At Ulysse Nardin, it’s a question of vision. A trailblazer in the future of watchmaking, innovation is its raison d’être. It was the first watch manufacturer in the world to use thermally-stabilised, non-magnetic and gravity-resistant silicium for the balance spring – introduced in 2001 in its first avant-garde Freak timepiece with no crown, hands or dial – thereby making it the silicon pioneer of mechanical horology.
Today, leading brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex and Breguet use silicium in their watches. In its search for new technologies and materials permitting unrivalled accuracy and performance, Ulysse Nardin was behind the Dual Direct escapement making anchors and escapement wheels as superfluous as rubies for friction reduction or oil for lubrication, the use of real and synthetic diamonds in watch movements, and the silicium anchor escapement.
It is also one of the few Swiss watchmakers to design, develop and manufacture its own movement components, including the escapement, hairspring, screws, balance wheel and oscillator. Stéphane von Gunten says, “The primary focus of our research remains constant. We look to improve the precision and reliability of our mechanical watches. We always consider new display options because there are countless new avenues to explore.”
Then there are Ulysse Nardin’s concept watches, which aren’t just marketing gimmicks, but true testbeds of research into the technologies that it hopes to implement in its production models to contribute to the horological landscape and bring about true consumer benefits. According to von Gunten, they’re about keeping the trade and customers engaged, allowing the brand to show what it’s working on and what the future could potentially hold, demonstrating an idea’s feasibility, refining a technical development ahead of large-scale production and taking risks. This is in line with the concept watches that have been launched by other watchmakers such as Parmigiani Fleurier, Audemars Piguet, Zenith, Panerai and Cartier in recent years.
Of the 10 innovations proposed in Ulysse Nardin’s InnoVision 1 concept watch of 2007 that carried the promise of unexpected possibilities for the design of movement components, eight made their way into the brand’s current collections, with 10 patents representing true advances that it wishes to include in its contemporary timepiece families. Believing that concept watches should and will be adopted increasingly by the watchmaking industry, Jean-Christophe Sabatier comments, “It’s a good way to experiment and to take the first step without overpromising, but also to show the path you’re taking. Also, it’s not the same when you put all the innovations in one piece instead of one innovation here and there – it gives you a kind of helicopter view about what you stand for as a brand.”
A decade later, in 2017, Ulysse Nardin’s InnoVision 2 presented a further 10 innovations, of which three have already been integrated into this year’s Freak Vision serial-production timepiece that leads the way to new possibilities – proof of a ground-breaking step to be able to industrialise these innovations in such a period of short time.
It incorporates the revolutionary Grinder automatic winding system with flexible elements that converts even the slightest wrist movement into potential energy, winding the spring with practically no idling and doubling the efficiency, as well as the Ulysse Nardin Anchor Escapement constant force escapement for increased precision made entirely of silicium and based on the principle of flexible mechanisms, exploiting the elasticity of flat springs. Such components that depend on the elasticity of materials to replace mechanical joints and have the ability to bend to transfer energy are starting to appear progressively in timepieces presented by other watchmakers.
Sabatier describes innovation and design trends that we’ll witness in the horological industry over the next five years, “Definitely one of them is flexible blades. We are not the only brand proposing innovations in this field, and it’s not the first year that we are doing that. We did the flying anchor with flexible elements five years ago on a flying tourbillon. We were the first to do it, and now others are presenting proposals with some other parts of the movement. Also, materials, either for technical or design purposes, are the new frontier. We still discover many possibilities.”