Technology drives the world at an unimaginable speed. At Ulysse Nardin watchmaking factory, technology has been at the helm for almost two centuries. Innovation after innovation, the Maison brings the profession to the future, combining the ancestral art of Haute Horlogerie with a high-tech approach of measuring time. Founded in 1846 by 23-year-old Ulysse Nardin, the brand that bears his name conveys his entrepreneurial spirit. Known for its revolutionary designs, such as the Freak or the Perpetual Calendar, the company pioneered the search for new materials, particularly in the use of silicon. Prestige met Stephane Von Gunten, head of the New Technologies Department.
«Ulysse Nardin is renowned for his revolutionary designs»
You are at the head of what is called the Department of New Technologies. Why does a watch manufacturer need such a department and what is your mission? I have four main missions, the first is to validate all new developments at Ulysse Nardin. Some ideas come from the market as a result of customer demand. Others come from our teams or management. Sometimes young watchmakers offer us concepts. Whatever the source, the development of these ideas is supported by the technical office. The validation comes next. The development of the prototypes is done according to the complexity of the watch. If the movements are destined for big series, we can arrive at one hundred, two hundred models, our mission is to realize these prototypes and validate them. Our basic work is to develop and test. Subsequent tasks on the production cycle follow. Finally, there is the intellectual property part, which concerns patents.
You talk about new ideas. Is it technology related to materials or the movement itself? This is called applied research. For example this automatic winding mechanism is quite complex, it is a piece of watchmaking, a revolutionary system because we managed to improve the efficiency of winding. It’s a complete concept. There may be other elements where it is more of a material that we can use in many components and that is part of applied research.
Last year, there was the prototype watch «InnoVision 2» with its ten patents and you were studying how to apply all these innovations. Did you use them this year? First there are the strategic decisions of the company, then the validation of the technical department and finally the validation at the aesthetic level. This year, several innovations have been presented at the SIHH, including the Freak Vision, flagship watch of the Freak Line, which takes the concept of Freak with the movement that indicates the hour and the minute. We used some parts of the InnoVision 2 prototype watch. We took over the Grinder automatic winding system. It revolutionizes energy transmission by being twice as effective as existing systems. The Grinder uses the slightest movements of the wrist. The oscillating weight is connected to a frame with four ratchets, which gives the automatic system twice the angular stroke (like a bike with four pedals instead of two). A flexible guide mechanism considerably limits friction. We also used for the first time in our current collection, the large silicon balance that was presented in the prototype watch InnoVision 2. An ultra-lightweight silicon balance wheel with nickel weights and stabilizing micro-pallets. The Ulysse Anchor escapement is based on the principle of flexible mechanisms using the elasticity of the leaf springs. This constant escapement, made entirely of silicon, features a circular frame with an anchor fixed at its center, which pivots without friction. The new pierced top bridge is inspired by the hull of a boat.
What are the technical specifications of Freak Vision? There are four main elements: the winding system, the large balance wheel, the cog and the constant escapement. Then there are aesthetic codes including the domed sapphire crystal-case, the spring in the center, and the oscillating mass all around. All this has reduced the size of the case by a few millimeters.
This kind of technical advance can help in the creation of feminine models, why don’t we see this application on women’s watches? I think that would be a good idea. We have not yet thought about the feminine models where this application would be usable.
The nautical spirit is a master line at Ulysse Nardin … Indeed, Ulysse Nardin’s links with the sea are as deep as the ocean. A pioneer in watchmaking innovation since 1846, the Manufacture was first of all renowned for the unparalleled precision and reliability of its onboard timekeeping chronometers. Essential navigational instruments that helped sailors to calculate longitude, coupled with the latitude that was estimated by the position of the stars in the sky. The Manufacture is equally famous for its underwater exploits, thanks to the Diver collection and its ultra resistant and resolutely masculine models.
Are there any other big novelties? The Diver Deep Dive men’s watch is waterproof up to 1000 meters, where the diving record is set at 701 meters, this limited edition (300 pieces) stands out for its exclusive technical features, including a removable titanium crown guard to 2 hours and a helium valve at 9 o’clock, for deep-sea dives of long duration or with saturation. The Diver Deep Dive is equipped with the UN-320 manufactured caliber, featuring a patented silicon escapement system. The spiral is also in silicon, a material that the Ulysse Nardin House was the first to introduce in Haute Horlogerie. It is a sports watch, typically masculine, and particularly robust. We have a new version of the Jade women’s collection with the 37mm round box, which I find very elegant. It is available in blue, grey or red with a mother-of-pearl dial adorned with a wave of diamonds, and the option of having a steel bezel set with 76 diamonds or simply a stainless steel bezel. As for the Executive Freewheel, it will be launched in the fall. Finally, Marine Torpilleur Military inspired the world of warships. A military watch, where the crown is large and the case sandblasted. The series is limited to 300 pieces.
In a world where everyone looks at their phone to read the time, we do not really need a watch, adopting this kind of technology comes to counter the technology of smartphones, to give a young look to the watchmaking industry? It’s a very delicate question. The mechanical watch can be restarted in five or ten years, it still works. I can resume my grandfather’s watch, it works and also has value. There is also the emotion and the beauty of the Freewheel that we can not find on an Apple watch, which is not pretty with a black screen. It’s a personal matter. A question of elegance. Interviewed in Geneva by Maria Nadim