Wagner, musingsPURELY

by Walt Odets

I had dinner a few nights ago with a very funny friend
who used to be a watchmaker and now hopes to never handle a tweezers
again for the rest of his life. And, oh yes, before dinner I picked
up my first Lange, a Saxonia.

Full dialI
had looked at Langes briefly before, and never quite liked them. What
did I need with a watch that I felt so lukewarm about, particularly
at that price? I collect movements more than watches. I’m interested
in quality and mechanical excellence, and I already had an excess of
wonderful watches, the best-of-the-best from the really great Swiss

In any case, that night before I opened the box with
the Lange in it, my friend showed me an IWC (a nice piece from the late
1960’s with an absolutely immaculate cal. 89) and a Hebdomia with an
exposed balance–a curious piece that I can’t keep in my mind at the
moment. Then my first look at the Lange: an impression dominated by
immaculate austerity and coolness, white gold, slate blue dial, and
a very dark, slate-blue alligator strap. The box, magnificently constructed
in flawless black and cream leather was as sheer and austere as it could
possibly have been and not be vinyl. No wrinkles or scars on those cows.
And the watch inside. At 34mm and a slightly thick 8.5 mm or so, it
looked like a biscuit and was twice the weight a gold watch its size
ought to be. The buckle Bucklewas
twice the weight it ought to be. Even the sapphire back had more gold
in it than two solid backs from anyone else.

So my first impression, not well consolidated, was
of an exercise in pure quality, no holds—and definitely no cost—barred.
The weight alone seemed to tell you that. I quickly realized that, by
comparison, all other watches suddenly felt hollow, like empty cases,
like tin stampings with no hint of a movement inside. The Lange was
an anvil, a solid lump of a super-dense new element that ran right off
the end of the periodic tables. It apparently, had no moving parts—nothing
to compromise the density, and surely nothing that could rattle or click.
The silkiness and solidity of the controls—the stem and date set button—were
unlike anything I had ever touched. In five minutes I suddenly felt
that there was somethingWagner, scene 6
shabby about all my other watches, and I actually had the thought that
perhaps I would sell everything else and leave it at three Langes. Three
? This Saxonia was a simple hand-wound watch, with simple
date, retailing for more than $13,000. But when I looked at it carefully,
the cost, astonishingly, began to seem plausible. Had I gone completely

Fourteen hours later, in the light of the next day,
one thing remained unchanged: the watch still seemed of magnificent
quality. Beyond the weight and feel, the movement glowed gently in a
way that made a JLC or Patek look a tiny bit harsh and rough. Perhaps
this was really just the difference between the slightly soft, creamy
sheen of the German silver bridges and the brighter, harder rhodium
of the Swiss watches. And perhaps, I found myself thinking, it was really
a product of superior finishing on the Lange. The Lange was perfect.
Although I could find no fault in any detail of polish or finish in
a JLC or Patek, every detail of the Lange seemed slightly better in
some tiny, indefinable, elusive way. I didn’t yet know if it was illusion
or microscopic fact that gave this Lange the magic of silk, cashmere,
and mink, all rolled into one. But the impression was inescapable.

Full, movementFor
all the silk, cashmere, and mink, I couldn’t help thinking that the
Lange was also filled with archaic, anachronistic details: the engraved
balance cock, the three quarter plate design, the screwed balance wheel,
the chatoned jewels, and the archaic serif typeface used in all the
engravings. The touted Lange beat adjustment “mechanism” seemed nothing
more than a movable balance cock with a lock screw—a nice, convenient
design, but hardly new technology.

At dinner the night I got the watch, my friend told
me that the three quarter plate is one of his favorite features. Such
a watch is so difficult to put together, and he found this entertaining.
The entire train of the watch, excluding the balance, must be placed
in position in the plate, teetering precariously on the lower pivots.
Then the upper plate (the three-quarter bridge) is placed carefully
on top, at which point all top pivots fall perfectly into their respective
upper bearings. Yeah, right. That’s the mainspring barrel, center
wheel, third wheel, fourth wheel, escape wheel, transmission wheel (between
the crown gear and barrel ratchet), barrel click, and what look like
two unjeweled pivots for Escapementthe
date mechanism in the upper right corner of the plate, just in case
you get cocky. All these parts, teetering like sunflowers in the wind,
their upper pivots waving in all directions, as if to mock your every
effort to get this watch back together.

My friend told me that he was taught to insert the
center wheel and then massage the rest into place by stroking the fingernail
gently over the top of the plate in the direction of the escape wheel—one
of those ideas from Masters that you hear about, that makes no sense,
and never works. I told him my trick, too arcane to describe here. He
was enchanted. He liked the design, liked the idea, felt it was “a message”
to watchmakers. But he left the frustrations of the watchmakers bench
behind years ago. I, still trying to learn Wagner, scene 2what
he has already thankfully forgotten, thought of the hours and the frustration.
Or the bent pinions and broken pivots. Heaven forbid.

One thing we agreed upon: on a bad day this one step
of reassembly could take hours. Trying to assuage my anxiety, I thought
that perhaps the escape wheel might be done separately. Its upper bearing
is mounted in a small “black-polished” steel plate screwed into the
three-quarter plate and this could be removed and replaced after the
three-quarter was in position—if ever. That would help a little bit.
My friend kept taunting me: “Are you actually going to take this thing
apart?” “Why not?” I asked. In truth, I hadn’t decided, but I knew I
was intimidated. (I later realized that all the chatons could be removed,
and then replaced, one by one, once the plate was in position. I was
also told that the factory used a jig for alignment. Maybe they’d sell
me one. Yeah, right.)

As for the balance, it was one-piece Glucydur like
everyone else’s. There was also a (temperature-compensating) Nivarox
hairspring, like everyone else’s. So the screws had nothing to do with
their most Esacpe wheel cap plateimportant
original purpose, temperature compensation. Those screws. Well,
it’s not impossible that one might want to repoise the balance some
day after it got crushed under foot or hit by a bullet from Philippe
Stern’s revolver. But those screws are a conceit. Smooth Glucydur balances,
laser poised and without screws to loosen or catch debris, are flawless
and rugged and we’ll all be dead before they ever loose poise. And Mr.
Stern has an even better idea, the Gyromax.

The chatoned jewels (gold mounts held with blued screws)
are nice. They’re elegant. They’re costly. They’re archaic. Friction
jeweling allows for perfect alignment and much easier replacement when
the jewels are cracked (probably while trying to replace that three-quarter
plate). And then the other details—the engraving on the cock and serif
typefaces. It was all reminiscent of a Black Forest cuckoo clock, sauerbraten,
and some other things that make me squeamish about Southern Germany.
Thank God myDate Window
friend and I were in a histrionic Italian restaurant while I pondered
the detail.

In the cool light of the next afternoon, a scant 20 hours into the Saxonia
experience—most of which had been spent staring at the watch—it suddenly
occurred to me that this apparently archaic watch, this hearkening back
to old-fashioned quality, this resurrection of the famous Lange pocket
watches, had nothing but concepts in common with old watches. Old watches
were never of this quality, were never this well made. Vintage watches
are of relatively poor quality—in the sense of being fragile and running
erratically—compared to good contemporary watches. But they are sometimes
as well finished as the Lange. Or was it that they, like the JLC and
Patek, were almost as well finished?

you ever sat in a Mercedes and felt that it was welded solidly to the
concrete beneath it? The Lange is overbuilt like that. But the finish.
The finish of the Lange, I realized, was entirely modern: a product
of lasers, diamond abrasives, computer controlled robots, and other
things I know nothing about and that have nothing to do with 1845. It
is impossible, I thought, to finish a watch like this with traditional
materials and techniques. Was the Lange, I began to wonder, soullessly
perfect behind the dizzying Black Forest decorations?

Still later that day I began to feel that the Saxonia
clearly had some sort of soul. But it wasn’t the sort of soul I was
used to expecting in watches. It was not a lyrical, French-Swiss soul.
The Lange, I realized, had something more like a Wagnerian soul. Pure,
unrelenting, uncompromising, and, at the same time, surprisingly sentimental.
Saxonia lacked only the torture of Wagner, though all the serif type
began to suggest even that. Let me put it this way: You wouldn’t mistake
the Lange for a Schubert quartet. I began to realize that theretofore
I had confused soul with lyricism and charm. The Lange had no lyricism.
And it had no charm, at least not in the sense of easy charm. The Saxonia
was a baby only an engineer-mother could love—just love. Admire,
yes. But love is a different matter. The white gold was too cool. The
blue dial might have been lyrical, but it was just the wrong blue to
do that, slate blue and austere as a rock. The hour markers were diamond-shaped,
but much too small to suggest anything lyrical. And the blue crocodile
strap? I leave you to your personal thoughts on giant, blue water reptiles.

I stared at the Saxonia and tried to think about these issues, I began
to realize that I didn’t mind the austerity of the watch. I was even
coming to admire that. I simply wasn’t prepared for it—any more than
I was prepared for the density of the piece. But, still, the Lange made
me crave a touch of lyricism as, for example, in the pink Arabics of
the Portugeiser, which would otherwise be too sober (just look at the
recent black-dialed Portugieser with silver markers—it died of severity
on the operating table). Or the capricious irregularity of the dial
and hour markers on the ever-elegant JLC Reserve de Marche. In comparison,
the refinement of the Lange was very hard, everything stacked and centered
on a sheet of cold, slippery blue-black ice. Sheer quality seemed, slowly,
to be making up for some of the austerity, but a Silberstein it was
not. Or even a Mark XII, which suddenly seemed almost melodic.

Wagner, scene 5Before
going to bed on my second night with the Saxonia, I removed the watch
from my wrist still wondering if one house was big enough for the two
of us. “I’m glad I didn’t get a ‘1’,” I thought, as I closed the bureau
drawer on it. One can only take so much. That extra four millimeters
and just one more serif typeface—DOPPELFEDERHAUS and AUF/AB—well, it
would have pushed me right over the edge. I’d have needed a home equity
loan to build a new guest house for the watch. (Which, come to think
of it, might have put the mortgage and watch back into some reasonable
proportion.) As I slid into sleep that night, blue-black ice drifted
past my vision, tiny white-gold pebbles arranged in repeating circles
on its immaculate surface. And in the last instant before relinquishing
control to absolute, dreamless, horizonless sleep, I remembered a story:
Lying on his death bed, Oscar Wilde waved his arm around the room and
announced, “Either this wall paper goes, or I do.”

On the third day—today as I write—it suddenly feels
like less of a stand-off. As a matter of fact, I found myself wanting
to put on the watch while still in my bathrobe. I did, and over coffee,
I found myself staring at the dial. Again. Slate blue? I began
to see a touch of cerulean. Was it the particularity of the morning
light, or did the white gold of the case have a slightly warm glow?
The diamond markers were still small, of course. But at certain angles
I thought I’d seen a certain—was it a beckoning twinkle?

Early date switch
Mid date swtich
Date late switch Date end switch

Have I mentioned yet that 30 beamed at me this
morning? Beamed? Did I say that? Could it be the easy charm of
30 in contrast to the propriety of the 28 and 29
I’d grown accustomed to? Could it be that my sensibilities had been
so altered by this watch that I was now finding charm in particular
combinations of digits?

Wagner, scene 4We’ve
only been together for three days now, and it’s too early in the relationship
to know what will come of it. One thing, however, is absolutely certain:
It’s going to be a marriage made in Heaven or Hell. And I wouldn’t be
the one to leave the house.

In all the excitement of the wedding arrangements,
I almost forgot. How is it running? Flawlessly. (Really, what
did you expect?) In three days of wearing and two nights of repose on
its back (is it beauty sleep?), it has not varied a second. On my electronic
timer, it fluctuates between “-000” and “+000” and shows no beat error
at all. But then, just once, the beat trace shot up to .4 milliseconds,
just for an instant. It never did it again. I can’t explain it. Quirky.