The story is now well known—when the late Rolf Schnyder purchased the company in 1983, it was only a shadow of its former being—Ulysse Nardin was basically a name and two watchmakers. It was not much, but enough to make Schnyder believe in it, and to make him certain of the future of innovative mechanical timekeeping. Yet, he knew that he could not do it alone. Fortunately, he met Ludwig Oechslin, a multi-talented inventor, who is today the conservator of the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Out of this meeting was born a friendship, and of this friendship was born a legendary collection—the Trilogy of Time set. The Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler made a lasting impression, and Ulysse Nardin had returned to the circle of great names in Swiss timekeeping. Other models signed Ludwig Oechslin would join this collection: the GMT ± Perpetual, Sonata, Moonstruck, and of course, Freak, which in Rolf Schnyder’s opinion is emblematic of the Ulysse Nardin spirit.
So, with a few advances, innovations, and impressive watches, Ulysse Nardin succeeded in inciting a new passion and appreciation with many collectors. The brand’s refusal to give in to the current fads and its consistency did the rest. Today, Ulysse Nardin is one of the rare enterprises in the haute horlogerie sector to remain independent. But then, last April, the passing of Rolf Schnyder sent shock waves through the brand.
Innovation, between the obvious and the necessary
Working in the United States and having joined the company in 1999, Patrik P. Hoffmann was rapidly named CEO, as Rolf Schnyder had planned. He and a close management team are following Schnyder’s work. In addition to Hoffmann, five individuals make up the brand’s current management team: Susanne Hurni in communication; Pierre Gygax as COO; Patrice Carrel as CFO; and Lucas Humair in production. All have been with the company for at least twelve years, thus affording real continuity.
“One of the marks of the Ulysse Nardin manufacture is its capacity for innovation,” insists Patrik P. Hoffmann. “This is largely known, and continuity rhymes with evolution. We are continuing to evolve the company and have recently taken the decision to start some new R&D processes, with results not expected before 2015. For us, innovation is as much the obvious as it is a necessity. The key to independence resides in profitability. You must be profitable to be able to invest in R&D and in the global development of the brand. Ulysse Nardin is a healthy company that has never had to turn to the banks to ensure its development. This must continue.”
The future of the brand seems well anchored in its independence. Chai Schnyder, Rolf’s widow and the new president of the company, made it clear to the workforce that she intends to follow her husband’s path, namely that of independence, which means an increasingly greater autonomy in terms of movements. “All those who participated in the growth of the brand over the last ten years are naturally very enthusiastic to continue on the same foundation,” states Pierre Gygax, adding, “This proclamation of independence is very positive for everyone. It is also a true compliment.”
Ulysse Nardin produces today some 25,000 watches per year for an estimated turnover of CHF 200 million. The enterprise is spread out between its headquarters in Le Locle (140 people), which houses administration, assembly, after-sales service, and the atelier for grand complications, and its factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds (150 more people) which oversees all the movement activity including in-house calibres as well as a variety of external subcontractors. Subcontracted elements are mostly completed by Ulysse Nardin developments. Some 90 other people are employed by the brand’s branches around the world.
An integrated manufacture
For anyone who has not followed the brand’s development, a visit is recommended. The manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds covers 3000 square meters and is constantly expanding. Here all the production steps are carried out, from design to finished product. The construction office has six constructors and five designers who create all the Ulysse Nardin calibres, which are divided into two large families—27 mm and 31 mm. Here, also all the movements Perpetual, Moonstruck, Sonata, Freak, and the latest Calibre UN-118 are created. The laboratory is very well equipped for realizing prototypes, testing, simulating, and correcting growing pains in the calibres as well as for quality control (water resistance, shock resistance, etc.) for all the components of the watch.
The La Chaux-de-Fonds factory is also an indispensable bureau for methodology and equipment as well as for quality—independent of the quality control operations—that verifies both internal production and components that come from outside. Plates and bridges are machined using the latest generation of CNC equipment while another area is reserved for cutting, milling, rolling, etc. The ébauches produced in the mechanical atelier are then decorated in-house (Côtes de Genève, spiral forms, diamond chamfering, circular graining, sunburst patterns, etc.), while polishing, thermal treatments, and electroplating are conducted externally. Despite its ability to produce most of the components—including the escapements coming from the joint venture with Sigatec, which are assembled and adjusted in La Chaux-de-Fonds—Ulysse Nardin prefers to also maintain outside sources of supply.
Since the first steps in managing the manufacture, i.e. the integration of the technical bureau in 1997, then the arrival of the first CNC in 1999—at the time Ulysse Nardin produced 4000 watches per year—the investment (not communicated, but estimated at several tens of millions of Swiss francs) has been constant.
In parallel, the company has shown uncommon curiosity and a vision since it has always been at the top—or among the top—when it comes to R&D on new materials, especially silicon. It was Ulysse Nardin that first ap-proached the CSEM in Neuchâtel in 2000 for the purpose of producing a silicon escapement, the Dual Direct, for its new Freak model (based on an idea from Michel Vermot, professor at the engineering school in Le Locle). The first pieces saw the light of day on September 5, 2000. Two months later, the CSEM asked Ludwig Oechslin what other components of the escapement could be made in silicon. Oechslin dared to propose the balance spring. The first springs, according to the designs at the MIH, were realized by the CSEM in March of 2002. This marked the beginning of a new era in watchmaking.
From 2001 to 2004, Ulysse Nardin produced the Freak 01 with the Dual Direct silicon. Starting in 2005, Freak watches were equipped with a second-generation escapement called the Dual Ulysse that functioned without lubrication. In 2007, came the InnoVision, a mechanical “concept” watch not requiring lubrication that incorporated ten major innovations. Some were found the following year in the Sonata Silicon model that had both the es-capement and the balance spring in silicon. In 2010, the Freak Diavolo came onto the scene, combining MPS ball bearings, LIGA pieces from Mimotec, and silicon parts from Sigatec.
The latest in the line, the Freak Diavolo and its escapement combining pieces in LIGA and silicon.
The diamond silicon alliance
At the same time, Ulysse Nardin was interested (since 2002) in the virtues of diamond technologyand launched a fabrication test of its Dual Direct escapement. Although the test was not conclusive, it provided a wealth of information. Research was continued and large investments were made right up to the launch of the Freak “Diamond Heart” in 2005. Given the cost, the “all diamond” was not seen as practical for “ordinary” production. This is the reason that, in 2004, Ulysse Nardin entrusted it to GFD, a start-up working in the development and growth of the diamond on silicon components, from which was born the unique Diamond Coated Silicon technology. This process was very promising—the 2007 Freak DIAMonSIL is an example—but it was not easily transposable to large scale production.
A few more years of development were necess-ary to reach satisfactory results, such as those presented in Sion in November 2010. Ulysse Nardin thus chose to acquire the GFD technology and industrialize it at Sigatec, on a large installation dedicated to the specific needs of watch components. This technology was also offered to other watch brands, contrary to what is observed in many other laboratories.
Far from resting on its laurels, Ulysse Nardin has taken the lead at Sion, Le Locle, and La Chaux-de-Fonds. There was no lack of work or projects, beginning with the increase in production of the in-house Calibre UN-118, a good movement that had been subjected to more than 4000 hours in the laboratory. This calibre is the keystone of the brand’s development and guarantees its independence.
Integrating an escapement made of DIAMonSIL (Ulysse Nardin patent), the new Calibre UN-118 is an automatic mechanical movement, COSC-certified, displaying hours, minutes, small seconds, power reserve indicator, and date at 6 o’clock with backward and forward date corrector. With 248 components, it has a working reserve of 60 hours and beats at a frequency of 4 Hz (28,800 vib/h). The importance of this calibre is even greater for Ulysse Nardin since it is the first of a family of movements that will be developed and equipped with a DIAMonSIL escapement coupled with a patented oscillator comprising an inertial balance wheel made of silicon 1.1.1. Clearly, in the future, this technology will be the signature of Ulysse Nardin and its in-house movements.
In the short term, Ulysse Nardin wants to concentrate on increasing production of the Calibre UN-118 to reach 10,000 to 15,000 over the mid-term. To do so, an additional assembly chain will be installed in the months to come. At the commands will be 12 to 14 operators to ensure the process, from the main plate to the finished movement, including checking, engraving, and numbering it.
The new calibre UN-118, the keystone of Ulysse Nardin’s development.
Prestige without snobbism
Make no mistake, moving to this type of production is not evident since it involves a much stricter process during all the fabrication steps. All companies that have passed from the status of artisanal watch production to industrial manufacturing perfectly understand the difficulties. “The fact of producing ‘industrially’ is certainly another matter,” sums up Lucas Humair, technical director of the manufacture. All the components must be perfect and not require any retouches.”
When he presented the Calibre UN-118 at BaselWorld last March, Rolf Schnyder stated, “In developing the movement technologies in-house, Ulysse Nardin could control its own quality. For a long time, the brand has actively invested in innovations that advance watchmaking. It wishes to create mechanical timekeepers that will inspire future generations.” Rolf Schnyder’s wish may very well be answered. The brand has many projects in view, some of which show the hand of Ludwig Oechslin.
Ulysse Nardin unceasingly continues its research —as do many of its competitors—on the strategic elements of the mechanical movement, whether they are the balance spring, escapement, or barrel spring. “All the research is centred on the reliability and lifespan of the mechanical watch,” explains Pierre Gygax. The brand has development projects involving all its lines, namely, the new Calibre UN-118, the perpetual calendar, Sonata, Moonstruck, and Freak.
Those who know the company understand that it is driven by a particular spirit, a spirit that Hoffmann intends to preserve at all cost. “With Rolf Schnyder, Ulysse Nardin showed that it is possible to sell prestige watches without snobbism, to be rigorous without taking itself too seriously. If we succeed in maintaining this state of mind for the brand, we will already have made good progress.”
Source: Europa Star August - September 2011 Magazine Issue