Ulysse Nardin Invention of the free-wheeling watch
It’s a piece of horological sleight-of-hand, but the illusion is perfect. The wheels of the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel appear disconnected. Yet they still turn.
You’ve probably heard of the flying tourbillon. Ulysse Nardin has created the flying gear train. The Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel shows off all its inner workings, not because it is skeletonised or has no dial, but because they are fitted on top of the dial. It looks like it’s the mainplate of the movement, but it is indeed a dial in the sense that it is decorative. So how do those wheels turn?
Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel © Ulysse Nardin
It’s a familiar yet intriguing spectacle. You can recognise the individual components of the movement, but in this 44m gold watch, nothing seems normal. Yet nothing is hiding the components either: the movement looks like it has been designed without upper bridges. This is the very definition of a “flying” component, the best-known example being the flying tourbillon. In fact, the tourbillon on the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel is also of this type.
To keep the mystery, the back of the movement has a full plate, meaning that hardly anything apart from a few jewels and screws is visible. The magic happens inside the sandwich formed by the plate on one side and the opaque dial on the other.
© Ulysse Nardin
In a classic watch movement, the wheels mesh with one another. The connection between these elements is so ordinary that we don’t even bother looking at it. It’s all the more easy to overlook when the gear train, as the succession of wheels from the barrel to the escapement is called, is usually enclosed in the movement and therefore invisible.
© Ulysse Nardin
In the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel, it’s exactly the opposite. The watch gives the impression that it doesn’t have any bridges. It’s a double illusion. First, its inner construction has perfectly standard bridges. They are hidden under the dial and thus invisible. They fix the wheels that appear inexistent on the dial side but which are in fact required to ensure that the illusion works.
Second, the structure of the movement is such that several of the visible wheels do in fact have a bridge. Ulysse Nardin calls them boomerangs because of their shape and they are screwed into the dial. A few of the components are nevertheless “flying”: the barrel, the tourbillon and several parts of the winding system, near the crown, are not held in place from above.
© Ulysse Nardin
And that is the true genius of this watch. Whether or not its components are suspended, the effect is the same. Everything seems to float above the dial. The crystal even accentuates the effect. In the form of a glass box, it acts like an invisible bell cover over the whole thing, encouraging you to inspect the phenomenon from all angles, as if it had nothing to hide. The best thing about magic tricks is when the magician invites the audience on to the stage, or rolls his sleeves up. The illusion is always built upon some kind of transparency, which instills confidence and deceives our senses.