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I Joined An A. Lange & Söhne Watchmaking Workshop (And Survived)

Nothing can really prepare you for the day you’re asked to put together a watch movement. Nothing.

Not a week spent mulling the idea over in your head. Not the jealous proclamations from all your friends (ranging from “You’re so lucky!” to “Can I come?”). Not even the sense of security provided by the fact that this aforementioned watchmaking workshop would be hosted by one of the most respected watch manufactures in the world, A. Lange & Söhne.

To be frank, knowing just how much skill and precision go into making their legendary watches might have made me even a little more nervous than I should have been. But, alas, one must hurl oneself into the abyss for the sake of journalism, and so I jumped, proverbial guns blazing.

The Calm

It started off easily enough. After the requisite socializing over cocktails (coffee, thankfully, was not served, saving us all the worry of caffeine-induced jitters), Robert Hoffman, A. Lange & Söhne’s head of the Zeitwerk team, walked us through the painstaking process that each of the manufacture’s watch movements—and watchmakers—undergo.

A. Lange & Söhne’s Head of Zeitwerk, Robert Hoffman

Each A. Lange & Söhne movement that makes its way into one of the 4,000 to 5,000 watches produced annually goes through two rounds of assembly to achieve something as close to perfection as possible. The first to make sure that, well, it works, and the second for the laborious process of hand finishing each of the hundreds of miniscule elements that make up the movement.

From the plates and gears to the tiny blue screws—which, contrary to popular belief are not painted but rather, heated to a temperature that turns the metal a distinct cobalt blue—no piece is left to bear the slightest imperfection. As if that weren’t complicated enough, every movement utilizes up to 10 different finishing techniques, from hand-engraving to two types of graining and many more in between.

Every A. Lange & Söhne movement is assembled twice and contain hundreds of parts
 

Seeking Perfection

It would be easy to scoff at the impracticality of this amount of effort put into something that would be hidden during daily wear, but according to Hoffman, many of the brand’s clientele are so particular about watch movements that they even have their own versions of the microscope used by professional horologists, and use them to study the quality of the pieces they’ve acquired. The microscope in question is a sight to behold, and every blemish that mars the surface of whatever is placed under it is highlighted and put on display.

 

Many of A. Lange & Söhne’s watchmakers are in their 20s and 30s
 

To achieve this level of skill, watchmakers are typically schooled for three years, and released into the workshops to first perfect their talents on bigger movements (think clocks, pocket watches, y’know), before moving on to the jobs that require slightly more finesse. It must also be said, albeit anecdotally, that female participants of A. Lange & Söhne’s regular series of workshops typically have a much easier time than their male counterparts. Just saying.

The phrase “slightly more finesse”, I came to realize, meant superhuman steadiness, dexterity and really, really good eyesight, none of which I have. Nonetheless, off we went.

Up to Bat

Because none of the participants could chalk up to having assembled a movement before, despite being avid watch wearers, we were all given simpler (read: bigger) movements to work with. Hoffman and the A. Lange & Söhne team also considerately provided watch parts and tools clearly separated according to the order they were supposed to be fitted into the main plate. Apparently, our motley crew needed all the help we could get.

With these precautions in place, I thought, how could anything go wrong?

 

A steady hand is a priceless trait in a watchmaker

Surprise, surprise. Many, many things, I soon realized, could go wrong. From potentially losing one of the tiny parts and jeopardizing the entire venture—apologies to my seatmate who ended up dropping his movement’s balance wheel when I unwisely suggested “flipping it over to see if all the parts stay in place”—to misaligning plates and even possibly snapping a screw with overzealous twisting, a certain level of grace and polish are absolutely necessary in horology.

Once you get the hang of things, however, all the anxiety melts away and what takes its place is a feeling of calm collectedness, of almost Zen-like focus. It was easy to pretend that I was one of the manufacture’s talented watchmakers as I slipped my loupe on and off, squinting to see how each piece fit together on the tiny plate before me. I can say now that nothing makes a person feel as capable as when they’re literally single-handedly installing a screw with newfound dexterity. And when a piece is finished and the tiny gears all work in perfect harmony? The feeling of satisfaction is absolutely magical.

Art & Craft

The entire session lasted the better part of an hour. We were told a skilled watchmaker could assemble and dismantle a simple movement in about five minutes. But no matter; each participant was aglow with pleasure from having accomplished what they set out to do. In my case, it was to break nothing. Mission accomplished.

 

Some of A. Lange & Söhne’s 2018 Novelties

Watchmaking, from designing to assembly, is a noble craft, and practiced in its highest form, as A. Lange & Söhne has done for more than 170 years, it is elevated to art. To be a watchmaker of this caliber is to be part of an elite group that creates beautiful machines that measure and reflect our progression and existence through time itself.

In this sense, a watch is not as much a timekeeping device as it is a symbol of our drive to seek perfection and make sense of our existence. As much a work of wearable art as it is a machine, a watch, made with passion, is a clear testament to the creativity and expertise of each pair of hands that built it from start to finish, turning metal and stone into feats of engineering. A watch, then, is a symbol of how far we have come as a people—and what could be more amazing than that?

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