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The Nomos Tangente Power Reserve Reference 172 Review: Pandemic Time, In Colour with an Impressive Map Section

Wed, 2020-04-01 15:44

As the world burns, let us fiddle a bit. Today we will consider the Nomos Tangente ref 172, a mechanical watch made by a German company familiar only to people who care about watches.

My Tangente on the nifty box it came in. I have a new respect for people who photograph small objects. What a nightmare of filth coats every surface of every thing, and praise be that we at our lofty heights are usually spared it.

Every Nomos introduction must mention that the company was born from the ashes of a divided Germany, blooming in the sudden sun that warmed the East just after the Wall fell. That wall stood for a bit less than thirty years, and Nomos has now beat its record: at just over thirty years old, the company has built far more watches than the Wall ever did, and crushed far fewer dreams doing it.

I was going to write, “the sudden sun of capitalism,” but decided it was needlessly cynical. The strange and immensely appealing trick that Nomos pulls off is appearing to truly be the thing that nearly all companies wish to be perceived as – a commercial entity driven by aesthetic and moral imperatives as much as the accumulation of crass lucre. Nearly all of the world’s corporations front like they love us and only want to add rainbows to our daydreams, but statistically… OK, I was going to make up a statistic, but let’s just call it obvious bullshit. Nomos, though… if they’re bullshitting, they’re supreme bullshitters. I’m sure it helps that they’re a relatively small company in a high-margin industry, but still.

The special thing about Nomos watches is that Nomos makes them. Right there in the tiny village of Glashütte, down the road from its extremely illustrious neighbor, A. Lange & Söhne, the OG Glashütte watchmaker. This is remarkable because almost nobody really makes mechanical watches. Even in olden tymes, when watches were an enormous industry, sourcing movements (the ticking guts of the watch) from someone else was common. Now, only a handful of companies in the world make mechanical movements. ETA (of Swatch Group), Sellita, Miyota (of Citizen), Seiko, and then you get into the really fancy stuff, in-house manufactures with production numbers lower than my bowling score. Rolex makes its own watches and makes them very well, and even though Rolex prices start surprisingly low compared to the lofty peaks of haute horologie, Rolex is still synonymous in the public mind with “a stupid amount of money to drop on a watch.”

On watch forums, this is called a “wrist shot.” It’s like a selfie, but for your watch. Wrist shots make me uncomfortable in a number of ways, but they are also fascinating to look at. I have never adapted to the performative aspect of social media, and the idea of pointing a camera at any part of myself still feels vaguely transgressive.

And then you have Nomos, which builds mechanical watches to an extraordinarily high standard, almost entirely from scratch, for money that, while seemingly extravagant to sane, non-watch people, is an excellent value for what the company delivers. (Incidentally, Rolex turns out something like a million watches per year. Nomos makes around 20,000.)

This is the story of Nomos, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned while loving watches, it’s that stories are what people are actually buying. The stories of the watches and their makers, and the stories that those watches let us tell ourselves and other people. At its basest extreme, that story might simply be: “LOOK AT ME! I HAVE MORE MONEY THAN GOD!” But let’s give ourselves some credit. The world of watches is almost as varied and variegated as the real world. Tell me you like watches, and apart from knowing that your basic needs have already been met, there’s not much I can say for certain about you.

Nomos supports its story with the facts of its existence and products, but also of course with a certain amount of marketing. That certain amount is very little. I have never seen an ad from Nomos for Nomos on the internet, despite having shopped for a Nomos watch for months, which tells you something (I have of course gotten ads for stores that sell Nomos watches). I haven’t seen one in a magazine, and even though I rarely read magazines, I have seen a few watch ads in them. I don’t remember how I first encountered the brand.

The small seconds subdial, actually a bit smaller than on a vanilla Tangente. The concentric design reminds me of a zen garden.

I do have a print catalog of the product line, which Nomos sent me (for free) because I asked for it. They included a little moleskine-style notebook with the first few pages pre-filled with a description of the company’s in-house escapement, the beating heart of the movement and a part that many companies that claim to make an “in-house movement” are likely to source from somewhere else. That is brilliant marketing, but I had to ask them to send it to me.

I also have a book, given to me by a friend who acquired it when going through his own period of infatuation with Nomos some years ago, called “Nomos Glashütte – The Great Universal Encyclopaedia.” It is a thick, hardbound book with cloth covers, and is, as a subtitle suggests, “in Colour with an Impressive Map Section” (as well as an insert of stickers). It is the strangest amalgam of art and advertising that I have encountered. My friend ordered it directly from Nomos along with his product catalog (he had to pay for the book). A couple of hundred pages long, extensive photographs and diagrams. Some of it is about Nomos watches — specific models and movements — and some is more generally about mechanical watches and watchmaking, but most of it is something else. There is natural history, philosophy, politics, facts and figures related to the company and not. It could be a hero prop for a Wes Anderson movie set in a watch manufactory. If I had to assign it a single adjective, it would be “playful.”

An entry titled “Everything Arabic in and from Glashütte” discusses how “Arabic” numerals are considered to be “western” by Arabic peoples, as opposed to the truly Arabic system, which Arabs call “Indian.” The opposite page is a redacted copy of an e-mail order Nomos received in 2006 from a Polish company for 20,000 half-liter glass bottles, which they obviously could not fulfill. There is an entry about a tremendous flood that inundated Glashütte in 2002, the toll in damage and life and the subsequent baby boom nine months later. There is a star chart. There is an entry about the frustration of teaching a child to read a watch.

Animals that lived in Glashütte long before the watchmakers arrived.

The entry for “Money” includes the following: “In general, money does not make people happy, but can help make unfortunate situations easier to bear in a relatively pleasant way. NOMOS watches also cost money. A lot at first sight: as much as a short vacation, a really good winter coat. Comparatively little, however, if one considers how much work goes into these watches.”

There is no entry for “Pandemic,” but otherwise, the Encylcopaedia seems quite comprehensive.

An impressive map section.

The Great Encyclopaedia creates a story about Nomos: what the company is about, who the people are that make it up. It succeeds in doing this with a perfectly balanced deployment of the direct and the oblique, pride and humility, humor and dry fact. The Nomos of the Encyclopaedia is plainly what I hope it to be: authentic, charming, refined, self-aware, morally balanced, capable. It's a story I might wish to believe about myself. The trick the Encyclopaedia pulls off is telling this story convincingly to an audience so jaded by a thousand other unsuccessful efforts to spin the same yarn. Please pay attention, says the Encyclopaeida, and you will see that we mean it.

Perhaps the Encyclopaedia’s most convincing argument is the simple fact of its irrational existence. It defies transactional calculus. No cost-benefit analysis, no strategy to maximize gain while minimizing expenditure, could possibly result in something like this. Hardly anyone will ever see it. Sure, a decade down the line you might impress some guy enough that he writes a blog post about it, and seven or even eight people might read that post, but that’s not going to recoup the effort and expense that must have gone into producing this artifact. Yet paradoxically, it’s this failure that transmutes the Encyclopaedia into the magical thing it seeks to be, the proof of its genuine nature that also makes it lethally effective branding.

One last thing that puts Nomos on the good guys’ team: they’ve publicly called out the rise of far-right hate in Germany, and have an internal program in place to combat it. This watch kills fascists! It probably works better in conjunction with a tire iron, but still.

Ah yes, we are here to review a watch. What shall I note that is not evident from the nicely done Nomos website? Well, the dial does not look white, despite what the official Nomos photos indicate. It is technically silver, made with a galvanizing process, and is almost impossible to photograph in a way that communicates its character, which changes dramatically with the light — it can look gray, or iridescent, or cream colored. It rewards careful study.

The knob-feel of the crown is excellent: firm, with satisfying resistance. The sound is pleasantly clicky, very different from the ETA 2824-2 in my last watch, which made a raspy hiss when hand-wound, albeit appealing in its own way.

My wrist is not large, and the standard strap is almost too long — I use the very first hole, which leaves quite a tail to tuck into the keeper. Nomos makes much of the strap being Horween Shell Cordovan leather, a horse product imported from Chicago, although it begins it existence on the hindquarters of charismatic quadrupeds in Texas. I am immediately suspicious when a material that I’ve never heard of is cited in marketing — for example, the Tangente case is made of 316L surgical steel, which sounds impressive unless you know that most decent watches are made of the same thing. Some research, though, indicates that this leather is indeed special — I just didn’t know enough about fancy shoes to be aware of it. It does seem like it will wear well. One thing to note — its color is not entirely resistant to the stomach acids of small children, which I discovered in the course of wearing it while being a father. Still, it’s nice, and Nomos sells replacements in different sizes and colors.

Is 35 mm too small a case for a real man? To answer that, I suppose you will need to judge if I am a real man. I believe I am at least fairly real — the imaginary part of me is not tremendously pronounced, and many people miss it entirely. And I am definitely a man, utterly boring in my cisgendering, and far too old, even by today’s standards, to be called a boy. I have never fought in a war or climbed a mountain, but there is time yet. The watch does not look small on me. If anything, I look small on the watch, despite standing over six feet tall when paying attention to my posture.

The main external difference between the 172 and the far more popular and widely documented 101/139 Tangente is the presence of a power reserve indicator giving you an idea of how much kick is left in the mainspring. It’s a patented Nomos design, and I really like it. Some people think that a power reserve on a handwound watch with a typical 40-ish hour mainspring makes no sense because you need to wind it every morning anyway. But some people think that Donald Trump is doing a great job of leading the United States through the pandemic, so some people can certainly be very wrong.

Power up.

I have not yet read a review that clearly describes what this indicator does as it progresses through its stations, so let’s try here. It consists of two independently rotating disks. The top one has a cutout that reveals the disk below, which is painted partly red. As the mainspring winds down, both disks turn, rotating maybe half-a-dozen times over two days. But they turn at different rates, so the red slowly emerges from its hiding place. For a few hours in the morning, it remains entirely hidden from view, and I know the day has just begun, and anything is possible, I can do anything, as long as I do it inside my apartment because outside is virus hellscape zombieland. When you wind the watch, you can see the whole process happen like a time-lapse video in reverse.

This is actually my favorite part of the reserve indicator: I can see it turn while I wind the watch, and stop just short of fully tensioning the spring, when the red part of the indicator has just vanished. I never have to hit the spring’s hard stop. To be clear, this is for psychological reasons that may or may not suggest pathology. There’s nothing practically wrong with fully winding your watch.

I will take this moment to admit that while I appreciate watches and put a lot of thought into the search that led me to this one, I am not a true Watch Person. I seem prone to the occasional fit of watch frenzy — this is the second one I have suffered, or the third, depending on how you count — but in the years between them, I don’t read Hodinkee on the reg or go to Baselworld. But I did look at a lot of power reserve watches before selecting this one, and it has among the most elegant indicator designs I have seen. Many, most, look awkward and weird. There is one that is cooler, in which the “12” changes color, but the watch costs more than a nice car, and is made in such small volumes that I can’t even google my way back to what it was now; I will never forget her face, but her name eludes me.

On the inside, the 172 is based on the totally in-house DUW 4301 movement. The 101/139 contains Nomo’s Alpha movement, also made largely in-house but with a Swiss escapement. Those dirty, dirty Swiss. There is no difference in accuracy or anything like that. It’s a story element, but as I said, it’s all a story. I wonder if the DUW movements are in practice just Alphas that incorporate the in-house escapement – the layout appears identical. Do note if you’re shopping for used watches that the Tangente Gangreserve was also produced before Nomos graduated to its DUW movements — you can easily see the caliber labeling through the sapphire back, but if you’re just going by the dial view, I don’t think it’s possible to tell the difference.

It’s not easy to make this movement looks this bad, what with the Glashütte ribbing and the sunburst polishes, the rhodium plating, the neat perlage tucked behind the balance wheel, the blue tempered screws and balance spring. But I have done it, with my own flakes of skin, smears of oil, and some sloppy lighting, produced entirely in-house with no help from the Swiss.

“But does it tell time?” you want to know. It does. Although wildly inaccurate by quartz standards, my watch only drops about two seconds a day, which is quite good for a mechanical caliber. Under normal circumstances, I would rather it gained two seconds a day, but I’d also rather the world had shifted a bit of resources from stockpiling weapons to stockpiling N95 masks at some point in the last hundred years, yet here we are. You play the hand you’re dealt. And in these troubled times, my watch’s habit of slipping seconds is actually welcome. Although, in normal circumstances, I might check my watch to stay on schedule for the many time-sensitive obligations that an important person like myself must honor, in pandemic confinement as I am now, I mainly look at my watch to know: a) how long until I can begin to drink, and b) how long until I can put my children to bed. If these two pillars of my day gradually creep forward, so much the better.

Pandemic time is, generally speaking, best read from a wristwatch, because a watch is not a phone. There is nothing more feculent than the pocket Petri dish that masquerades as a cell phone — just looking at mine makes the skin on my fingers want to leap from my hands and flop around in some rubbing alcohol. In the best of times, these sordid slabs are teeming hot zones of E. coli, staph, Clostridium difficile and thousands of other nasties. But in pandemic times, the phone starts to feel even more menacing. Reading a wristwatch transfers zero pathogens to your precious bodily surfaces.

Also generically, a mechanical watch is a pleasant object to contemplate during a pandemic. It is by definition orderly, predictable, and clean. Its roots in history are reassuringly long and comforting to consider. It has a purity of purpose that flashes bright in the cold darkness of an indifferent universe. In the face of death, it says: “I will persist.” In every way it stands in opposition to a pandemic, which is by definition a total shitshow, a disordering of life from the micro to the macro level, a disaster compounded by human shortsightedness and buffoonery at every turn. Yes, there is heroism, and a nice dip in air pollution. But a pandemic is fundamentally the shrieking mouth of chaos, while a mechanical watch is a totem of order, its ticking a quiet song of promised continuance. You should also feel free to be a compassionate and useful member of your community, but let’s not overlook moments of watch-fancy as a tool for self development. The Dalai Lama has a Patek Phillipe. And you might argue that that is completely beside the point, and even though I might agree with you, I will not be listening.

The Tangente, unlike most cell phones, can tell you the time without being touched. Eventually you will have to touch it to wind it, but you can do this on your own terms, near a bathroom sink and a bottle of good Marseille hand soap. The crown and lugs are quite elegant.

The Tangente 172 is also specifically good for telling pandemic time. I find it soothing to look at, and right now soothing is something I can really use. The simple, no-nonsense design (Bauhaus! Deutscher Werkbund!), quite liberally inspired by a beautiful Lange watch from 1940. The pearlescent dial, which flashes almost rainbow in direct sunlight, which I try to experience as much as possible, albeit usually through windows. The needle-straight heat-blued hands (they look black in some lighting conditions, but their blue is really remarkable), so precise in their indication of the moment that you could almost read off the seconds without checking the small subdial. Looking at the watch gives me hope for humanity, for the simple beauty we can achieve and the complexity we can command to achieve it. If we made this thing just because it works so well and looks so nice doing it, surely we can solve more pressing problems, like getting masks and gloves to people who work in hospitals.

Of course, if in three months time I’m dragging my family through the twisted ruins of a civilization gone to seed, I’ll probably wish I’d opted for a Casio G-Shock. From that vantage point, would the Tangente be a bitter-sweet reminder of what was lost? A gleam of hope for what might be recovered? A mocking jab at misplaced faith in a world order that seemed so firm but proved so fleeting? I don’t know. But if I can make it across the border into Germany, I know where there’s a quiet village that might be a nice place to settle down. It’s supposed to be friendly, and it has weathered privations before. I already have a map.