The Mechanical Watch is Dead -- Long Live the Mechanical Watch
Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, Chronoswiss, and the Resurrection of Mechanical Watchmaking
It’s 1981. The Quartz crisis is in full swing. You’re a thirty-something watchmaker, trained in the old-school ways of repairing mechanical watches. But, along with numerous other watchmakers in this horological downturn, you’ve just lost your position with one of the biggest names in the chronograph world because you know nothing about quartz movements.
What do you do?
If you’re Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, you start a watch company. A mechanical watch company. To be sure, Lang started small, repairing chronographs in his basement. But he quickly branched out into doing custom, semi-bespoke watches for well-heeled clients. Soon he was making timepieces of his own design. In 1982 Lang presented his first “Chronoswiss” branded watch to the world, and in 1983, he officially founded the Chronoswiss brand in Munich and began work on worldwide distribution.
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As demonstrated by his brand’s name, Lang’s first love has always been the chronograph. His personal collection contains 700-1000 watches, all of them chronographs. And he’s the main author of the book Chronograph Wristwatches: To Stop Time. As for his personal philosophy, well, it’s best summed up in this quote: “…All the watches you see here I made first for me, not for you. I am a watchmaker, not a manager, and this is my toy. I make it for me and when it is good, I make more.”
With a background working with chronographs at Heuer, Lang was continually inspired by timing and scoring. He was also spurred on by his affection for antique sports cars. Early Chronoswiss ads feature Lang at the wheel of his Jaguar XK120 Alu Roadster OTS, sometimes with his daughter Natalie, also a watchmaker, in the passenger seat. In 1971 Lang collaborated with Steve McQueen on the filming of Le Mans, a movie in which McQueen wore the famous Heuer Monaco. Lang also serving as an official timer at various F1 races throughout the 1970s and eventually branched out to other timed sports. He was an official timekeeper at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Given all that, it’s no surprise that many of Lang’s watches hark to a time when stopwatches ruled the sporting world. Racing and rallying informed much of his design philosophy. In fact, the Boardmaster / Wristmaster, consisting of a conventional watch and a stopwatch with 30 minute and 12 hour sub-dials, each in its own case and mounted side by side (for the wrist or the dashboard), may be the quintessential Chronoswiss offering.
“…All the watches you see here I made first for me, not for you. I am a watchmaker, not a manager, and this is my toy. I make it for me and when it is good, I make more.”
Lang and Chronoswiss have offered the horological world numerous innovations. Lang was the first watchmaker to make a display case back — that first Chronoswiss branded model offered in 1982. It seemed natural to him to show off the intrinsic beauty of the little machines inside his watches. Now it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t offer such a feature.
Since the early days, Chronoswiss has modified Enicar 165 movements for use in many of their watches, adding both technical and aesthetic improvements. In 1987, they introduced the Régulateur, a hand-wound piece which was the first wrist watch with a regulator-style dial to be serially produced. Now, by Lang’s count, over 150 companies have similar watches. The same year saw the introduction of what we now recognize as the typical Chronoswiss case: screwed coin edge bezels front and back, signature onion crowns, sapphire case backs, and screwed lugs. Sport models have crowns large enough that you can truly wind them with gloves on, the way aviators and rally drivers did decades ago. Dress models typically have a smaller, but still recognizable, crown.
Lang’s Régulateur Automatique, with its manufacture Chronoswiss C.122 movement, debuted in 1990. The iconic Kairos Chronograph with off-center display of hours and minutes followed a year later, and the Swiss-patented Rattrapante appeared in 1992. More groundbreaking models followed, including the Opus (1995), the first skeletonized chronograph to be serially produced. The Delphis (1996) was the first wrist watch to combine digital (hours), retrograde (minutes), and analog (small seconds) in the display of time.
A favorite of ours, the Chronoscope, debuted in 2001. Another first for Chronoswiss, the mono-pusher Chronoscope was the first automatic chronograph with a regulator dial. Initially lacking a minute totalizer (its inclusion would have ruined the symmetry of the dial) the Chronoscope was updated in 2009 with a unique solution — a bi-directional rotating bezel with minute notations. Aligning the bezel index with the watch’s minute hand allowed wearers to track elapsed time.
The economic downturn in the late 2000s was not kind to Chronoswiss; like many other elite luxury products produced in modest numbers, sales slumped. Lang was approaching 70 and looking to retire. His daughter Natalie, who had worked alongside her father for many years, did not take over the business as many expected she would. Fortunately a buyer was found in the summer of 2011, and the deal was completed in January of 2012. Oliver and Eva Ebstein, a Swiss entrepreneurial husband and wife team, purchased the brand and all assets. Production continues in the German factory in Karlsfeld, outside Munich, while brand headquarters has moved to Luzem, Switzerland.
Through these changes, much remains the same at Chronoswiss: the logo, the instantly recognizable case, and the innovation of timepieces — sometimes different only for the sake of being different. Even Lang himself is excited by the possibilities presented by the new owners. The Ebsteins plan to continue the Chronoswiss tradition of manufacturing only fine mechanical watches, but at a new, well-equipped factory in Switzerland. Lang will remain with them in an advisory capacity. He is first, last, and always, a watchmaker.
Because he started Chronoswiss at the height of the quartz crisis in the early 1980s and continuously produced innovative timepieces for nearly 30 years, Gerd-Rüdiger Lang is recognized as having had a significant role in the renaissance — indeed, the resurrection — of the mechanical watch. Not bad for a guy who claims only to have made toys for himself, before making them for others.