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Review: A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”

Hands-on analytical review with high resolution live photographs.
by Frank Chuo on February 20, 2017
Review: A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Perpetual

Each year for SIHH, it is Lange tradition to debut a timepiece of monumental complexity as the star novelty. Last year it was the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon – a perpetual calendar chronograph with a tourbillon regulator – and the year before that, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, a decimal minute repeater that also features instantaneous jumping hours/minutes discs and a remontoire.

For 2017, the Saxon manufacturer has come up with yet another horological behemoth: the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”. If you’re familiar with Lange parlance, it is easy to figure out what it’s got simply based on its name. Here’s the breakdown: “Tourbograph” is a portmanteau word referencing the tourbillon and the chronograph; “Perpetual” indicates the presence of a perpetual calendar mechanism; last but certainly not least, “Pour le Mérite” denotes that the watch contains a fusée-and-chain mechanism (more on this later). Not quite a grand complication timepiece, but it may as well be. Here, we take a look at the nitty-gritty details of the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” before exploring more thoroughly the multiple complications and mechanisms that define A. Lange & Söhne’s 2017 showpiece.

 

The case, dial, hands

There’s no hiding the fact that the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is large. At a diameter of 43 mm and thickness of 16.6 mm, its case size surpasses even that of the A. Lange & Söhne Double Split. The 2017 novelty is, however, considerably more complicated than the Double Split, and as such, we feel that the case size is justified. The Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” comes in a typical Lange case – austere but beautifully finished. The domed bezel of the watch is polished to a mirror shine while the case flanks feature an alternating polished-brushed finish that is very easy on the eyes. The lugs are entirely polished and decorated with thin bevels on the edges that taper off towards the end. There are three buttons located on the sides of the case dedicated to the chronograph function. The “start” and “stop” buttons are located at the usual 2 and 4 o’clock positions, respectively, while a third button for the rattrapante function sits at 10 o’clock. There are also recessed pushers around the case flanks that allow for separate adjustment of the day, date, month and moon phase indications on the dial.

 

The new Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is as Lange as it gets. The case is very teutonic in design and handsomely finished. The dial design is a nod to old Lange pocket watches with the Arabic numerals, railway track minute scale, and cruciform balance of the displays.

 

Being from the 1815 collection, the dial of the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” – crafted from solid silver – was designed with Lange’s rich tradition in mind. The inky Arabic numerals, railway-track minute scale as well as the cloverleaf arrangement of the sub-dials pay tribute to the dial design of historical A. Lange & Söhne pocket watches. The sub-dials at 9, 12 and 3 o’clock display the calendar indications as well as the 30-minute chronograph counter. At 6 o’clock, a large, shield-shaped aperture displays the tourbillon in its full glory. The steel hour and minute, rattrapante, and minute sub-register hands are heated the traditional way to a stunning cornflower blue – this process not only serves an aesthetic purpose, but also improves corrosion resistance. On the other hand (pun not intended), the steel chronograph seconds hand is gold-plated for maximum contrast. To distinguish the calendar display from the chronograph and time-telling functions of the watch, the hands indicating the day, date, month and leap year are all rhodiumed gold.

 

The movement

The best part of the new Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is arguably the back where the calibre L133.1 is revealed in its full splendour.

 

With Lange, the size of the case almost always reflects the size of the movement. With the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”, it is no exception. The calibre L133.1 measures a sizeable 32 mm in diameter and 10.9 mm in thickness – larger than some vintage watches. The 52-jewelled, 1319-part movement (inclusive of every chain part in the fusée-and-chain mechanism) has a 36-hour power reserve while operating at a stately 21,600 semi-oscillations per hour beat rate. To the uninitiated, the power reserve may seem grossly below average. But one must consider the immense real estate required to house the fusée-and-chain mechanism, which significantly limits the size of the mainspring barrel, and the number of complications that run off said mainspring barrel. The finishing on the calibre L133.1 is exemplary and complies with the highest standards of Saxon watchmaking artistry. No signs of machining are detectable on the edges of the German silver bridges as they are immaculately chamfered and polished. In addition, heat-blued screws, gold chatons, gold-filled engravings and Glashütte ribbing decorate and texture the top of these bridges. While the two column wheels are black polished to a spectacular sheen, the many levers and wheels are satin-brushed and circular-grained, respectively. The signature Lange hand-engraved balance cock – found in every Lange timepiece – is also visible from the case back.

 

The devil is in the details. A full array of finishing and decoration is applied to the calibre L133.1, from hand-engraving to hand-bevelling, satin-brushing to black polishing.

 

The name of the game is complications

In case you haven’t gotten the memo, the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is complicated. Greatly so. While Lange considers the tourbillon and fusée-and-chain “complications”, we prefer to call them mechanisms, as they do not add additional functions to the watch per se. Nevertheless, they are immensely complicated mechanisms that not many watchmakers today can assemble. The tourbillon and fusée-and-chain mechanisms work to counteract the negative effects of gravity and waning spring force on timekeeping, respectively. While the functional roles of these mechanisms have been minimised today with the advent of modern alloys and improved manufacturing processes, they continue to thrive as symbols of technical mastery and prized relics of watchmaking past.

The one-minute tourbillon found in the latest incarnation of the Tourbograph is a sight to behold. Lange’s signature black polished tourbillon cage along with its chaton-set diamond endstone remains one of our favourites. What separates this tourbillon from the other ones in Lange’s collection is the bridge on the dial that supports the mechanism – for the first time, it is curved like a bow. Interestingly, the use of this curved tourbillon bridge has received criticism from collectors and press alike. You see, due to the addition of a perpetual calendar module on top of what was essentially the original Tourbograph movement, the tourbillon now sits deeper into the movement relative to the dial. Many see the curved tourbillon bridge as Lange’s “easy way out” of redesigning the base movement to move the tourbillon closer to the dial – and that’s fair enough. However, one could also argue that using a curved bridge is clearly the simplest and smartest solution to this conundrum. Perhaps as a consolation to the purists, Lange’s “easy way out” also happens to be immensely challenging to finish – a fact that Anthony de Haas, the brand’s director of product development couldn’t stress enough. For the Saxon manufacturer, this is the first time that black polishing is being applied to a curved surface. The end result, however, is stunning – the curved bridge looks impeccable under a light and gives a satisfying sense of depth to the movement.

 

Everything is impeccably polished – the unique curved bridge, the cage, and the gold chaton in which a diamond endstone is set.

 

While the tourbillon is seen ubiquitously today, the fusée-and-chain mechanism remains a rarity. Since the early days of the company, timepieces featuring this mechanism have been christened “Pour le Mérite”. The Tourbillon “Pour le Mérite” (debuted 1994) was the first in the exalted “Pour le Mérite” series – it was also the first wristwatch ever made with a fusée-and-chain mechanism. The mechanism ensures that a constant force is delivered to the escapement even amidst waning torque from an unwinding mainspring – this ensures optimal timekeeping. We have previously touched on how this intriguing mechanism works here and highly recommend that you take a look. It is a crying pity though that in the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”, this mechanical curiosity is hidden away from sight, beneath the jungle of chronograph/rattrapante parts. The silver lining? The jungle of chronograph/rattrapante parts.

The movement architecture and layout of Lange chronographs are well-known and loved by connoisseurs of fine watches. A sophisticated network of wheels, levers, clamps and springs with impeccable finissage greet the owner as he/she turns the watch to its back. While a chronograph is complex enough as it is, a rattrapante chronograph is significantly more sophisticated and is considered by some to be as difficult to build as a minute repeater. It allows the measurement of not one, but two different intervals of time that begin at the same instant. While it hasn’t got the jaw-dropping depth seen in the Lange Double Split, the rattrapante chronograph works in the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is still nothing short of picturesque. We particularly love the sight of the scissors jaws surrounding the central chronograph wheel – they allow the chronograph seconds hands to “split” and “catch up” with one another, the essence of a rattrapante chronograph.

 

The two black polished column wheels and the jaws surrounding the central chronograph wheel are a joy to behold.

 

Unlike the chronograph and rattrapante mechanisms which are openly visible through the sapphire crystal case back, the perpetual calendar works for the novel Tourbograph are hidden, just underneath the dial. Due to the presence of the tourbillon, only about two thirds of the movement surface is available for the perpetual calendar mechanism. As such, the mechanism had to be built around the tourbillon, and this also necessitated a redesign of the basic calibre. In other words, creating the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” wasn’t as simple as slapping on a 206-part perpetual calendar module adjacent to the old Tourbograph movement. Great emphasis had to be placed on space-saving architecture during the development of the calendar module. In spite of sharing prime real estate with the tourbillon and the chronograph function on the dial, the perpetual calendar displays are still amazingly legible. In the 3 o’clock sub-dial, the month and leap year displays can be found; at 9 o’clock the day indicator cohabitates with the 30-minute chronograph sub-register; at 12 o’clock, the “perpetual”  moon phase indicator (accurate to 122.6 years) dwells within the radial date display. The perpetual calendar will correctly indicate the duration of each month until 2100, whereby only a one-off correction will be needed for the calendar to be calibrated for the next hundred years. It is a noble complication that is practical yet superfluous – fitting for the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”.

 

The new perpetual calendar module is built around the tourbillon and does not add too much to the thickness of the timepiece.

Price and a look at the playing field

The Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is produced in a limited run of 50 pieces (only in platinum) and is priced at €480,000. We sought to ask the question: how does the watch fare against what the best of Switzerland – the Swiss “Holy Trinity” – has to offer? We would have loved to be able to objectively compare the watch to another with the same set of features but, alas, such a watch does not exist elsewhere. Even when we excluded the remarkably rare fusée-and-chain mechanism from our search, a rattrapante chronograph/tourbillon/perpetual calendar wristwatch was nowhere to be found. We therefore changed our approach: what could you get for around half a million Euros from the Swiss “Holy Trinity”?

 

The 50-piece limited edition Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” in platinum is priced at €480,000.

 

From Patek Philippe, we found the Ref. 5539G-001, priced at USD520,000 or about €490,000. The Ref. 5539G-001 has two main features: a tourbillon and a minute repeater. It also comes with a luscious black enamel dial. As impressive as the minute repeater is from Patek, the watch clearly isn’t as feature-packed as the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”. So is the hypothetical half million Euros better spent on the Lange? If you’re looking for more features, then clearly yes. But the Ref. 5539G-001 is a very different timepiece. It is an exceedingly elegant minute repeater with incredible acoustics. The watch exudes purity with its dressy 37 mm diameter case, gorgeous enamel dial and tourbillon hidden at the back. We leave this up to you to decide as clearly, the watch targets a different audience to the Lange novelty in review.

From Audemars Piguet, we have the Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie. It is pricier than the Patek Philippe, at SGD780,000 or about  €520,000 but on top of a cutting-edge minute repeater and tourbillon, it also comes with a chronograph. The Supersonnerie is an incredible feat of engineering that takes innovation to a whole new level with the aim of conjuring (one of) the loudest and clearest minute repeaters ever in a wristwatch. So outstanding are the acoustics, that many feel the chronograph and tourbillon are unnecessary. Nevertheless, they are there and allow us to make a comparison with the new Tourbograph. While the Supersonnerie hasn’t got a fusée-and-chain mechanism, a rattrapante function and a perpetual calendar, it does boast a superlative minute repeater over the Lange novelty. We feel that the Supersonnerie holds its own ground fairly well at €520,000 but again – with its extremely bold design – it is targeted at a different audience. This one is also up in the air – the final verdict is decided by personal preference.

 

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie combines a chronograph, a tourbillon and a very innovative minute repeater in the AP Royal Oak Concept case.

 

Last but not least, we selected the Traditionelle Calibre 2253 in platinum from Vacheron Constantin, a watch priced at USD482,000 or about €454,000. The Traditionelle Calibre 2253, much like the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” sits in between the Patek Philippe and the Audemars Piguet in terms of design – neither a pure dress watch, nor a sporty watch with exotic design cues. The Traditionelle comes with a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, power reserve indicator and displays for the equation of time and time of sunrise/sunset. While the Lange novelty costs about 6% more than the Traditionelle, we feel that it brings much more value. The Lange may lack the equation of time, time of sunrise/sunset and power reserve functions, but it shouts back with a  fusée-and-chain mechanism and a rattrapante chronograph, both of which are systems that are several orders of magnitude more sophisticated and costlier to make. In this case, we feel that you are better off saving a little longer for the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” as it provides more bang for your proverbial buck.

 

Concluding thoughts

The watchmakers and finisseurs at Lange will be pleased to hear that only 50 pieces of the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” will be produced, as this watch, we imagine, will be a nightmare to build and finish. To think that every single one of the 1319 finished components in this timepiece work in perfect harmony is mind-boggling. Short of a sonnerie complication, the new Tourbograph has everything a watch nerd could dream of. And as we have seen, the timepiece also offers as much, if not more value than similarly priced pieces from the Swiss “Holy Trinity”. With this latest masterpiece, A. Lange & Söhne continues to show the world that what the Swiss can do, it can do just as well, if not better.

On the wrist, the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” is a statement piece that is dignified and non-exhibitionist.

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