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"Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." - Confucius

Although the Freak models have come out regularly since 2001, Ulysse Nardin only officially launched the Freak Out collection this spring. The hi-tech handless ‘flying carousel’ watch has been an experimenting field for the manufacture since the beginning, which brought components to market before any other timepiece, such as the silicon escapement. We visited Ulysse Nardin in La Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds to show you the first entrants of the collection as well as a look inside the manufacture.

 

FreakOut

The original design idea of the Freak is the brainchild of Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who has been instrumental to leading Cartier’s movement department to success since 2000. The former owner of Ulysse Nardin Rolf Schnyder and Ludwig Oechslin watchmaker after seeing the potential in her mechanism created the Freak in 2001. With its new structure and the use of new materials, the Freak immediately grasped attention, which it has managed to retain even today. This is even more of a feat if you consider that it is a time-only watch with no complication (except the FreakLab with a date disk debuted in 2015). The entire movement revolves around the central axis and underneath, hidden from eyes, is the marathon-long mainspring that keeps it moving for 7+ days.

The Freak has been Ulysse Nardin’s futuristic interpretation of fine watchmaking. Creators aimed to achieve a precise and lubrication-free timepiece and the design, simplicity and the use of silicon all serve this purpose. The extensive research on their own and in collaboration with a company called Mimotec (a firm specializing in the production of micro-components based mainly on nickel derivatives using a shortened version of the ‘LIGA’ process [lithography, electroplating and moulding] for watchmaking) resulted in a process that enabled the production of tiny but potentially multi-layer silicon parts requiring no subsequent finishing. In 2006, Ulysse Nardin and Mimotec entered into a joint venture under the name Sigatec, focusing on the research and production of silicon parts for watchmaking.

Ulysse Nardin Freak assembled
Ulysse Nardin Freak assembled

Freakin’ milestones from the museum

Ulysse Nardin’s hidden treasure box, their private museum is situated in the attic of the historic building on Rue du Jardin. Freak models have received their well-deserved place among historic marine chronometers, astronomical timepieces (such as the Trilogy of Time: the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei) and unique instruments. Look what we found here!

Ulysse Nardin Freak 28’800 V/h Diamond Heart
Ulysse Nardin Freak 28’800 V/h Diamond Heart Blue Set With Diamonds (2005), which has a revised escapement shape called the Dual Ulysse and polycrystalline diamond escapement wheels

 
Caliber UN-210 from the FreakLab mixed with a titanium case, a checked pattern carbon fibre bezel and the yellow accents of the partner Artemis sailing team resulted in my personal favourite FreakWings in 2016. This year, a few months before the announcement of the Freak Out collection, Ulysse Nardin presented the first commercially available automatic Freak called the Vision (and its coral versions). Instead of an ordinary rotor, they employed a high-performing ‘grinding’ winding system (see above on the Innovision 2).

 

The new FreakOut collection

The manual calibre UN-205 will be the heart of the first birds in the FreakOut series. Just like the original, it is manually wound by rotating the back bezel. Time can be set by liberating (lever between the lower lugs) and rotating the front bezel. All four versions are cast from titanium, one of them is black PVD coated. The difference between them is in the colour of the ‘dial’ and the gear train.

Ulysse Nardin Freak Out in full black
Ulysse Nardin Freak Out in full black
Ulysse Nardin Freak Out
Ulysse Nardin Freak Out

 

Ulysse Nardin Manufacture

Ulysse Nardin actually has two main manufacture facilities: one in La Locle producing the high complications and one in La Chaux-de-Fonds, responsible for calibre development, machining the parts and the assembly of the more standard movements. Moreover, we saw the Freak taking shape here too.

Modern timepieces are manufactured in an equally modern way at Ulysse Nardin. ‘Our goal is to create reliable and precise mechanical watches’, started our tour with Stéphane Von Gunten, Head of R&D. ‘Achieving it may be done by using new materials or production methods that involve utilizing the latest machinery. Wherever it ensures at least the same level of quality delivered by a trained human, we are open to employ machines. This allows shorter production cycles but also frees up the watchmakers so we can do more R&D.’

As discussed before, Ulysse Nardin has made friends with silicon a long time ago. Together with their sister company Sigatec they have developed a competitive edge in this field, which manifests for example in the two-level and angled silicon parts created by the deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE) process. Techniques such as this enable designers to think out of the box and test fresh ideas for components.

Ulysse Nardin Freak in the CAD software
Ulysse Nardin Freak in the CAD software

Watch designs may include components already in production and newly conceptualised parts too. Either way, several prototypes are created to test all properties of a mechanism until the final model is conceived. CNC machines enable this as they allow for the production of large batches but also few individual pieces, if needed. Not so long ago we wrote about the application of 3D printing in watchmaking (here) and in jewellery (here). The technology allows individual shapes to be built even from metal and I inquired whether Ulysse Nardin uses such for parts production. Mr Von Gunten shared that at the current state of 3D printing the surfaces are too rough without hand-finishing. Therefore, for components like cases it could be fine, but the technology is not suitable for smaller parts yet.

‘Standard’ movements are assembled in a closed production line with both human and automatic workstations. Calibres, such as the UN-320 (Ulysse Nardin Classico, Ulysse Nardin Diver Le Locle) travel from station to station on a ‘sushi train” getting ready for the final calibre tests at the end. The assembly line is designed in a way that it provides a great flexibility for the company so that they can switch from producing one type of movement to another in minutes.

 

Grand complications

Grand complications are taken care of by a dedicated department in La Locle, where each watchmaker assembles a single timepiece from beginning to end.

On our sunny afternoon the sound of music was the main theme. Timepieces on the workbenches included the minute repeater Calibre UN-74 from the hot themed Classic Voyeur, the Calibre UN-690 of the Stranger, Calibre UN-610 of the Hourstriker and Calibre UN-78 of the fantastic Ulysse Nardin Hannibal Minute Repeater.

Watchmakers receive the complete set of parts including the ébauche (everything but the escapement) and the escapement and spend a fair bit of time until the watch is finished. Pieces here are also often customised according to the specific needs of the client.

 

Photo credits: Loupiosity.com.
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