The cutting edge

In A. Lange & Söhne engravings, art and artisanal skills are the elements of true craftsmanship – or Handwerkskunst, as it is called in German. The limited-edition special models of the same name are manifestations of what this means.

There are some hallmarks that are shared by all A. Lange & Söhne timepieces, including the finissage of individual components. And in this category, the manually executed engraving of the balance cock is one precious example. It stands out immediately when the owner turns the watch around to admire the movement through the sapphire-crystal caseback. The pocket watches of the original manufactory already featured such engravings. After all these years, the motif has remained the same: A flower around the screw in the middle of the cock, surrounded by floral patterns that extend into the corners and are then framed by a thin line that follows the contours of the balance cock.

This basically predefined pattern is individually reproduced by every engraver who, for instance, can decide how many petals the flower should have. Additionally, each balance cock has its own inimitable momentum, depth of cut and angle of the lines. The angle influences the gloss of the component because it determines how much incident light is reflected.

And this, in turn, depends on the force with which the engraver guides the burin. It also makes a difference whether this is done by the right hand or the left. A few engravers in the manufactory are able to guide the tool in two directions. The tool itself also influences the looks of the work of art in progress. This is why all engravers craft their own burins. They adjust the handle and the length of the steel to fit their hands. They grind the burins to perfectly match their cutting style and the way they work with their tools. The technique is so personal that another engraver would notice it if they were inadvertently using a colleague’s burin. Also, burin wear gradually changes the crispness of the cut.

That is why tool maintenance ranks among the most important responsibilities of every engraver. Using a microscope, they check the brilliance of the cut lines and the tip of the burin to identify the smallest signs of wear that would make it necessary to regrind the tool. The tool set includes a range of different burins: point gravers, round edge gravers, bevel gravers, lining burins and flat burins. Plus a few more custom variations.

The apprenticeship for this artisanal occupation lasts three and a half years. The challenges in the process are the small format of the motif, the shape of the workpiece and the hardness of the material. Almost every work step of an engraver at Lange is performed under a microscope at 10× to 12× enlargement. This makes it especially difficult to sculpt curved shapes because the depth of field of a microscope spans only a few millimetres. Additionally, the preferred materials such as German silver or platinum are particularly stubborn to work since they are harder than traditional silver or soft gold.

Even then, there is hardly a motif that our master engravers couldn’t reproduce if requested by the customer. Most frequently, initials on the balance cock are sought after, but the family coat of arms or the likeness of the owner on a solid-gold caseback instead of the glass back are possible as well. Once, even the portrait of company founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange was requested.

The engravings themselves can be assigned to two categories. One of them is flat, or intaglio, engraving in which the contours of the motif are cut out of the metal freehand with the burin. This technique allows delicately curved lines to be incised on flat surfaces. It is therefore ideally suited for graphic motifs such as typefaces or floral patterns. In the GRAND LANGE 1 MOON PHASE “25th Anniversary” presented in February 2019, this technique was used to craft a lunar disc for the first time. Six stars and numerous small dots are sculpted out of the solid white gold by manual engraving to depict the starry sky.

Relief engraving is another technique. It involves removing material from the workpiece until the motif stands out as a three-dimensional sculpture. Master engravers often invest several days of work for complex motifs.

Tremblage is a third, rather rare technique. At Lange, it is used among other applications to enhance special dials for models of the “Handwerkskunst” edition. The entire surface is worked with the burin from eight different directions; the result is an exquisitely structured satinlike finish.

All three techniques are deeply rooted in the Saxon precision watchmaking traditions of the 19th century. They were used especially to decorate Lange’s 1A-quality pocket watches. At the time, Gustav Gessner was one of Glashütte’s most gifted engravers. Commissioned by A. Lange & Söhne, he transformed pocket watches into genuine works of art with his engravings. Lange engravers today continue to honour this tradition.