Some brands have a certain style, cachet, and image that set the tone for our perceptions of them. Neither Rolex nor AP would have the cachet they have today without a diver’s watch and a certain octagonal bezel. For most brands, the halo models fit nicely within their collections. But with the storied Swiss brand Ulysse Nardin, there is a high-tech, evolved twist. This is the origin and evolution of the Ulysse Nardin Freak.

Ulysse Nardin is a brand with classic watchmaking in its blood since 1846, known for a juxtaposed mix of classicism with the Classico line and sports cool with the Diver and Marine ranges. But unlike most premium Swiss brands, Ulysee Nardin also plays in the same field as avant-garde horology independents like URWERK. The Blast collection turns up the futurism also apparent in the Diver X models. The top-tier slot, however, goes to the legendary Freak, a watch that has redefined modernism for more than 20 years.

The History Of The Ulysse Nardin Freak

The story of an industry disruptor

The early 2000s were a time of reawakening to the delights of mechanical top-tier watchmaking and big wristwear. At about the same time as the first lightweight wonder from Richard Mille came out, Ulysse Nardin surprised the world with the well-timed Freak. Since then, we’ve seen many high-tech concepts come and go with fashion. But the Ulysse Nardin Freak transcends the trends while continuously evolving its design language. That’s pretty unique for such a different outlook on watch design.

Through the unique chemistry between Ulysee Nardin’s visionary former CEO Rolf Schnyder and horological mastermind Ludwig Oechslin, the Freak appeared in 2001. No one had seen the likes of its otherworldly tourbillon carousel. Without a conventional case, crown, or hands, the entire movement rotates once per hour to indicate the time and provides a seven-day power reserve. The impact of the Freak was awarded the 2002 Innovation prize, one of more than 4,300 awards for Ulysse Nardin.

The History Of The Ulysse Nardin Freak

2001: The beginning of an era

I imagine the impact of the Freak akin to the unveiling of the Lamborghini Countach. Compared to the usual wristwear in Basel, it was a wrist-worn spaceship. The only traditional elements apparent were the fonts of the text and the alligator strap, while the notched bezel was used to set the turning, visible movement. You’ll also notice the lack of a crown; with the Freak, the wearer twists the case back to wind the watch. The use of silicon was a first for this traditional industry of craftsmanship. It was used in the visible direct-impulse escapement, and it remains a high-tech mainstay of the Freak to this day. Within the depths of the dial, traditional finishing like fine brushwork on the bridges and blued screws made it a vision from the future with a link to the past.

But unlike many avant-garde watches following in its footsteps, there was legibility and logic. The bold arrowheads fitted to endpoints on the rotating bridges eloquently differed in design and size, actually making the time visible at a glance. We all know that with watches of this stature, the function as a time-telling instrument comes second to the micro-mechanical marvel. But Oechslin married the two with panache. The pioneering principles and silicone tech evolved while the founding principles of a very different wristwatch remained.

Ulysse Nardin Freak S

Fast forward to last year, and the Freak S showed us how much the Freak had evolved while keeping its design principles intact. Ulysse Nardin CEO Patrick Pruniaux leads a team of pure inspiration, and nothing comes close to the impact of the big Freak, even 21 years after its debut. Brushed 18K rose gold and dark titanium embrace what can only be a vision of space travel. On a background of sparkling aventurine, a complex spaceship seems to be hovering, the twin balances of the movement giving it a beautiful architectural symmetry.

The History Of The Ulysse Nardin Freak

The Freak S is part of the range today and is edging closer to the family traits of the Blast series. There is something joyous about finding traditional craftsmanship details like hand-finished anglage in the pure futurist vision of this movement. The central symmetry gives it the look of a talisman, something that only underlines its otherworldly impact. The Freak S is available from selected retailers with the price on request.

Freak X

The Freak X shows just how important this model is within the UN’s lineup. Not content to rest on its laurels like some other brands, Ulysse Nardin offers something softer with the Freak X. The über-complexities of a rotating flying-carousel movement are transformed into a softer, more celestial feeling. Just like the Freak S, one of the base materials within the dial is aventurine. This sparkling glass has the uncanny look of deep space with glimmering stars creating a vibrant depth to the dial. In a softer, less angular case, the otherworldly nature is still present, while the rotating movement is skeletonized, endowing it with a strong sense of architecture. At 43mm, it is a bold and comfortable luxury sports watch, with the liberal doses of lume on the rotating bridges creating a space-like late-night show. This limited edition of 99 pieces is available for $39,600.

An originator in a world of nostalgia

For me, the Ulysse Nardin Freak is pure inspiration. It works magic simultaneously on my aesthetic sense and engineering heart and touches a nerve. With such a strong heritage within one range, it would be easy to reissue a classic Freak. But that would go against the raison d’être of the groundbreaking 2001 creation. The meeting of minds between Schnyder and Oecshlin sowed a seed of innovation that has grown into a labor of micro-engineered love for the brand, clearly visible in the strong evolution of this halo model. It only takes a brief look at the blend of family traits and differences between the Freak X and Freak S to get excited about what next week’s Watches and Wonders might bring.

What about you, Fratelli? Are you still grounded in a world of conventional hands and dials? Or does the story of the Ulysse Nardin Freak make you embrace a tech-forward view of the future? Let me know in the comments below.

For more information on Ulysse Nardin, visit the brand’s official website and peruse our coverage here.

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