A Collector's Guide: The Datograph
By A Collected Man
Prior to the Datograph’s release, it could be argued that chronographs hadn’t changed much over the past few decades. If you look at the most significant examples that were released immediately prior to A. Lange & Söhne’s announcement, the majority ran off ébauches that were originally designed in the ‘40s, or were iterations on the automatic models of the early ’70s. This is why such fanfare was made when the Datograph was first introduced, in 1999. A truly high-end, fully in-house chronograph, it not only incorporated an out-sized date, but the freshly re-established German brand also challenged the traditional placement of the sub-dials at three and nine.
It’s important to understand the Datograph’s context in order to fully appreciate its impact on the industry. It took a meteoric rise, to the point where some collectors think of the Datograph in a separate category from other chronographs. The story of how it became an almost unilaterally adored model has many interesting aspects to it, influenced by a number of key individuals along the way. While the Datograph has long been admired by collectors and enthusiasts alike, the academia surrounding it has paled in comparison to other passion points in the industry. Speaking with one of the most dedicated collectors of this model, we were able to chart the course of it and give it the studious attention it has long deserved.
We will be breaking down some of the finer details of the model, looking at the first generation to be released, that was in production from 1999 to 2012, before making way for the Up/Down which replaced it. Along with this private collector’s insight, we will also be speaking to those who helped bring the Datograph to life, from the original movement designer, to a watchmaker that constructed them inside the manufacturer. Hopefully, this will shed some light on one of the most intriguing and complex chronographs to have entered the market, and one that is gaining more and more attention by the day.
What came before the datograph?
Developed in-house for five years and released at the 1999 Basel Fair, the Datograph was entering a well-established market of high-end mechanical chronographs. Top of the pile, and deservedly so, was Patek Philippe, a brand that had a rich heritage in this field, the words “Tasti Tondi” pushing the buttons of collectors the world over. A year before A. Lange & Söhne introduced the world to the Datograph, their Genevan-based competition released the reference 5070. It had been more than three decades since they had ceased production of their last manually wound chronograph, the reference 1463, so this was bound to make some noise when it was announced.
Released in 1998, the 5070 was based on the ever-popular Lemania 2310 ébauche, its only real competition coming from Jaeger-LeCoultre in the form of the calibre 829. However, the comparison between the JLC in-house chronograph movement and the Datograph falls down when you consider the way each was used. The calibre 829 was initially only placed into a limited edition with the Reverso Chronograph Retrograde, while the calibre L951.1 went straight into general production from day one.
The relaunch of A. Lange & Söhne in 1994 took the watch world by storm with four models that had been just as many years in the making. With the outsized date becoming the staple complication, and the addition of the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite showing the brand’s abilities in complex construction, their initial offering was strong. However, one thing that was missing was a chronograph. At this time, watches had been getting bigger for the best part of a decade, with chronographs from the likes of Audemars Piguet in the shape of their Offshore growing in popularity among collectors. Amidst this context, Gunter Blümlein, the CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, saw that if they were going to make a move into this sector, it would have to be a substantial one.
We were lucky enough to speak with Anthony De Haas, Director of Product Development at A. Lange & Söhne, who, prior to joining the company in 2004, worked for IWC and then Audemars Piguet. He shared with us a story of when he first saw a Datograph, and it was well before anyone else had the chance. “When I handed in my notice at IWC to Mr. Blümlein, in 1998, he was wearing a prototype of the Datograph,” he says. “When he asked why I wanted to leave, I explained I wanted to work on more complex movements, so I had signed a contract with Audemars Piguet. He took the prototype off his wrist and waved it in my face. ‘Look, this is complex and we are making it entirely in Germany!’” Quite the introduction to a watch that had yet to be released.
Unfortunately, De Haas had already signed his contract with Audemars Piguet. From then on, every year he would see Blümlein at the big trade shows, who would ask him, “So, when are you going to come over and join us in Saxony?” It would take De Haas four years to cross the border and join the team at A. Lange & Söhne.
When the Datograph was launched in 1999, there was a large 10:1 display model of the movement front and centre in the brand’s booth. This model was made by A. Lange & Söhne’s tool-making department and, according to De Haas, it can take them up to six months to produce them. It announced to the watch world that the Germans had achieved something that the Swiss had yet to. According to De Haas – who can give us the perspective of someone working in a Swiss brand at the time, as he had just moved to Audemars Piguet – every brand was acutely aware of how significant this new movement and model were. Even Phillipe Stern could be seen staring through the display window at it in disbelief.
It was probably the most significant release to come from A. Lange & Söhne since they relaunched their brand five years prior. On that occasion, with their four towering images of their initial offering, they didn’t have to share the stage with anyone else; however, when releasing the Datograph, they were making the announcement at the largest watch trade fair in the world. Many often see the use of this fantastically detailed model as a signal to all the other brands and watchmakers out there that they could now compete with the best of them when it came to one of the most desirable complications out there. However, reaching this big, bold announcement wasn’t straightforward.
Development and Design
The prototype that Blümlein was brandishing at De Haas was built by Jens Schneider, with a movement design produced by Annegret Fleischer, an engineer and movement designer who is still at A. Lange & Söhne. We spoke with Fleischer to get her recollection of putting this incredibly complex piece together. This challenge was made doubly hard by the fact that the dial had been designed by Blümlein and Reinhard Meis, the then-Director of Product Development, before the movement had been conceived. With the two sub-dials placed down at four and eight, balanced with the large date window, this would not be a straightforward chronograph movement.
“This was actually the first chronograph movement that I ever designed,” Fleischer tells us. To achieve such an incredible design that not only had such a long list of functions, but also looked so visually stunning, was an impressive feat for the young movement designer. It was actually something that she has always focused on in her work: “The movement obviously has to work, but it must also be beautiful,” she says. The resulting calibre features a column wheel, lateral clutch and flyback chronograph movement, combined with a date function. The “flyback” chronograph function allows the stopwatch to be instantaneously restarted for continuous timing, without having to stop, reset, and restart the chronograph.
Alp Sever, from Langepedia, points out that from its reference number, L951.1, we can tell that the development of this movement started in 1995 and that this was the first movement of the year and its first iteration. That being said, while it was numbered as the first iteration of this calibre, we know that prior to its release, the movement – likely the same one that was inside Blümlein’s prototype – was made up of 390 parts. However, the final version that made it into production contained 405.
We brought this up with De Haas and Fleischer and they couldn’t give us exact details on what was changed and how, but they gave us some context as to why these types of modifications occur at A. Lange & Söhne. “You have to remember that Lange watches are made by people, and it’s a collaborative effort,” De Haas tells us. “Once we are done with a movement in the development department, we send it over to production. They then work on it every day, and while they’re handling it and getting to know it inside and out, they often spot areas that can be improved. They’ll ask why something is made out of three pieces when it could be made far easier out of two, for example, and they will sit down with Annegret and her department and talk through these suggestions. It is a constant back-and-forth, making improvements not only for the movement, but for the watchmakers constructing it, as well as trying to make their jobs a little easier.”
This back-and-forth is crucial to the way A. Lange & Söhne operate. While it might not be the most efficient, it has allowed them to go from starting from scratch in 1994 to shocking the world just five years later – and now being a major player in the world of luxury watches.
While the movement took five years to develop, the perfectly balanced dial was another story. Imagined by Blümlein and Reinhard Meis, the strong aesthetic was set in 1994. Blümlein, like George Daniels, was a firm believer that watches should be designed from the dial down – perfecting the part of the watch that buyers would spend 99% of their time looking at. He also knew that to design a chronograph that was going to be made completely in-house, it would have to stand out from the rich catalogue of timers that have come before. He knew their out-sized date window, inspired by the five-minute clock at the Semper Opera House in Dresden, was a recognisable feature, so including this was a must. Yet, when you add such an intrusive complication, space for the necessary additions that come with a chronograph, such as sub-dials, becomes a premium.
Instead of cutting into the sub-dials, or squeezing them below the date window, Blümlein moved them down. Carrying over a trait from the asymmetric Lange 1, he created two visually satisfying equilateral triangles on the dial. The first is formed by the centre of the sub-dials and the centre of the date window; the second is upside down, formed by the three Roman numerals at 10, two and six. It’s a non-traditional way of creating a harmonious dial.
Once this dial design was set, there was the small matter of the case. Blümlein believed that a large presence on the wrist brought a sense of luxury. He was once quoted as saying, “When handling our watches, I want the owner to get the feeling of closing the door of a Mercedes.” While the round case shape that we see today might seem like the obvious choice, according to Alp, Meis had originally preferred a tonneau silhouette. This, however, didn’t make it past 1994, and was swapped for the round, three-part construction that we see today.
The Datograph does nothing by halves. There are no compromises. When you handle these pieces, you realise their solid construction and the sheer depth of them. Measuring a towering 12.8mm thick, the caseback band – holding the sapphire window in place – is a concave curve from the outer edge. This not only allows for some extra space for the movement, but also gives the impression that the case is thinner than it actually is when glanced at from the side. The other small details that you would expect from an A. Lange & Söhne case are also there, including the individually bevelled and polished lugs that are then screwed in. The pusher is the same one that can be found on the original Lange 1, and is kept consistent with the chronograph pushers.
As we mentioned earlier, the L951 calibre has gone through plenty of changes in its lifetime – ones that happened both before and after it hit production. Each iteration is marked by the addition of another number, from L951.1 to L951.2 and so on. This means that each adaptation doesn’t make it to market, as not all can be found in watches today. We spoke with Gaël Petermann, watchmaker and co-founder of independent Petermann Bédat, who worked at A. Lange & Söhne from 2011 to 2014. There, he spent part of his time assembling and adjusting the Datograph movement, and the calibre has long been a favourite of his. “To me, it all comes down to attention to detail,” he says. “The pieces are functional, but they are also sought-after in terms of design. Where many make purely functional and curved springs, Lange created interesting shapes for every piece. We used to see this a lot in pocket watches, but unfortunately we see it a lot less [often] in wristwatches.”
Petermann pointed out to us a few of the key differences, for him, between the original L951.1 and the version that they were working with when he was there: the L951.6 and L951.7. One big change they made was taking away the screw-adjusted balance spring via a racket. This is removed in the L951.6 in favour of adjustable masses on the balance wheel itself.
shifts in production
As with any well-researched area of the watch world, certain characteristics of a model have been seen to change over time without a shift in reference number. These are often clues to something being altered at the point of production mid-way through a run. We should point out here that when we’re dealing with the Datograph, we are dealing with a limited production run, even for the most common examples. While exact numbers are still unknown, it’s estimated there are less than 4,000 first series Datograph models. So, when we start looking at these smaller variations, it should be remembered that we are talking about a very limited number of pieces.
It’s also important to remember that A. Lange & Söhne used to – we can’t confirm if they still do – produce cases and dials in batches. As they were not individually created for each watch they went into, you can see differences across the various batches and how product techniques or methods might have changed. This results in variation appearing across the same reference number.
The following points were highlighted to us by a collector who has accumulated an impressive set of early Datographs, including examples of each metal type and bracelet versions in platinum and rose gold. He has also been able to track a large number of Datographs that have come to market. This has led to some analysis that we will outline below. We will then go on to talk in more depth about the known variations of the Datograph and where these shifts in production can be seen across each reference.
There are still a lot of unknowns about this watch, thanks to its exclusivity among the collecting community, its low production numbers, and high value, so the ability for enthusiasts to build a deep and wide-ranging knowledge base on this is difficult. However, this shows that it is possible and that there is certainly an appetite out there for more of it.
Thick vs. Thin Print Sub-dials
In the earlier sub-dials of the original Datographs, prior to the Up/Down release, a thicker printing was used. It is not something that would be obvious to many collectors; you would need to place examples of smaller and larger printing next to each other to really see the difference. However, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard not to notice.
This draws some serious parallels to the world of vintage Rolex collecting. In the 1990s, enthusiasts started to catalogue the smallest variations in dial printing, from a slight change in shape of the coronet to inconsistent use of serifs. Since then, the watch-collecting community has continued its enthusiasm for identifying variation and rarity through a supposed change in the production process – something that has started to gain some academic momentum here with Datographs.
This shows a significant evolution in the collecting culture of A. Lange & Söhne; the academic rigour had previously been limited to what can be easily gleaned from auction listings and the small amount of information that had been public knowledge for years. It is worth remembering that this sort of study is only really possible when you have a significant collection in the hands of a highly motivated collector who not only has a passion for the watches, but also for growing the knowledge base around these models.
METER vs. METERS
Another iteration on the dial side is on the tachymeter found running around the outer edge. As with the previous variation, this indicates whether a dial is part of the early production or later. In later examples of the tachymeter, the letter “S” has been added to the end of the word “METER” at 2 o’clock - so the text changes from “BASE 1000 METER” to “BASE 1000 METERS”.
Compared to the previous change, this is a little easier to spot with the naked eye and is something that can be easily identified without a direct comparison. These early “METER” dials are a great indicator of the age of a watch. The change to 'METERS' seems to be a correction that occurred in the production process around 2005-2006. For one thing, the addition of the “S” certainly makes the text on the tachymeter more grammatically correct. If a “METERS” dial appears on a watch prior to 2005, it’s fairly likely that the dial has been replaced during service.
The Original ref. 403.035
This is the model that was introduced to the watch world in 1999. Encased in platinum, it would define what the Datograph would be for the next 14 years. Measuring 39mm across with a commanding height of 12.8mm, the presence of this piece on the wrist was not to be overlooked – yet it is surprisingly wearable.
Contrasting the highly polished white metal case with a black dial, white sub-dials and black-on-white date window, this watch gave great legibility paired with classic, Germanic aesthetics. There is some debate over the original retail price, with some listing it at 69,000 DM. Compare this to the approximate retail price of $87,500 for a Patek Philippe 5070P, which came out five years later, and it could be argued that you were getting more watch from A. Lange & Söhne, whose in-house movement included instant minutes, flyback, and the iconic oversized date.
This was not only the first iteration to be released, but the one that would stay in production for the longest period. This means that you are able to chart all of the aforementioned dial variations through this one reference, including both the “METER” and “METERS” dials (this change is thought to have happened around the case number 155000) and the thick and thin print in the sub-dials. It’s believed that the ref. 403.035 represents approximately two thirds of all first series Datograph production of which three quarters are the earlier “METER’ dials.
Interestingly, there have supposedly been two unique variations of this reference that have come to the open market. A rather attractive blue dial model was reported by SJX to have been made sometime in the year 2000 for a director of Mannesmann VDO, which owned Les Manufactures Horologères (LMH), the parent company of A. Lange & Söhne.
As far as we know, there is only one other unique model of this reference. It has a similar origin story – again reported by SJX – in that it was produced for a senior manager at Mannesmann VDO. Another monochromatic dial, this was a black dial with black sub-dials, and the only example of the early Datograph that has a white numeral on black date discs. This was also recorded to have a new reference code of 403.035 X. The “X” at the end of the reference number, A. Lange & Söhne tells us, is used by them to indicate a special request piece. They went on to tell us that in their current referencing system – which began in 1997/98, they would add an “F” to the end of a reference number to indicate a folding clasp, if that is how it was designed at launch.
The “Dufourgraph” ref. 403.031
Paul Newman, Jean-Claude Killy and Philippe Dufour all have one thing in common. Besides a clear love of watches, they have all had a line of watches named after them, just for wearing it. Newman and Killy were both Rolex chronographs, while Dufour has lent his name to the original rose-gold Datograph. He purchased this watch himself after seeing it for the first time at Basel Fair. Dufour recalls, “I went up to the window and saw this movement that was 10 or 20 times normal scale and I said, ‘Look at that – the Germans did it!’” He was so impressed that the Datograph became the first ever new watch that Dufour bought himself. Once word got out that he had bought it, and wore it, the collecting community decided on the name Dufourgraph.
For Dufour, the Datograph is the finest chronograph you can find on the market. He is still waiting for the Swiss to catch up and overtake them. Dufour is one of the best movement finishers in the industry, so when we asked him for his opinion on the finishing found in the early Datographs, we were shocked when he said, “It’s very similar to mine. A very high standard. I was lucky enough to visit the manufacture some 20 years ago, and they were doing it all my way, with traditional techniques.” High praise indeed. While he admitted that he can’t wear it every day, due to the soft metal being at risk while he is in the workshop, he did say he brings it out for special occasions, when he’s not toiling away on the 20th anniversary Simplicity line.
From the data that has been collected on this model, we know that when it was first released in 2003, it retailed for $36,500 – a $10,000 reduction from the platinum version. It has been reported that they were slightly harder to sell than the platinum version originally. As this was a relatively short run, with production seeming to finish in 2005, these are only found with a “METER” dial – although the earlier examples can be identified from the thicker printing on the sub-dial markers. This short run also means that the ref. 403.031 only represents about 10% of all first series Datograph production.
There was a second reference of the original Datograph produced in rose gold, this time with a white dial and silver sub-dials. Given its own reference number of 403.032, its production began in 2005 and it would continue to be made through to 2012. As with the original platinum version, both “METER” and “METERS” dials can be found in this reference. Because this model was introduced around 2004 and the switch to “METERS” took place in 2005-2006, there are far fewer “METER” dial watches than “METERS” dial watches of the reference 403.032. Due to its relatively long standing in the manufacturing run, this is the second most abundant Datograph on the market, representing around 20% of all first series Datograph production.
Before we move on, it is worth taking a short interval to look at the variations of the above references that came with bracelets. All three are now extremely sought-after, and some confusion surrounds some of the rarer examples. All bracelets that were made for A. Lange & Söhne watches at this time came from the venerable Wellendorff, a goldsmiths and jewellery company that was founded in 1893 by Ernst Alexander and Julie Wellendorff.
Both the platinum and rose-gold white dial can be found with bracelets, with a change in reference number to 403.435 and 403.432 respectively. However, there have been braceleted examples of the rose-gold black dial “Dufourgraph”, with one most recently coming up at Christie’s online and selling for $137,500. The curious thing to note with these is that they appear to have the same reference number as the normal version on a strap. A. Lange & Söhne highlighted that it was not uncommon for hinged metal bracelets to be ordered after purchase via a retailer, this would mean a specific piece’s reference number would no longer match its appearance. Therefore the only way to know that a certain Lange watch was born on a bracelet is to check the reference number, but if it’s not .4XX, that still doesn’t mean the bracelet is not correct for the model.
The “Yellow Jacket” ref. 403.041
A watch that was never officially released by the brand, the yellow-gold Datograph has intrigued collectors for years now. Playfully known as the Yellow Jacket, this was first seen on the wrists of A. Lange & Söhne executives at SIHH in 2008, where it was supposedly being tested for its reception among the press and industry.
It has been assumed for a long time that there were only 30 of these pieces ever produced. While this number has never been confirmed by the brand, it’s believed this estimate is fairly close to the actual number produced. When we mentioned the release of the Yellow Jacket to De Haas, he couldn’t say much about it specifically. “This was something we were requested to make by some people,” he says. “It certainly wasn’t the only time we had to make different versions of a watch. But at the end of the day, it’s just a Datograph in yellow gold. Nothing else has changed.” However, our own observation on handling this watch is that there is something rather special and different about the combination of the yellow gold case with the black dial.
One interesting thing to note is that in the collection that we were able to handle for this article, the Yellow Jacket was fitted with a deployant clasp in a matching yellow gold. It seemed to be a very close pairing with the watch, yet there is no record or precedence for this piece appearing with such a clasp. The only other examples that have come to market appear to have come with standard clasps. Given that these were made in a small run for a select group of executives, it’s more than possible that different clasps were offered, and the original owner of this one preferred the deployant. Again, we can only speculate on this point.
The Pisa or Albino ref. 403.025X
The Pisa – or Albino – was the only officially announced limited-edition Datograph that A. Lange & Söhne ever produced. Released in 2004, 10 pieces were made for the Milanese retailer Pisa Orologeria – an odd pairing, with this Germanic brand, only a decade old and an Italian retailer that was founded back in 1940. This was clearly a good sign for A. Lange & Söhne. The Italian market was proving so strong for them that they could support such a unique offering from a line that wasn’t their flagship.
Here, the platinum case is paired with a rhodium dial and silver sub-dials. These were also unique as they came with both the standard sapphire crystal caseback and also a solid platinum caseback. They would be delivered with dark blue and brown leather straps, giving these ten clients more options than those who had bought from the brand previously.
As it was a limited – and numbered – edition, we can say that the case numbers for this iteration start on 148201 and finish on 148210, inclusively. One small variation that is worth noting is that there is one possibly unique Pisa that swaps the blued-steel seconds hand for a rhodium-plated version. We have only been able to see one version of this, but given the rarity of the pieces, it is hard to draw a comprehensive conclusion. All of these Pisa watches were “METER” dials as they were made before the switch to METERS dials that came a year or so after their production.
The growing popularity of the Datograph is clear. Combining the incredible design codes of classic A. Lange & Söhne with modern materials and movement development, paired with a low production count, it ticks a lot of boxes for collectors. However, due to the lack of abundance of watches on the market and its relatively young age, proper academic research into variations, iterations and generations has never properly been carried out.
While it probably isn’t possible for it to reach a similar level as the vintage Rolex market, we are starting to see collectors in this space make serious in-roads to what is turning-out to be a flourishing market. All of this must be underpinned by a highly desirable product and thanks to the incredible work by the likes of Gunter Blümlein, Annegret Fleischer, and the rest of the team at A. Lange & Söhne, the Datograph is one of the most desirable chronographs on the market today.
We have obviously restricted ourselves to just the first generation of Datographs, prior to the release of the Up/Down; however, we believe this has helped us go into more depth. Future research still needs to be done on not only the points we have laid out here, but also on the newer generations of this fantastic watch. We want this article to be treated as a living document, and as more of these models become available publicly, and more research is carried out, we will add to it as best we can.
We’d like to thank the private collector who allowed us to share his watches, knowledge and insights on the first series Datograph. We would also like to thank A. Lange & Söhne for their archive imagery and introducing us to Anthony De Haas and Annegret Fleischer. Thanks should also go to Philippe Dufour, Gaël Petermann and Alp for sharing their knowledge and experience of the Datograph with us.