Innovation unlimited

Innovation unlimited

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Hiren Kumar Bose chats up Rolf W Schnyder, CEO of Ulysse Nardin and comes up with unknown facts about the Swiss watchmaker on its 160th anniversary

Know the truth behind the mechanical watch: That it’s alive only because of the human touch. This is the raison d’etre of Ulysse Nardin’s business: creating watches of enduring value which are likely to last much beyond our times. Complimented with an assurance from Rolf W Schnyder, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, that “the manufacture (factory) will be here to take care of your watch for as long as you own it – and even beyond”, the cognoscenti grab its creations while they’re still hot. Historically, Ulysse Nardin was best known for being a manufacturer of marine chronometers, but today it has transformed itself into a highly innovative watchmaker producing complicated mechanical watches. Before the advent of quartz timepieces, merchant and military ships relied on highly accurate mechanical timepieces known as marine chronometers.

The Ulysse Nardin collection is in the proud tradition of quality and mechanical innovation. Its consistent excellence had also been recognized by the award of 18 international gold medals and 4,300 first prizes in chronometric excellence.

Like other great Swiss brands, the 1970s were not kind to Ulysse Nardin and the firm fell on hard times. In 1983 Ulysse Nardin was acquired by businessman Rolf Schynder who along with watchmaker Dr Ludwig Oechslin re-launched the brand as an innovative company on the leading edge of watch design. “At the time I took over, the Swiss watch industry was in the doldrums. Mechanical watches were being made only in India and China. It has grown over the years. At the time I took over, we had 35 people at Ulysse Nardin. Now we have 2,220 people,” says Schnyder.

Schnyder and Oechslin designed and created complicated timepieces using modern materials and manufacturing techniques. The first example of this new innovative Ulysse Nardin came with the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei series in 1985, which displays local and solar time, the orbits and eclipses of the sun and moon as well as the positions of several major stars. With Astrolabium, Schnyder reunited watch lovers with the human world and astrology and philosophy, all along reconnecting humans’ relationships with time.

The Astrolabium is so accurate that it loses only one day every 144,000 years. At the end of 1985, one year into its introduction, Schnyder found that he had sold an incredible 80 Astrolabium Galileo Galileis – at a time when it commanded a price of 37,500 Swiss francs. It was sign of a tremendous sign of encouragement to Schnyder and it proved him right that a thriving fascination for mechanical watches still existed and had the potential to be cultivated into an even greater force than previously realized.

The watch even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in February 1989 as the world’s most complicated wristwatch. Oechslin followed up the Astrolabium with two other astronomical watches, the Planetarium Copernicus (1988) and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler (1992). Since then, Ulysse Nardin has produced the San Marco, a limited edition minute repeater wristwatch available in gold or platinum, as well as the Tellurium Johannes Kepler and the patented GMT watch, which is intended for frequent travellers.

In 1996, the company’s 150th Anniversary was celebrated with the introduction of the marine Chronometer 1846 as a wristwatch. It was named Perpetual Ludwig after its creator, the brilliant and talented watchmaker/ scientist, Dr Ludwig Oechslin, the man behind the Astrolabium series. The single-button chronograph ‘Pulsometer’ to commemorate Ulysse Nardin’s birth in 1823 was introduced in 1998, yet this was eclipsed the following year when the firm debuted the GMT Perpetual, two unique and exclusive Ulysse Nardin creations integrated into one watch.

Other notable complicated watches followed namely the GMT± Perpetual (1999), that combines a perpetual calendar with the GMT± complication (one-press buttons that adjust the hour hand back and forth for international travellers), the Maxi Marine Chronometer, which has an officially certified chronometer movement, 42-hour power reserve indicator, and oversized seconds-hand. It is self-winding with a screwcrown and water resistant to 200 meters. The Michelangelo: Gigante UTC Dual Time Limited Edition, which features a wide range of the technical breakthroughs like the Big Date model, allows a double window for date display that’s readable at a long distance. It also includes a self-winding movement with unique time zone quickset and a permanent home time display. The case is 18 carat white gold and the dial is blue with a sapphire crystal. Only 100 pieces will be produced of this exquisite Limited Edition. Additionally, the Freak (2001) is a tourbillon watch with no hands or crown.

With the Freak, Schnyder reiterated that watch making was both science and art, that they could coexist on the same canvas. As the Making of a Masterpiece, published by Ulysse Nardin, mentions, “With the Freak, Schynder showed us that watches are art, that a beating escapement could fulfill us as completely as Yeats’ perfect verses or Kurosawa’s flawless celluloid images.”

The Freak smashed every convention known to watch making in its own inexorable way. The watch has an 8-day tourbillon carousel with no hands or dial: emblematic of creativity and blazing a road to mechanical watch renaissance, so to say. “It’s my personal favourite; it’s a piece of art, a sculpture you can wear on your wrist,” Schnyder told this correspondent when pressed to name his most preferred time piece. But he soon hastened to add, “I like Perpetual too. Then there is Sonata which besides being romantic is very functional.”

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