Two plain-faced beauties, the Patek Philippe Calatrava and A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia, go head to head in this comparison test originally published in our April 2008 issue. Jens Koch gets in depth with the two timepieces and Nik Schölzel provides the gorgeous original photography.
A complication is a pretty thing, but it certainly doesn’t improve the legibility of a watch’s time display. And since the time of day is the most frequently sought information on a watch’s dial, it makes perfect sense to concentrate on the bare essentials: hours, minutes and perhaps also a subdial for the seconds hand to show that the watch is still running. Even the presence of a date display can detract from the perfect harmony and clarity of a dial.
The beauty of A. Lange & Söhne’s Saxonia and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Reference 5196 resides in their simplicity. Absolutely nothing superfluous can be found on these gorgeously pure wristwatches.
Both brands rank among the world’s finest manufactures. And each has roots that reach back to the 19th century. Ferdinand Adolph Lange founded the original A. Lange & Söhne in the small town of Glashütte in the Kingdom of Saxony (in what is now eastern Germany) in 1845. Lange developed the three-quarters plate and built pocket watches famous for their high quality. They were universally acknowledged as the finest timepieces made in Germany. The company was disbanded in 1945, and only in 1990 was the A. Lange & Söhne name resurrected by a new company founded, like the first, in Glashütte. The company is now owned by the Richemont Group.
Patek Philippe, which was founded in 1839, is privately owned. This manufacture has created numerous spectacular timepieces in the course of its illustrious history, including the world’s most complicated pocket watches, which were built on commission from the banker Henry Graves. Patek Philippe was also among the first brands to produce wristwatches. The Calibre 89 pocket watch, which debuted in 1989, has 33 functions and remains the world’s most complicated portable timepiece (roughly the size of a grapefruit, it’s so large that the term “watch” seems like a misnomer).
The two timepieces we tested are a far cry from the complicated creations for which both brands are famed. Each watch displays nothing but the time; each shows the passing seconds on an off-center subdial; and each has indices rather than numerals. The bare-essentials appearance of the dial reflects the simplicity of the movements. Neither has a self-winding mechanism. Both are therefore able to fit in very slim, elegant cases. Although the movements stick strictly to the basics, both are elaborately decorated by hand. The cases and other visible components are also of the highest quality. In a nutshell, they represent pure ticking luxury.
Both watches look to the past for their design inspiration. The Calatrava reference 5196 bears the same final digits as the original Calatrava, the reference 96 from 1932. The reference 5196 borrows its precursor’s dauphine hands, seconds subdial, faceted indices and wreath of tiny dots forming the minute circle. The diameter of the 96 was significantly smaller, so the rim of its seconds subdial was tangent to the periphery of the dial at 6 o’clock.
It isn’t so easy to identify the Saxonia’s precursor. A model with this name was introduced at the brand’s rebirth in 1994. Like the current model, the 1994 Saxonia eschewed both numerals and automatic winding, but its rhombic indices differed from the indices on the new Saxonia. Like all Lange models launched since the firm’s revival, the Saxonia has lancet-shaped hands.
The new version debuted last year. It replaces the Lange 1815, which contained the same caliber. The other models in the Saxonia collection are the Grand Saxonia Automatic (41 mm in diameter) and the Saxonia Automatic (37 mm, with a big date display).
The Calatrava and Saxonia are both 37 mm in diameter – an appropriate size for a dress watch in this era of ever-larger cases. Each is also just 8 mm thick, which means it can vanish unobtrusively beneath a well-tailored shirt cuff. Both watches appear even slimmer than they are thanks to the satin finishing on the case sides and domed sapphire crystal. With its narrow bezel and comparatively long lugs, the Calatrava looks even flatter than the Saxonia, which has a more highly domed and significantly broader bezel.