Exploring 21st Century Watchmaking With Ulysse Nardin
For the last two decades, Ulysse Nardin has been pushing the boundaries of modern watchmaking. Its latest creation packs all its innovations in one model.
A year ago, starting at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie 2019, CEO of Ulysse Nardin Patrick Pruniaux began to introduce a new concept for the brand: a range of timepieces that were at the forefront of their collections in design, attitude and development. The range was named the ‘X’ Collection, and each model bore a reference to the letter in one way or another. More interesting to collectors was the fact that while the watches were extremely interesting, they were not also extremely expensive. This is all too common in contemporary watchmaking, and Ulysse Nardin deserves plaudits for not following the pack. We would define the ‘X’ Collection as excellent examples of contemporary fine watchmaking. This year, the X Collection adds a bold new model and a powerful new Ulysse Nardin movement. The BLAST is a development that has been taking shape within Ulysse Nardin’s research division for the last two years, and is designed around the movement that powers it: the powerful skeleton UN-172 automatic tourbillon movement.
BREAKING DOWN THE CALIBRE UN-172
Since the BLAST has been developed around this calibre, everything from its case construction, to the skeleton bridges that double as the dial, are built around it. The automatic tourbillon is the first with micro-rotor from the brand, with a three-day power reserve from just one mainspring barrel. This is thanks to the efficient movement design and a slow-running tourbillon at 2.5Hz, steadily oscillating as it rotates around a lightweight cage.
In terms of design, the going train is supported on just the transverse cut-out ‘X’ bridges, which flank the movement, and a skeletonised circumferential backplate that adds structural support. Unlike typical skeleton movements that are usually hollowed out versions of their fully plated calibres, this movement is free of extraneous material. This means it was purpose-built to look and function as it does. Between the two aforementioned bridges lie the moving parts of the going train.
The micro-rotor that drives the automatic winding system is located dial-side, adding to the activity you see on the watch as it swings (when worn), balancing the design of the movement vertically with the tourbillon below. The words ‘Silicium Technology’ are boldly engraved on the barrel. It highlights the silicon marvel that is the escapement with the escape wheel, anchor and balance spring produced using the LIGA process; though, given that Ulysse Nardin has been at the forefront of silicon development in watchmaking for the last 20 years, it is no surprise. Since this is a lubrication-free escapement, that makes performance and maintenance of the watch far better.
A BLAST OF A DESIGN
The name of the model – BLAST – brings a mental image of explosive performance and energy, and its design reflects that strength. Inspired by powerful, precise lines that form in nature and modern, minimalist product design, the watch bears faceted horns around the case middle, bezel and case back. On the dial, a rectangular frame divides the watch into two sections: the hour markers rest on the periphery, as if firing out from the centre of the dial, while the hands emerge from the centre of the rectangle’s frame, with the rotor and tourbillon above and below.
The lugs of the watch remind one of the F-117’s muscled lines, softened with the use of brushed and polished surfaces and lightly rounded edges and corners. The tessellations and hard angles are distinct in wristwatch design, highly modern and one can almost envision it in a matte black; oh wait, that model exists as the Black BLAST, and it is a striking execution, with red accents to add ferocity to the stealth model.
Four versions of the watch exist, themed along the opposing forces of ‘Fire’ and ‘Ice’. The Black BLAST, mentioned previously, is crafted in black DLC titanium for the case middle, and black ceramic for the upper case middle and bezel, with a black rectangular bridge with a double ‘X’ in red and black. The unique part of this watch lies in the balance wheel of the movement, which Ulysse Nardin has developed in red. It is the first time that a moving component of the calibre is developed in a different colour from the original by Ulysse Nardin.
A second ‘Fire’ model features a rose gold case middle with black DLC coating, and upper case middle in rose gold, with faceted gold lugs coupled with a black ceramic bezel. The tourbillon cage is in black PVD and rose-gold coloured, reflecting the bi-colour case. This is the model that graces the cover of this special issue.
Moving on, the two ‘Ice’ models are in titanium (Blue BLAST) and titanium and ceramic (White BLAST). The Blue BLAST model has a blue PVD coating on the titanium bezel, with blue accents on the rectangular bridge, tourbillon cage and ‘X’ frame. White BLAST has a titanium case middle and ceramic upper case middle with a titanium bezel and crown, and accents of grey on the bridges and hour markers. A fifth version of the BLAST exists, a diamond-clad White BLAST model with a unique gem placement that refracts light in a myriad of directions. It is a blinding beauty that reminds one of the icebergs and glaciers in the most remote corners of the world.
Despite the watch being a rather sizeable 45mm around, it does not feel or wear like a large timepiece. The lugs bear down to wrap around even a slim wrist, and the various straps (in rubber, alligator leather or calfskin, as well as velvet or denim depending on which version of the BLAST you are getting) are designed to adhere to your skin comfortably. To match the design of the case, a self-deploying buckle with pushers on either side conveniently releases the strap, further securing the watch on your wrist.
DISCOVERING THE BLAST
To highlight the provocative and powerful character of the model, Ulysse Nardin has chosen a nature photographer, Carsten Peter, to collaborate with. Peter is a photographer of the extreme in nature, and has shot across every element of our world, from the most frigid places to the most fiery. He embodies the raw, explosive nature of the BLAST and we will be looking forward to seeing how he intends to reveal the watch through his photos.
Freaks Of Nature
Fire-and-Ice may represent a provocative theme, but these two forces have forged every natural element of this world, to exercise some poetic license. Conceptually, they are the very raw ingredients of what constitutes the watches of Ulysse Nardin. The best representation of this homage to nature comes in the form of two Freak X timepieces, the Freak X Ice and Freak X Magma.
The Freak’s legacy is well-known and frequently referenced across watchmaking history. The orbital movement’s design represents modern watch invention combined with modern watchmaking materials. It was the watch that premiered the use of silicon for Ulysse Nardin and, arguably, the entire watch trade. The Freak X was the first model that bore a conventional crown for ease of use, along with a far more attractive price range. It was the starting point for the X series of watches, and continues to drive the evolution of the brand.
The two models are housed in titanium, the Magma in black DLC-coated titanium and the Ice in a matte white treatment. The outer case, however, which joins the lugs on either end, comes in very different styles. The Freak X Ice’s outer case is in titanium, silvered like the movement components to create an austere white and grey landscape on the wrist.
The Magma’s outer case is crafted in carbon fibre with a red marbled epoxy resin, moulded into the case form. The flaming red colour that criss-crosses the jet black carbon fibre makes it look like layers of fiery lava cooling into volcanic rock.
The flying carrousel on the dial, pivoting on the hour disc of the UN-230 calibre is a marvel to admire. The movement has a large silicon balance wheel, keeping it very light and therefore enabling the mainspring to power this complex movement for up to three days. It also helps to maintain precision and reduce the impact of shock on the moving system.
If transparency and clarity are values that you live by, then the Skeleton X is the mechanical watch to match your ethos. The watch is timekeeping at its purest and simplest: a going train supported by just one rectangular bridge with an ‘X’ frame around it, and sapphire crystal wrapping either side of the watch to protect it from the elements. The operation of the entire movement is completely visible.
Collectors who obsess over movement designs and discuss details of movement operations will love this watch, for it leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. The UN-371 calibre that powers the watch is a redesigned version of the UN-171, with an oversized silicon balance wheel with micro-blade stabilisers and nickel flyweights. It occupies the lower half of the dial, and above is the barrel that keeps it running for up to four days.
The latest model of this watch comes in a new-to-watchmaking material: Carbonium Gold©. Carbonium is a high-performance, carbon-based composite used in aeronautics. Consequently, it is a high-performance, ultra-light material. Carbonium gold is sustainably produced combining gold material with the seven micrometer carbon fibres that create the wave-like black-and-gold case design. It is a stunning model and brings Ulysse Nardin to the forefront of watch innovation once more.
A Greener Future for Luxury
Part of what interested Ulysse Nardin in carbonium was the fact that it was more sustainably produced compared with other ultra-light carbon composites. In the last few years, the brand has been focused on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the UN, in particular SDG 14 on enhancing oceanographic knowledge while reducing marine pollution. This is also due in part to its partnership with athlete Ben Lecomte, a marathon swimmer whose accomplishments include covering 1,500 nautical miles swimming the Pacific Ocean. He swam through 330 nautical miles of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 80 days last year, in order to sound the alarm on plastic waste in the oceans.
Ulysse Nardin also works to actively protect marine life, especially apex predators such as sharks. It has offered a grant to the Azores University’s marine research center to acquire pop up biologging sensors to tag blue sharks in the Atlantic and document our knowledge of this endangered species. Ulysse Nardin works with freediver and underwater photographer Fred Buyle on this front.
To support these conservation objectives, Ulysse Nardin is introducing a fabric strap, the R Strap, made from a polyamide yarn woven from recycled fishing nets. The R-Strap is compatible with the Diver models in 42 and 44mm sizes, Marine Torpilleur and Freak X watches. It is 100 percent waterproof, with inter-weaving on the edges to prevent fraying damage due to wear. Even the dyeing technique to colour the material is carried out in a way to minimise environmental impact.
The goal here was to achieve the highest levels of sustainability possible, while creating a product of unmatched excellence. The R-Strap is environmentally friendly, not only in the materials used, but also in how it was made. The same is true of the Diver NET.
THE FUTURE OF WATCHMAKING
The brand has gone even further in pursuit of sustainable luxury watch manufacturing. Working with three Breton designers from FIL&FAB, they built an upcycled concept watch where every trim element is designed to be as low-impact on the environment as possible. The Diver NET has a case middle, back and bezel produced from polyamide pellets produced by recycling fishing nets. The resulting watch is depth-rated to 300 metres so it is quite tough and resilient. The strap is produced from PET plastic recovered from the sea, and even the glass protecting the watch is made from a ceramic glass, not sapphire, produced in the Swiss Jura region. It offers a lower environmental impact in its production compared with sapphire crystal.
The watch is equipped with the UN-118 calibre, with a grey dial with white hour markers and green accents, and a large ‘UN’ logo on the dial. The SuperLuminova used with the watch is in acid green, to match the energetic green on the dial and crown guards. The power reserve display is at 12 o’clock, while the small seconds display is at the bottom of the dial. While the Diver NET may be a concept watch today, Ulysse Nardin intends to find ways to translate the research to commercial use, to reduce the company’s environmental impact. Once again the firm is at the forefront of innovation, envisioning the future of sustainable luxury watchmaking for a new generation of eco-conscious collectors. And that future is exciting to behold.