Review: Ulysse Nardin GMT Perpetual
Mechanical watchmaking is full of compromise. There’s only so much that can be done with wheels and springs in a space smaller than a matchbox, and that leads to some little quirks and eccentricities that are all part and parcel of owning one of these little ticking devices. But has Ulysse Nardin managed to conquer the trickiest quirk of all?
If you’ve been around watchmaking for a while, there are a few rules you’ll be aware of regarding the operation of these delicate little machines. Setting the date, for example: you can wind quickly on by pulling the crown to the quick date position, but only if it’s not around the hours of midnight. Then, the quick set mechanism interferes with the nightly date-change and can force it to the point of breakage. It’s not ideal, but it’s something we learn to live with, for the sake of our watches and our bank balance.
Or how about the chronograph? A normal chronograph, that is, not a flyback, blocks the reset pusher while it’s running—but that doesn’t mean a firm push on the blocked pusher still can’t do some damage. I mean, you’d have to push pretty hard, but it does happen, so clearly it’s a warning worth heeding, lest you wish to send your watch away and pay a pretty penny for the privilege.
And the expensive watches are no more immune to this than the cheap ones; take the perpetual calendar for example. Setting one typically requires a combination of button presses on hidden pushers set around the case, a process that, if overshot, warrants a full cycle back around again.
Inconvenient and annoying, but something remedied if the perpetual calendar happens to be a Kurt Klaus-designed IWC calibre. In 1985, Klaus, then Head Watchmaker at IWC, developed a perpetual calendar of his own that relegated the need for hidden pushers, moving every function to a single crown position. This made setting the calendar far easier, similar to setting the date with the quick-set—but with a single, major caveat of its own.
That is, go one day too far and you can’t go back again. Okay, that’s fine, you can wait for the watch to wind down and let it catch up, but if you weren’t aware of this, and were more familiar with the typical cyclic nature of a perpetual calendar, you might be tempted to push on through. Only trouble is, it keeps on going forwards, on and on and on. The solution? It has to go back to the manufacturer.
Like many of these idiosyncrasies, it seems that owning a perpetual calendar comes with its fair share of first world problems. Given that such an expensive complication is likely to be part of a rotation of watches, it’s going to be a snafu that arises fairly frequently—but does it have to? Given that we’ve got a Ulysse Nardin GMT Perpetual right here, you’d be right in guessing not.
This watch owes its impressive talents—on which we’ll speak more of in a moment—to a designer of complications for Ulysse Nardin called Dr Ludwig Oechslin. This is a man who spent his time dabbling in the kinds of astronomical complications that would make a mere mortal’s head explode into a frothy red mess, the kind of man who sought pleasure from figuring out how to make the movement of the Ulysse Nardin Freak double up as the minute hand.
The first Oeschlin perpetual calendar, the calibre UN-33, came out in 1996, and in 1999 it was updated to include a GMT function as we have here with the GMT Perpetual. And it’s a very usable GMT function, with pushers either side of the case controlling the hour hand for local time while the GMT hand remains planted for home. As the aeroplane touches down, knock the hour hand round however many hours for the time difference, and the job’s done. When you leave, simply press the other pusher to reverse the process.
And reversing the process is the theme for both this watch and Oechslin’s 1996 marvel. Most perpetual calendars calculate the where’s and the when’s of the days ahead through a single program wheel, segmented by forty-eight teeth sized according to the number of days in the month over a four-year period to account for the leap year, and this is the way it has been done for hundreds of years. Oeschslin, on the other hand, took a different approach.
Deep within this calibre UN-32, you’ll still find a program wheel, but it’s not the one you’d expect to see. Rather than being one single component, it’s actually layered of no less than nine gears in a planetary arrangement with varying teeth lengths that, as one, accommodate for the demanding requirements of the Gregorian calendar.
You may at this point be wondering, “Well, what’s the use of a GMT function on a watch that can’t go backwards?” and that is of course the secret weapon of this calibre UN-32. Date, month and year, they can all be set forward conveniently from the crown—and would you believe it, unlike the traditional program wheel, they can be set back again with just a twist in the opposite direction. Even the day, set by the twenty-four-hour rotation of the hands to allow the user to correctly sync it to the calendar, can be wound backwards.
And if you think the genius of Dr Ludwig Oechslin stops there, think again, because in 2006 he co-founded the brand Ochs und Junior to demonstrate just how simple his perpetual calendar design could really be, utilising those nine parts of the planetary program wheel in such a way that they are the only addition to the base calibre. Think about that; just nine parts to turn a standard movement into a full perpetual calendar. To put that into perspective, Patek Philippe uses almost 200 to do it the old-fashioned way.
So not only do you now know why the GMT perpetual calendar is something rarely seen, but you also know why this unassuming device from the mind of Dr Ludwig Oechslin and the house of Ulysse Nardin is to be so revered. And it goes to show, even after centuries of designing, developing, refining and perfecting, all it takes is one person to think differently, to do something differently to change the course of history forever.
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