In June of 2017 we proudly announced our new partnership with Ulysse Nardin. In this post, we'll dive a little deeper in the brand's history through a number of key watches, people, and innovations that have come to define this watch brand from La Chaux-de-Fonds. We'll focus on the modern Ulysse Nardin - starting with the purchase of the company by the late Rolf Schnyder in 1983.
In 1866 the Neuchâtel Observatory began its prestigious chronometer competitions, where manufacturers would send in their best to be subjected to exhaustive tests on accuracy. When these competitions ceased in 1975, Ulysse Nardin's marine chronometers, deck watches, pocket chronometers and wristwatches had brought them a staggering amount of certificates and prizes. Nevertheless the company was struggling at this point, heavily threatened by the rapid advance of quartz watches. By the early eighties the once proud manufacturer was reduced to a staff of two - Leopold Berthoud and Jean-Jacques Haldimann - and under a heavy load of debt. This however did not stop a group of investors lead by Rolf W. Schnyder, who took ownership of the company in 1983.
Rolf W. Schnyder, 'Crazy' Ludwig Oechslin & the Astrolabium
Rolf. W. Schnyder's envisioned a place for Ulysse Nardin in the upper echelons of watchmaking, alongside the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. For this he needed something special; a talking piece, something that hadn't been seen before. He had to start looking for the right watchmaker for this task. It is said that it was the aforementioned Jean-Jacques Haldimann who steered him in the right direction by metioning a Luzern-based independent watchmaker by the name of Joerg Spoering, who had created a tourbillon clock from scratch- something quite rare in those days.
Schnyder's interest was piqued, so he went out to visit the workshop. When he entered, the first thing he noticed wasn't the tourbillon, but rather an astrolabe clock made by Spoering's apprentice. At barely 30 years old this apprentice, nicknamed 'Crazy Ludwig', already had an impressive track record. He had researched and studied astronomical clocks throughout Europe, and restored the Vatican's Farnese Clock, an astronomical pendulum clock containing nearly 1,000 parts created for Dorothea Farnese von Pfalz-Neuburg, the Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, around 1725. True to his scholarly nature, when he had completed this restoration, he had written a thesis on it that earned him a doctorate of philosophy and natural sciences from the University of Bern. 'Crazy Ludwig' had become Dr. Ludwig Oechslin.
There was just this one thing: during Schnyder's visit, Dr. Oechslin was nowhere to be found. Luckily that got sorted out a few weeks later when the two finally met. Soon the idea of the world's first astrolabe wristwatch was born, and the challenge of actually creating it embarked upon.
The Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galileo Galilei was presented to the world in 1985, stunning industry insiders and watch collectors alike. Powered by caliber UN-97 and named after the Italian polymath, it features no less than 21 complications; among them a perpetual calendar, the mean & solar time, sunrise & sunset, moonrise & moonset, solar & lunar eclipse and the moon fase. In 1989 it would even be included in the Guinness Book of Records, taking top place for watch with the most functions.
The success of the Astrolabium inspired both Rolf Schnyder and Ludwig Oechselin to further explore the path of astronomical complications in wristwatches. In 1988 the next masterpiece was introduced: the Ulysse Nardin Planetarium Nicolaus Copernicus. The name was a tribute to the Prussian astronomer famous for the (re-) formulation of the heliocentric model of the universe, but this only represented part of the story of the watch. In fact, it was an ode to the work of Jost Buergi.
In 1605, Jost Buergi, a Swiss mathematician and clock maker, completed a table clock with a planetarium that adopted the revolutionary heliocentric model, yet still appeared to adhere to the doctrines of the time and the sensibilities of his clients. He achieved this by making the Sun the center of the planetarium, yet placing the earth in a fixed position as well - rather than having it make its rounds. This meant the rotations of the other planets had to be calculated as in their relation to the fixed Sun - Earth axis. The result was a unique clock that in effect utilized the Copernican model, yet did not upset those in favor of the prevalent Ptolemaic model. The Wiener Planetenuhr, as it is known today, would serve as the basis for what was to be the Planeterium Nicolaus Copernicus.
On Oechslin's creation the planets make their rotations on a series of discs revolving around the sun, with the exception of course being Earth, whose disc is stationary. In addition, the moon is displayed by a small hand revolving around Earth, and the months and zodiac signs are displayed on the outer edge of the dial. It is said that it caused (even?) more headaches than the Astrolabium to get it all to work properly, though it's arguably easier to read & understand.
The Trilogy of Time Completed: The Tellurium Johannes Kepler
The final piece in what was now the Trilogy of Time was introduced in 1992: the Ulysse Nardin Tellurium Johannes Keppler. Unlike the other two watches in the series, the focus with this watch is mainly on Planet Earth, which is depicted on a rotating disc in the center. There's a bendable wire hoovering over it, indicating where on earth it is currently day (above) or night (below). The times for sun set and sun rise can be read at the tips of the wire. A small moon travels around the earth disc, with the lighter half always facing the sun engraved on the bezel at 12:00 - instantly indicating the phase of the moon. Solar and lunar eclipses are indicated by the dragon hand, and -last but not least- the calendar and zodiac signs can be read over the reference line.
Christophe Claret & the San Marco Minute Repeater
In 1987 Rolf. W. Schnyder met another watchmaker whose name is well-known to collectors today: Christophe Claret. Aged 25 at the time, Claret finished his first watch with hour and quarter repetition just one year prior. The dial of this watch featured two tiny angels striking a bell at the rhythm of the hammers hitting the gongs underneath the dial, as if they were true jacquemarts responsible for the delicate sound. Intruiged, Schnyder immediately placed an order of 20 pieces with the young watchmaker. There were to be one key difference though: the watches would now be minute repeaters, striking hours, quarters and minutes instead. The watch was introduced to the public in 1989 as the Ulysse Nardin San Marco Minute Repeater.
The partnership between Claret & Ulysse Nardin would prove to be lasting, with the 2016 Marine Deck Tourbillon being the latest collaboration. Christophe Claret furthermore made quite a name for himself through collaborations with various brands and watches like the Extrem-1 bearing his own signature.
Renaud & Papi & the San Marco Hour Striker
In order to fulfill the 1987 order placed by Schnyder, Christophe Claret had to up his game. He turned to Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi of Manufacture d'Horlogerie Renaud et Papi SA, and the three of them went into business as equal partners under the name RPC - Renaud Papi Claret. Still, in 1991 Claret bought out Renaud and Papi, desiring more freedom and autonomy.
When Ulysse Nardin introduced the San Marco Hourstriker in 1993, the striking module for the 'petite sonnerie en passant' was nonetheless a Renaud et Papi creation. Coincidentally, the Hourstriker was among the first Ulysse Nardin watches with an enamel dial bij Donzé Cadrans. In 2012 Ulysse Nardin would acquire Donzé Cadrans.
Under de helm of Giulio Papi and with Audemars Piguet as majority stakeholder, Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi gained fame by creating high-end movements for brand's such as Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller, IWC, and A. Lange & Söhne. Today it is probably best known for its work for Richard Mille.
Ludwig Oechslin - again
Oechslin's completion of the Trilogy of Time was an exceedingly impressive feature, pushing the envelope on complications and the way they're displayed. It was however also very much an intellectual exercise, almost philosophical in the way it tried to capture astronomical phenomena in a space barely measuring a few cubic centimeters. With the 1994 introduction of the Ulysse Nardin GMT± another side of Oechslin became appearant. Here an existing complication is made simpler and more robust in construction, while simultaneously improving its operation. The GMT± featured a big date and a second time zone or home time display, both visible through apertures on the dial. The date is coupled to the local time, and both can be adjusted both backward and forward when traveling.
The 1996 Ulysse Nardin Ludwig Perpetual followed the same path of simplicity in architecture and operation. The 1985 Da Vinci by IWC already demonstrated that it was possible improve the traditional perpetual calendar. The module for the calendar, from the ingenious mind of Kurt Klaus, did not require any corrector buttons. Oechslin took it a few steps further by creating a movement that could be set both forward and backward. He had achieved this through relying on a series of gears instead of the traditional construction of a program wheel and levers. Here too all complications (big date, day, month, 2-digit year) were shown through apertures on the dial.
Both complications -either apart or combined- would grow out to be emblematic for the brand, and in 1999 the two were finally combined to form the Ulysse Nardin Perpetual GMT±. In updated form all are still in the collection today.
The Marine Chronometer
In the above we briefly touched upon Ulysse Nardin's amazing track record regarding marine chronometers. In times gone by seafarers depended on these precision instruments for their navigation, specifically to determine their longitude at sea. Accuracy was key and even a small deviation would potentially put a ship of course on journeys often spanning weeks or months.
The instrumental nature of these chronometers had in time led to a more or less standardized design across the many brands manufacturing them. Black numerals (most often Roman) were set against a white background for optimal contrast and legibility. Small seconds were found at 6:00, while an indicator at 12:00 allowed to check the power reserve. The case band was ribbed for ease of opening when the hands needed adjustment. They were functional, robust and accurate - and paired with Ulysse Nardin's legacy they made for the ideal source of inspiration for a new everyday (or entry-level) watch. The Marine Chronometer 1846 was introduced in 1996. With its fluted bezel, enamel dial, power reserve indicator and small seconds, it was almost a carbon copy of an original marine chronometer - just fitted with a set of lugs.
Whilelater interpretations by designer Raimondo Brenni would take on a more contemporary look, the design and source of inspiration would always remain recognizable. Just this year Ulysse Nardin released an hommage to the original 1996 design in its Vintage Collection, as well as the Torpilleur - a sleek take on the original.
No article on Ulysse Nardin would be complete without the Freak. When introduced in 2001 it was among the first of a wave of high-end complicated watches that did not adhere to the classical codes of watchmaking, particularly in terms of design. To put things in perspective; in 2001 Richard Mille had just introduced his first watch. There was no Romain Jerome, no HYT, no MB&F. But all of a sudden there was the Freak - merging movement and display into a unique blend of form and function. How did this happen?
In 1998 Ulysse Nardin became aware of a design by Carole Forestier, which she had submitted to a contest held by Breguet. Here the entire movement rotated in the case while being powered by a mainspring wrapped around it - sort of like a tourbillon (or more accurately, caroussel) on steroids. Ulysse Nardin bought the patent and hired Forestier, who was still with Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi, to help bring it to fruition. Sadly the concept proved very ambitious and didn't quite work out in real life. Forestier went back to her day job at Renaud & Papi where she stayed until 2004, when she became in charge of watchmaking at Cartier.
Luckily Forestier's idea did succeed in sparking the curiosity of Ludwig Oechslin. He came up with a design that was as much inspired by the original concept as it was something completely different. The biggest problem of the original design was insufficient power reserve. This was mainly caused by the fact that the complete movement, and not just the escapement, had to be put into motion. Oechslin's design thus featured an enormous mainspring, located below the movement and taking up the entire area.
Then, as the bigger part of the movement is rotating anyway, why not have it make its rounds in 60 minutes and serve as the minute hand in the process? This deceivingly simple idea is arguably where the concept turned into the Freak as we know it today. Equally impressive are the bridge serving as hour hand, the dual-direct escapement, the use of silicon wheels courtesy of Pierre Gygax... The list of firsts in the Freak goes on and on.
Raimondo Brenni was tasked with bringing this all together in a pleasing, comfortable, and wearable watch. The substantial presence of the minute hand meant the watch needed an equally substantial footprint to offer acceptable legibility, and the location of the main spring meant the height would be considerable - though the absence of traditional dial and hands in part made up for that. A bezel on the front was used for setting the time, while another one was found on the back and used to wind the movement. All in all, it required careful thought and a lot of considerations until the production model was finally introduced in 2001.
The Freak has been updated and improved a number of times. Notable models include the 2005 Freak 28,800V/H and Diamond Heart, the 2007 Freak Innovision, the 2010 Diavolo (with flying tourbillon!) and the 2013 Freak Cruiser.
... and the list goes on
The goal of this article was never to create a full overview, nor would that be possible within a reasonable amount of words. A few watches still deserve a mention though;
- The 2002 Genghis Khan; the first wristwatch with Westminster chime minute repeater, automatons, and tourbillon.
- The 2003 Sonata; based on an original concept by Oechslin, though completed under the wings of VP Pierre Gygax and movement designer Lucas Hamair; wristwatch with alarm that can be set to the minute in 24h format, alarm countdown, GMT and big date. The alarm rang through a gong, which was replaced by a cathedral gong in 2005. Technically impressive, it was perhaps overshadowed by its controversial design.
- The 2006 UN-160; the brands first 'simple' in-house movement, featuring the Dual Ulysse escapement and LIGA-produced escapement wheels
- Various enamel dials; ranging from the Battleship series to the Jungle & Safari repeater.
The passing of Rolf Schynder
On April 14th 2011, two weeks after BaselWorld, Rolf W. Schnyder died after a short illness. Patrik Hoffmann -who had joined the company in in 1999- took over as CEO, while Pierre Gygax -who had joined in 1997- remained in place as executive vice-president. With Rolf Schnyder's widow Chai chairing over the board of directors, the brand was in capable hands. This notwithstanding, in mid-2014 Kering announced that it had acquired 100% of Ulysse Nardin.
Kering, formerly known as Gucci Group, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) and Pinault, was founded in 1963 as a timber trade company. It entered retail in the early 1990's, and gradually shifted to luxury good starting with the 1999 acquisition of Gucci. In 2008 the group took a 23% stake in Sowind (Girard-Perregaux & [Daniel] JeanRichard), which was raised to 50.1% in 2011. After taking a controlling stake in Sowind, Kering had shown that it understood and respected the culture & values of its brands, while providing them with support and firepower where needed, providing the management team of Ulysse Nardin with the needed trust. Of course the fact that Kering's CEO François-Henri Pinault owned a couple of their watches didn't hurt either...
Note Dale; corrections welcomed. Check out my notes and sources in this PDF: Ulysse Nardin.