Ulysse Nardin has a history stretching back 170 years. This Swiss luxury watch manufacturer is a pioneer in silicon technology and well known for their unusual complications and top precision.
Ulysse Nardin started setting watchmaking standards early on in their history. More than anything else, their marine chronographs made them famous. To this day, the anchor in their logo is a reminder of the company's maritime roots. At the beginning of the 21st century, Ulysse Nardin offered four collections: Marine, Functional, Exceptional, and Classical. Like the name suggests, the Marine series features diving watches such as the Marine Diver
. However, the Marine Chronometer
, reminiscent of older marine clocks, is also in this collection. The Functional collection contains watches with features such as a perpetual calendar, chronograph function, or GMT function. The Freak
watch from the Exceptional series attracted a great deal of attention in 2001.
The Freak was one of the first watches to contain silicon components. In the field of watchmaking, silicon is considered the material of the future, and Ulysse Nardin is a pioneer in the use of silicon technology. However, the Freak doesn't just feature revolutionary technology - its design is also revolutionary. There is no dial, crown, or hands. The wearer winds the watch via the case back, sets the time using the bezel, and the movement itself displays the time. Models with a skeletonized dial are reminiscent of watches from Vacheron Constantin
. Ulysse Nardin's Classical collection contains classic gold watches with alligator leather bands. The hand-painted enamel dials increase the value of some models and give them an even more classic, artistic look.
Ulysse Nardin in the Guinness Book of World Records
Ulysse Nardin made it into the Guinness Book of World Records with their so-called Trilogy of Time collection. The trilogy consists of the Astrolabium (1985), Planetarium (1988), and Tellurium (1992). The genius Ludwig Oechslin used a pocket calculator from Texas Instruments when he began making early calculations for complicated movements in the 1980s. Oechslin was able to calculate the Astrolabium so exactly that it deviates by only one day every 144,000 years. This feat was so impressive that the watch earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. This extremely complicated watch doesn't just have a moon phase indicator: It indicates the location of the sun, moon, and stars; the rise and setting of the moon and sun; and dawn and dusk.
The Planetarium was no less complicated. Aside from showing the time, it also displayed the positions of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in relation to the Earth and sun. The Tellurium indicates sunrise and sunset as well as solar and lunar eclipses. The watch dial also visualizes the rotation of the Earth as seen from the North Pole. A flexible spring arches over the top of the Earth from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, indicating where the sun is shining and the time and location of sunrise and sunset.
This trio of watches was Ulysse Nardin's renaissance, as the Quartz Crisis hit the manufacturer hard. In 1983, they were on the verge of closing in Le Locle. The businessman Rolf Schnyder, musician Dieter Meier from the Swiss band Yello, and his brother Balthasar Meier all invested in Ulysse Nardin and were able to save the company.
The Beginning of a Unique History
In 1846, Ulysse Nardin founded his company of the same name in Le Locle when he was 23 years old. His father, Léonard-Frédéric Nardin, trained him in horology, and he became the second watchmaker in his family. However, the knowledge from his father wasn't enough for young Ulysse. Therefore, he continued his tutelage, this time under an expert in precision watches, Frédéric-William DuBois. Ulysse died in 1876 at the age of 53, and his son Paul-David Nardin followed in his father's footsteps by continuing the family business. The federal government approached Nardin and asked him to create an extraordinary pocket watch for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago. Together with C. H. Jacot, Nardin developed a 115 x 90 mm pocket watch with a richly and intricately decorated red gold and silver case. The case alone weighed 463 g and required over 1,200 man hours to complete. Originally, the pocket watch had a chronometer movement. Starting in 1906, at the request of a later owner, the opulent watch was instead powered by a chronograph movement with a minute repeater. The luxurious pocket watch went missing for over 100 years until it reappeared in 1996, the year of the company's 150th anniversary. The former principle shareholder of the company, Rolf Schnyder, purchased the pocket watch at an Antiquorum auction for $87,301.
Silicon and Diamond Calibers
The Freak was drawing a lot of attention from experts starting in 2001 thanks to both its extravagant, unique appearance and its innovative silicon components. Silicon has many advantages when used in watches: It's non-magnetic, the escapement requires no lubrication, and it's very lightweight. These characteristics help leave swing and escapement systems unaffected by magnetic fields, and thus they require little maintenance.
Ulysse Nardin goes one step further with their Marine Chronometer. It features the caliber UN-118 with a diamond-covered silicon escapement, a novelty in 2012. The company Sigatec, which has belonged to Ulysse Nardin since 2006, manufactured the parts. Therefore, Ulysse Nardin is one of the few watch manufacturers who can claim to independently produce their silicon components.
Two men were instrumental in developing this forward-thinking technology: Ludwig Oechslin and Pierre Gygax, technical managers at Ulysse Nardin. In April 2000, Gygax made contact with the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel, which developed technologies for the aviation and aerospace industries. In September of the same year, CSEM delivered the first silicon components to Gygax's department. The silicon components were produced using photolithography techniques, which are more precise than traditional methods and allow for more complex forms.
The harder and smoother an escapement's surface is, the more precisely the watch runs. Diamonds are the perfect material for this component. However, natural diamonds are incredibly expensive, and diamond cutting is a difficult art due to the gem's crystal structure. A more affordable alternative is to use synthetic diamonds. At the beginning of 2002, Ulysse Nardin turned to a young company, the Gesellschaft für Diamantprodukte GmbH (GFD), the Corporation for Diamond Products, for help. This company specializes in the production of synthetic diamonds via the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method. The method creates the necessary circumstances for carbon atoms in a gas to change into their crystalline form and a synthetic diamond is built layer by layer. Improvements to the process resulted in wafer-thin layers made of nanocrystalline diamond. Silicon components with this type of coating have the same characteristics of real, pure diamonds, but are much cheaper and more suitable for mass production.
Ulysse Nardin represents innovative thinking, high precision, and sophisticated complications. Their navy chronometer was well known for its incredible accuracy and was used by countless seafaring nations. Complex complications in the Astrolabium, Planetarium, and Tellurium models helped to propel the company to new fame in the 1980s and 90s. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Le Locle-based manufacturer has been considered a pioneer in silicon technology. Thanks to Ulysse Nardin, non-magnetic components requiring no lubrication have revolutionized the art of watchmaking.