Time has many secrets: some of these it swallows whole, never to reveal again; others it hides away for another day when the time is just right. Often we imagine that the most astonishing of these little mysteries have all long since been rediscovered. But we are wrong.
This is the story of an impossibility. It’s the story of a-one-of-a-kind artisan pocket watch made by A. Lange & Söhne in 1902 that is among the most ambitious and beautiful ever made. It was thought lost forever to the erosion of time – until, that is, it turned up again on a whim of the universe in 2001…
This particular pocket watch is a one-of-a-kind timepiece and the most complicated (and thus historically important) work that A. Lange & Söhne ever undertook. Bearing serial N° 42500, it features a chronograph with a 1/5 second hand, a perpetual calendar with date and weekday dials, a moon-phase display, and a chiming mechanism with two tones, representing the absolute pinnacle of the manufacturer’s mastery.
A legend among the living
N° 42500 was sold to a wealthy Viennese man in 1902 for 5600 gold marks, approximately seven years worth of wages for the average blue collar worker. After changing hands a few times, a lady of independent means gave it to her trusted housekeeper sometime before the Second World War as a reward for loyal service. Eventually, the watch was put into storage in a case that remained in a cellar for the next half century, leaving collectors and enthusiasts to ruminate about what might have become of it.
“It doesn’t work anymore,” the now elderly housekeeper had said when she gave it to her neighbors to take to the A. Lange & Söhne workshop after it was found when the cellar was cleaned out. “But the gold is still worth something”.
Jan Sliva was told that a very old and probably valuable watch had been dropped off for an assessment. It wasn’t that he phoned Reihard Reichel – the keeper of the company’s historic records – that it became clear what a treasure he now held in his hands. Although in remarkably good condition for its age from the outside, the watch’s interior workings revealed that it had suffered intensely from its 50 years of neglect: a mess of hardened oil coated the tiny levers and sprockets, and rust blossomed unfortunately through the precision machinery. Over 5000 hours of work from Sliva and his team were needed to bring N° 42500 back to the gleaming glory that it once bore, including the new manufacture of those unlucky components which were unable to be saved.
What is a watch like this worth? While it’s impossible to say with any certain what the final price at auction might be, a guess in the millions would be a good place to start. As the only example of its kind in existence – in fact ever made – it bears a historical significance to collectors only equaled by its beauty.