The logic-defying and record-breaking price achieved by Paul Newman’s Rolex last month in New York overshadowed all other watch auction news, to the point that people might have forgotten that there are more auctions on the horizon, in addition to the exceptional biennial Only Watch charity sale on 11th November.
A number of smaller, more local auction houses time their sales to coincide with the seasonal auctions of the Big Four (Phillips, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Antiquorum). Fellows in Birmingham, England, regularly offer a selection of affordable luxury watches, offering a platform for the more discreet and more impoverished collector. I also regularly receive the catalogue of Zurich-based Ineichen auctions and I always make sure I read it from cover to cover, ever since I spotted a boxing timer (a pocket chronograph with a display to time the rounds of a boxing match) last year that I really should have bid on.
With an estimate in excess of 20,000 Swiss francs, the hidden gem in this Saturday’s auction in Zurich is way outside my budget, and risks being overshadowed by the Only Watch sale, which gets underway almost at the same time in Geneva. But it’s worth a closer look because of its history. First of all, it’s listed as an A. Lange & Söhne pilot’s watch, but there is no mention of A. Lange & Söhne on the dial. Instead you will find the initials of the notorious Waffen-SS and a baffling arrangement of Roman and Arabic numerals on the dial.
An extract from the “Aviator Watches” section of Reinhard Meis’s excellent book on the watchmakers of Dresden indicates that the backwards seconds on the inner part of the dial meant that they could be read in a mirror when mounted in navigation equipment. When flying by waypoints, as pilots had to do in the second world war, being able to read the seconds accurately was crucial.
Being able to measure the seconds accurately was more important, of course, and the calibre 48.1 movement used in this watch has a history all of its own, having been developed specifically to Wehrmacht specifications that required accuracy to within less than one second per day! It also has a stop-seconds function that was at the time patented by Junghans, which meant that A. Lange & Söhne had to pay its German competitor a licence fee so that it could produce these urgently needed watches.
Nowadays this watch is available as the Datograph Auf/Ab; the movement was improved and a power-reserve screen has been added. There is also a version with a perpetual calendar, the Datograph Perpetual.The Lange 31 was named because of its power reserve: an astounding 31 days. The watch contains in-house Caliber L034.1, with 406 components. These include two stacked barrels, each with a powerful mainspring that’s 1.85 meters long, a few times more than a standard mainspring. The barrels are 25 mm across and occupy three-quarters of this motion diameter.With a power reserve this lengthy, and springs this powerful, the amplitude of the balance would decline significantly over time if nothing had been done to maintain it. But Lange has positioned an advanced constant-force device between the twin mainspring barrels as well as the escapement. It guarantees that a constant flow of force, independent of their tautness or slackness of their mainsprings. It accomplishes this with the aid of a helical, pretensioned spring (a so-called remontoir spring), which can be retightened every 10 seconds, also, over the subsequent 10 seconds, delivers energy to the escapement. There are minimal changes in torque during the 10 seconds, but the energy conveyed remains nearly constant on average during the 31 days. When that interval has elapsed, an additional mechanism simply stops the watch.
Could the price for this early pilot’s watch, of which only around 7,000 were produced during the war, reach the skies at auction on Saturday? Follow the auction live to find out. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the rich history of this watch and its contemporaries, or in Saxon watchmaking in general, and like me your budget doesn’t stretch to bidding on this exceptional watch, consider the weighty tome by Reinhard Meis, which is available from Watchprint and could be a great item for your Christmas wish list.