looking thing.
When it comes to appearances, these two could trade blows all day long. It’s down to personal taste whether you like the Patek Philippe’s mishmash of elements versus A. Lange & Söhne’s carefully orchestrated display; the flared lugs and characterful concave bezel over the straight-laced, minimal approach. But what about how these two £100,000-plus behemoths perform?
Both companies entertain a similar approach to making their perpetual calendar chronographs, with a manual wind movement decked with a chronograph on the back and a perpetual calendar on the front, but that’s where the similarities end.
For Patek Philippe, tradition is the name of the game, and so it’s predominantly with wheels that the 5270G displays its information. Dial off, it makes for a crowded space, but it means the day and month get prominence at 12 o’clock on the dial, with the date readout relegated to the sub-dial at six.
A. Lange & Söhne has gone down a different route, choosing not only to prioritise the date as the primary display, but to really prioritise it, fashioning it in the outsize form found on other A. Lange & Söhne watches. I suppose when you think about it, of all the pieces of info a watch like this offers, after the time it’s the date that’s most likely to be required. Can’t be too many people who know the date but not the month.
With such an enormous piece of dial real estate taken up with the big date and its even bigger wheels, the Datograph Perpetual doesn’t have the luxury of smattering other wheels all about the place like the Patek Philipe does. The solution is in the sub-dials; where the 5270G has a pair straddling the centre that serve just one function only, A. Lange & Söhne has clawed back some space by overlapping no less than three complications on each, hoovering up the standalone day-night and leap year indicators on the Patek Philippe and layering them in with the running seconds and day, and chronograph minutes and month respectively.
The result is the reverse of what would be expected: the Patek Philippe looks busy, complex and fit to bursting with complications; the A. Lange & Söhne is left with lots of clear space—thanks mainly to needing one less sub-dial than its rival—and feels simpler than the Patek Philippe despite the chronograph having an additional flyback complication.
And the setup of the two watches takes a similar approach, with Patek Philippe relying on hidden pushers to get the job done. The A. Lange & Söhne does too, but with a little extra thought it’s been determined that, once everything is fully set and the watch is left unwound for a few days, quick access to the date adjustment is all that’s needed; and so that’s what you get, a chunky pusher at 10 o’clock that activates only when the crown is in time-setting mode.
We’re at the final round, and it’s here that each brand digs deep to fight for glory, exposes its delicate underbelly to take a devastating swing at the other. For Patek Philippe, that’s with the calibre CH 29-535 PS Q; for A. Lange & Söhne, the calibre L952.1. And what has been said of the rest of these watches can be said about the movements: despite having similar horizontal clutches and instant minute change features for the chronographs, they are rather different.
While the Patek Philippe carries a suitably traditional appeal, it’s here that A. Lange & Söhne shows us that it has a fun side after all. The dial of the Datograph Perpetual may be restrained, but the movement is anything but, layers upon layers of stark, spindly components nesting on top of one another in such close proximity that it’s hard to believe it actually works.
And if it appears that the L952.1 has more parts than Patek Philippe’s equivalent, that’s because it does: an extra hundred, to be precise, 556 versus 456. This leads to an almost overwhelming spider’s web display of watchmaking that does, unfortunately, have a couple of downsides: the A. Lange & Söhne is just under a millimetre thicker than the Patek Philippe, and packs in one-and-a-half times less power reserve.
In a world with smart phones, self-driving cars and fridges that can Tweet, it’s frankly astonishing that we get to see two such different approaches to making these impressive watches. On one hand we have the traditional, the elegant, the slender; and on the other the efficient, the crisp, the analytical. The Patek Philippe has its emotive flourishes, the A. Lange & Söhne its cool logic, and to be honest, if the decision was one made solely with the head, the choice would be easy—but it isn’t, so it’s not.
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