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Lange Akademie Day 2: Movement Assembly

by Jonathan Ho on November 16, 2016

Following the strenuous, uncharted territory I traversed in Day 1, I approached Lange Akademie Day 2 with some trepidation; after all, our host Liza Zhu had already hinted that Robert Hoffmann, Head of Zeitwerk assembly would be taking us through the paces of one of A. Lange & Söhne’s vaunted quality control processes – the legendary double assembly process. Our task as young apprentices however, would be simplified. We need only flat polish a gold chaton and then “simply” (parenthesis intended) secure the ensuing shimmering gold circlet with blued screws upon the main plate – all without scratching either the chaton, the screw head or the plate beneath. Naturally, the ensuing task was anything but simple.

Lange Akademie Day 2: Movement Assembly aka the easiest way to lose the will to live

A. Lange & Söhne is home to some of the world’s finest and most complex horological mechanisms. For Lange Akademie Day 2, our hosts introduced us to the “Ingenious Innovations” as exemplified by the spectacular collection known by the honorific “Pour le Mérite”.

I have an innate sense of where each screw and bolt should go, I'm great with IKEA furniture. Lange Akademie Day 2 Movement Assembly will school you in basic life philosophy - whatever you know, you know jack sh!t.

I have an innate sense of where each screw and bolt should go, I’m great with IKEA furniture. Lange Akademie Day 2 Movement Assembly will school you in basic life philosophy – whatever you know, you know jack sh!t.

If you’re yet unaware, Pour le Mérite is an order of merit or in German vernacular- Verdienstorden, established in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia and was originally an honour conferred on both military and civil accomplishments (before civil accomplishments were recognised under a different merit system in 1842).

Today, “Pour le Mérite” denotes both civil and scientific achievements as well as the pinnacle of watchmaking accomplishments borne in timepieces from A. Lange & Söhne which are equipped with a fusée-and-chain transmission system. Such is its power and allure that the series with its legendary fusée-and-chain transmission has encouraged fervent adoration for A. Lange & Söhne more than any model apart for the foundational LANGE 1.

Not even a Pour Le Merite calibre and I feel lost already.

Not even a Pour Le Merite calibre and I feel lost already.

Since 1994, Pour le Mérite models with its fusée-and-chain transmission defined the benchmark for precision watchmaking – an “ingenious innovation which guarantees constant torque and thus stability of the amplitude of the balance across the length of power reserve. More importantly, given its myriad of parts, Robert Hoffmann, Head of Zeitwerk assembly thought it best that we, the interns, be thrown in the deep end.

Twofold or Double Assembly: Hallmark of A. Lange & Söhne Quality

Hoffmann, Head of Zeitwerk assembly, explained why twofold or double assembly was such an important process at A. Lange & Söhne. They not only ensure absolute accuracy but also guarantee the kind of precision coordination between components with the tiniest margins for tolerances and errors. To grasp the magnitude and scale of the components we were working with, dip your finger onto a beach, whatever grains of sand (large and small) that you pick up, these are the components you’d be working with. Whatever confidence I had for Lange Akademie Day 2 quickly evaporated.

Components are inserted and secured around a central foundation or main plate. Turning an assemblage of gears, screws and wheels into...

Components are inserted and secured around a central foundation or three quarter plate. Turning an assemblage of gears, screws and wheels into…

this.

this. (watch for illustration only, not the actual mainplate belonging to this Lange 1. They wouldn’t let amateurs anywhere near an actual watch.)

Not so fast grasshopper…

For now, we had a stay in execution, Hoffmann instructed the wannabe journalist-watch apprentices to have a try on the flat polishing for gold chatons. But first, we had to dismount the chatons from a raw, undecorated mainplate. For anyone who has ever screwed a flat-head screw before, you would understand that even at the scale of a fingernail, slippage is a real issue. Using similar forearm and finger muscle control, one would have to strip the screw with enough tension to provide the torque required to dislodge it while not adding too much tension to cause the flathead screwdriver to slip out of the slot and scratch the micron-thin blued screw head. The same goes for the reverse – attaching the screw. But for now, all we were required to do is polish the chaton.

A typical blued screw. The screw slot is less than 1mm high, too much tension and the flathead slips out and causes a micro scratch on the surface. Heat-treated blued screws are only blue to a couple of microns thickness, a scratch would become obvious fairly quickly.

A typical blued screw. The screw slot is less than 1mm high, too much tension and the flathead slips out and causes a micro scratch on the surface. Heat-treated blued screws are only blue to a couple of microns thickness, a scratch would become obvious fairly quickly. Image rights: Dug North, Antique Clock Repair

 

A similar conundrum exists when dismounting the chaton. Too much force during the unscrewing and the edge of the screw acts as an abrasive against the mirror gold surface of the chaton. Considering the relative lack of hardness of gold, some scratches are commonplace even for the most skilled, necessitating polishing.

A similar conundrum exists when dismounting the chaton. Too much force during the unscrewing and the edge of the screw acts as an abrasive against the mirror gold surface of the chaton. Considering the relative lack of hardness of gold, some scratches are commonplace even for the most skilled, necessitating polishing. Here, the chaton is firmly affix via pressure to the balsa wood holder before placing it face first on 3 levels of polishing paper – regular, fine and ultra fine.

Doing figure eights on the polishing paper, Hoffmann recommended that we polish out the harshest scratches first with the ‘regular’ tier before proceeding down to ‘fine’ and then ‘ultra fine’ for the mirror finishing or black mirroire shine. That said, even bits of stray, barely perceptible fragments of metal and gold on the polishing paper would only serve to further scratch the surface of the chatons. A light alcohol solution is recommended to wipe down the surface of the polishing paper before attempting a new component. Conversely, the balsa wood holder would itself gather the stray fragments of metallic powder which turns it black, the balsa wood holder itself would have to be cleaned when that happens.

Magnificent finishing is a feature of Lange, and the L094 is no exception.

Magnificent finishing is a feature of Lange, and the L094 is no exception. The gold chatons are held down by two to three blued screws

Once the polishing was complete, the participants began the painstaking process of attaching blue steel screws onto three-quarter plates. Contrary to popular belief, a gold chaton is not a complete circle, instead, it has ‘cut grooves’ for where the screws should “stand”, thus the chaton has to be perfectly aligned with the machine drilled holes. Anyone who has had experience with screws will probably recall how easy it is for the periphery of the screw to simply brush against the chaton and then move it out of alignment; as a result, Lange Akademie Day 2 was an immensely spiritual experience punctuated with “Oh God… i breathed out and now I don’t know where the screw is..” to “Good Lord… bring us not to the test.. the chaton got scratched again..” If you aren’t religious, Lange Akademie Day 2 was going to make you believe in God, anything less and you probably decide that suicide was an option in light of such abject and utter failure. But by the grace of God, after repeated attempts, I passed Hoffmann’s inspection; that said, the “war wounds” and scratches from previous participants on the periphery of the chaton slots were visible under 20x magnification. It was humbling.

Finally, a very important consideration has to be made when it comes to a brand like A. Lange & Söhne, all watches from their entry-level (if ever there’s such a thing as “entry-level” for Lange) to their pinnacle as exemplified by Pour le Mérite models undergo the exact same process regardless of price points. Lange Akademie served to demonstrate irrefutably that the level of effort, time and dedication spent on each watch is what makes A. Lange & Söhne such an object of admiration and respect.

This is how professionals hold their pincers because there's a right way and a wrong way to hold it. Too much pressure and the pincer tips scratch the component. It boggles the mind how anyone would choose to do this for a living.

This is how professionals hold their pincers because there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold it. Too much pressure and the pincer tips scratch the component. It boggles the mind how anyone would choose to do this for a living.

lange-akademie-day-2-movement-assembly-9

Graduation day. I probably passed at the lowest percentile.

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