Ulysse Nardin Review: A Complete Guide to the King of Marine Chronometer Watches

Ulysse Nardin Review: A Complete Guide to the King of Marine Chronometer Watches

Since its founding in 1846, Ulysse Nardin has long been regarded as the standard bearer of nautical timekeeping, a historic watchmaking maison whose very name conjures up romantic images of seagoing adventure and oceanic exploration. However, here in the 21st century, Ulysse Nardin is also known in watch connoisseur circles as one of the most technically innovative and boldly experimental watchmakers on the scene, beginning with the bombshell introduction of the Freak in 2001. How did this intriguing brand achieve both these distinctions and how does it continue to pile up accolades in the modern era? Read on for a complete guide to the history, evolution, and diverse timepiece portfolio of today’s Ulysse Nardin.

Foundations in Chronometry

Ulysse Nardin

Like many inhabitants of Switzerland’s Jura Mountain region in the 18th and 19th centuries, Léonard-Frédéric Nardin took up the trade of watchmaking largely out of economic necessity, to supplement his family’s farming income during the cold, snowbound winter months. He passed that horological savoir faire on to his son, Ulysse, who proved to be an apt pupil and honed his own horological skills further under the tutelage of two of the region’s most talented and revered watchmakers, Frederic-William Dubois and Louis JeanRichard-dit-Bressel. In 1846, at the young age of 23, Ulysse Nardin (above) established his own watchmaking workshop in his hometown of Le Locle, where the eponymous company is still headquartered today.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer

Ulysse Nardin’s early output included pocket chronometers, minute repeaters, and other high-complication timepieces. In 1860, Ulysse began calibrating these timekeepers with the aid of a high-precision astronomical regulator built by the “father of Swiss chronometry” Jacques-Frederic Houriet (1743-1830), establishing their reputation for reliability and uncommon precision. Strengthening this reputation were the chronometry awards won by Ulysse Nardin watches, including the Prize Medal at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, the U.K.’s highest distinction for watchmaking; and the first certificate from the Neuchâtel Observatory, awarded to Ulysse Nardin for its marine chronometers, the style of timekeeping device for which the company would become best known. Marine chronometers (above), the invention of which is credited to British watchmaker John Harrison, were essentially highly accurate clocks mounted on gimbals inside wooden boxes, designed to be carried aboard ships to aid navigators in determining their position at sea. These chronometers were essential during the golden age of seafaring exploration, and Ulysse Nardin would become one of the most prolific producers of these devices, which were among the very first portable timekeepers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ulysse Nardin pocket chronometer

Ulysse Nardin died in 1876, at only 43 years of age, passing the reins of the company to his son, Paul-David Nardin. Paul-David continued the company’s growth and expanded its reach as the world’s foremost purveyors of marine chronometers. In 1905, after winning a competition at the Washington, D.C. Naval Observatory, the Swiss company began providing pocket chronometers to the United States Navy; it would go on to supply the naval forces of more than 50 other nations, including Great Britain, Russia, and Japan, with marine chronometers as well as chronometer pocket watches, like the one above. Those timepieces provided the template for the modern Marine and Marine Torpilleur collections, more on which below.

Sailing Against the Tide: Schnyder and Oechslin Take the Wheel

Ludwig Oechslin

The last chronometry competition at the Neuchâtel Observatory took place in 1975, an ending symbolic of an era that threatened to also put an end to Ulysse Nardin and numerous other traditional Swiss watchmaking houses. The ascendance of inexpensive watches with quartz movements, primarily made in Asia, ushered in a challenging era for companies that still held fast to making mechanical watches, which were increasingly regarded as both outdated and overpriced by a new generation of watch buyers. Some Swiss watchmaking firms adapted to the competition by embracing the new quartz technology; others, like Ulysse Nardin, chose instead to double down on the high horological craftsmanship that had forged their identities. In 1983, Zurich-born businessman Rolf Schnyder acquired the struggling Ulysse Nardin firm with a mission of reviving its fortunes by making modern luxury wristwatches influenced by the famed maritime instruments it made in the early 20th Century. Schnyder brought aboard Ludwig Oechslin (above), an accomplished clockmaker, watch designer, and inventor, to spearhead the modern Ulysse Nardin collection.

Ulysse Nardin Trilogy of TimeSchnyder’s pioneering vision and Oechslin’s horological wizardry proved a potent combination, and Ulysse Nardin planted its flag (perhaps “dropped its anchor” would be a more appropriate metaphor) as one of the forerunners of the mechanical watch renaissance that would arise from the ashes of the so-called Quartz Crisis. The revitalized company’s first major statement was in 1985, with the release of the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the first of the so-called “Trilogy of Time,” a series of three highly complicated astronomical watches. Equipped with 21 distinct functions, including local and solar time, orbits and eclipses of the sun and moon, and positions of major stars, the Galileo was recognized as the world’s most functional watch by Guinness World Records. Ulysse Nardin released the second watch in the series, the Planetarium Copernicus, in 1988, and completed the Trilogy with the Tellurium Johannes Kepler in 1992. The latter timepiece featured an intricately crafted cloisonné dial that presaged many exquisite decorative dial treatments to come. Ulysse Nardin closed out the 1980s with yet another ultra-high complication piece, the original San Marco, which was the first wristwatch to deftly combine a minute repeater with a jacquemart, a mechanized, animated figure that strikes a chime on demand.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer watches 1996

After reaching for the stars, literally and figuratively, with the high complications of the prior decade, Ulysse Nardin came back down to earth, and back to its nautical timekeeping origins, with the launch of the Marine Chronometer 1846 wristwatches in 1996 — not coincidentally, the company’s 150th anniversary. With its clever incorporation of classical marine clock elements on the dial, like the analog power-reserve subdial at 12 o’clock and small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock, elongated Roman numeral hour markers, and fluted caseband, this watch became the progenitor of today’s Marine family of timepieces, a major pillar of the brand’s collection. The same year, as if to send the message that Ulysse Nardin wasn’t shying away from continuing to push the boundaries of haute horlogerie, it released the first Perpetual Ludwig, a perpetual calendar watch named for its inventor, Oechslin, which was noteworthy as the first perpetual calendar that could be adjusted in both directions (forward and backward) without damaging the movement. 

Enter the Freak

Ulysse Nardin Freak

At the dawn of the 21st Century, and the height of the watch industry’s mechanical revival, Ulysse Nardin, under the bold leadership of Schnyder and Oechslin, dropped a timepiece whose impact on watchmaking was nothing short of seismic. It was called the Freak, and in most respects it was as far from Ulysse Nardin’s 19th-century marine chronometers as a modern nuclear-powered submarine is from the wooden sailing ships that carried those chronometers out to sea. In fact, the Freak was unlike anything that watch connoisseurs had ever seen before. It was a watch that displayed the time with no conventional hands but rather by means of a “flying carousel” system, in which a baguette-shaped movement rotates on its own axis with a bridge pointing to the minutes while a mainplate-mounted disk indicates the hours. The Freak also had no traditional crown: to wind the movement and set the time, the wearer simply had to disengage and turn the fluted bezels on the front and back (below) of the case. The Freak was the first watch to use silicon, or “silicium,” for vital components in the movement — the balance wheel, hairspring, and “Dual Direct” escapement that generated the watch’s impressive seven-day power reserve — a move that at the time engendered a fair amount of skepticism. Today, the antimagnetic, heat- and friction-resistant material is all but commonplace in mechanical watch movements, used by brands throughout the industry from Patek Philippe to Rolex and Omega to Hamilton and Rado. 

Ulysse Nardin Freak caliber 

The Freak became the laboratory for Ulysse Nardin’s continued explorations into avant-garde materials and cutting-edge technological processes in its watchmaking. The second generation of the Freak, in 2005, replaced the Dual Direct escapement with the even more efficient Dual Ulysse escapement, which upgraded the balance’s frequency from 3 Hz to 4 Hz. That same year saw the debut of the Freak Diamond Heart, the first watch with escapement wheels and other parts made of synthetic diamond. Ulysse Nardin further honed this costly synthesization process in 2007 with the Freak DiamonSil, which, as its portmanteau implies, uses synthesized, diamond-coated silicon for these parts instead of the far more expensive diamond; the company still uses the DiamonSil process today. 

Ulysse Nardin Freak Innovision 2 ConceptA concept watch called the Freak Innovision followed in 2007, chock full of new technological innovations, 10 of them to be exact, all geared toward making it the first mechanical watch that required no lubricating oils. In 2015 came the Freak Lab, the first Freak watch with a date indication, along with other aesthetic changes like a center-mounted oscillator and a redesigned “floating” bridge. A decade removed from the original InnoVision, the Innovision 2 concept watch (above) was unveiled in 2017, with yet another array of new inventions, many of which now inhabit other watches in serial production. Among the most notable of these are the Dual Constant escapement, with its friction-reducing silicon “blades” structure, and the innovative Grinder automatic winding system, which replaces a traditional rotor with a four-armed frame that acts similarly to a bicycle’s pedals, gathering energy from even the slightest motions of the wearer’s wrist while providing twice the torque of a conventional oscillating weight. 

Ulysse Nardin Freak X

The Grinder system made its commercial debut in the Freak Vision of 2018, the first Freak watch with automatic winding. The model was also, subjectively, the first version of the genre-defying timepiece that hearkened back, albeit subtly, to Ulysse Nardin’s marine chronometer origins: the especially shaped minutes bridge of the rotating baguette movement resembles a ship’s hull, its hourly journey around the marine blue dial calls to mind a sailing ship on the waves. Aiming for more “entry-level” options, Ulysse Nardin finally released a Freak with a conventional crown and a scaled-down case, the Freak X (above), in 2019. 

New Frontiers in the 21st Century: Donzé Cadrans, Kering, and Beyond

Ulysse Nardin - Donze Cadrans enamel dial making

While Ulysse Nardin was evolving the Freak throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the company was also pursuing increased vertical integration — a process that continued after the untimely death of Rolf Schnyder in 2011. In that same year, Ulysse Nardin acquired Donzé Cadrans, a Swiss maker of enamel dials for high-end watches, incorporating that firm’s expertise into its own array of horological skill sets. In 2012, under the leadership of Schnyder’s hand-picked successor, Patrik Hoffman, the company launched the in-house, COSC-certified Caliber UN-118, which was notable for its silicon balance spring and its use of DiamonSil in the anchor wheel and escape wheel.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer ManufactureWith an integrated small seconds display and power reserve indication, it was a movement tailor-made for a watch with a classic marine-chronometer dial design, and it made its debut in the first Marine Chronometer Manufacture (above), with a handcrafted enamel dial from Donzé Cadrans. Ulysse Nardin’s first in-house chronograph movement, Caliber 150, used the Ebel Caliber 137 (which Ulysse Nardin had acquired outright) as its base and added silicon components to increase its efficiency. That refurbished, self-winding caliber powered the Marine Chronograph Manufacture in 2013.

 Ulysse Nardin Freak One

A new corporate era began in 2014, when Ulysse Nardin became a part of the Kering group, a luxury-brand powerhouse whose brands include Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and Brioni. Kering also owned Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard, historical Swiss watch brands collectively known as the Sowind Group. During this period, Ulysse Nardin not only continued to develop the Freak as a high-tech “laboratory for the wrist,” but also to build it into a distinct collection, adding new Freak X models and introducing the spacecraft-inspired Freak S in 2022 and the back-to-basics Freak One (above) in 2023.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur Annual Calendar ChronographOne of the manufacture’s most notable recent launches was the Marine Torpilleur in 2017, an extension of the Marine family that takes its name from historical “torpedo boats'' used by naval forces in the early 20th Century, with a chronometer-style dial layout and a smaller, thinner case. The high-profile debut of the Marine Torpilleur — which kicked off an entire sub-family that includes complications such as the Annual Calendar Chronograph version above — placed a renewed focus on Ulysse Nardin’s unrivaled history of maritime timekeeping (which perhaps had gotten a bit lost in recent years with the decidedly forward-looking innovations represented by the Freak) and represented one aspect of the company’s aggressive ocean-related initiatives and sponsorships.

Ulysse Nardin Diver Net

Much of these initiatives found their expression in timepieces from the Diver series, Ulysse Nardin’s sportiest collection, which traces its roots to 1964 and its most recent revival to 2018. It is now one of the brand’s most expansive product families, with an array of case sizes, materials, and colorways, and includes chronograph versions as well as the openworked Diver X Skeleton models. The base design of the Diver (aka the Diver Chronometer) features a vintage-look dial similar to that of the Marine (12 o’clock power reserve, 6 o’clock running seconds with circular date window) but adds a utilitarian, ratcheting dive-scale bezel to the case and replaces the ornate hands and Roman numerals with wide baton hands and simple rectangular applied hour markers. A smaller, 42mm version of the 44mm original dispenses with the subdials entirely for a more streamlined, three-hand-date look as well as a more entry-level price tag. Notable special editions of the Diver have included 2019’s Deep Dive “One More Wave'' edition, developed in partnership with a charitable organization founded by retired Navy SEALs to provide surfing equipment to disabled members of their fraternity; 2021’s Lemon Shark, an all-black edition with yellow details whose partial sales proceeds go to supporting endangered shark populations; and the Diver Net (above), a concept watch unveiled in 2020 that represented Ulysse Nardin’s most audacious foray to date into sustainable materials, with a world’s first case made from “upcycled” plastic fishing net material that had previously been polluting the ocean.

Ulysse Nardin Ocean Race Diver Chronograph

As it sails resolutely past its 175th anniversary and toward its bicentennial, Ulysse Nardin has rededicated itself to the twin goals of honoring its maritime heritage and remaining at the forefront of modern watchmaking technology, with a renewed emphasis on environmental responsibility in both areas. As of 2022, the company is once again independent, owned and operated by its CEO Patrick Pruniaux, who acquired it from the Kering Group when the French luxury conglomerate divested itself of its luxury watch holdings. Ulysse Nardin celebrated its longtime role as timing partner of the Ocean Race, an international sailing competition, in 2023 with the launch of a limited-edition Diver Chronograph (above) with a case of black DLC titanium and a bezel made from a proprietary carbon material called Carbonium. The brand also sponsors the “eco-focused” 11th Hour Racing Team (below), which won the Ocean Race during that same year.

Ocean Race 11th Hour Racing Team

Pruniaux has also streamlined Ulysse Nardin’s portfolio of timepieces. The Marine family is now primarily made up of Marine Torpilleur models, with case sizes ranging from 42mm to 44mm and encompassing classic marine chronometer displays as well as chronographs, moon-phases, and annual calendar chronographs. The Diver collection includes the aforementioned 44mm Chronometers and 42mm three-handed models, plus a handful of 44mm chronographs as well as the 44mm Diver X Skeletons. The Classico models, mostly offered in very small limited editions, are elegant timekeepers with some of the watch world’s most exquisite miniature enamel dial paintings, courtesy of Donzé Cadrans. The youngest and most horologically ambitious collection from a complication standpoint is the space-age-inspired Blast (below), introduced in 2020 and boasting audaciously designed skeletonized tourbillon movements.

Ulysse Nardin Blast HourstrikerOf all the brand’s pillars, it is the Freak, as always, that leads the pack in terms of cutting-edge horological boldness. The Freak One, introduced at Watches & Wonders 2023 in Geneva, brings the groundbreaking model closer to its roots while also incorporating many of the technological advances wrought by the various concept watches and other evolutions of the Freak over the years. It features the “no hands, no dial, no crown” design of the original, with a 44mm case in rose gold and black-DLC titanium; the case's heavily notched locking bezel is used in place of a crown to set the time, which is revealed by the black sunray-engraved barrel cover that rotates as an hour disk along with the bridge assembly while a carousel flying tourbillon tracks the minutes. The open gear train of the dial-side movement evokes 2013’s Freak Cruiser, while the black and gold aesthetic recalls the Freak S. The movement features the silicon components pioneered by its predecessor as well as a DiamonSil treatment on the escapement; it’s also equipped with the “Grinder” winding system that made its commercial debut in the Freak Vision. One could say it’s the ultimate Ulysse Nardin Freak... at least until the next one.

Ulysse Nardin Freak One on wrist

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