A. Lange & Söhne Tourbillon Pour le Mérite
The Collector’s Guide – December 2020
A small village with a population of just above five thousand and formed by only two main streets between the green ore mountains against a lonely train station; Glashütte was finally breathing the freedom only for a year following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Yet, once the cradle of German Watchmaking and synonym for artistic crafts; it was far away from its former glory. All that’s left was a state-owned enterprise GUB which focused on mass production, ditching the region’s proud heritage on handcraft.
Looking back, Glashütte in 1990 seems to be the last place to give birth to a mechanical innovation, inspirational design and exemplary craftsmanship. However, thinking more about it; perhaps this deprivation and stark contrast to the region’s glorious past were the exact reasons that pushed Walter Lange to register the A. Lange & Söhne trademark once again in 7 December 1990 and later drive the engineers and craftsmen to bring out some of the world’s most distinguished watches in 1994. Although all special in their own way, one was in high order: Tourbillon Pour le Mérite.
Why Such Complication From the Start?
Swiss make the best watches – so do the Germans, says one early A. Lange & Söhne advertisement. The campaign was a result of Blümlein’s genius positioning strategy where he did not try to de-crown the popular king, rather attached the brand and the region to it. Yet, without concrete examples of such a claim, such campaigns are almost always entirely useless.
A. Lange & Söhne introduced Lange 1, Saxonia and Arkade alongside Tourbillon Pour le Méritewhich were all unique, enticing and characteristic pieces. However, none were demonstrating a cutting edge mechanical expertise that would give a concrete foundation to the claim above.
Signalling is a well known theory in economics. It is the idea that one party (A. Lange & Söhne) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the collector). A. Lange & Söhne was claiming to live up to its former glory. It was showing it too by borrowing traditional elements like three-quarter plate, gold chatons and blued screws and offering them in a perfectly finished package. Thus, to signal the brand’s promises on the mechanical side and to show what people can expect, Lange created Tourbillon Pour le Mérite.
The Pour le Mérite is an order of Merit, translates as For Merit, established in 1740 by the King of Prussia. Ranking among the highest orders of its time, it was an honor degree given both to military and civil services. Otto Von Bismarck, Erwin Schrödinger are some of the recipients. Today, the medal is still in active use.
For Lange it is also a merit for watches with fusée and chain mechanism. Thinking that the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is the first ever wristwatch that combines both the fusée and chain mechanism and a tourbillon; it was indeed worthy of such acclaim. For years, Lange crafted only 200 examples of this piece of art – 149 in gold, 50 in platinum and only 1 in steel; with dial and size variations for each metal. Not to mention, the Nr.1 in yellow gold was worn by Walter Lange.
Before I start the in-depth walkthrough of the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite models’ breakdown, I would like to quote from my friend @gva212 on the feelings this watch ewokes in one:
The PLM was the first piece where I just had an instant and enormous, and unexpected, emotional reaction. Its technical merits are overwhelming and you can feel the care and emotion put into its creation. It’s the perfect size at 38.5mm and I love that it just is what it is, without having to punch you in the face with its obviousness. It’s the discreet, subtle and calmness of the technical innovation and styling that makes this a sublime watch.
It is rivalry that breeds excellence. In the 19th and 20th centuries Observartoire trials were the finest advertisement a brand could get. Every brand and constructor were fighting to get the top prize and place it on magazines, newspapers – from a time when watches were instruments. And what would you think of if I ask you to come up with the single most famous system to improve accuracy and precision of a pocket watch? Yes, Tourbillon! Such demand led to specialists. In those days if you wanted to construct a tourbillon, you had to go to specialists like Ernest Guinand, Pellaton and many others along with regleurs such as Modoux, Urbain Brahier… In return, Swiss brands came up with numerous tourbillon pocket watches.
On the other side of the border however, A. Lange & Söhne was almost alone at the top of the echelon. Hence, either due to lack of competition or lack of know-how, it took the brand fourty-seven years to craft its first tourbillon pocket watch which was presented in 1892. During its close to 100 years of existance A. Lange & Söhne produced only 11 (not all in 1A quality) tourbillon pocket watches – last one in the year 1939.
Although low in numbers, they were fantastically constructed and finished. The most famous one is without a doubt the reference 41000, the Jahrhunderttourbillon – constructed and regulated by the master Fridolin Stübner and was presented in Paris World Exhibition in 1900. You can see the finely constructed and black polished three-arms carriage held by an engraved cock. This signature style is in use at Tourbillon Pour le Mérite as well as many other tourbillon watches of A. Lange & Söhne.
Tourbillon Pour le Mérite takes its inspiration from its ancestors for over a hundred years ago; just like them, excels in beauty and craftsmanship but also elevates the bar in every aspect.
Measuring in 38.5 mms (there are two unique pieces at 36.5 mms and one other at 36 mms) in diameter and 10 mms in thickness, Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is an exceptionally compact piece for what it houses; especially for 1994. The case structure follows the principle dictated by Günter Blümlein. The signature elements are the three-step structure with a brushed case band against polished bezel and case back as well as beautifully notched and strikingly detailed lugs. This style is applied to all Lange models to differentiate the appearance from Swiss competitors. . Lange cases are straightforward, unpretentious, yet full of stunning details. I love it.
Sold at Phillips Watches in Association with Bacs & Russo in 2017 for a mere $150k.
Curved lugs further improves Tourbillon Pour le Mérite’s presence on the wrist. The transition from the brushed case band to polished and strong lugs is just a joy to see and feel. The lug width for the regular models is 20 mms and 19 mms for the unique ~36 mms models with a buckle width of 16 mms. The same measurement also applies to many other models such as Lange 1, Langematik Perpetual thus the straps are easily interchangable. There are also couple of bracelet versions.
The breakdown of case metals is as follows:
- 106 in yellow gold (701.001/751.001)
- 19 in white gold ( 701.007) – one unique piece sold at Christie’s for CHF 437.5k in 2014
- 24 in rose gold (701.011)
- 50 in platinum (701.005) – one unique piece with pink gold dial sold at Sotheby’s for CHF 314.5k in 2011; one unique piece at 36.5 mms sold at Dr.Crott for a record €330k in 2012.
- 1 in steel
A glance to Tourbillon Pour le Mérite reveals that with its Arabic numerals, rail-way minute track and three-dots in each 15 minute markers, it is part of the 1815 collection. Its traditional look combined with some of the finest technical advancements of its time, forms a stark yet delightful contrast. The three-armed cage of the tourbillon is so well done and historically accurate, I am sure that the cut-out on the dial does not bother even the most fanatic purist.
Sold at Sotheby’s Watches with original Wellendorff Bracelet.
Tourbillon Pour le Mérite’s dial is all about symmetry. Arched A. Lange & Söhne logo crowns the Glashütte In Saxonyinscription below and beautifully balances the extra large tourbillon opening at 6 o’clock. The sub-dials sit on the central axis, the small seconds on the left and power reserve on the right. The discreet tourbillon text on the small seconds’ sub dial nicely counter weighs the power reserve indication’s numerals.
The steel tourbillon bridge is superbly chamfered and carries multiple sharp angles. The black polish on the carriage strongly stands against the bright, faceted diamond in the middle. Three arms of the tourbillon carries superbly cut-out internal angles and proofs of hand finish. As can be observed, the cage construction is heavily inspired by the A. Lange & Söhne Tourbillon pocket watches of the 20th century, built by Fridolin Stübner.
A unique Tourbillon Pour le Mérite with salmon dial. Sold at Sotheby’s Watches back in 2013
Here, I would like to open up a separate headline for this topic as I most certainly do not want this process of creating sharp inward – outward angles to go neither unnoticed nor not appreciated. This is what separates a high-end, hand-made Tourbillon Pour le Mérite from say Tag Heuer’s, not that anything is wrong with the latter but why the former is simply superior…
Under general circumstances, mass brands bring out the bevels with CNC machine and use a hand-operated tool called touret to polish, and create anglagé – which A. Lange & Söhne does in many instances too. However, the level of precision needed to create sharp inward-outward angles is not yet possible with the sole use of machinery. Without the involvement of the machinery, giving such angles to a piece of metal relies entirely on skill and handcraft. The artist uses a variety of equipments such as wooden pegs, files and abrasive tools to create internal cut outs. This is why we do not see such application in watches below $40-50k.
Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is the first wristwatch of the brand to feature a finishing technique at such level and the brand’s all tourbillon carriages since are finished with aforesaid care. It takes a considerable amount of time and mastery to bevel the tiny parts with hand and even more so to polish in between. Even though A. Lange & Söhne is not the first brand that comes to mind with such technique, the application on the tourbillon bridges have always been immaculate.
Tourbillon Pour le Mérite - Caliber L902.0
In many ways, the caliber L902.0 of the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is the most important of A. Lange & Söhne’s endeavours. Before you spell the L of the L001.1 of the Double Split, or the L042.1 of the Cabaret Tourbillon, let me explain.
Some things worth much more than material or concrete outcomes. Indeed, the end result has to be exceptional; but sometimes what matters more is the ideation. This watch has laid the foundations of what was going to become an exceptional movement manufacture; and without signaling such ambition since the very beginning and cementing the doctrine within the company, A. Lange & Söhne wouldn’t be the company we know today. Tourbillon Pour le Mérite, hence the caliber L902.0 is the backbone of every invention, innovation and ambition to come up with the best which most would define the brand today.
As if this is not enough, this caliber is the brainchild of three legends; Günter Blümlein, Reinhard Meis and Giulio Papi of the rightfully famous Renaud & Papi. From its conception to what it represents, Tourbillon Pour le Mérite deserves to be a cornerstone of each and every distinguished watch collection.
The project L902.0, hence Tourbillon Pour le Mérite, was initiated in 1990, right after the trademark registration of A. Lange & Söhne. It is important to know that in 1990, A. Lange & Söhne was a start-up with a capital and big know-how behind; coming from LMH (owner of JLC and IWC) with Günter Blümlein at the top. Many Lange employees in 1990s went to Switzerland, mostly Schaffhausen to get the necessary training in watchmaking, design and marketing. To get the full effects from such synergy, Lange also borrowed certain technologies from its siblings – namely the big date complication and masterfully merged it with the heritage stemming from the Semper Opera House’s 5 Minute Clock in Dresden.
As mentioned, Tourbillon Pour le Mérite was conceived to be the first wristwatch caliber combining fusée and chain and tourbillon mechanisms; yet, there was neither enough know-how nor the time to build a mechanism of this magnitude without outside assistance. To make it more concrete, the project Tourbograph was also kicked-off in the 1990 but had to be cancelled because there was simply no time.
Thus, Blümlein reached out to an old friend of his, for one last job he says, possibly the widest known specialist in movement design to create this one of a kind movement: Renaud & Papi.
Dominique Renaud (left) and Giulio Papi
For those who do not know; Renaud & Papi is a movement specialist company founded by Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi in Le Locle, Switzerland in 1986. Currently owned by Audemars Piguet, R&P is an extremely rich soil for that yields the best crops in the world. From Robert Greubel to Stephen Forsey to Andreas Strehler, Grönefelds, Anthony De Haas… All spent time in this distinguished atelier, learnt from the best before flying out to build their own.
The colloboration between Renaud & Papi and Blümlein goes back to 80s when IWC was a value brand for conniseurs and a flag carrier for the mechanical watch revolution from Schaffhausen. Blümlein was the first client of the company, commisioned a minute repeater module for IWC Grande Complication. Later on Dominique Renaud would say in an interview at thenakedwatchmaker:
Some sources say that the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite concept was created by Lange and R&P developed only the fusée and chain part; albeit some others, including Mr. Papi himself says it was Blümlein who asked R&P on what kind of a movement they should create to erase the 50 years of inactivity of the brand. Nevertheless, what we know is all 200 calibers were made in Renaud & Papi ateliers and finish – second assembly was done in Glashütte.
The architecture is beautiful. At the bottom, the tourbillon opening greets the owner with a diamond cap in the middle, held by the hand-engraved tourbillon bridge. The whole of the bridge is beautifully perlaged. Please note that the perlage in Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is much more concentric and smaller compared to other watches, which I find intriguingly beautiful. The three-quarter plate is deeply striped while carrying rather big jewels for the fuseé & chain transmission mechanism.
Visually, the only critique from my side would be the lack of skeletonization at such a high-end mechanism. I’d definitely like to see some more opening with sharp angles… But then, the more I think of it, I find such an understatement much more suitable to A. Lange & Söhne rather than Swiss approach – hence, more coherent. Perhaps I am getting old? Nonetheless, Caliber L902.0 of the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite offers a view that one cannot get bored of…
On the technical side, the caliber L902.0 measures 30 mms in diameter and 7.5 mms in thickness, comprises of 318 parts. Moreover, it offers an exceptional winding feeling and boasts a modest 36 hours of power reserve. However, as said many times, this movement is special because what it combines: a fusée and chain and a tourbillon.
We know that the mainspring of a mechanical watch does not deliver the same torque throughout its power reserve. The power in the final phase of unwinding weakens and can cause rate inaccuracies. Hence the barrel and the fusée in the L902.0 are interconnected with a delicate chain consisting of 636 parts. Whilst the watch is wound using the crown, the chain is wound up on the tapered fusée and the spring in the barrel becomes taut. The spring’s power is delivered to the movement via the fusée with constant torque.
The Tourbillon “Pour le Mérite” relies on the lever and fulcrum principle discovered by Archimedes. When the mainspring is fully wound and exerts its full force, the chain pulls at the smaller circumference – or lever – of the fusée and when the mainspring’s power declines, it pulls at the larger circumference of the fusée.
This ingenious mechanism improves the rate accuracy of the watch across the entire power reserve range. A planetary gear train comprising 38 parts, with a diameter of 10 millimetres, found inside the fusée, keeps the movement running even while the mainspring is being wound. Each part of the chain measure 0.5 mms in width and accounts for 15 cms as a whole. Although the fully assembled chain weighs only 0.12 grams, it is strong enough to carry 2kgs.
Even today, producing, finishing and connecting the links is extremely hard and when Renaud & Papi developed the chain in 1990s, the technology was not as advanced as today. So, they inserted tiny piece of papers between each link to keep them in place during the assembly and after all done, they applied the only possible solution – burn them all. This was the only possible way to assemble 636 tiny parts.
Currently, to my knowledge, the chain is assembled in the finishing department by only a couple of master crafts people.
As much as its advantages, the fuseé system also has its drawbacks. For example it must never be fully unwound. Hence the security measures for this particular mechanism are at utmost importance. Moreover, the power transmission must be blocked after 36 hours to deliver the best torque throughout the watch’s operation.
To prevent this from happening, the caliber L902.0 of Tourbillon Pour le Mérite houses a blocking mechanism, which is utilized in all other Pour le Mérite collection pieces as well. After exactly 36 hours, the lever drops into a recess in the wheel. Assisted by a spring, the longer arm of the lever moves into the engagement radius of a specially shaped finger seated on the fourth wheel arbor. The arbor is stopped when the two elements make contact. The seconds hand stays exactly at the 12 o’clock position.
Dial view of the L902.0. Courtesy of Lange Uhren GmbH
One of the pecularities of the fuseé-and-chain transmission is that the fusée moves forward while the watch is running, but rotates backwards while the mainspring is being wound. Therefore, the fusée-and-chain transmission needs a construction to ensure that the transmission does not stop while the watch is being wound.
A complex planetary gearing inside the fusée preserves the power flow from the fusée to the movement during the winding phase. It consists of 38 tiny parts which the watchmaker must integrate in the fusée, a hollow cone with an inside diameter of merely 8.6 millimetres.
The Tourbillon Pour le Mérite Market
The Tourbillon Pour le Mérite checks all the boxes to be marked as collectible. It is exceedingly rare, a true icon symbolizing the re-birth of the German high-end watchmaking, most of them are kept in spectacular condition and perhaps the most importantly, they wear tremendously well and look brilliant on and off the wrist.
When A. Lange & Söhne first published the Euro prices in the catalogue in 1999, the price for the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite was €78k and €70k for platinum and gold versions respectively. This was only 5 times of a gold Lange 1. As a side note; please do not ask me what happened with the pricing along the way; especially with the $500k Tourbograph in 2010…
Two unique pieces.
To my knowledge, the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite appeared in an auction for the first time in 1999 at Antiquorum. The example was in rose gold and sold for around $99k. Only some years later, Antiuqorum also sold a platinum (701.005) for $203k. The leading auction house at the time continued to offer brilliant examples but the record came in 2007 with two platinum examples, each selling more than $320k. This growing graph reflected on the other editions and the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite market started booming. This attracted other prominent auction houses. Sotheby’s for example auctioned two stunning examples with matching bracelets and also a unique piece, again for great sums.
When I first wrote the article, I noted the following:
“Today, the gold versions trade around $150k (depending on the configuration). Since the platinum versions rarely make an appearance, I can say that they still keep their aura and momentum – at least relative to their gold counterparts. However, as of December 2020, I have a strong feeling that it is going to skyrocket soon enough.“
Well, this one aged well. Since 2020 December, we saw a couple of Tourbillon Pour le Mérite pieces on several auction houses and the minimum price was achieved by the yellow gold version, that is at $350k – while the platinum, pink gold examples rocketed to the north of $400k.
Tourbillon Pour le Mérite is a must have for any watch collection in the world and I would highly suggest you to keep a close eye on the market as owners rarely part ways with these stunning timepieces.
I hope this was a valuable guide for whomever is looking for a Tourbillon Pour le Mérite or just want to learn the details and history of these pieces. If you’d like to chat, sell or buy a Tourbillon Pour le Mérite, please kindly reach out to me via [email protected]
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