When one thinks of chiming watches, there are many brands that provide instant recall, but for decades A. Lange & Söhne was not one of them. A maker of the most exquisite German watches, Lange is synonymous with finishing and precision rather than petite and grande sonneries. But, Director of Product Development Anthony de Haas embarked on a mission to change that when he joined the company 13 years ago.
De Haas already had an illustrious career before Lange. After graduating, he went to IWC to work under the legendary Günter Blümlein. “I met him in my second week,” he laughs. “I was going up the stairs and he was coming down. He was the big boss and I was shaking as I said: ‘Good morning.’ He looked at me, stopped and said: ‘Good morning. So, you must be the new Dutch guy?’ I nodded before he replied: ‘Welcome to the company. I wish you lots of success here.’ He continued on his way, leaving me open-mouthed. There were hundreds of people working there and he knew about me – a young Dutch watchmaker just starting out. After that I didn’t have much to do with Mr Blümlein, because he was leading three major brands [Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, as well as IWC] and, as a watchmaker, I did not sit down with him on a daily basis.”
But two-and-a-half years later, when de Haas gave notice to leave IWC and take up a post at the legendary movement manufacture Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi (APRP), Mr Blümlein called him to his office to ask why his young gun wanted to leave. “This is something he always did, he was very interested in what was going on,” says de Haas. “I told him I had the possibility to work at Renaud & Papi who he knew very well as the first project APRP did was for IWC. He asked if I would stay if I could make complicated watches, but I explained that Renaud & Papi was my dream, that it was different to anywhere else.
“Then he showed me an A. Lange & Söhne watch – it was a prototype of the Datograph – and he said: ‘We need guys like you.’ I’d never seen a Lange before and I just thought ‘Wow!’ He was so proud of this Saxon movement and I was super-impressed but I knew what I had to do. He said he could talk to Giulio Papi and sort it out for me to stay, but to me a contract is a contract and so I was determined to go. Mr Blümlein said he was sorry but he respected my decision and said we should keep in touch.”
In 2000, their paths crossed again at the Basel Watch Fair and Blümlein asked de Haas again if he was ready to go to Germany. Then, two weeks after Blümlein’s untimely death in 2001, de Haas was asked by Papi to manage a project for Lange, finally joining the company in 2004, a decision he refers to as: “Inevitable. Blümlein had infected me with the A. Lange & Söhne virus.”
By the time he arrived at Lange, de Haas was also infected with a love for chiming watches that had begun back in his APRP days where he describes his minute repeater training – which he undertook with Peter Speake-Marin – as “great fun”. But the fun turned serious when de Haas was asked by Papi to work on a grande sonnerie. “There are many complications and most are logical to a trained watchmaker, but a chiming watch is a step beyond,” he says. “A minute repeater is tricky because most of the time it is an hour rack on top of a quarter rack on top of minute a rack with little levers and tiny springs that connect the rack with the hammers and this requires precise tuning. Most people think if you have big gongs and heavy hammers, the sound will be louder, but that is not true. What makes the strike is not the hammer hitting the gong but the springs and levers and these require fine adjustment. The watch must also strike 11:59 when it is 11:59 precisely, not at 12 o’clock. There are so many parts that interact with each other, and many parts mean many tolerances that all have to come together. That’s already quite tricky.”
But while a minute repeater has to be activated by the wearer, in a grand sonnerie it is the movement itself that creates the magic – automatically. Now that is relatively straightforward in a watch like the Striking Time where there is a wheel that makes a turn every 24 hours and then lifts a pin which exactly on the hour drops a lever and strikes one ding (rather like a calendar switching date at 12 o’clock) but, when at 12:15, you require an automatic 12 dings and one ding-dong, that necessitates a much higher level of adjustment. You have a movement there for timekeeping and, if every 15 minutes something has to be activated involving the interaction of levers and hooks that liberate the racks to drop, you put a lot of force on the operating spring which acts like a brake. The big challenge is how to make a secure drop, every 15 minutes, without losing too much amplitude.
“Luckily, at APRP – at least when I was there – everyone was young and crazy,” de Haas says. “It is not everyone’s thing, but when I was asked to try a grande sonnerie, I jumped at it. It takes a lot of testing – with a minute repeater it is easier because it is you who is putting the energy in, but a grande sonnerie needs to strike on its own. You can’t speed up the testing. At night, we isolated the sounds of the movements with tape recorders and microphones. The next day, we listened to every chime and marked any missing strike or extra strike and analysed those reference points to work out what to do. It was rarely a logical problem or solution.”
A Song for Glashütte
Armed with this unrivalled experience in chiming watches, de Haas understood that to rank among the likes of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, A. Lange & Söhne had to produce a sonnerie. The challenge was that no one at the brand had any experience with striking watches so far. “Although the old pocket watch manufactory made repeaters, the movements were bought from Swiss companies and then finished at Lange.”
De Haas readily accepted his musical challenge, seeing one of his main roles as Development Director as preparing the company for the future, which to him meant not only making watches, but also creating a pool of knowledge. “It’s a noble goal,” he says “But the thing is, how to start? It would have been very easy for me to call my friend Giulio Papi and ask him to develop a mechanism. But that’s not today’s watchmaking and I strongly believed that a brand like Lange should be capable of developing and building these complications in-house.”
With his new-found mission, de Haas set to work making plans for a minute repeater project. At the same time, the manufacture was restoring a pocket watch – Grand Complication No. 42500. Inspired by this masterpiece from the past, de Haas realised that if Lange was going to enter the world of striking watches, it should be with a bang, and he decided to reinterpret No. 42500 as a wristwatch.
In all, the project took seven years to come to fruition – the gong development alone taking up a huge part of that time. “Of course, I could have bought gongs from Switzerland,” de Haas says. “But, even there, only three or four guys exist who know how to make them. So we were eager to gain this skill for ourselves. This involved one-and-a-half years of blood, sweat and tears, such as testing the weight of the hammers, the size of the gong and the tension in the spring that unites the two. I had gained a little bit of knowledge building repeaters for APRP and my goal was to pass this on.”
So, while the waiting world was expecting Lange to launch with a simple repeater, de Haas burst onto the scene in 2013 with a watch that contained a monopusher split-seconds chronograph with flying seconds, a perpetual calendar, as well as a grande sonnerie, a petite sonnerie AND a minute repeater. According to de Haas, it is not the number of functions within a grand complication watch that is important, but the interaction between them and, whereas most grand complications on the market incorporate a minute repeater and a chronograph, Lange decided to incorporate all of the highest complications. Today he refers to it as: “Very nasty. People hate me for it, but I think we did a good job. We made something exclusive that left quite a mark. And despite the frustrations, it was a fun thing for us.”
The biggest test for the A. Lange & Söhne Grand Complication, however, was its first natural leap year and de Haas approached midnight on 28 February 2016 with his heart in his mouth. “A watch is only a success if it does its job. And it did! It was so cool to see – I filmed it happening so I could watch it again and again.”
And after the Grand Complication, a simple striking watch must now seem easy for de Haas and his team? He laughs at the suggestion, pointing out that the Grand Complication merely marked the beginning of a new era at Lange. Development, he explains, is an ongoing process with so much happening in the workshops that the public is yet to see. “In 2014, people asked if we could repeat the ingenuity seen in the Grand Complication. But, if we didn’t go on, then there would have been no purpose to what we had achieved. A couple of years ago, it was a bit of a trend for companies to present a concept or a virtual reality watch that never showed up – or showed up four years later. I guess that’s a choice and you have to decide if you want to work like that.”
De Haas is well aware that nobody today needs a basic watch – never mind a complicated one. But he is appreciative of the fact that so many people are still fascinated by the craftsmanship and skill behind features like chiming. And that is the reason that he feels compelled to always give something more. “Nobody expected the Zeitwerk Decimal Strike,” he says with pride talking about last year’s version of Lange’s digital watch (which chimes on the hour and also at ten-minute intervals) that followed the Zeitwerk Striking Time (which chimes on the hour and on the quarters) and the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. “Although not unique, decimal repeaters are quite rare as it is natural to think of a 60 minute, round dial in terms of quarters,” he says. “But against the background of the digital Zeitwerk, a repetition of tens just works. We put a lot of effort into that piece because it was already so complicated. But we like to push the boundaries. We like to surprise people.”
For a watch to chime, there is a huge demand on power. A classical repeater has a separate barrel for the striking mechanism but the already large mainspring of the Zeitwerk meant that this wasn’t an option and so, in a flash of inspiration, de Haas decided to use the existing mainspring adding in a crucial element – a new power-reserve indicator that alerts users to the fact that there is only eight hours of power left via the appearance of a red dot. At this stage, the watch continues to run and keep time but the minute repeater no longer chimes until it has been rewound.
Another quirk incorporated into the Zeitwerk takes into account that it has a digital jumping minute indicator. The striking mechanism needs around 17 to 18 seconds to complete striking, so what happens if the repeater is activated at 12:33 and 50 seconds? “The watch stops jumping,” says de Haas. “If you start it at 33, it will strike 33 and switch to 34 only when it has finished the striking. It will only strike what you read and then the seconds hand will jump to the correct time after chiming. So it is always right! It seems really complicated but in isolation it’s actually really simple – of course, in combination with other functions it’s quite tricky.