The Art of Design: The A. Lange & Söhne Datograph

Article By: Henry Kincaid

Oct 25, 2018

Source: A. Lange & Söhne

When long-deceased German watch manufacturer Lange reopened its doors to the public in 1994, it was the Lange 1 that set the tone for everything to come. While not necessarily all that experimental, the perfectly balanced yet asymmetrical design of the Lange 1 was just different enough in the eyes of the market to stand distinct from its competition.

As time progressed, A. Lange was able to forge out an even more distinctive appearance compared to its similarly positioned opposition, namely Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet, the ‘Big Three’ as they are often affectionately, or sometimes un-affectionately, known. Yet, it wasn’t their original hit back in the ‘90’s that remained at the top of the brand’s crowning achievements, it was something a little bit more…practical, if a 5-figure wristwatch can ever be considered practical.

The watch in question was, of course, the Datograph.

While it’s not as if chronographs haven’t appeared on dressier watches before, there is still something about their practicality and function that draws to the mind images of more sporty scenarios; perhaps situations in which a dress watch would look a little bit out of place. Off the top of my head, there are few reasons why a timing device would be required at a formal event, even in something like an office environment. Perhaps this is why chronographs often don’t appear on contemporary dress watches, and when they do they come across as something that gives the watch a bit of a dynamic flavour. There are, of course, hundreds of exceptions to this rather non-specific and generalised observation, most notably Patek’s impressive line of Perpetual Calendar Chronographs, but it’s really Lange that, in my eyes, sits at the top of the chronograph dress watch pile.

It would probably be fair to suggest that contemporary Lange is now best known for their chronograph pieces, especially their stopwatch variants of the 1815 and Saxonia watch lines. Of course, the pinnacle of this applied technology is the Datograph series of Saxonias, arguably the most famous design, and perhaps even name, that Lange has ever created.

The Datograph, particularly the Up/Down, encapsulates the design of A. Lange & Söhne like no other; not even my personal favourite, the 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar Handwerkskunst, can claim to be anywhere near as distinctive as the Datograph.

Source: A. Lange & Söhne

Let’s start by breaking down the composition of the dial; at the top is one of the most important design features of the watch, the name of the company following the same circular curve of the watch’s case. This is classic Lange; it’s a design feature that is as smart as it is practical; with a name as spaced out as A.Lange’s, why confine it to a central position just between the hands and the 12 o’clock marker? Why not, as they have done, place the text across the top in a manner befitting a Victorian-era entrance way? In fact, that’s just what the Datograph reminds me of; something very industrial and turn of the previous century, yet just as timeless as classically-styled Christmas decorations. There’s certainly at least a whiff of old railway style about the design, albeit not in the same vein as an Omega Railmaster.

The next prominent design element is the enlarged date, a feature originally seen back in 1994 when the company relaunched, and a hallmark of the brand ever since. For something as large and impressive as this complication is from an aesthetic perspective, it is also remarkably subtle. A lot of this comes down to Lange’s choice of typeface. Font and type isn’t something we think about all that much within horology; it’s often as iconic as it is helpful, yet we never really critique the effect it has over a watch’s overall design. In many ways, the only real visual differentiation between a modern Rolex GMT and a Submariner at first glance is the typography. It’s an incredibly important aspect of design, and, as one can imagine, quite easy to mess up. That’s not what Lange has done here, or on any of their other contemporary watches; their choice of typeface is not only impeccable, but crucial to their overall brand image. Unlike a company like Patek, Lange is not in a position where they can play round with their choice of typeface; there’s a reason why, unlike Patek and so many others, Lange hasn’t ever, as far as I can tell, used Breguet numerals on any of their designs. Lange’s distinctive capitalised Germanic serif typeface is as much a part of the company as any of their watch designs are. In fact, I’d go as far to say that if Lange kept the typeface and design language they are now known for, they could scrap all of their current watch lines, introduce new ones, and still come out of the end of the entire process feeling like the same company. Not many upper-tier watch manufacturers can say that.

Source: A. Lange & Söhne

The final element I’d like to mention in regards to the watch’s exterior appearance is the use of circles. See, circles, especially in the case of the Lange 1 and Richard Lange, are a really rather important part of Lange’s design ethos. It’s not like Lange is a stranger to watch designs that aren’t just circular; the famous date window and Cabaret line of watches are a testament to that fact, but circular designs always seem to be the thing Lange is most comfortable with. Their chronographs, particularly the Datograph, use carefully layered circular elements that give the impression of something highly technical, which, of course, it is (though we’ll move onto that in a second). While it may not seem like much, especially in a world of watches that are almost always circular in nature, this particular choice of shape just seems to have a little more presence here. I think, to go back to a previous point, that the choice of a curved logotype was more than just a throwaway decision; it was intrinsic and foundational to the overall design. Everything, bar the date and the ‘datograph flyback’ text, is linked to a circular composition of some kind; the indices and numerals are linked to the outside circles that form the chapter rings, the subdials are, of course, their own self-contained circles, and the hands correspond specifically with their own sets of compositions (the hour hand with the raised indices, or roman numerals on earlier models , and the chrono and minute hands with the chapter ring circles). All of this is perfectly normal; it’s what’s expected on a vast majority of watches, especially chronographs, yet there’s something a little bit special about how this standard practice of watch design is executed on the Lange, but why is this the case? The only reason I can come up with refers back to Lange’s commitment to engineering; despite how beautiful their watches may be, they are still a company that heavily follows the ethos of form following function, and I think this perfectly summarizes the appeal of the Datograph. Everything we see here has developed from a dedication to practical design, despite how ridiculous that might sound for a watch that sits around the $90,000-$100,000 mark. These Datographs are supposed to be used, and there’s nothing about their design that is intended to hold you back from doing so, in fact, everything from the chronograph and the date function to the standard time keeping is meant to be rather easy to use, especially compared to the competition’s offerings, and everything up to this point reflects that.


Source: A. Lange & Söhne

Despite how easy the dial of the watch is supposed to be to read and understand, for the back of the watch the opposite is true. When you look at the Lange chronograph movement hidden within the exquisitely finished case, you truly understand where all of your money went. For many, myself included, the Lange chronograph calibers are easily *the* definitive chronographs, perhaps even the definitive movements in general, of this generation. As Anthony de Haas, Director of Product Development at Lange, once said: “Lange IS the movement.” No truer words could really be spoken about the brand. Brand image is one thing, but the actual realization of the brand’s ethos and message is another. While I still think the typeface is the most distinctly Lange quality about the brand, it’s really the detail and level of finish that goes into the movements that truly sets the brand apart. Unfortunately, there’s little to say about the Lange chronograph movements, Datograph or otherwise, that hasn’t been said already, so I won’t bother you with my retelling of how truly astonishing these pieces of engineering are to behold, but I will leave you with this; they are as beautiful as everybody says they are, if not more so.

The reborn German watchmaker has created something truly legendary, and done so with very little in the way of time to develop this impression; I wouldn’t go as far to say that the Datograph was an overnight icon, but in the world of horology such an exclamation wouldn’t be too far-fetched. It’s a truly and wonderfully designed piece of timekeeping, and one that will most certainly go down as one of the most important of the early 21st century. Few companies, especially within this industry, have seen the sort of rejuvenation that A. Lange & Söhne has had, especially after such a long hiatus, and while some will accredit this success to the Lange 1, or perhaps even the Zeitwerk, for me it will always be the Datograph, this marvel of composition and iconic design, that really gave this great and historically significant watchmaker its mojo back.

What do you think of the Datograph? Do you like the design, or do you think it’s overrated? Tell us in the comments. Until next time, keep it classy!

My name’s Henry Kincaid. I write about watches, take photos of just about anything, and I’m being trained to design (bits of) buildings as an interior architecture student. I’ve grown up surrounded by great design and people who appreciate it, and I like to think that some of this passion has rubbed off on myself.

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‘Masters of Engineering from Saxony’
Datograph Up/Down
INSIGHT: Designing A. Lange & Söhne – part 1, design approach & method
INSIGHT: Designing A. Lange & Söhne – part 2, the detail in the dial
INSIGHT: Designing A. Lange & Söhne – part 3, the tone of type
Hands-On With The New A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Up/Down