Every year, semi-dormant – or relatively quiet – manufacturers kick up a fuss, goose themselves into a state of awakening, or do something else to re-enter our consciousness and remind us that they exist. The renewed Doxa is a perfect example of this, the watch community finally aware that they made orange the go-to dial colour for diving watches. Tudor’s return? Courses will be taught in business colleges about that particular regeneration. With feverish activity of late, from erotic dials to the Skeleton X Magma, it looks like Ulysse Nardin’s time has come.
Admittedly, it was the Freak of 2001 that did much to remind veteran enthusiasts of the company’s inventiveness, while recent Freaks inform newbies that this was and is a house of great achievement. Crucially, though, it must be reiterated that this recent activity is not out-of-character: Ulysse Nardin – too discreet for far too many years – was a key player throughout the watch revival of the mid-1980s, thanks to then-resident genius Ludwig Oechslin.
Back when most brands were still figuring out how to survive the Quartz Crisis, he was creating the Trilogy of Time for Ulysse Nardin and its visionary owner, Rolf Schnyder. The group comprised three of the most complex of wristwatches ever seen. It says much of Ulysse Nardin’s sheer chutzpah that they would issue these astronomical watches between 1985 and 1992, when the rest of the industry was still in a state of shock. To put this into context, Ulysse Nardin deserves to be regarded as in the same league of adventurousness as IWC, which released the Grande Complication and Il Destriero Scafusia during that period.
With the ever-inventive Oechslin, a true renaissance man, coming up with the designs, Ulysse Nardin acknowledged his role in the company’s rebirth with an eponymous timepiece in 1996. The Perpetual Ludwig was developed to mark Ulysse Nardin’s 150th anniversary, at a time when perpetual calendars were still rarities, unlike now, when perps, like tourbillons, hardly raise an eyebrow. The Perpetual Ludwig was an automatic, bristling with innovations demanding patents.
I am leery of saying that any watch is the “only one to do such-and-such,” but the Perpetual Ludwig is unusual in that it allows forward and backward adjustments of every calendar function, including the month, the year and the “big date,” thanks to the quick setting position of a single crown. U-N’s “Quick-setting” invention was a godsend to watch owners who possess sufficient timepieces to not wear all of them regularly. As the company could boast, the Perpetual Ludwig, “if it has rested in a safe for some time” can be “reset in only a few seconds.”
All of the adjustments were synchronised, and with a few turns of the crown, calendar displays could be moved forward by days, months or several years, should one want to know a date far in advance. The Perpetual Ludwig also accommodated leap years, and was forgiving enough to be backwards-adjustable, should the over-eager user go past the correct date.
Though it’s more than 20 years old, the Perpetual Ludwig looks as fresh and contemporary as any current perp-cal, while still possessing something which eludes too many of them: clarity. This writer finds most perpetuals to be too fussy, the dials too crowded. Not so the Perpetual Ludwig: big date, easy-to-read day-of-the-week, month, and year.
It was a collectible watch that ticked every box. Chronometer rating, new movement developed with Ebel, production limited to 150 pieces each in platinum, 18k yellow gold and pink gold, water resistance to 30 meters. The watch lives on in the current Perpetual Ludwig, with smooth rather than guilloché dial, and it remains one of the most subtle of perpetual calendars on the market.
It didn’t end there: in its wake came another surprise from the mind of Oechslin. Introduced in 1999, the GMT± Perpetual added a second time-zone display in the form of a third hand, its functionality synchronised with the day, month, date and year operations to create the perfect perpetual calendar for the traveller. The dial layout was the same as the Perpetual Ludwig, the visual giveaways between it and both the original and current Perpetual Ludwigs being the extra hand, the 24-hour inner chapter ring and pushers at 4 and 8 o’clock for the time zone changes.
Ulysse Nardin – like Zenith, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Girard-Perregaux – is a house that seems, to this writer, unjustly ignored when other brands are simply making more noise. Like that trio of fine watch companies, it is a true manufacture, with longevity and inventiveness, which has earned respect. With watches like the Perpetual Ludwig and the GMT± Perpetual in its back catalogue, as well as the Trilogy of Time, Ulysse Nardin has nothing to prove.