Though we often focus on new watches here at Haute Time, we think there’s something to be said for looking backwards and learning from the past as well. There has been an interesting change in watchmaking in recent decades. Watches used to be, by and large, practical instruments designed to unobtrusively tell the time, and which were expected to do their job accurately and without fuss. Today watchmakers no longer have the luxury of making watches that largely look the same from one year to the next -the pressure to make something new and eye-catching every year is intense.
At best, this produces inventive designs and ingenious complications; at worst, it produces watches that are merely an exercise in novelty for its own sake -often coupled with styling more geared toward ostentation than taste.
All the more amazing, then, that one of the most universally admired watches in the world -a watch which truly deserves the accolade, “legendary” -has not changed a jot or tittle in its design in over a decade.
The Datograph, by small-batch, top-tier German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, is exactly the same today as it was when first introduced in 1999. The Datograph is as pure an exercise in watchmaking as you could hope for. No carbon fiber, chunky bezels, or flamboyant time displays; it’s not co-branded with a soccer star or an F1 team; pouting supermodels do not flog the Datograph from Madison Avenue boutique windows. It is, in discreetly warm rose gold or austerely glowing platinum, simply a watch -but what a watch.
To put the Datograph on one’s wrist for the first time is to come in contact with a kind of watch that has become all too rare -one made with superb quality and functionality in mind first and foremost, and one whose aesthetics have not been painted on as an afterthought, but which arise organically from the philosophy of the company that makes it. That philosophy is to create a no-holds barred (and no expense spared) exercise in functional excellence. That it is quixotic, these days, to devote enormous resources in technical skill to functional excellence in mechanical watchmaking is not beside the point -it is, in fact, the entire point. The Datograph is as universally admired as it has been for over ten years, with no changes necessary or desired, precisely because it respects that most essential manifestation of integrity in watchmaking: functional excellence; and that functional excellence is the foundation for its aesthetics.
There are few other objects in the world that still have the Datograph’s purity of design, and whose aesthetics are as intimately a product of its functional excellence. Perhaps its closest kin would be the sword of the samurai, the Japanese katana -another object admired for its gorgeous design, but which has not -its startling resemblance to Brancusi’s Bird in Space notwithstanding -been designed, as such, at all. The beauty of the katana like that of the Datograph is a result of a form-follows-function approach taken to such an extreme that functionality and aesthetics become one and the same.
There’s no more telling compliment to the Datograph, perhaps, than the words of one of its most famous owners: legendary Swiss watchmaker Philippe Dufour, considered a master of the art of classic finissage, or movement finishing. Dufour, notoriously (and to the chagrin of many in the Swiss watch industry) owns a German watch -a rose gold Datograph (called by cognoscenti the “Dufour Datograph.”)
In an interview with the watch collector’s journal, REVOLUTION Magazine, in 2006, Dufour asserted that there was no other series produced watch that could match the Datograph in terms of sheer beauty of execution and perfection in finish. When asked why, 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.”
The Lange & Söhne Datograph is available in rose gold or platinum, at $59,800 or $78,500 respectively, and we think of it as not an expense, but an all-too-rare chance to experience real excellence.