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Hands-On The A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Date

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Whe Zeitwerk, in its varying incarnations seems so fundamental a part of the identity of A. Lange & Söhne that it's hard to believe that it was launched fairly recently, in 2009. The Zeitwerk is part of a quite small class of wristwatches which in addition to having a jumping hours display (which is already uncommon) also have a jumping minutes display as well, and which includes such timepieces as Vianny Halter's Opus 3 for Harry Winston, the IWC Pallweber (in both pocket and wristwatch incarnations) and F. P. Journe's Vagabondage, models II and III. 

The Zeitwerk has also been a platform for striking complications, up to and including the minute repeater, and has gotten the Handwerkskunst treatment as well. The newest Zeitwerk is relatively simple in comparison to the striking watches, at least at first glance – a date is a date is a date, one might say; a bit ho-hum for something as elevated as the Zeitwerk is, even by the standards of Lange's other watches. But there are several new and interesting features under the hood which make the latest Zeitwerk more than just the addition of a simple complication.

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When I first heard of the Zeitwerk date, I thought (as many did) that it might somehow include a jumping digital indication of the date – perhaps an addition of the big date function seen in the Lange 1 to the Zeitwerk's dial, but instead we got something a little more diffident, in the form of a frosted glass date-ring on the dial's circumference. The current date is highlighted in red, and the red color of the date is the first addition of color to the dial since the the Zeitwerk Handwerkskunst got some red in the power reserve indication (unless you want to count the gold dial bridge, in the Striking Time, and in the Decimal Strike Honeygold). Those two flashes of red stand out like a cardinal in a pine forest at dusk – a welcome chromatic flourish in what is otherwise a very monochromatic experience.

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The Zeitwerk Date, in addition to the date complication itself, has two pushers on the case – the one at 8:00 functions as a date corrector, and the one at 4:00 is for adjusting the hour display; the minutes are set by the crown. An interesting feature of the design is that the pushers trigger the display change in the date, and in the hour window, after they're fully depressed and then released – pressing the pushers all the way in arms the switching mechanism, which is then activated once you take pressure off the pusher. This has a couple of advantages – first, it means that you can't partly advance the date or hour by mistake, and in the case of the hour window, it means you don't have to advance the minutes indication one minute at a time to switch the hour, which would be extremely tedious (and probably wear-inducing to boot). 

Lange being Lange, the indications all switch quite smartly, and rapidly, at the top of each hour. This includes the date, by the way. I mostly know the Zeitwerk from pictures, but of course it's a watch whose main visual interest is kinetic, and it's a pleasure to see everything switch over at midnight – date included – with a very faintly audible mechanical snick. 

It all happens so smoothly that it's easy to forget how difficult it is to pull this sort of thing off reliably and smoothly – the wheels on which the numerals are printed represent considerably more inertia than a pair of hands, and powering the jump without negatively affecting balance amplitude – and therefore, accuracy and precision – is a real problem. Lange addresses this by use of a remontore d'egalite, which winds a secondary, smaller spring on the third wheel once per minute (a remontoir uses the energy of the mainspring to wind another spring, on one of the train wheel gears, in order to provide constant energy to the balance). In addition to providing unvarying torque, the remontoir also acts as a switching device, trigging the jump of the minute, hour, and date indications.

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The remontoir in this version of the Zeitwerk is situated more or less in the same position as in the original model, however in the Zeitwerk date, it's configured differently. In the original Zeitwerk, with a 36 hour power reserve, the central part of the bridge makes about a 45 degree turn before terminating near the mainspring barrel (which has a Maltese cross stopworks, intended to prevent the watch from running at such a low power reserve that the remontoir would no longer be able to wind the remontoir spring). 

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The remontoir bridge of the original 2009 Zeitwerk, in Lange caliber L043.1

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Lange caliber L043.8, in the Zeitwerk Date.

In the Zeitwerk Date, the remontoir bridge is now laid out in a very elegant looking straight line, and the crosspiece no longer has the rather decorative, anchor-like configuration of the original movement. The Maltese cross stopworks have also been eliminated from the mainspring barrel. The overall look is clear and clean – less complex visually than the original Lange caliber, with a more modern, and a bit more of a pragmatic feel. 

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Whether or not you prefer the aesthetics of the old or the new will probably depend on how you feel about the elements of Lange movement design which are deliberately slightly ornate and archaic. An interesting example of how Lange's movement design philosophy has evolved in the last decade can also be found in the Lange 1, whose movement layout saw a major update in 2015. Much of the movement was re-engineered and the result was a much cleaner design, but the nostalgist in me – for no particularly logical reason – misses the slight air of blinkered Teutonic fussiness that was part of the charm of the original Lange 1. On the one hand, the newer layout of the Zeitwerk has greater visual clarity and organization on its side; on the other hand, the older version has a certain baroque charm which the cleaner design sacrifices to some extent (I felt the same way about the original, and newer versions of the Datograph).

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In the hand and on the wrist, irrespective of variations in movement design and engineering, the Zeitwerk remains a Lange through and through. There's a quality of density to Lange watches – even the most simple – which doesn't have so much to do with actual mass as it does with the sense of being in the presence of a machine that elevates machine-ness to an aesthetic virtue. One of the big joys of owning a mechanical watch – or at least, one of the potential joys – is the sense of physical connection it's possible to feel with the mechanism. There's a kind of kinesthetic identification with a mechanism of gears and oscillators that, in a Lange, is really dialed up thanks to the overbuilt feel of, well, everything – the case, the movement, and especially how every interaction with the watch gives the impression of having been extremely carefully thought through in order to produce an optimum, and very sensually satisfying, experience for the user.

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One of the criticisms sometimes leveled against Lange is that their watches can seem austere to the point of sterility. Like just about everything having to do with watches at this level, this is to some extent a matter of personal taste (one man's forbidding austerity is another man's bracing clarity). The Zeitwerk, however, offers a wonderful balance – it's got all the almost humorlessly obsessive quality we love in much of Lange's watchmaking, but against that is set the uncomplicated, child-like, almost goofy pleasure of watching the indications switch. The best part is seeing the date switch over at midnight along with the hour and minutes – not only do you have the fun of seeing all four indications switch simultaneously, you get the added frisson of having stayed up past your bedtime.

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