I’m a dyed-in-the-wool sports-watch guy, or perhaps more accurately, a dyed-in-the-neoprene dive-watch guy. Call me a simple brute who prefers his timepieces with three hands and for whom a “complication” usually means a rotating bezel or wetsuit extension, but I still know a piece of haute horlogerie when I see one. In fact, outside of the Submariners and Supermarines I am usually found admiring, I do have a secret crush on a siren, one who is decidedly afraid of water. That mistress is the A. Lange & Söhne Double Split, a watch that has made me weak in the knees ever since I first laid eyes on one on my inaugural trip to Glashütte, Germany, back in 2010. One subsequently found its way to my doorstep, and thus began a month-long summer romance I will long remember.
In the pantheon of great chronographs, A. Lange & Söhne looms large. But it is not the Double Split that is usually spoken of; rather, it is the Datograph, and rightly so. When the Datograph burst onto the scene in 1999, it was a revelation: the first new chronograph movement designed from a blank sheet of paper in more than a decade, beating even the heavyweight, Patek Philippe, to the punch. And it wasn’t even Swiss, but hailed from the forested valleys of eastern Germany. More remarkable was the fact that it was introduced a mere five years since the first collection debuted, following the triumphant return of the A. Lange & Söhne company after its 40-year Cold War slumber. But while the development of a brand-new mechanical chronograph caliber is a Herculean feat of watchmaking, Lange didn’t stop there; they set out to do something even more remarkable: creating the very first split-seconds and split-minutes chronograph.
Perhaps some background is in order. The ability to time two separate events that start at the same time has long been a horological puzzle, and one that has been masterfully executed in some truly exquisite timepieces from numerous companies, from Rolex to Longines, and to perhaps the best-known purveyor of such a complication, Patek Philippe. Known as a rattrapante — or less elegantly in English, “split seconds” — chronograph, the feat is accomplished by overlaying two sweep seconds hands on the dial that start running in tandem when the chronograph is activated. The rattrapante chronograph is traditionally considered to be one of the most difficult of all complications to execute — not for naught is it indispensable in a traditional “grand complication” (where it’s joined by the minute repeater and the perpetual calendar).
Its operation is straightforward. With the chronograph running, pressing a separate pusher (the rattrapante pusher) causes one of the sweep hands to stop, allowing the elapsed time of the first event to be read while the other sweep hand continues to run. Pressing the chronograph stop-pusher halts the running hand to record the time of the second event. When the rattrapante pusher is pressed at any time, the first sweep hand will “catch up” to the other one and they resume running in tandem. Difficult to build but fun to play with, the rattrapante is a favorite of chronograph connoisseurs everywhere. However, they have limited usefulness because of one key limitation: they can only time events lasting up to 60 seconds.
The Lange Double Split solved this limitation by being able to time two events up to 30 minutes, not only overlaying the sweep seconds hand, but also the chronograph’s minute totalizer. The watch works in the same manner as described above, with a start/stop pusher and a rattrapante pusher, but adds a second elapsed-minute hand, in blued steel, just like the rattrapante seconds hand. As if all this wizardry isn’t enough, the Double Split is also a flyback, which means that when the reset pusher is pressed while the chronograph is running, the hands snap back to zero and start timing again instantaneously, eliminating the need to stop, reset and start again.
Of course, under the bonnet, there is much more magic than merely adding another hand on the dial and another button on the case, but that is a subject for an entirely different article by someone far smarter than me (remember, I’m a dive-watch guy). But even to my untrained eye, the Double Split, and the accomplishment of its creation, was impressive.
Initially, I was disappointed to see that the watch I received was in pink gold, not in the white gold or platinum varieties that I preferred. To someone of my age and geography (Midwestern America), gold is still considered ostentatious, garish even, and the choice of rich old guys in Florida. Not to mention it doesn’t wear as well on my fair skin. But that quibble went away quickly. Lange’s pink gold is a warm red tone that suits the silvery cream dial and brown alligator strap with which it is matched. I grew fond of wearing it even in casual circumstances (which are nearly all circumstances in my life), matched with jeans, a brown belt and boots, and rolled-up sleeves. The watch is more burly than one might expect, and more versatile than many other high complication luxury timepieces. It wears almost, dare I say, like a sports watch. And though I didn’t wear it jogging (like I did with a loaned Datograph in Dresden, but that’s another story), I did use it to time a professional bicycle race, in as fitting a demonstration of its usefulness as I could think of.
A criterium is a race in which cyclists race around a short circuit, usually less than one mile, for a set number of laps or time limit. As slower riders get lapped, they get pulled from the course until only the fastest are left. I planted myself at a particularly treacherous bend in the course where riders had to brake hard and then accelerate out of the corner, and focused on the two lead riders as they came past, pressing the chronograph start button as they did. When the first rider crossed in front of me again, I clicked the rattrapante pusher. His lap was registered oh-so-elegantly by the Saxon stopwatch as two minutes and four seconds. Moments later, the second rider passed and I clicked the chronograph pusher: two minutes and 12 seconds. Snap went the rattrapante, snick went the reset pusher, and the Double Split was ready to go again. This was fun. And none of the other cheering cycling fans around me knew I was timing laps with a USD100,000 German piece of watchmaking history.
Over the course of my month with the Double Split, there would be days and activities better suited for wearing something more casual and, shall we say, pedestrian. Like a Rolex Submariner. But the Double Split waited in my safe faithfully, perhaps happy for the respite. When I pulled her out, a small pleasure was in the winding; watching the power-reserve hand travel from the marker “AB” (“down”) to “AUF” (“up”), and the balance wheel come to life. Word got around that I had this watch, and calls and emails came from friends who wanted to come and see it. I scheduled time for visits and unveiled the watch like a piece of priceless art on loan to a gallery. At social gatherings, even non-watch people would approach me and ask to see it, and the usual guffaws over price were silenced when the watch was fondled and turned over to reveal the perfection of that impossibly exquisite movement. People snapped iPhone photos of it to share with friends and rich relatives. The Double Split was a supermodel on my arm, admired by all, lusted after by many — but it was mine, all mine, for a one lovely summer month.