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1-on-1: Comparing the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Annual Calendar and the Patek Philippe Ref. 5396

by Frank Chuo on June 26, 2017

1815 Annual Calendar v.s. Ref. 5396

The annual calendar complication has become increasingly popular since its first appearance in 1996. Often dubbed the “poor man’s perpetual calendar”, the complication is seen as a more accessible alternative to the perpetual calendar and a bridge in the gap between the full and perpetual calendars. The annual calendar is able to differentiate between 30- and 31-day months, meaning no corrections are needed on months with only 30 days. But unlike the perpetual calendar, it does not take account of the month of February (which has less than 30 days) and of leap years. The annual calendar therefore requires intervention once a year, at the end of February.

Duking it out today are two of horology’s best examples of annual calendars. In the blue corner, hailing from Germany and newly presented this year at SIHH, we have the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Annual Calendar; and in the red corner, unveiled in Baselworld 2016 by Switzerland’s finest, the Patek Philippe Ref. 5396. The two contenders may share the same complication but there are additional intricacies that warrant closer inspection.

 

Design

Both the 1815 Annual Calendar and the Ref. 5396 excel in this aspect. The design of the 1815 Annual Calendar is inspired by pocket watches built in the 19th century by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the brand’s founder. The cues are bountiful: railroad-style minute track, inky Arabic numerals, clover leaf arrangement of sub-dials, and of course a three-quarter plate movement architecture. Meanwhile, the Ref. 5396 is reminiscent of Patek Philippe’s first automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch – the Ref. 3448 from the 1960s – with its twin aperture windows at 12 o’clock and moon phase display at 6 o’clock. This layout is iconic and is now used not just by Patek Philippe, but also by other Swiss brands.

We love the balance achieved on the multi-planed dial of the 1815 Annual Calendar. The lack of the brand’s signature big date is a blessing in disguise as it scores the dial points on elegance. The only minor gripe one could have with the dial is the “Annual Calendar” text used to balance the 3 o’clock sub-dial. In our opinion, a day/night indicator would’ve done a similar job with the added benefit of conveying additional information. Alternatively, the date display at 9 o’clock could’ve been moved to the 6 o’clock sub-dial so that both the 3 and 9 o’clock sub-dials only house one display each.

 

The dial design of the 1815 Annual Calendar is inspired by old Lange pocket watches. Of note is the solid gold moon phase disc with laser-etched stars that is sure to be the centre of attention on the dial.

 

With the Ref. 5396, what we love in particular are the applied Breguet numerals on the dial, a special treat normally reserved for limited-edition complicated timepieces from the brand. The applied dots that make up the minute track are also charming and elegant. There are however, several lamentations that we have with regards to the design of the dial. Firstly, the wide base of the dauphine hour and minute hands obstruct the top of the 24-hour indicator in the 6 o’clock sub-dial. We understand that this transgression does not make or break the watch, but in the business of fine watchmaking, attention to detail goes a long way. Secondly, we question the need for a 24-hour indicator which inevitably led to the relegation of the date function into a disruptive aperture at the bottom. In our opinion, the watch would do better without the date aperture while having a radial date in place of the 24-hour indicator. This would significantly improve the cohesiveness and purity of the dial design. When we pit the moon phase displays of both watches against one another, the winner was – by a long mile – the 1815 Annual Calendar. The moon phase display in the 1815 Annual Calendar was infinitely more detailed and much better-finished.

 

The Ref. 5396 is handsome but a few aspects of the dial warrant reconsideration, most notably the choice of hands and the inclusion of a 24-hour indicator.

 

To summarise, while the Ref. 5396 has the 1815 Annual Calendar beat in symmetry, the unnecessary date aperture adds clutter to the already-busy vertical centre of the dial. The Ref. 5396 could also improve on its choice of hands and the aesthetics of its moon phase display. The use of apertures to display calendar indications comes with pros and cons, and unfortunately, with respect to design, apertures just aren’t as poetic as sub-dials – another point for the Lange. With all this in mind, we give the 1815 Annual Calendar the edge in design.

Verdict: 1815 Annual Calendar wins

Legibility

Legibility is one aspect of fine watchmaking that many manufacturers are all too willing to compromise or even sacrifice. Fortunately, neither of our contenders here suffer this fate. However, the winner of this segment remains clear to us. While aperture displays are typically as charming as drywall, they are more legible and intuitive than old-school sub-dial displays – very much so. Key information are conveyed in a flash with the aperture displays of the Ref. 5396 while this will not be possible with the sub-dials of the 1815 Annual Calendar.

 

They won’t win any beauty contests, but aperture displays are highly legible and can be read-off in a glance.

Having two indicators in the 9 o’clock sub-dial makes it harder to read-off the displays quickly.

 

The 9 o’clock sub-dial in the Lange housing two calendar displays indicated by two hands of different lengths might also pose a small challenge to new owners who hope to read off the day and date instantaneously. All this is not to say that the 1815 Annual Calendar is poorly legible, but rather, that the Ref. 5396’s displays are supremely legible and intuitive.

Verdict: Ref. 5396 wins 

Practicality

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5396 having a self-winding movement with 45 hours power reserve is huge for practicality. The watch would almost never require manual winding if worn everyday. Conveniently, the Ref. 5396’s versatile design lends itself to daily wear, as long as one’s vocation does not involve deep sea salvaging or firefighting. Should one decide to swap watches, the Ref. 5396 can easily be placed onto a watch winder, ready to go again whenever.

 

Best thing since sliced bread? The movement of the Ref. 5396 is wound by a gold central rotor, providing the watch 45 hours of autonomy.

 

While the 1815 Annual Calendar has a hand-wound movement, it boasts a longer power reserve – 72 hours to be exact. This isn’t significantly greater than the Ref. 5396, but it’s still something. Moreover, the folks at Lange have added a feature onto the 1815 to tackle precisely the issue of practicality: a pusher that advances all calendar indications. This enables the owner to quickly and easily advance the calendar to the correct date, day and month even after the watch has stopped for a considerable period of time. Such a feature is not available on the Patek – should the Ref. 5396 stop running, all the calendar indications will have to be manually corrected, one by one, via recessed pushers (which requires a stylus, or a toothpick).

 

The pusher at 2 o’clock conveniently allows the user to advance all calendar indications.

 

Choosing a winner here will be tough. While the Patek is self-winding, the Lange has an admirable workaround that improves user-friendliness. It appears we’ve reached an impasse.

Verdict: Draw   

Movement finish

Fine finishing is what largely separates haute horlogerie from regular ol’ horology. This component of fine watchmaking can, by itself, account for up 1/3 of a timepiece’s final price. And it shouldn’t be surprising. Highly skilled and dexterous finisseurs spend long hours to give the utmost care and attention to the smallest of movement parts, hidden ones included. There are no doubts that our two contenders here possess superlative movement finishing, but there is only one true winner in our opinion: the 1815 Annual Calendar. The finishing and decoration of the Calibre L051.3 powering the 1815 Annual Calendar is simply more elaborate and detailed. For instance, the Calibre L051.3 has, over the Patek’s Calibre 324 S QA LU 24H, heat-blued screws, gold screw-down chatons, a hand-engraved balance cock and black-polished escape wheel cap and swan neck regulator, among other elements.

 

The Calibre L051.3 of the 1815 Annual Calendar.

The black-polished swan neck regulator and steel cap, along with the hand-engraved balance cock are just some of the elements that set the movement of the 1815 Annual Calendar apart from its rival’s.

 

At the same time, the use of untreated German silver in the Calibre L051.3 gives the movement a comforting warmth that is not attainable with rhodium-plated brass. It also lends to striping that has more apparent depth and a creamier quality than on the bridges of the Patek. It is worth noting that German silver is very delicate; it can be easily scratched and permanently stained by oils from a fingerprint – virtually any handling will show up on the surface. The only way around this is to take the movement apart after first assembly/testing, clean the movement, touch up the finishing, and then re-assemble – the famed Lange double assembly.

 

The German silver plate is delectably textured by Glashütte ribbing and adored with gold screw-down chatons.

 

Overall, the Lange simply has more varied (and challenging) finishes applied onto the movement. The choice use of German silver also results in a more aesthetically-pleasing final product. The double assembly process, where delicate final finishes are applied, doesn’t just allow a Lange movement to be extra decorative, it is also a must when working with German silver.

 

The Calibre 324 S QA LU 24H is attractively finished according to the standards of the Patek Philippe Seal but does not live up to the standards of the Lange’s Calibre L051.3.

 

Make no mistake, this is not to say that Patek Philippe are not capable of matching A. Lange & Söhne in horological finishing and decoration. But the reality is that A. Lange & Söhne, with significantly smaller production numbers (~6,000/year), can afford to have watchmakers spend a greater length of time on the finishing of their watches than manufacturers like Patek Philippe that make ~60,000 watches per year. For Patek Philippe, this is a curse of success that they must bear and it is up to them to find a balance.

Verdict: 1815 Annual Calendar wins

Heritage

Indeed, the design of both the 1815 Annual Calendar and the Ref. 5396 draws deep inspiration from the past. The Ref. 5396 though, goes beyond just design heritage. The truth is, the A. Lange & Söhne that we know and love today is less than 30 years old having only been around since its reestablishment in 1990. Patek Philippe however, has a longer, continuous history dating back to 1839. And while this may sound like marketing tosh, one does inevitably subscribe to this rich heritage when purchasing a Patek Philippe timepiece. If that isn’t enough, it was Patek Philippe themselves who invented the annual calendar wristwatch, the Ref. 5035 being the first of its kind. The release of the Ref. 5396 in 2016 was in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the annual calendar, which has gone on to become one of the brand’s most popular complications. On the flip side, the Saxonia Annual Calendar, Lange’s first and only to carry the complication till this year, only came to existence some 7 years ago. The watch unfortunately never stood out on its own for reasons other than being the only Lange annual calendar watch – a real pity given that it is actually very easy on the eyes.

 

The Saxonia Annual Calendar was first unveiled in 2010. The most prominent dial feature that the watch has that the 1815 Annual Calendar does not is the outsize date.

 

Safe to say, the Saxons merely adopted the annual calendar. The winner of this segment is clear to us.

Verdict: Ref. 5396 wins

Value

Value is a difficult thing to gauge as it comprises not just concrete elements, but also abstract ones. A good way to start is to lay out the prices of both watches: the 1815 Annual Calendar (in pink gold) is €37,500 while the Ref. 5396 (in rose gold) is CHF42,300, or approximately €38,800 at the time of writing. The ransom for these two stunning timepieces are practically identical; therefore, the watch with the biggest bang for buck is simply the one that has more watch to offer. Let’s do a recap and focus on where the two contenders differ:

While the Ref. 5396 offers a self-winding movement with an additional complication in the form of the 24-hour indicator, the manually-wound 1815 Annual Calendar is equipped with a superbly useful feature in the pusher that advances all calendar indications.

 

What €38,800 gets you: an attractively finished, self-winding annual calendar watch with a 24-hour indicator and a bulletproof heritage to back it up.

 

The Lange’s biggest selling point is perhaps its movement finishing (huge driver of price), which is objectively at a higher level than the Patek. But what the Ref. 5396 has that the 1815 Annual Calendar doesn’t is a stronger heritage. Watch collecting and enthusiasm is very emotionally driven and as such, abstract determinants of value such as heritage should never be undermined – the thing basically fuels the vintage market!

(Note, as design is highly subject to taste and preference, it will not be factored in)

 

What €37,500 gets you: an exquisitely finished, manually-wound annual calendar watch with a convenient pusher that advances all calendar indications.

 

With all things considered, it appears that the winner of this segment is also too close to call. Again, different people value different things, making this segment a little controversial. But, from our perspective, both the 1815 Annual Calendar and the Ref. 5396 offer good value and at equal magnitude.

Verdict: Draw

Conclusion

The A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Annual Calendar edges a small lead in the battle of design and triumphs in movement finishing. Meanwhile, the Patek Philippe Ref. 5396 has the upper hand in legibility and trumps the Lange in heritage warfare. Where practicality and value is concerned, a deadlock is reached. As such, in this 1-on-1 analysis, we conclude that the contenders are evenly matched (2 wins and a draw for each watch), resulting in a stalemate of epic proportions.

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  • Eddie D.
    June 27, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Agreed, I was so amazed with the fit/finish of the Lange I sold a Omega, Breitling, and a Vacheron to purchase my WG Zeitzerk, Absolutely love it. The new 1815 annual calendar is on my radar as well as VC Traditionnelle minute repeater tourbillon in platinum, beautiful.

    • Frank Chuo
      June 27, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment Eddie. The Zeitwerk truly is a masterpiece – glad you love it. The VC Traditionelle MR Tourbillon is what I call the perfect wristwatch; it has the best minute repeater and tourbillon (aesthetics) in the industry with a dial design that is highly captivating. The pricing is a little hard to swallow though!

      Cheers,
      Frank

  • KR
    June 27, 2017 at 2:28 am

    Excellent Watches to compare – great analysis and review – thank you very much. I agree with Lange “Annual Calendar” observation. I feel the Patek putting a date in a window at 6 does not support the design priorities – disengages one.

    • Frank Chuo
      June 27, 2017 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you KR! Yes, the “Annual Calendar” text is a bit patronising. With regards to your view on the Patek’s date window, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

      Cheers,
      Frank

  • Joe
    June 27, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I’m just bummed there was no mention of case size for comparison which has always been a crucial aspect determining aesthetics ..

    • Frank Chuo
      June 27, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      Thank you for your comment Joe. Indeed case size is important when it comes to aesthetics and even practicality. We always make sure to mention case dimensions in our review articles. Here, our focus was to contrast two similar watches. For reference, the Ref. 5396 is 38.5 x 11.2 mm while the 1815 is 40 x 10.1 mm – quite similar. Since case dimensions won’t help in separating the two watches to an appreciable extent, I chose to neglect mentioning it. However, you raise a valid concern – I will endeavour to mention case size in future 1-on-1 articles, especially when they differ significantly.

      Cheers,
      Frank

  • Elvin
    June 26, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    Why write an article where 2 watches from renowned brands go head to head and the writer clearly could not differentiate a clear winner? Or even pick one that edges over the other slightly after all these analysis.

    This is akin to watching a World Cup Final where there is no clear winner after Extra time and Penalty Kicks, whereby the match officials decided to hand the World Cup to be shared by both teams.

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