Review: Ulysse Nardin Freak
This is a Ulysse Nardin Freak, and it is quite simply the single craziest watch ever made. That’s a bold claim because there are a lot of crazy watches, but this one wins the all-time craziest. Today I’m going to review the Ulysse Nardin Freak. I’m going to show you all of its quirks and features and then I’m going to put it on my wrist and wear it.
You may think of Ulysse Nardin as a manufacturer of unassuming and uninteresting watches, but you’d be wrong. This is a manufacturer that has developed and introduced some of the most innovative and exciting complications the industry has ever seen, including the perpetual calendar that can go backwards as well as forwards, a completely free-floating tourbillon, experimental escapements—and also this, the Ulysse Nardin Freak.
And it’s called “Freak” not because that’s how people reacted to it when they saw it, but because the man in charge of Ulysse Nardin at the time, Rolf Schnyder himself, declared that it was. You have to understand that this was all the way back in 2001, when the name “Urwerk” meant contemporary minimalism, when MB&F was still a distant twinkle in then-Harry Winston CEO Max Büsser’s eye. The Freak was the first.
Despite almost two centuries of heritage, Schnyder, who’d purchased the company during the ailing years following the quartz crisis, decided that with the help of master watchmaker Dr. Ludwig Oechslin he was going to make Ulysse Nardin a name to remember—and the Freak did just that. They could have limited the watch to just one crazy feature, but they didn’t—they went with all of them.
We’ll start with the way it looks, and you have to agree, the name very much does this watch justice. Instead of a dial, the Freak has an enormous cavity almost as deep as the watch itself, which despite being a not outrageous 12mm thickness, makes the watch seem practically cavernous. And instead of hands, the watch quite simply has a movement. That’s right—the watch’s hands are also the movement.
This means that the minute hand, which of course rotates once every hour, is also a kind of tourbillon—although instead of just the escapement rotating over and over again, it’s the entire movement. The hour hand is perhaps a little more traditional, although it’s still far from normal, fixed to a disk that rotates in its entirety behind the movement.
It’s just so bold, so ostentatious, and I’m so glad that Ulysse Nardin did it. The first run back in 2001 was limited to just a few pieces, but the demand for this crazy watch skyrocketed, and a number of different versions have made it into regular production since. There’s been models with diamond-tipped markers, elaborate, single-piece silicon balance wheels, tourbillons within the tourbillon, a multi-layered, blade-based oscillator with no traditional spring and the unfortunately named Grinder silicon automatic winding system—but it’s the first, the original mechanism that will always be known as the watch that freaked people out.
But we’re only just getting started, because this watch gets even crazier. As if having the entire movement rotating around the dial in place of the minute hand wasn’t enough, the movement itself is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking ever created. Why? Because in 2001, this calibre was the first ever in watchmaking to use the material silicon.
You hear about silicon being used all over these days, but back then it was unheard of. Antimagnetic and capable of being formed into some incredibly wear-resistant, complex shapes, silicon is the modern miracle found in watchmaking escapements. Even the old traditionalist Patek Philippe is using it.
But the Ulysse Nardin Freak was the first. And not only that, but Dr. Ludwig Oechslin didn’t just replace standard escapement parts like-for-like with silicon ones—he redesigned the escapement entirely. By using silicon’s incredible ability to take on any two-dimensional shape, no matter how complex, a twin escape-wheel system was developed that uses four contact points instead of two to keep the balance wheel spinning.
And that’s barely scratching the surface. You may have noticed that there’s no crown on this thing, no ugly, plebeian protrusion to take away from the symmetry of the marvel that is the Freak—so how exactly are you supposed to adjust the time and wind the mainspring?
It’s simple, but oh so crazy. To set the time, you reach below the bezel and pull up on the little plaque that lists the movement’s rate of 28,800 beats per minute. Then you can grasp the bezel and turn it, rotating the entire movement until it’s pointing in the right direction to tell the time. It’s absurd. It’s so ridiculous to watch the whole mechanism spin around like it’s the most normal thing in the world. You may also notice that the pivot point in the middle, a little polished cap, actually sits on the outside of the crystal, which means it must go through a tiny little hole in the centre. I’ll bet your watch doesn’t have that.
And what about the winding? The Ulysse Nardin does not disappoint, the mechanism just as freaky as the rest of it. All you have to do is turn the watch over, grasp the case back and twist in the direction of the little arrow, and the seven days of power reserve will begin to wind up. Even crazier still is the little window that goes around as you wind, revealing the enormous size of the mainspring. Seriously, this thing spans the entire case; it looks more like a spring for a clockwork toy than it does a watch. But then, this whole thing is more like a toy than it is a watch.
And so, that’s the Ulysse Nardin Freak, a watch that truly lives up to its name. Not only does it look crazy, the way you read it is crazy, the way you set it is crazy and even the way you wind it is crazy. There are some other pretty out-there watches, but the Ulysse Nardin Freak is by far the most incredible. Anyway, now it’s time to give the Ulysse Nardin Freak — back again.
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