Review: A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Referenzuhr
Just a few seconds holding an A. Lange & Söhne tells you that it’s something special. A few more minutes and a loupe and you’ll be treated to a look at some of the finest watchmaking in the world, and that’s just the entry-level stuff. Imagine then, how impressive an A. Lange & Söhne can be when the brand decides to make an ultra-exclusive limited edition.
Let’s turn our attention to the gram for a moment, the measure of mass. What is a gram, exactly? And I don’t mean roughly, I mean exactly. Well, in 1795, the French decided that a gram was the absolute weight of a volume of pure water equal to the cube the hundredth part of the metre, and the temperature of melting ice.
That’s not particularly useful when weighing out broccoli at the supermarket—nor is it an entirely precise measure—and so a reference weight was created for a thousand grams, a kilogram, fashioned from a block of pure platinum, a noble metal chosen for its resistance to corrosion. There are copies of this reference weight all around the world, kept under close, atmospherically controlled scrutiny.
But why? We know what a kilogram is by now, and there can’t be many people in the Western world who are any further than five minutes away from a device that can measure one, so isn’t that little block of platinum obsolete? Well, it would be, if there were a specific mathematical expression for a kilogram—but there isn’t. A kilogram is now no more than an arbitrary number based on that little block of platinum.
What that means is that if those references were to be destroyed, we wouldn’t know how much a kilogram was. Okay, so we’d know roughly—we’d probably know to a fairly reasonable accuracy, actually—but we wouldn’t know exactly. These masses are the foundation from which all other measures are built upon.
The same exact phenomenon could be said of time. Your watch—when you take it off and it stops, you set it to your reference, maybe your computer or your phone. But where does that reference time come from? Today, we use atomic clocks—not so several hundred years ago.
Many cities in the 19th century had an official timekeeper that would take observations from the night sky and transfer them with incredible accuracy to a high-precision pendulum clock. From here, chronometer pocket watches were set, and the right time could be distributed throughout the city.
The challenge came in accurately syncing the time between the pendulum and the chronometer. How could it be done while maintaining that precious accuracy? That’s where this A. Lange & Söhne Referenzuhr comes in.
For the city of Dresden, Germany, it was watchmaker Johan Heinrich Seyffert who was charged with the problem of accurately transferring time to the people, and so in 1811 he developed the zero-reset mechanism, upon which this Referenzuhr is based. And Seyffert’s precision didn’t just benefit Dresden, but the neighbouring towns as well—including Glashütte, the home of German watchmaking and, of course, A. Lange & Söhne.
The Referenzuhr is part of the extremely limited Richard Lange collection, A. Lange & Söhne’s dedication to the art of precision timekeeping, named in honour of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s son. The company made only 125 Referenzuhrs, 75 in rose gold and 50 in platinum, reserving this traditional complication for just a handful of lucky owners.
But what is a zero reset mechanism? To understand that more clearly, let’s first revisit the process of setting the time. To get the hours and minutes correct is easy, but to set the seconds—that’s where things get tricky. Many watches don’t allow the adjustment of the second hand, and those that do, pausing or ‘hacking’ it when the crown is pulled, didn’t start appearing until a century later.
Even if hacking watches had existed back then, the operation lacks the precision needed for the task. Pushing the crown back in to restart the mechanism is fine for many applications, but for transferring chronometer time, it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard. So, here’s what Seyffert did instead—he installed a pusher that, when pressed, reset the seconds to zero. The seconds would then stay at zero until the pusher was released, a single, clean, easy action that guaranteed a precise response.
It’s a mechanism that’s been beautifully recreated by A. Lange & Söhne in the Referenzuhr. Squeeze the pusher and the sequence of levers engage the clutch to disconnect the second hand from the third wheel, push the reset cam to bring it to zero, and apply the brake to keep it from moving. Release the pusher, and springs return the levers back to their starting positions, the clutch biting down and the second hand ticking once more.
And it wasn’t enough for A. Lange & Söhne to stop there—this is a special edition piece after all—because this particular zero-reset mechanism does something rather special. Like hacking seconds, zero-reset traditionally uses a brake to stop the balance spring, but thanks to the Referenzuhr’s clutch, the balance can keep on beating all the while.
And another nice little touch—with only a 38-hour power reserve, the gearing has been made extra-fast through some clever packaging to make winding the Referenzuhr quick and painless.
Okay, so most of us would be more than happy with a run-of-the-mill A. Lange & Söhne—if you could call an entry-level watch from the brand that—but nevertheless it’s fascinating to see what the company can do when it really lets its hair down. It’s an interesting complication with an interesting history and, thanks to A. Lange & Söhne and the Richard Lange collection, it’s one we can continue appreciating even to this day.
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