Ulysse Nardin The Freak: a technical monster
For 15 years, the Freak has remained the strangest of watches, unlike any other, blazing its own trail and constantly evolving. Portrait of a fascinating time object.
Generally speaking, there is nothing particularly original about the way a watch is put together, consisting of a movement below, topped by a dial swept over by hands. Inside the movement, the balance is positioned in one corner and the barrel on the other side, with gear wheels between them – all on the same level – while a protruding crown connects the movement with the exterior. The Freak by Ulysse Nardin is absolutely not made that way. Since 2001, it has in fact been the only watch that bears no resemblance to this spread-out construction, since it is in fact built in tiers or levels. And that’s not all.
Most watches have a lever escapement, but not the Freak. Its balance spring is made not in metal but in silicon, and has even appeared in a diamond version! And to top it all, it’s a carrousel/karussel, in the sense that the movement spins on its axis, meaning it’s a tourbillon not billed as such... So what exactly is this ‘monster’ that lives up to its name, meaning something with a physical oddity deliberately put on show?
Ulysse Nardin is a watch company based in Le Locle that has never made any secret about its penchant for innovation. It has repeatedly proved that norms, traditions and customs are all very well, but that one can go well beyond them. The Freak is doubtless the watch that best embodies this modus operandi, both through its intrinsic architecture and through the large number of interpretations it has been given. Its date of creation makes it a pioneer of the unconventional approach to watchmaking typical of the 2000s. For 15 years, the Freak has been vibrantly alive.
Let’s start with its architecture. The first layer is the barrel, occupying the entire base of the watch. The sapphire case-back does not reveal the movement, which is not positioned there, but instead a long mainspring guaranteeing a comfortable power reserve of seven days, or eight days for the latest versions.
The second layer is the mainplate. It serves as a chassis for the rest of the movement but is not enclosed by bridges. It thus remains clearly visible and even occupies most of the space of the watch when viewed from above. It could be taken for the dial, except that the the Freak has no dial in the sense of the plate independent from the movement that is generally added to make a watch readable. The movement mainplate nonetheless serves to bear certain elements such as the brand name and the hours hand. The latter is of course unlike any other, since it has no body but instead just a head. Curiouser and curiouser…
The third layer appears to be a very large, broad and complex hand. It is all of that, and more besides. In the Freak, the minutes hand is part of the movement. It encompasses the balance and balance-spring unit, the escapement and the hands. Its general shape is linear and it therefore constitutes a hand. The details of its contours stem from a deliberate design choice determined by the bridges holding these components. At the far end of this arrow-shaped construction is a tip that tells the time as well as a last wheel. The latter engages with the inner bezel ring of the watch, which guides and stabilises the hand.
So how does it work? No need to make things too complicated, observers need only follow their instinct: the hour is read off by following the arrows pointing to numerals. In actual fact, the minutes hand is the movement and the hours hand is the platform on which this hand turns. This makes it like a fairground carrousel in which the movement revolves once an hour and can thus act as a minutes hand.
And what about the crown? Given that Ulysse Nardin has opted to do without, how is the watch wound and set to time? Using the bezel. A small engraved latch juts out between the lugs at 6 o’clock. Lifting it unblocks the ratcheted bezel, thereby making it possible to move the hands – and in fact the movement itself. The same applies to winding, but this time via the caseback which is actually a second bezel.
A brief word on the escapement, which is a patented Ulysse Nardin system with double direct impulse on the balance, equipped with two escape-wheels. The latter are made of silicon, like the balance-spring. Ulysse Nardin is a pioneer in the use of this material and a major supplier of components made from it. To demonstrate this expertise, Ulysse Nardin launched its Diamond Heart limited series in which silicon was replaced by synthetic diamond in order to further reduce friction. It followed up with the DIAMonSil series which combined the advantages of diamond and silicon in a dazzling demonstration of technical sophistication.
The Freak has evolved over the years. First of all, the fascinatingly free shape of its hand/movement has been subtly modified, becoming increasingly slimmer – and even imitating the shape of an anchor in the Freak Cruiser, a logical nod to the nautical ties cultivated by a brand such as Ulysse Nardin. In parallel, the Freak has been interpreted in many different and sometimes highly technical ways. The Diavolo is both a tourbillon and a karussel in the horological sense of the term, in that its balance and its escape-wheels are mounted in a carriage that spins on its axis once a minute, whereas the movement revolves in one hour. In operational terms, it is a tourbillon on a tourbillon.
The FreakLab represents the latest generation. It follows the path of history with a balance wheel now placed in the middle of the watch and no longer cantilevered off on the side. The upper bridge/hand has been redesigned to be both longer and more legible, adding a lighter touch to the watch design. It also indicates the date and served as the technical basis for the new model introduced in 2016 and named FreakWing. Developed to mark the brand’s partnership with the Artemis sailing team, it is made of titanium and carbon fibre. Its triangular, ultra-skeletonised upperbridge/hand shaped like a sail.
For the past 15 years, the Freak has been following its own strange path and continues to demonstrate its timeliness and relevance as an original watch based on a powerful concept that lends itself to constant new developments. One thing that remains unchanged is its stature, as this is a watch that is large and above all very thick. Its 45 mm diameter is further accentuated by the great depth of what goes on beneath the sapphire crystal. It stages an exuberantly full-scale show. The Freak is thus naturally not to everyone’s taste. It is a research lab as well as an object of horological pleasure. People wear a Freak either because they have succumbed to the charm of its weird look, or because they admire such a blend of novelty, originality and efficiency.