Collector’s Guides • 02 Dec 2018

Across Mountains, Seas and Stars: Ulysse Nardin

by Blake Reilly


Le Locle is Switzerland’s third smallest city. Elevated 945 metres above sea level it is nestled in the sub-alpine Jura Mountains. The Col de Roches forms the border between France and Switzerland, and Le Locle sits just to the west of this mountain pass. Thoroughly landlocked, Le Locle is about 330 kilometres from the nearest sandy coastline. Curiously, it was from that particular Swiss mountain town that an ambitious Mr Ulysse Nardin decided that he would set out to produce the very finest precision marine chronometers. In 1846, the company Ulysse Nardin was born.

To the rue du Jardin

Ulysse’s father, Leonard-Frederic, was himself a watchmaker. Having spent time as an apprentice under his watchful eye, Ulysse then went on to work for other leading local Swiss watchmakers before deciding to start his own company. The brand continued to grow, and in 1960 the company acquired a high-precision astronomical regulator to calibrate its pocket chronometers – an important step towards achieving Ulysse’s nautical ambition. A few years later, with Ulysse Nardin now an established and respected brand, the company moved to its headquarters at 3 rue du Jardin, Le Locle. To this day, watches are still made from the original property (albeit with the assistance a more contemporary extension attached to the side of the mansard-roofed older building).

Ulysse Nardin Headquarters in 1908

Well Decorated

The death of Ulysse in 1876 meant that his son, Paul-David, would take the helm. What followed were many decades of awards, records and significant milestones for the company. Innovation was rife within the walls of 3 rue du Jardin, with several Swiss patents being issued to the company for its mechanisms and movements in the years to follow under new leadership. Central to the brand’s reputation and respect was the Neuchâtel Observatory (or the Observatoire Astronomique et Chronometrique de Neuchâtel). The role of the observatory, as an astronomical observatory, was to measure the movements of timepieces for their accuracy – a task which became increasingly pressing as timepieces began to be used as nautical navigational tools.

Unfortunately, due largely to the accuracy and popularity of quartz, throughout the 1970s the observatory slowly ceased to conduct its assessments of mechanical timepieces. However, the final official report from the observatory (a publication detailing assessments from 1846 to 1975) would have made Ulysse Nardin fans smile from Le Locle to Los Angeles. The company was awarded 95% of all certificates of performance for mechanical marine chronometers (4324 out of 4504), 1069 First Prizes, and a number of other esteemed medals and prizes. Ulysse was determined in his vision to achieve astronomical precision and accuracy for the company’s timepieces, and the recognition from the Neuchâtel Observatory ensured that Ulysse Nardin was a shining star within the watch industry.

Neuchâtel Observatory (Image Credit) Click here to access the Observatory Chronometer Database (OCD)

Three Is No Crowd

Not quite content with producing unrivalled timepieces for navigation on the high seas, time called for Ulysse Nardin to embark on bold, experimental watchmaking projects. The company was confidently forging an innovative path under the new leadership of Rolf W. Schnyder, which resulted in a brave horological leap in 1985: the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei. Not only was it the mark of a stark new direction for Ulysse Nardin, but the Astrolabium was the also the beginning of an exciting and prolific partnership between Schnyder and renowned watchmaker Ludwig Oechslin.

Ulysse Nardin, Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, Ref. 921-22 Circa 1985 (Credit: Christie’s)

Having created such a rare timepiece featuring multiple complications, the duo of Schnyder and Oechslin brought the watch world’s attention straight back to the Le Locle company – even earning an entry into the 1989 Guinness Book of World Records for its containing a remarkable 21 functions. But the partnership was hardly finished pushing boundaries with their astrological timepiece. The Planetarium Copernicus followed in 1988 and was joined again by the Tellurium four years later. These three watches formed the group of astrological complications referred to as the Trilogy of Time: a triumvirate destined to rule both the seas and the stars. Between 1985 and 1992 Ulysse Nardin had thoroughly reinvented itself. Having acquired a proclivity for perplexing complications, the company had knocked down a wall to make room for future innovation.

Signed Ulysse Nardin, No. 76/99, Tellurium Johannes Kepler Model, Ref. 889-99 Circa 1995 (Credit: Christie’s)

Exceptional, Anomalous, … Freak?

How does a watch company make the unusual, the unfamiliar and the unorthodox palatable? Of course Ulysse Nardin wanted more than palatable. Ulysse Nardin wanted to shatter preconceptions and win awards! A typical watch is usually considered to possess several key, seemingly unalienable features: a crown, hands and a dial. Except Ulysse Nardin resolutely rejected this statement in 2001 with the release of the Freak. Discarding the aforementioned features, the design team on rue du Jardin manufactured a timepiece in which its carousel tourbillon movement pivoted upon itself to tell the time. Rewarded for breaking with tradition, the Freak was awarded the Innovation Prize Watch of the Year in 2002 – rightly so, as nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Ulysse Nardin Yellow Gold Carrousel Tourbillon Wristwatch With 60-Minute Revolving Movement, Dual Escapement And 7-Day Power Reserve Ref 016-88 No 282 Freak Circa 2003 (Credit: Sotheby’s)

Freaking Outwards

Within the immediate family of the Freak, several notable disruptions to the industry were conceived. Most significantly, Ulysse Nardin was the first company to feature silicon escapement components in their watches– a material now used throughout the industry. Indeed, the Freak was just as much an innovation itself, as it was a vehicle for innovation. This year, recently appointed CEO Patrick Pruniaux expanded the Freak from being a single timepiece to a collection; the Freak Collection now includes the Freak Out and Freak Vision. Of course, Pruniaux is no stranger to innovation. Prior to taking control in Switzerland, he was recruited by Apple to work on the development of a highly secretive and incredibly pioneering venture – the Apple Watch. It is always productive for a company to revere excellence in innovation just as much as its leadership.

Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision

Smooth Sailing Ahead

In slightly over 170 years, Ulysse Nardin has – one could assume – far exceeded even the wildest aspirations of the founder to which it owes its name. Certainly, bold, unequivocally unconventional and delightfully avant-garde, the stars are aligned for the company from the mountainous town of Le Locle and it is in prime condition to sail straight ahead.

Ulysse Nardin Freak Out Black Out

Blake Reilly

Blake majors in Politics, International Relations and Ancient History. Having inherited his great grandfather’s Omega Seamaster, Blake has since developed a keen interest in Swiss watches and the history behind them.


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