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Feature: The Zeitwerk - Digital, But Not As You Know It

If you had to round up a handful of high-end watches guaranteed to kindle people’s curiosity, the odd-looking Zeitwerk by Glashütte brand A. Lange & Söhne would be among them.

Despite its meticulously engraved movement and technical brilliance, it's the head-turning layout of the dial that sets the Zeitwerk apart—a perfect marriage of Lange traditions, pared-down Teutonic style and… a digital display.

It’s a watch that is everything 99.9 per cent of digital watches are not: a luxury, mechanical timepiece in gold or platinum that landed the highly prestigious Aiguille d’Or prize when it debuted in 2009. For most of us, of course, the word ‘digital’ is synonymous with electronics. We think of LED displays, disposable Casios with flimsy rubber straps and plastic calculators.

So the fact that the Zeitwerk has its roots in a 19th-century royally appointed clock on the wall of a Baroque German opera house may come as something of a surprise to those unacquainted with Lange’s colourful history.

A Disgruntled King

Many brands delve into their archives to create new models, which is what Lange did for the Zeitwerk, in a manner of speaking.

The Zeitwerk was based on a series of 19th-century Lange pocket watches with an instantaneously jumping numerical display that were in turn inspired by a clock on the wall of Dresden’s Semper Opera House, a concert hall that celebrates its 180th anniversary this year.

This old clock in Dresden's Semper Opera House inspired the Zeitwerk

This old clock in Dresden's Semper Opera House inspired the Zeitwerk

The origin of the clock itself has a story. Long before the advent of luminous markers, audience members checked their pocket watches in the dark by using a repeater function. Annoyed with chiming watches going off throughout the performance, regular patron King Frederick Augustus of Saxony commissioned J.C Friederich Gutkaes (Ferdinand Lange’s mentor and later father-in-law) to create a large, easy-to-read clock that could be seen by everyone in the audience.

No more pesky chimes to annoy poor Frederick in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The clock remains today – a testament to superior craftsmanship of Dresden’s clockmakers and a reminder that horology has been a strong tradition in this part of Germany for almost two centuries.

New Generation

The end of World War II was followed by Lange and other Glashütte-based brands being absorbed into one watch-making entity by the new Communist government. Vastly inferior to what Lange used to make, they were to the world of watches what a Trabant car was to motoring.

Almost half a century of dormancy followed, then, before Lange was brought back to life in a reunified Germany

When it released a series of new-generation watches in 1994 it instantly made a bold and clear statement about the kind of brand it was going to be. One of those first watches was the Pour Le Merite tourbillon in yellow gold, as well as the flagship Lange 1 and more conventional Saxonia. All high-end watches built with the kind of superior hand-finishing that recalled a bygone era.

The spellbinding Zeitwerk Decimal Strike in honey gold

The spellbinding Zeitwerk Decimal Strike in honey gold

Patek Philippe was facing the kind of competition for excellence it hadn’t had in years. That said, aside from perhaps the Lange 1 with its asymmetric dial design, there was nothing in its range that defied convention, something that would really get a rise out of the traditionalists and ensure Lange was a name on the lips of every watch aficionado. But that would come, in time…

Industry Take Note

On its release in 2009, the Zeitwerk made serious industry ripples with its ground-breaking design, but also of note was the technical innovation needed to make a movement that powered a jumping time display.

Advancing the three disks 1,608 times a day requires a huge amount of energy and, with no other brand producing a watch of its kind, it was down to Lange’s own watchmakers, led by the brand’s development supremo, Anthony De Haas, to develop an in-house movement with a constant-force escapement—a mechanism unlike any of their previous ones and which allowed for a longer supply of energy in the mainspring.

The Zeitwerk's calibre required the development of an innovative new mechanism

The Zeitwerk's calibre required the development of an innovative new mechanism

It was something that had been attempted with only limited success by other watch brands with a similar digital display, including Harry Winston’s Opus 3 and Porsche Design’s Indicator, the latter of which experienced teething problems and had to be redesigned after its debut.

Twelve years after its introduction, its fair to say the Zeitwerk has experienced no such issues and has passed the various, rigorous timing tests it has been subjected to with flying colours.

Growing The Family

There’s no doubt the Zeitwerk still has its detractors, as is the case with any watch that tears up the aesthetic rule book. But the Zeitwerk has become Lange’s most recognisable model with several superb variants to choose from.

This Zeitwerk model, Ref:147.028, also features a minute repeater

This Zeitwerk model, Ref:147.028, also features a minute repeater

These include the Zeitwerk Date—don’t worry, there’s no extra aperture to spoil the dial’s equilibrium; the dates discreetly encircle the dial—and a Striking Time quarter-repeater, which might well have annoyed his royal highness King Frederick Augustus were you to sit next to him at the theatre today…

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