The Ulysse Nardin Freak arrived at the beginning of the 21st century and was by far the most radical reinterpretation of the wristwatch since wristwatches had first started to be worn over a century before. The mechanical renaissance had at that point been well underway for over a decade, but wristwatch design, with very few exceptions, was still largely confined to exercises in the preservation and reinterpretation of essentially classical fine watchmaking values. The Freak changed all that by doing away with most of the formal elements of those values altogether. The Freak had no dial, no hands in the ordinary sense of the word, and significantly blurred the conventional distinction between the movement and the case.

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As if all that weren’t enough, it also had an escapement that was entirely unprecedented — the “Dual Direct” escapement in the original Freak, which has in recent years further evolved as the “Dual Ulysse” escapement, is based on the “natural” escapement initially developed by Abraham-Louis Breguet. Breguet himself gave up the escapement eventually — his design used two escape wheels geared directly to each other, and ran irregularly, thanks to play between the gear teeth being unavoidable with the manufacturing tolerances of the time. The extra inertia of two escape wheels instead of one was also a problem. The Dual Direct and Dual Ulysse escapements addressed both issues by using ultra-light modern materials fabricated to extremely precise tolerances (silicon in the Dual Direct and LIGA-fabricated nickel alloy in the Dual Ulysse).

Aside from the novel escapements, probably the most radical innovations in the Freak watches were the movement itself — designed to rotate once per hour, and thus acts as the minute hand of the watch; the case — the first wheel of the movement gear train meshed with fixed gear teeth on the inner lip of the case, making the case effectively part of the movement as well; and the mainspring — the energy demands of the escapement, and of overcoming the inertia of the entire movement, meant that a much more powerful spring than usual was needed, and the Freak used a mainspring that was the diameter of the entire movement.

The bezel of the Freak was also unusual in that it was used as the setting mechanism — you turned the bezel to set the time. It’s a testimony to the power of the Freak’s design that despite the passage of 10 years since it first debuted, it still has the power to shock and astonish — and the excitement it first created is as undimmed as ever; a tribute to the vision of designer Dr Ludwig Oechslin and the late, great, Rolf Schnyder.

It’s worth remembering too that the Freak had a mother as well as a father; the original idea came from a concept prototype designed by Carole Forestier-Kasapi (now chief movement designer at Cartier) who received the Prix de la Fondation Abraham-Louis Breguet, in 1998, for her design using an entire movement turning within the watch case (though the final Freak was radically different from her original design).

Though the idea of making an entire watch movement rotate may seem like an avant-garde notion today, like most ideas, it has a longer pedigree than you might imagine. Long before the Freak was a gleam in Ulysse Nardin’s eye, American Daniel A. A. Buck designed, in 1887, a watch that’s come to be known as the Waterbury Long-Wind, for the Waterbury Watch Company of Waterbury, Connecticut. The Long-Wind was designed to be inexpensive to manufacture with a minimum parts count — it had only 58 components in all, three wheels instead of four, a duplex escapement, and a nine-foot-long mainspring (!) with enough torque to turn the entire movement through one revolution per hour.

The Long-Wind is a find for collectors today, but it’s rarely seen in good condition as, rather bizarrely, the company advertised that the watch could be repaired by the owner and many seem to have taken the company at its word, with predictably catastrophic results for the watches. Through a series of changes in ownership, the Waterbury Watch Co. would eventually become Timex.

[Excerpted from an article by Jack Forster, first published in September 2011]

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