There are progressive brands, and then there is Ulysse Nardin. While it is, in essence, a classic manufacture, it uses the Swiss watchmaking tradition as a foundation to innovate and push the envelope. This has resulted not only in many progressive watches, with equally innovative movements, but also in introducing new materials in the world of watchmaking. Haute Time sat down with Stéphane von Gunten, Ulysse Nardin’s Research and Innovation Director, to discuss the latest developments in New York, as Watches of Switzerland boutique in Soho.
Ulysse Nardin has a very innovative approach to traditional watchmaking. What makes it that Ulysse Nardin is so different in this aspect from many other manufactures?
I think that we have a good mix of traditional watches and modern watches. In 2001, we were the first to use silicon for mechanical watches. This was in the Freak model. It is still the case today that we are very innovative, and we try new things but with respect to the tradition. My grandfather was, a watchmaker and the other one an engineer in the field of watchmaking. When I work on new things, new displays, new mechanisms for the watches, I try to respect them. We have new possibilities these days, but with them, we do try to respect the old spirit of watchmaking.
What do you consider the main challenge when developing a new watch/movement?
The main challenge is sometimes the lead time, the time that we have from the idea to market release. We have many ideas at Ulysse Nardin, for example with the ‘FREAK neXt’ we started about ten years ago. I filed the first patent in 2009, and since then we filed for two other patents for this watch, and we have just presented the concept watch in March of this year. We have short-term projects and long-term projects, and we also have to mix them in terms of human resources, and the main point is that they get done with the right people.
The Freak has been a signature watch from Ulysse Nardin for quite some years now, yet you always seem to be able to develop it further. What does the process behind this look like?
What we say all the time is that the Freak is a laboratory on the wrist. It is like a miniature showcase: we can see the minute gear train very well and this is a good basis to play with. For example, on the ‘FREAK neXt,’ we decided to display the new flying oscillator. If we have a novelty, it is nice to first integrate it on the Freak and then later on the standard calibers.
Ulysse Nardin is a pioneer when it comes to introducing new materials to the watchmaking industry. What materials do you think will play the most important role in the near future for mechanical watchmaking?
I am quite confident that we will go further with the silicon technology because it is a real breakthrough in watchmaking. We can achieve incredible precision when making components. The precision is around 0.1 micrometer, so it is very precise. It opens our mind to new mechanisms, to new displays, to new possibilities for mechanical watches. Again, the FREAK neXt is a good example, because we have these very thin springs that play the role of the hairspring. So I feel strongly that we can grow further with the silicon technology. Besides that, we have of course other materials we look into, but we only use them when we have a good reason. And a good reason is a technical reason, it is never a marketing reason. When we can mix the technical reason with the marketing reason, it is perfect. That’s the best, and we did it with the silicon technology.
In what direction can we expect the upcoming watches from Ulysse Nardin to go in?
We try to further develop our existing lines. With the Freak X, for example, which I sometimes call the baby Freak because it is a bit smaller. It is really a Freak model that you can use as daily wear. You can wear it from Monday through Friday and then switch to your Freak Vision, which is more like the father of the Freak collection. The main idea here is to have a Freak-line, starting around $20k all the way up to $200K/$300K. I’m sure that the different customers can find a Freak-model that which is appropriate to the need that they have.
What is your favorite right now?
My favorite right now is, of course, the FREAK neXt. But besides the FREAK neXt, I must say that I like the Freak X models because they are quite light, they are only 43mm in diameter, so they are really convenient for daily use.
For those interested in taking a closer look at these remarkable watches, Ulysse Nardin is collaborating with Watches of Switzerland Soho to bring an exclusive Pop-up store. It allows you to experience ‘the X-factor in watchmaking,’ from the Freak Vision to the volcanic Skeleton X Magma. It will also mean the US introduction of the Leap Motion software, which gives watch enthusiasts the ability to explore the world of the Freak X in incredible detail through augmented and virtual reality. The Ulysse Nardin Pop-up is open from now until the end of September 2019 and can be found at Watches of Switzerland Soho, 60 Greene Street, New York.