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Ulysse Nardin: Wheels in Motion

For nearly two centuries, Ulysse Nardin has combined imagination, technology and engineering to redefine the world of mechanical watchmaking.


By Scott Hickey
December 1, 2018

Ulysse Nardin - December 2018 TickTalk Image

That tradition began with watchmaker Ulysse Nardin, who helped transform nautical navigation from his workshop in Le Locle, Switzerland, where he produced some of the world’s most reliable marine deck chronometers. Revered for their accuracy in rough conditions, sailors trusted Ulysse Nardin’s timepieces with their lives as they used them to chart a safe course at sea.

These days, satellites have replaced mechanical time keepers on ships. Even so, collectors still seek out the company’s marine chronometers, recognizing Ulysse Nardin’s impact on watchmaking.

CHANGING TIMES
Much has changed since Ulysse Nardin was founded in 1846, but not its pioneering spirit. Today, the company is blazing a new trail in mechanical watchmaking as it explores cutting-edge technologies and adopts innovative materials like silicium (silicon).

In a relatively short time, the company has introduced a number of groundbreaking technical achievements. In the 1990s, it was a trio of astronomical watches known as the Trilogy of Time. In 2001, the Freak made its debut as the first mechanical watch to use movement parts made from silicon.

Four years ago, the brand unveiled the Ulysse Anchor Escapement, a design meant to replace the traditional Swiss lever escapement system, which had been used in the majority of watches made since the 1800s.

Made with silicon parts, the cutting-edge Ulysse Anchor Escapement plays a starring role in the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel.


Instead of an anchor-shaped lever and escape wheel, the Ulysse Anchor Escapement has a circular silicon frame in which the pallet arms are suspended by two perpendicular blades that are curved under tension. When the balance wheel makes a semi-oscillation, it transmits that energy to the blades, which snap back and forth like a hair clip. That action moves the pallet arms from side to side at a steady rate that’s used to measure time.

This new arrangement offers several advantages over the Swiss lever escapement. First, the Ulysse Anchor Escapement is more energy efficient because when the blades snap from one position to the next, they give back their stored energy with virtually no loss. Next, the pallet arms no longer pivot atop a pallet staff. This eliminates the need for lubrication, which enhances performance and longevity. The absence of a pallet staff also means that the bridge holding it in place is no longer necessary, resulting in a slimmer movement profile overall.

RISING UP
The Ulysse Anchor Escapement once again finds itself in the spotlight. This time, the mechanism has been incorporated into the flying tourbillon featured in the new Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel. What makes this example especially intriguing is how the elements of the tourbillon and escapement appear to float above the baseplate as the device rotates every 60 seconds. Nearby, the seven-day power reserve indicator — positioned at four o’clock — is also raised and is topped with a boomerang-shaped bridge.

To achieve this striking look, Ulysse Nardin engineers created an entirely new in-house movement (UN-176) that’s completely inverted. In other words, the back of the movement is visible on the dial side. This unconventional approach exposes various caliber components — like the mainspring barrel and gear train — that normally would be visible only through an exhibition caseback. This open layout provides a clear view of the movement’s intricacies, including the violet-colored silicon escapement wheel in the tourbillon.

The Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel is available in either a rose or white gold case.


CLEAR VIEW
All of this technological savoir-faire is meant to resonate with the rational side of a watch enthusiast’s brain. But one of Ulysse Nardin’s greatest strengths through the years has been its ability take cerebral ideas and present them in a way that’s visually engaging regardless of your horological IQ. For instance, you don’t need to know what a carrousel tourbillon is to appreciate the Freak.

Likewise, an in-depth understanding of escapements isn’t required to be impressed by the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel. Even if you remove all the remarkable technical specs, you’re still left with a striking design that’s instantly recognizable from across the room.

That’s due in large part to the sapphire crystal dome that sits atop the movement. Spanning the caliber from edge to edge, its clear sides open up a lateral view that lets you appreciate the movement’s three-dimensional construction from an unusual vantage point.

The domed sapphire crystal offers a revealing look at this unconventional movement.


BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Unlike Ulysse Nardin’s other tourbillon models, production of the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel will not be limited. Instead, the watch will be available as a member of the main collection.

This year, the company introduced two 44mm versions. The first comes in a rose-gold case with matching hands and movement components, as well as a baseplate carved from slate. The other model comes in a white-gold case with matching elements and a baseplate formed by a honeycomb grid.


Made in-house, the entire caliber is inverted so the back is visible from the front.


The gear train and tourbillon look as though they’re floating above the dial.


Both of these worthy contenders exemplify Ulysse Nardin’s remarkable ability to harnesses the power of high horology and transformative technology to create truly original timepieces.

Click here to view the Ulysse Nardin collection online at Cellini Jewelers.

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