In-Depth: The Classic A. Lange & Söhne Datograph
A deep dive into one of the greats of modern watchmaking.
One of the biggest before-and-after moments in contemporary horology was the introduction of the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph, which launched in 1999, during a time when there were very few developments taking place in the evolution of chronograph movements. The Datograph instantly raised the bar for in-house, high-end chronograph movements, and while, since then, in-house haute horlogerie chronographs have increased in number, the Datograph is still considered a standard against which other chronographs can be judged.
When A. Lange & Söhne was re-launched in Glashütte in 1994, it immediately earned a stellar reputation. The debut of the Datograph, five years later, created enough buzz that it brought many new collectors into the world of Lange – everyone from watchmaking legend Philippe Dufour to basketball icon Michael Jordan.
When you put on and operate a Datograph, the feeling sticks with you, and you’re instantly under its spell. The emotional impact of the Datograph and the excellence it embodies is the reason Philippe Dufour pulled a Datograph out of the safe when asked by HODINKEE’s Ben Clymer, during a visit to his workshop in 2013, what he thought was the best serially produced wristwatch in the world. Clymer wrote, “He paid for it himself, and he’s unabashed in his praise for it. He says what makes this watch so special is the amount of extra value you see in the movement architecture, the finishing, and the design. It says a lot that one of the Vallée de Joux’s greatest sons says the best chronograph in the world is German. It’s an endorsement Lange doesn’t take lightly, either. When I visited the Lange manufacture a few years back, one of their talking points was Dufour’s appreciation for their work.”
And, of course, in 2002, Michael Jordan famously was seen wearing a first-generation platinum Datograph with a matching platinum bracelet.
Inspiration And Evolution: From Theater Clock To Chronograph
Since its introduction, the Datograph has expanded into a family of models including the Datograph Perpetual and the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon, as well as the Datograph Lumen and related models like 2004’s 1815 chronograph on one end of the complexity scale, and models such as the Double Split (also from 2004) and the Triple Split on the other. Common to all is the placement of the chronograph sub-registers at 4:00 and 8:00, rather than 3:00 and 9:00 as is often the case in two-register chronographs.
The reason for this goes back further than you might think. The Datograph is a flyback chronograph with a big date complication – the watch’s name is a portmanteau of “date” and “chronograph” after all. When Lange was reborn, the big date was its signature complication (it is far more complex than an ordinary calendar, with over 60 parts), with its inspiration coming from the 1800s. The Semper Opera House’s five-minute digital clock in Dresden is world-famous as the source of the idea for the big date in the Lange 1. But there is a more direct connection too: The clock, which was installed on April 13, 1841, was made in the workshop of Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, whose apprentice at the time was none other than Ferdinand Adolph Lange, who would go on to found A. Lange & Söhne. F.A. Lange would go on to become Gutkaes’s son-in-law as well.
The Datograph houses the Lange in-house flyback chronograph caliber L951.1 – a movement that was part of a changing landscape in terms of how enthusiasts, collectors, and the industry think about chronographs. Before its debut, little had occurred in the way of development of classic high-end chronograph movements for many years. We take it for granted that “high horology” is synonymous with “in-house,” but historically, it’s not true. Patek Philippe’s first in-house chronograph movement, for example, the CH R 27-525 PS, was only introduced in 2005. There were developments in more widely produced calibers like the Valjoux/ETA 7750, which came out in 1973, and there were, of course, the first automatic chronograph calibers of any kind, in 1969. We should also remember the F. Piguet ultra-thin chronograph calibers, 1180 and 1185, which came out in 1987. But mainly, high-end manufacturers relied on supplied calibers from chronograph specialists like Lemania. The Royal Oak Offshore is one example of this and illustrates the standard practice during the 1980s and 1990s, and even before. From launch, it used a movement based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 889 with a Dubois-Depraz chronograph module.
This was very much standard practice for much of watchmaking history, but by the 1990s, an emerging preference for “in-house” movements made having one a mark of distinction. The first in-house high-end chronograph movement of the mechanical renaissance era did not come from Switzerland. Instead, it came from a sleepy German town in the state of Saxony.
The Technical And Aesthetic Development Of The Datograph
The first conceptualization meetings for the Datograph were between the legendary Günter Blümlein, who had re-established Lange in 1990 with Walter Lange, and then-director of product development Reinhard Meis. Lange’s CEO, Wilhelm Schmid, says, “Few people know that the conceptualization of the Datograph started with the dial. The idea to arrange the outsize date and the two sub-dials in a way that they form an equilateral triangle was born during a creative meeting headed by Günter Blümlein.” Whether this was his intention or not, Blümlein, in establishing this direction, safeguarded the design of the Datograph from being copied, as the shift of the sub-dials from the conventional positions at 3:00 and 9:00, meant rethinking the configuration of a traditional, lateral clutch column-wheel chronograph.
The problem of engineering a movement to fit the design directive went to Lange engineer and movement designer Annegret Fleischer, who is not well known to many watch enthusiasts, but who is a household name among Lange collectors. Fleischer had begun her career at VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe, but upon hearing that Lange was re-emerging after a long absence, she immediately applied for a position and was accepted. What would become the Datograph caliber L951.1 was one of her earliest projects, and it is still one of her most well-known contributions to horology; although, in her years at Lange, she’s worked on everything from the moon-phase complication used in the 1815 Moon Phase to the Double Split, and much more.
The main problem in creating the L951.1, according to Lange, was that the sub-registers placement had been established in terms of design, which meant the movement had to be organized around their placement. Annegret Fleischer remarked, “It was one of the many challenges we were faced with. The difficulty was that the axes carrying the hands of the small seconds and the minute counter had to be arranged very close to the units disc of the outsize date, which left less room for the chronograph mechanism. The idea to arrange the outsize date and the two sub-dials in a way that they form an equilateral triangle was born during a creative meeting with Günter Blümlein and the former director of product development Reinhard Meis. It should be mentioned that the dial layout was developed first before I had to find the solution to fit in the mechanisms.”
In a standard chronograph mechanism, the minutes counter will start to move just before a minute elapses, and when it does elapse, snap into place. In the L951.1, however, the chronograph minute hand doesn’t move until the exact instant a minute elapses. This is thanks to a snail cam attached to the chronograph minute hand that’s activated by a jewel-tipped lever which pushes the minute counter forward at the exact moment it passes zero. Of this mechanism, Fleischer says, “The principle was already known. It had been realized in a few pocket watches, but never before in the smaller dimensions of a wristwatch. At the time, there were only chronographs with slowly jumping minute counters, which can be made out by the star-wheel rocker. The precisely jumping minute counter is a unique feature that assures an unambiguous reading of the measured time and is therefore in line with Lange’s ambition to increase precision.”
The final result was a movement comprised of 405 parts, with an overall diameter of 30.6mm. For all its technical interest, the movement is equally enjoyable from a visual perspective. Fleischer told HODINKEE that the chronograph movements of historic pocket watches served as an inspiration for the aesthetic of the movement, and of course, it has that signature Lange flair that comes from the use of German silver bridges and plates, in contrast to the highly polished steelwork, polished gold screwed-down chatons, and a touch of color from heat-blued screws and movement jewels. The movement has a remarkable three-dimensionality that leads some to describe it as a miniature metropolis, as observing it from above is akin to peering down into a minute city.
The movement is a first-class technical achievement, but it is also widely praised as one of the most flat-out beautiful movements of all time. Lange CEO Wilhelm Schmid says, “It’s a watch people want to wear upside down, because the movement delivers what the dial promises, or maybe even surpasses expectations raised.”
Perhaps Philippe Dufour, whose reputation as a master of watchmaking and finishing is matched by his reputation for bluntness, said it best in a 2006 interview with Revolution. Asked if the Datograph’s caliber really was the best-finished series-produced movement in the world, he said, “Take 10 movements out of the current range of any contemporary brand, put them next to a Lange movement, and comment honestly on what you see. That is the best way to judge – by examining the truth.”
If you were to walk through the doors of Hall 1 of the Basel Fair, as Baselworld was called in 1999, and look to your right, you’d see the booth belonging to A. Lange & Söhne. Featured prominently in the window of the booth were the Datograph and an oversized model of its movement. Long-time collector, connoisseur, and Timezone.com managing director William Massena vividly remembers the first time he laid eyes on the watch and the reaction that year to the Datograph. “It marked the beginning of a new era. It raised the bar for everyone. And it wasn’t Swiss, it was German – making its debut in Switzerland!”
In 1999, watch writers didn’t carry cameras, and there was no social media, but had there been, surely there would have been a scrum of writers, enthusiasts, and industry folks elbowing their way to the booth to Instagram the watch. According to Massena, the launch of the Datograph was the hottest gossip to fill the halls of the last Basel Fair of the millennium.
But it also caught people’s attention for another reason: It seemed a direct challenge to the supremacy of Patek Philippe. In the June 1999 issue of Europa Star, writer Alan Downing noted that, “Lange’s new Datograph is a demonstration piece intended to show continuity with tradition, and to steal a march on Patek Philippe, which has yet to announce its home-designed replacement for the Lemania caliber.”
Two years after the Datograph’s release, Lange organized its first trip for collectors and media to its manufacturing and production facility in Glashütte. The trip took place despite the 9/11 terrorist attacks which had occurred only a month earlier. Sadly, Günter Blümlein, who had been so essential to reviving A. Lange & Söhne, passed away during the visit, and a number of the collectors present attended his funeral as well.
Every single individual on that trip would, after seeing what went into the watch, go on to purchase a Datograph. William Massena was on the trip, during which he purchased the Datograph seen in his HODINKEE Talking Watches episode, complete with platinum bracelet. He says he still wears the watch regularly. In a picture from the trip, he appears in the back row, second from the right – directly in front of him is the woman who took the Datograph from idea to reality, Annegret Fleischer.
Variations On A Theme
In Lange’s early days, and the early days of the Datograph, it was very much an insider’s watch. In 2008, writing for Forbes, HODINKEE’s Jack Forster called it, “the finest watch you’ve never heard of.”
In the not-so-distant past, Lange produced some variations on the Datograph which might not get the green light if they were proposed today, and they represent a number of the slight variations on the original Lange Datograph design. Let’s take a look at some of the better known, and less better known, variations on the Datograph, and its successor, the Datograph Up/Down.
A quick note on our inclusion criteria: For our purposes here, we’ll only be looking at variations on the Datograph and the Datograph Up/Down, its successor. We will not be including complicated variations such as the Datograph Perpetual or the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon. Additionally, we will only look at series-produced models, although there are a number of extremely small production and unique Datographs as well – for example, the baguette-diamond set models made as the Hour Glass Japan Anniversary Edition in just two examples.
This is it. The original, 39mm Datograph. Ben Clymer perfectly reduced this entire article into one line when he put it simply, saying that it was “pure sex when it came out.” It remained in production in this configuration from 1999 to 2012. Because of such a long run, it’s the most common Datograph. This is the reference that premiered to much fanfare at the 1999 Basel Fair and forced everyone who wasn’t already aware of Lange – and by then, most connoisseurs were – to sit up and pay attention.
Philippe Dufour’s Datograph is Ref. 403.031. It was produced from 2003-2005. The case is rendered in rose gold. The dial is fashioned in a monochromatic theme with silver sub-dials complemented by rose-gold numerals that match the case. This is the first Datograph in rose gold, and its name derives, of course, from the fact that this model, with a black dial, was chosen by Dufour himself.
This reference is a bit of a mystery. A notable collector told me that, based on his research, 30 examples were made, and they never officially appeared in catalogs. The story goes that at the 2007 or 2008 SIHH show in Geneva, the folks in the Lange booth were wearing the .041 to “try it out” and test the water. Throughout the following years, the watches would trickle into Authorized Dealers and pop up on the secondary market. The yellowjacket nickname comes from the bright yellow case and the black dial, like a yellowjacket, a predatory wasp native to Europe and North America. It appears to have been made in a limited run of about 30 pieces, although it was not a numbered limited edition, ending in 2009.
The story goes that ten examples were made for the Italian dealer Pisa Orologeria in 2004. It wasn’t an unusual practice for Lange to make certain configurations exclusively for some authorized dealers. The casebacks were engraved with a serialized edition number out of ten, and the watch came with a solid platinum caseback in addition to the display back that is standard on Datographs. The dial is silver with a blued second hand and chronograph hands. The serial range of these models is between 148201-148210.
This model was introduced in 2005. It’s essentially the “Dufourgraph” with a silver dial instead of a black dial, resulting in a softer, lower-contrast look overall. This model replaced its predecessor and was produced all the way up until 2012, so there are many more of them out there (relatively speaking) than there are of the Dufourgraph. If you look at auction prices, these tend to sell for a bit less as a consequence.
Buyers of the original Datograph had the option of acquiring a bracelet in addition to the leather strap the watch came on. These two references, however, actually came on a matching platinum bracelet; the .035 model’s bracelet was soldered in place, essentially an integrated bracelet.
This reference features a bracelet with curved end links, in contrast with the straight end links on previous models. Production ceased in 2012 when the Datograph Up/Down was introduced, and a bracelet option was no longer available.
This watch was no longer was produced after the 2012 update to the model. The bracelet, in pink gold, matches the case.
The Up/Down was the long-awaited update to the original Datograph, introduced in 2012 and still in production today. It brought many changes, most notably a size increase from 39mm to 41mm. It also grew slightly thicker. The Roman numerals disappeared, and a power-reserve indicator (hence the Up/Down nomenclature) was introduced. The original Datograph had a reserve of 36 hours, the Up/Down currently has a respectable 60-hour reserve. It’s rendered in platinum, as opposed to the platinum of the earlier Datographs. The new movement is still the same caliber, but it is updated to the L951.6. It is an improved caliber in terms of power reserve and complications, adding a power-reserve indicator.
The collector community quickly embraced the Datograph Up/Down. Two models are in the current catalog, 405.031, in pink gold, and 405.035, in platinum.
Modern Lange doesn’t allow for the sort of breadth of models the original Datograph spawned. Instead, the line is tight and focused. However, one model sticks out for its unique looks and limited status, and that’s the “Lumen” model of 2018. What sets it apart is the wild smoked sapphire dial that allows a view to the perlage of the mainplate and date discs.
But it isn’t all about looking mysterious and beautiful; there’s a practical function here. The translucent dial allows for ultraviolet light to be transmitted that charges the luminous date discs that are normally obscured by an opaque dial. There are a number of other luminous elements, too, including the sub-dials, power-reserve indicator, and even the rehaut with the tachymeter scale. The rear view of the L951.7 remains unchanged from standard Datographs. Lange produced 200 units, and the instant they hit retailers, they were spoken for. In terms of the modern Datograph Up/Down, the Lumen is considered the holy grail.
The Cult Of The Datograph
Though the Datograph in various models has been in production since 1999, it is today still produced in small numbers. CEO Schmid says, “The current model range [of all Lange watches] consists of 46 models, of which six are equipped with a chronograph. Considering the complexity of the movements, we are talking about a single-digit percentage when it comes to annual production of the Datograph.” This equates to perhaps a few hundred pieces, Schmid says, including the Datograph Perpetual and the Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon.
Early Datographs are still very much undervalued, as they fall into a sort of interim era in watch history – they’re currently out of production, but are not old enough to be considered vintage. That hasn’t stopped the watch from having a major following online, though. Collector Andy Zhang created the #Langenation hashtag on Instagram (and would go on to become Lange’s client director Asia Pacific) around which collectors rally, and it has especially resonated among collectors in Asia, like financier Lung Lung Thun, who saw her first Lange at a private dinner in 2019. She remarks, “I had never once stepped into a Lange boutique because I was intimidated to do so. I had never planned prior to purchase any Langes, let alone a Datograph, because I had so many grail APs on my radar … there’s something special I feel when I put on a Lange. It’s akin to being in a secret society, where the ones who know, know.”
“And I love that feeling.”
The Datograph Today
The Datograph Up/Down has now been in production for eight years. In a few years, the Up/Down will be in production for as long as the original Datograph was. Could a drastic update be on the way? Collectors have long lamented the glacial pace in updates from the German manufacturer, so it’s likely that the Datograph’s ticket has come up for a major update. When I asked Schmid what’s in store, he replied, “Please understand that I cannot tell you what the next move will be and when we will make it.”
And that’s part of the magic of the Datograph. Lange set out to change the status quo in terms of chronograph development, but the release of the watch ended up doing much more. A. Lange & Söhne’s Director Product Development Anthony de Haas put it best in a conversation about how we can view the Datograph in the larger framework of Lange products and what’s next for it.
“The canonization always comes after the miracles have been performed,” de Haas said. “I strongly believe that if one sets out to make a ‘grail’ watch, car, or whatever, this quest is doomed to fail. A product may acquire an iconic status over time, if several basic requirements are met: a ground-breaking idea, a unique design that stands the test of time, and technical ingenuity, to name just a few. This is what we aimed at when we embarked on the Datograph mission. We wanted to develop an entirely new chronograph design that reflected the identity of A. Lange & Söhne down to the smallest detail – nothing more and nothing less. In retrospect, I would say it was the unobtrusive approach that did the trick.”
De Haas touches on the idea that the adoption of the Datograph as a grail for many is purely circumstantial. The Datograph is Lange being Lange, and the entire subculture and standard it spawned is a result of the sort of thinking that went into the actual development of the watch, not what the watch would become. The Datograph continues to be a high-water mark for not only high-end hand finishing, but traditionally constructed lateral clutch chronographs as well.
For further reading, we highly recommend a survey of known pre-Up/Down Datograph models by SJX, which was an invaluable resource for this article.