How The Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer Went From Ship To Wrist

New Watch! • 20 Sep 2017

How The Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer Went From Ship To Wrist

by Frank Geelen

In 1846, Ulysse Nardin founded his an eponymous brand, one that would one day become famous for making precision instruments. But not just any instruments. From the very beginning, Ulysse Nardin himself specialized in marine chronometers, precision clocks made to help maritime navigation, an idea that remains a cornerstone for the brand that bears his name.

In the middle of the 19th century, the exploration of the seas was already largely completed and seaborne trade was rapidly growing. Yet, sailing ships of the day were not yet equipped with modern navigation instruments. Captains and navigators had to rely on mechanical timekeepers known as marine chronometers.

These were timepieces precise and accurate enough to be used as a portable form of standard time, which could therefore be used to determine longitude by means of celestial navigation. While 17th century clockmakers such as John Harrison, Ferdinand Berthoud or Thomas Mudge were involved in the creation of the first marine chronometers, Ulysse Nardin grew to become one of the main producers of such clocks in the following century.

Antique Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer

An example of antique Marine Chronometer by Ulysse Nardin.


Marine chronometers by Ulysse Nardin were regarded as reliable and precise, giving the brand its reputation. Its marine chronometers saw service with the navies of some 50 countries from the mid-1800s.

Classical yet functional in design, its marine chronometers, both in boxed and pocket watch form, possessed more or less the same dial design: central indication of hours and minutes, elongated black Roman numerals on a white enamel or metal dial, along with a small seconds at 6 and the power reserve display at 12.

But by the middle of the 20th century the heyday of Ulysse Nardin’s marine chronometer business was a thing of the past. After a long period of corporate confusion – marine chronometers were not needed anymore with modern equipment – and the eventual bankruptcy of the company because of the quartz crisis, the brand was acquired by Rolf Schnyder in 1983.

Together with watchmaker Ludwig Oechslin, the pair revived the brand, starting with landmark complicated watches like the Trilogy of Time and automaton minute repeaters. We had to wait another 13 years to see the return of the marine chronometer, when the brand marked its 150th anniversary.

In 1996, Ulysse Nardin relaunched returned to its maritime history with the limited edition Marine Chronometer 1846. Naturally, these were modern wristwatches, but ones inspired by the antique marine chronometers of the 1800s.

The anniversary editions were faithful revival of the original concept: a case inspired by the form of the gimballed marine chronometer, and a dial that was almost identical, still classical yet functional.Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer 1846

The 1996 Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer 1846.


Over the years, the Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer collection grew and evolved, eventually becoming the brand’s flagship collection. But 20 years after its comeback, its pure and functional maritime roots became slightly lost, with the watches becoming bigger, more flashy, and in colours and styles very much in keeping with the fashion of the day.

Fortunately, in the last 2 years, the direction has been corrected, with new designs that return once again to the classic, functional marine chronometer style.Ulysse Nardin Marine Annual Calendar Chronograph 2016

 The 2016 Marine Annual Calendar Chronograph.


Last year Ulysse Nardin started the renewal of the Marine collection with the introduction of an Annual Calendar Chronograph – a watch that defined the style of subsequent Marine watches. Not only was the design a throwback to the brand’s history, the movement was a true blue Ulysse Nardin calibre because of the clever calendar complication that is based on the work of Ludwig Oechslin. Its restrained, slightly vintage style, one greatly inspired by antique marine chronometers, laid the foundation of the rest of the line-up to come. Ulysse Nardin Marine Annual Calendar Enamel Dial 2017

The 2017 Marine Annual Calendar enamel dial.


Earlier this year Ulysse Nardin unveiled an impressive extension of the Marine collection. First, an Annual Calendar model was introduced, boasting a superb fired enamel dial, a watch that combines true Ulysse Nardin pedigree with the annual calendar mechanism combined with a enamel dial made by its subsidiary company Donzé Cadrans.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer 1846 2017 reissue

 The 2017 reissue of the Marine Chronometer 1846.


At the same time, the brand reissued the 150th anniversary edition originally made in 1996, once again naming it Marine Chronometer 1846. Just like the 1996 edition, the new 1846 is basically a scaled-down version of vintage marine chronometers. Like the 1996 original, the reissue has an enamel dial and a design that faithfully reinterprets the great history of the brand. But inside it has an upgrade: the remake is powered by an in-house, chronometer-certified movement, instead of the ETA calibre found in the 1996 model. Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur 2017

The 2017 Marine Torpilleur.


Last but not least, the Marine collection was recently reinforced with an equally classic but far more affordable wristwatch: the Marine Torpilleur. Named after a type of small torpedo boat, this contains all the codes of the Marine collection, but in a simplified format. It has the same dial, but finished in a metallic silver instead of enamel, and a slimmer, simpler case. But it is still equipped with the in-house calibre UN-118, which is naturally chronometer-certified, living up to the name. Possibly one of the most tasteful and faithful modern takes on the marine chronometer – at a relatively reasonable price.

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