It was once stated that the Lange Akademie was, in the words of Luca Dondi, Brand Director atA. Lange & Söhne, “An exclusive event for experts and collectors to discover the excellence of Saxon watchmaking,” and so for over two days, I donned the overcoat of a watchmaker and remained in rapt attention as master watchmaker and master engraver (yes, they are two separate skills) tutored the attendees in the fine art of watchmaking, Glashutte style. Admittedly, it was daunting, so I guess it was poetic that the first skill to be imparted, to use laymen’s vernacular, was the “tremors of the hand” or the fine art of tremblage engraving.
Tremblage Engraving as taught by Lange Akademie
What was initially launched as a VIP Lange Akademie concept in Milan, 2011, has followed through with its 2016 iteration held in the picturesque Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai. Arguably, it has environs similar to if not more serene that the Saxony manufacture and thus, in the quiet surroundings of the Thai villa, reasonable enough facsimile of the work-space of one of the smallest departments at Lange.
For Lange Akademie Day 1, Robert Hoffmann, Head of Zeitwerk assembly introduces us to Peter Lippsch, master engraver. To most consumers, the titles of watchmaker and craftsmen tend to be interchangeable, but they are two different specialities, each requiring years of dedicated practice and it’s telling that when Hoffmann, the go-to person on one of the most complicated watches in A. Lange & Sohne’s collection tells you that he couldn’t do what Lippsch does, there’s an almost an innate disbelief until they invite you to try it for yourself.
With burin in snug in the embrace of my palm I begin, forcing my hand into a “tremble”, exerting as I can, every fibre of control in my forearm muscles, wrists and contorting an uncomfortable death grip of sharpened steel between thumb and index finger. Engraving is “en miniature” art, beginning first with individual craftsmen making their own tools specific to the physiological and biological nuances of their palms, postures and working styles.
Notably, German-born Dutch craftsman Hendrick Goltzius became famous for his early Baroque period, or Northern Mannerism technique. While he didn’t perform tremblage engraving per se, his sophisticated technique was made possible by a combination of innate talent and a childhood misfortune with fire that twisted his right hand into a grotesque appendage capable of the highest levels “exuberance” and details in his compositions. Such was his skill, that the professional engraver drew, using a burin and metal canvas, as Michelangelo Buonarroti would the ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel.
As a result of his malformed hand, Goltzius was “forced to draw with the large muscles of his arm and shoulder” as opposed to the fast-twitch small muscles I was now using to the detriment of my tremblage endeavours and my stamina with even holding the burin. Once the pain of contorting my hand had crossed the threshold of tolerance, I was forced to stop working – while not an issue with a professional engraver like Lippsch at the Lange Akademie, it had created the problem of non-continuity and non-conformity in the dotted lines I was etching.
Typically, engravings are done under a microscope or loupe. But try as I might, I found I could barely manage muscle control of both face and limb. An engraver must be able to operate the burin as a surgeon wields a scalpel performing spinal cord surgery. That said, a local collector and Deployant reader has remarked, “If I made a mistake with a cut, the human body recovers. Metal is forever blemished. Engraving is probably harder to master.”
To be an engraver, it takes three years to complete an apprenticeship; that said, they typically have to come from an artistic background and have worked as a painter or illustrator to acquire the necessary skills for balance and aesthetics. Considering that prerequisite, it takes close to 8 years before anyone would allow you to come close to a canvas of German silver. Even then, mastery is not a given.
Psychologically speaking, engraving is as much a skill of manual dexterity as it is a test of nature and character. While hand-eye coordination and three-dimensional imagination backed by extensive drawing skills are important, the best engravers naturally have the patience and the mental endurance to perform such a painstaking task. His (but more usually ‘her’) “quiet hand” is needed to maintain the consistency of pressure and movement. Naturally, it was a personal predisposition that I myself lacked and what resulted, after 4 hours of work, was a collection of “caterpillar scrawls”, a term used by friend and fellow journalist Ruckdee from Thailand.
At its essence, tremblage engraving is a technique where the burin is applied in multiple different directions to achieve that sandy glittering effect and while it sounded easy to apply, what I found is that even taking the burin at random upon German silver, all I could accomplish was “holes at random” – I could not in any way, shape or form, achieve anything even remotely close to what the artisans at A. Lange & Sohne achieve. For the professionals, it takes 3 days to finish a single dial of a Handwerkunst. I broke for lunch upset yet awe-inspired by engraving artisans like Lippsch who could do this for days on end without requiring either extensive rest or arm massages. The name “artist en miniature” suits him perfectly and is by no means an exaggeration. More importantly, it served to re-orient my perceptions (and hopefully yours) of the sometimes cynical reaction to every instance where a watch is referred to as a “timepiece”. At my most cynical, it felt hyperbolic to refer to a collection of moving gears (or glorified miniature Lego Technics) as an artpiece but yet, confronted with the fundamental aesthetics of something like the Zeitwerk Handwerkunst, I am forced to question, how can it not be deserving of the honorific “timepiece”? In fact, thanks to Lange Akademic, I’ve gained not just insight into the deeper passions which A. Lange & Sohne seems to enflame but also how calling something like a Pour Le Merite Tourbillon a mere watch might simply be derisory.