Bear with me and you’ll see there’s a dark irony to the watch chosen to celebrate the life of the late Walter Lange. It was a long and full one. He was born in 1924 into the Lange watch dynasty and, as a young man, fought in the Battle of Kursk. His family’s factory was bombed at the very end of the second world war, then expropriated by the East German state. He fled to West Germany, only to return after the fall of communism to re-establish the business founded by his great-grandfather. He lived to see his firm, now part of Richemont, flourish and enjoy a reputation for excellence that placed it in the highest circles of fine watchmaking and then, with poignant timing, he died last year during SIHH, the Geneva watch fair. Naturally, such a life and such a man warranted horological commemoration.
This year, A Lange & Söhne has launched the 1815 Homage to Walter Lange (£40,400), a characteristically subtle timepiece with what the brand calls a “jumping sweep second hand”. The overwhelming majority of mechanical watches showing passing seconds use a second hand that sweeps round the dial in increments so small that the motion seems smooth and continuous. I remember that when interest in mechanical watches revived during the 1980s, the smooth movement of the seconds hand around a watch dial was something of a status symbol: it was the visual signifier that separated the sought-after mechanical movement from the jerky journey of the second hand on a quartz watch.
Watches and watch knowledge have come far since then – so far, in fact, that an increasing number of brands are offering mechanical watches with second hands that jump purposefully and rhythmically from marker to marker, eschewing the smooth sweep for something that characterises a quartz watch. However, this is not an attempt to mimic quartz, but the revival of a complication called the “dead second”. First created in the mid-18th century, the dead second is… well… back from the dead.
Reminders of mortality are seldom agreeable and so in the case of the 1815 Homage to Walter Lange, talk of the dead second has been delicately avoided and the language used is instead that of the patent granted to an invention of his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Adolph Lange, which was referred to as a “one-second movement with a jumping hand”. Instead of transmitting the oscillations from the balance wheel directly to the second hand, it stores the energy and releases it by the action of a spring and another wheel, which translates into the decisive one-second jumps. It was originally devised for precision, and in the Homage there is both a conventional running seconds (in a subdial at six o’clock) and a large blued-steel dead-second hand that can be stopped and started with a pusher at two o’clock (in effect, an early version of the chronograph). “This is useful for heart rate measurements, for instance,” says the brand, apparently without irony.
“It is one of our first patents,” says Wilhelm Schmid, A Lange & Söhne’s CEO. “Mr Lange always wanted us to do this watch, but we never considered it to be commercial.” At least not until now: the year before Lange’s death, the company brought out a dead, sorry, “jumping seconds” featuring a one-second constant-force escapement that ensured constant power delivery for the entire power reserve, as well as giving the impulse for the seconds jump. “Serious collectors responded very warmly to this scientific mechanism,” says Schmid.
Science appeal is also behind another dead-seconds watch: Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Geophysic True Second (from £8,100). Six decades ago, an international group of scientists declared 1957-8 the Geophysical Year, heralding a programme of intense scientific exploration and experimentation. Jaeger-LeCoultre was one of the watch companies to equip scientists who went out on expeditions, and in honour of this idealistic midcentury endeavour, the brand launched the Geophysic collection, star of which was the True Second. To commemorate the anniversary, a special new blue-dial True Second was issued.
“When we relaunched the Geophysic, we wanted a way to highlight the precision to make it visible,” explains the brand’s heritage director Stéphane Belmont. “So we designed a new movement with a deadbeat second. Between the oscillator and second display we use a spring that gathers the energy that is released to the hand; we capture the oscillation and release it once a second rather than every eighth of a second.”
Such is its popularity that Jaeger-LeCoultre is considering combining the dead seconds with other complications. The brand is contemplating “some projects to connect the deadbeat seconds to a chronograph”. The obvious partner for a deadbeat second is a foudroyante, which features a fast-moving subdial on which the hand jumps between fractions of a second. “Connecting it to a foudroyante really makes sense: if you have a foudroyante and a deadbeat second, you can see the precision.” With its Duomètre range (from £31,400), Jaeger-LeCoultre has the perfect watch in which to install and present such a banquet of precision chronography.
The grail of precision – and especially the perennial question of how to deliver smooth power to the escapement – is also behind the launch this year of a dead-seconds watch from Greubel Forsey, one of the most intensely academic of brands. “What happened was scientific,” says Stephen Forsey of his dead second (SFr265,000, about £205,000). “Rather than trying to build a product that is different, it is about how it performs and what it brings to the party.” And the guest of honour at this particular party is a member of “the remontoir family” – a remontoir being a device that ensures, in theory, that the energy delivered by the wheel train is constant, whatever the state of winding of the mainspring.
To continue Forsey’s celebratory metaphor, this has been one helluva long party. Forsey and co-founder Robert Greubel have been working on the project for a decade. “This is the third of a series of experimental watches,” says Forsey. “In it we have a différentiel d’égalité to rewind every second. It was not the objective to make a dead second, but it is a spin-off from that mechanism – and once we got this dead-second indication, we were able to make a nice big dial for it.”
Forsey’s work is normally about as accessible as a PhD thesis on some abstruse area of physics, garnished with an extra helping of advanced mathematics, so it is a relief to hear him talk about the aesthetic appeal of this dead seconds. “It is quite captivating to have this animation for the collector who does not want to go into all the ins and outs; for them it is an attractive feature.”
“It is a complication that is really for collectors,” says Christian Lattmann, CEO of Jaquet Droz, of his Grande Seconde Deadbeat (£24,000). “To most people it looks like a quartz; it is only really someone who knows about watchmaking that can recognise this complication. Jaquet Droz’s 18th-century roots and the popularity at that time of deadbeat watches in China make it relevant for the brand today and, as well as the heritage and the horology, there is the engaging sight of the large second hand jumping round the dial. “It looks very cool,” says Lattmann, using decidedly un-18th-century language.
Jérôme de Witt has also seen the entertainment value of the dead seconds and put it to use in his Academia Out of Time (£40,200). “I was always intrigued by constant force escapements and their precision. The dead-seconds system is the best for regulation.” But he is also keen to harness what he calls the “optical effect”, and has laid bare the working with a pierced dial similar to the sort of display associated with tourbillons. In a witty conceit, its relentless precision is contrasted with a subdial comprising a circle of white dots that appear and disappear. “It’s called flying time. It serves no purpose other than to remind the wearer that time is passing.”
DeWitt is typical of the brands that have been in the vanguard of the revival of interest in the dead seconds: they are small, often family-operated, making limited numbers of watches for a well-informed clientele. Cult maker De Bethune is associated with the complication. Netherlands-based fraternal duo Bart and Tim Grönefeld are known for their dead-seconds watch the One Hertz (€88,260). And almost half the 200 watches produced by Austrian husband-and-wife brand Habring2 are dead seconds.
The Habrings made their first dead seconds back in 2005, using a stock of old movements from the 1960s (the last time that deadbeat seconds enjoyed a revival). Since 2014 they have equipped all their watches with their own movements (Foudroyante-Felix, €7,050) and have collaborated with movement manufacture La Joux-Perret to create a dead‑seconds movement that La Joux-Perret also uses in its brand Arnold, named in honour of the 18th-century British watchmaker.
Richard Habring delights in the fact that, although it may look like a quartz watch, the dead second is superior. “With quartz there is gear shake, which leaves the second hand slightly in front or behind the marker; the deadbeat does it very precisely. It is something different and we often hear from customers that they like the reactions of other watch collectors who are surprised that it is mechanical.”
“People used to ask me whether I was afraid that others would think it was quartz,” says FP Journe, a man who has done more than most to rehabilitate the dead seconds in the 21st century. Way back in 2001 he designed the Chronomètre Optimum (SFr92,100, about £70,350), with deadbeat seconds visible on the back of the movement, but the watch only made its appearance in 2012. “It was the first time that I explored integrating the deadbeat second into my constant-force remontoir,” he says. “This deadbeat second can clearly be seen and is natural due to being linked to the one-second remontoir.”
He is giving very little away about his upcoming watches for 2019, but does hint that there will be more development of the dead-second theme. “People say that the term dead seconds or deadbeat escapement sounds negative” – but Journe is too much of a horological historian to be concerned by what others think. “That has been the name since the 18th century and I see no point trying to change it now,” he says with a shrug. Besides, as a man who has often stated that he makes watches that will still be worn and repaired 200 years from now, he would appear to believe that at its highest level a watch with a dead second can confer a sort of immortality on its maker.