Alluring Alloy: German Silver in Watchmaking

Cultural Perspectives • 08 Jul 2019

Alluring Alloy: German Silver in Watchmaking

by Blake Reilly

Before you read this article I ask that you find a mechanical watch and flip it over (it need not be from your own wrist – borrow your father’s, mother’s, friend’s or colleague’s by all means). Once you have it dial down, spend a bit of time just looking at the movement. If your watch is contemporary, chances are you will be able to look through its sapphire crystal glass back. If it is vintage, a little extra effort might be needed to open up the case back. What you will see is a whole world of plates, screws, jewels, coils and spinning wheels which keep everything ticking along with painstaking precision – yet it is a world that is largely hidden.

Datograph Perpetual in white gold and Datograph Up/Down in pink gold

It is no secret that most people buy a watch for its outward facing aesthetic: the colour of the dial, the metal of the case, the typography of the numerals, perhaps even the composition of the complications. Good design matters of course, but a mechanical watch is as much about what is on the inside as on the outside. If you were lucky enough to have turned over an A. Lange & Söhne just before, you will have seen one of the most exquisitely finished movements in 21st century watchmaking. However, many people do not realise what these movements are actually made from. Here we take a look at the ever alluring alloy that is German silver.

Three-quarter plate with Glashütte striping, originally invented by Ferdinand A. Lange in 1864

Not All in the Name

Understandably, the name ‘German silver’ might give the impression of a shining precious metal mined from beneath the German soil. Except this is not quite the case, because German silver in fact contains no silver at all. Rather, German silver is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc that is equally as delicate as it is exquisite. Swiss movements typically feature parts made from brass that are finished in plated rhodium (silver) or gilt (gold). Other watchmakers who employ German silver resort to treating the alloy with a lacquer – but not A. Lange & Söhne.

The 1815 Up/Down manifests the typical hallmarks of Lange watchmaking artistry

The German silver inside a Lange movement is untreated so as to preserve its unadulterated warmth and beauty. Consequently, over time the movement will slowly develop a patina that becomes a distinctive and inimitable honey colour – ambrosia for an immortal timepiece. German silver is used in parts like base plates and bridges because it is durable, corrosion resistant and non-magnetic however, it is also an extremely sensitive surface which makes the watchmaking process all the more difficult.

The assembly of the chronograph mechanism of the Tourbograph “Pour le Mérite”

Twice the Effort

German silver is rather precarious because it can easily be ruined during assembly by a blemish from a fingerprint or a scratch from the edge of a tool – meticulous care must be taken when assembling any movement containing the alloy. A. Lange & Söhne chose to rise to the challenge by deciding to double their efforts and assemble each of their movements not once, but twice. For a relatively low production company this is a considerable undertaking. To begin, the movement is assembled using raw parts held together by jig screws. The movement’s accuracy, integrity and tolerance are duly tested and adjusted before being disassembled and its parts are cleaned and polished. This is where the Glashütte watchmaking traditions come into the production process. When the grinding wheel has been used to decorate the German silver three-quarter plate with its characteristic Glashütte ribbing and artisans have hand-engraved swirling patterns on bridges, the parts are finally ready to be reassembled.

The Glashütte ribbing emulates a gently rippled effect. The pattern decorates the three-quarter plate and some other large parts of the framework.

This time, the movement is assembled using tempered blue screws (another Glashütte tradition) and a master watchmaker ensures that the timepiece is properly regulated. The final product demands twice the effort and takes twice as long, but the result is a timepiece of truly exceptional quality. In choosing to overcome the difficulties posed by working with German silver, A. Lange & Söhne uphold a commitment to craftsmanship which demonstrates a wholehearted rejection of compromise in the pursuit of fine watchmaking.

1815 Tourbillon, ref. 730.079

From the Ground Up

Rather ironically, watchmaking in Glashütte – and therefore German watchmaking as a whole – owes its origins to the collapse of the Saxon silver mining industry. Throughout the early 19thcentury, Glashütte was gradually becoming an economically depressed town as the surrounding silver mines began to close. With support from the government, Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s ambition to establish an industry for fine watchmaking in Glashütte eventually brought a kind of wealth and opportunity to the area which he could hardly have imagined when the company was founded in 1845. The birthplace of German watchmaking is now one of the most highly esteemed places of horological pursuit in the world, and always in one way or another, German silver has played an important role.

We carry A. Lange & Söhne in Japan. You’re more than welcome to stop by our boutique in the heart of the Ginza to have a look at A. Lange & Söhne watches in person.

1815 “Homage to Walter Lange”
Tags: a. lange & sohne german watches german watchmaking glashütte

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