Hands-On: Comparing The New 39mm And Original 42mm Lambda Watches From NOMOS Glashütte

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This year NOMOS Glashütte announced that they were releasing a 39 mm version of the Lambda watch, which had originally launched in 2013 to acclaim but also a certain amount of concern from the NOMOS faithful (and if you’re a NOMOS owner you know what we mean – there is a level of emotional investment that NOMOS wearers feel with the company that’s pretty unusual for any luxury watch brand, and especially unusual at the big-bang-for-the-buck segment that NOMOS generally occupies). The great thing about NOMOS has always been that though they offer one of the best value propositions in the biz, that’s not why people buy them as a general rule – you buy them because all the parts (the in-house movement, great design, well-crafted sense of irony they project) all go to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So when NOMOS put out a twenty thousand dollar gold watch with a pretty fancy-schmancy movement in it (a hand engraved balance cock, forsooth!) it occasioned a certain amount of soul-searching and even hand-wringing. Was NOMOS going upscale? Had they abandoned their principles? Had the company jumped some hitherto unsuspected shark? What, in a word, was going on here (the niceness of the watch aside)?

Two years on and the answer seems to be that NOMOS thought it would be nice to make a nice watch – in other words, business as usual. To my mind the Lux and Lambda watches have always seemed a rather interesting physical manifestation of that most characteristically German mental phenomenon, the Gedankenversuch (Gedankenexperiment) or thought experiment, which term was coined by Hans Christian Ørsted back in the early 19th century as a way of testing hypotheses before, so to speak, taking them out on the road. The thought experiment here is obvious: What would the result be, if you took the basic concept of a really high end luxury watch, and ran it through the NOMOS design sensibility, without compromise?

The answer, as it turns out, is that it looks very much like a NOMOS watch, but with everything dialed up, and the result of pushing all the basic qualities that make NOMOS what it is even further, is that you get something with all the same characteristics, but a noticeably different character.

If you look at the dial of a Lambda, for instance, you see something almost defiantly finely done. NOMOS is famous, and rightly so, for its sparseness of design and willingness to embrace negative space, but that design philosophy in most of its models also travels along with an overt utilitarianism: sparseness isn’t an end in itself, but the result of the elimination of non-essentials pursued to its inevitable conclusion. (And in the world of luxury watchmaking, where having one detail too many in a watch design is the rule rather than the exception, that’s done a lot to make NOMOS the success it is today). But the Lambda is more than that. Sparseness here is pushed to its limit; the dial fonts and the hands, as well as the markers, are so thin that they go from being sleekly utilitarian to being almost a mute comment on the nature of time –as if inviting us to consider just how finely time itself can be divided.

The movement is the same – yes, we have here a classic Glashütte three-quarter plate, but the radial sunray finish, hand beveling (not that there are that many edges to bevel on a full plate movement, but that’s neither here nor there) screwed in chatons, and engraved balance cock all conspire to project an air of deliberate fineness, albeit a very patrician one – the restrained classicism of a Doric capital rather than the baroque lavishness of much traditional Glashütte fine watchmaking. The ratchet wheel with its engraved surround, and balance are about the same size, and the sunray brushing makes them seem like deliberately stylized versions of the Sun and Earth – the one providing energy to the other. The general feel of the Lambda watch is actually more archaic than any other NOMOS watch; it feels like something that could easily have been made by some first-generation Bauhaus designer –but with some of the backward-looking nostalgia of the Art Deco as well (and Art Deco’s unapologetic use of luxurious materials.)

And that, since we are here to talk 39 mm vs. 42 mm, is why it is so interesting to compare the two. My first reaction when I heard about the size of the Lambda, in 2013, was to wonder if NOMOS hadn’t made a mistake. Especially given the gracile proportions of virtually every other watch in their collections, the size combined with the launch price of the Lambda seemed to lend itself a little too much to being interpreted as a kind of showiness alien to the company’s core design vision.

As it turns out though, having had a chance to wear one for some days, choosing between the 39mm and 42mm versions is not so straightforward. The expansive dial and overall dimensions of the 42 mm Lambda are actually a big (no pun intended) part of the appeal, and actually work very well as an organic part of the design.  The sheer area of the watch – the negative space used – combined with the fineness of the dial furniture and hands gives the 42mm Lambda very much a pocket watch feel, and is a big part of what pushes the design identity into the subtly but definitely nostalgic space it occupies.  The whole thing has a wonderfully ethereal, almost melancholy, quality as a result.

On the other hand, there’s little doubt that the 39 mm has all the same charm and sense of clear design identity as the original; it merely states that identity and projects that charm at a slightly lower volume (if you can even use a word like “volume” in the context of NOMOS’ designs). The movement is exactly the same – NOMOS hand-wound caliber DUW 1001 – and it is actually extremely difficult to tell the two watches apart side by side. Perhaps this almost dimensionless quality is part of the attraction. The only really noticeable difference is that there is slightly less gold around the movement on the 39 mm version.

And yet, they still impress me as noticeably different watches. The 39 mm has a spare clarity and minimalist purity that have made NOMOS the success that it is; it is a watch, first and foremost, with a near pitch-perfect synthesis of abstract design and utilitarian purity. But the larger version thanks to the spaciousness of its composition becomes something else –a kind of ghostly meditation on time and distance. That might sound sad, but as the artificial intelligence sculptor in William Gibson’s scifi novel Count Zero says, “My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you.”

All photos by Will Holloway for HODINKEE

 Shown in the article, the Lambda Roségold USD 18,500 and Lambda 39 Roségold USD 17,000. Both the Lambda 39 mm and 42 mm watches are powered by the in-house caliber DUW 1001, a 14¼ ligne (32 mm) hand wound, 3.6 mm thick chronometer grade movement. Adjusted in six positions, with swan’s neck fine regulator and balance cock engraved “lovingly produced in Glashütte.” See all the models and full specs right here.