ULYSSE NARDIN on the waves of history
Gianmarco Nicoletti, Ulysse Nardin’s Italian brand manager and a history enthusiast (he graduated from the University of Eastern Piedmont with the famous Professor Alessandro Barbero), takes us on a tour of discovery of one of the oldest and most famous brands in watchmaking, which has always been synonymous with innovation and technical avant-garde.
A few months ago, Alessandro Bucchi, marketing director of Pisa Orologeria, asked me if I would be willing to write a short article on Ulysse Nardin, which I have the pleasure of representing for the Italian and Maltese markets.
I gladly accepted, but the question, so far unspoken, was: how to make short a true story, which comes from the middle of the 19th century, originates in the mountains of the Swiss Jura, but is also about the world of the sea (this alone, as a yachtsman, evokes in me waves of positive energy), is about adventure, technological innovation, watchmaking understood as a high expression of manufacturing, but also of avant-garde creativity?
Of course, these questions belong to my passion for watches, for the sea, for adventure, and perhaps partly explain the pleasure of being part of Ulysse Nardin that I mentioned earlier… But how can we express the values of a watchmaking company that since its beginnings has been a point of reference for explorers, adventurers – and consequently free spirits, for those who know the horizons of our world and do not conform to what is given?
Our history. The history of our manufacture can provide a key to interpreting the spirit of Ulysse Nardin… So let’s start in 1846!
Ulysse Nardin founded his own watch manufacture in Le Locle at the age of 23 (yes, the manufacture is named after its founder, and that is the only obvious aspect of the whole affair, but we must admit that its name seems to have been invented by a marketing mind of our times).
It is touching to read the first pages of the account books written in Ulysse’s own handwriting, during the early stages of setting up his own factory:
“9 April 1845: Daddy lent me 500 francs” … His dream was about to come true!
From the outset, Ulysse concentrated on the production of pocket watches with complications (no one could have imagined how the way of wearing a timepiece would change 60 years later, let alone the Great War, which would contribute so much to the spread of wristwatches).
But above all, Ulysse, and later his son Paul, identified an important need of their time. Most commercial and passenger transport, journeys to territories yet to be explored, took place by sea, and needed precise timepieces. And this was, ça va sans dire, also the need of war navies.
We may have lost memory of those times, but at the time the calculation of longitude, essential for determining the position of a ship and thus following a nautical course, made the ship’s chronometer an essential instrument. With the sextant, it had been possible for centuries to determine latitude, but to know the exact longitude required an extremely precise timekeeper: an error of just one second resulted in a course error of 263 metres. In practice, accumulating errors meant risking shipwreck on the rocks instead of reaching a safe harbour, losing crew and cargo.
To simplify the idea, the marine chronometer was a bit like a modern-day GPS, but mechanical.
Thanks to their absolute precision, Ulysse Nardin marine chronometers were supplied to more than fifty navies, shipping companies, geodetic institutes and astronomical observatories. Because of their reliability, Ulysse Nardin pocket chronometers were coveted by officers and captains of ships all over the world.
Over the years, the management of the manufacture was handed down from father to son, continuing the tradition of chronometry and complications: between 1862, when Ulysse Nardin was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in London, and 1975, the manufacture had obtained 4,324 performance certificates for marine chronometers and ten gold medals.
Then, all of a sudden, something unexpected happened. It is 1970 and quartz movements, which are extremely precise, start to spread from the East. This direction seemed the only future for the watchmaking world.
Like most Swiss manufacturers, Ulysse Nardin is facing a world that is turning, and it is a technological crisis, but also an economic, cultural and organisational one. Swiss watchmaking finds itself swaying: will electronics, which seems to represent the future, win out?
And so we quote another date, 1983. In the midst of what is now known as the ‘quartz crisis’, a group of investors led by Rolf W. Schnyder bought the watch manufacturer Ulysse Nardin, which, despite being in crisis, had never ceased to exist. Schnyder’s idea was disruptive, to innovate and create mechanical masterpieces at a time when it would seem crazy to go in this direction.
Schnyder was a visionary and launched a new era for the brand. In 1985, the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei was unveiled, an astronomical watch that landed the Maison in the Guinness Book of Records. Then came the Planetarium Copernicus in 1988 and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler in 1992, forming the Time Trilogy, three mythical astronomical watches.
1989 saw the presentation of the San Marco, the first minute repeater wristwatch with jacquard, imagined by Schnyder during a holiday in Venice with his future wife, enraptured by the sight of the Moors in St. Mark’s Square.
In 1996, the manufacture presented the Marine Chronometer 1846 and the Perpetual Ludwig, the work of the watchmaking genius Ludwig Oechslin, with whom a long collaboration was started, which is still ongoing.
And 2001 arrives. It is not just the Kubrickian year of the Space Odyssey. It is the innovation of innovations in watchmaking: the Freak! The world’s first watch all movement and dial, without hands and winding crown: it is the movement itself that tells the time with its own rotation. And that’s not all: for the first time, silicon technology, for which Ulysse Nardin was the absolute forerunner, is used in a timepiece.
In 2006, Ulysse Nardin co-founded Sigatec, a Swiss company specialising in the manufacture of micromechanical silicon components, as well as the revolutionary DiamonSil diamond-silicon alloy. Today, silicon technology is present in all of the Maison’s movements.
2011 saw the acquisition of Donzé Cadrans, a fascinating small company specialising in the production of enamel dials, with incredible expertise in the Grand-feu technique, Guilloché, Cloisonné and Champlevé work.
After the era of Schnyder, who passed away prematurely, between 2014 and early 2022 Ulysse Nardin joined the Kering group, continuing its innovative path in the world of watchmaking.
In 2014, the calibre UN-334 with rapid date and time-zone adjustment was launched, in 2015 it was the turn of the innovative UlyChoc silicon monobloc escapement system, in 2016 the calibre UN-153, an annual calendar adjustable forwards and backwards, and the Marine Tourbillon Grand Deck were released, the following year Freak became an entire collection. At the same time, the Blast collection is developed, a true watch of the future, with unique lines inspired by stealth aeronautical technology.
We reach 2022. Ulysse Nardin returns to being an independent Manufacture!
CEO Patrick Pruniaux led a small group of private investors and bought the Maison, which thus returned to its autonomy and its origins – manufacturing, savoir-faire and intellectual.
Tell me the truth, isn’t it a magnificent, exciting story?
Yes, I can already imagine some thinking: well, you work for Ulysse Nardin, it is clear that you are biased.
And well yes, I admit it, I am biased. I like the unconventionality of our watches, I’m passionate about the history of the Maison. I would like to tell you many more anecdotes…
However, there is also another, determining aspect in fuelling my passion. Patrick Pruniaux described it well in a recent article in the Financial Times:
“We see a clear desire for independent brands. Watch enthusiasts, collectors and new customers are increasingly interested in watches that are not mainstream. We are not and never will be mainstream. We will not go beyond an annual production of 15,000 watches”.
In other (my) words: we want to maintain the pioneering identity of the maison. We are not interested in common taste, we are interested in doing what we like and what belongs to us: innovating, producing quality timepieces and transmitting a great passion.
I mean, that’s why Ulysse Nardin is so fascinating to me.
(Hence #searustle, #adventure, #innovation, #pride, #excitement, but above all passion for this magnificent world).