Art News & Views

Ulysse Nardin: Keepers of History


by Anurima Sen

Ulysse Nardin was born on 22nd January, 1823, in Le Locle, Switzerland. He was trained by his father, Leonard-Frederic, and then by William Dubois, who was considered to be one of the best watch-makers of his days. His training culminated in the founding of his own company in the year 1846. The first watches that bore the name of Ulysse Nardin were exported to Central and South America. Around the year 1860, the first exports to USA began. These included minute repeaters and pocket chronometers. Soon after, the company was awarded the first prize in the London International Exhibition in the category for pocket chronometers, which catapulted it into fame and recognition. After the death of Ulysse Nardin, Paul David Nardin took over the company and retained the high standards of the pocket and marine chronometers. These chronometers were instrumental in aiding merchant and military ships maintain accurate time, before the advent of quartz watches. In fact, the sterling proficiency showed by Ulysse Nardin in practically revolutionizing the maudlin chronometer won it a whopping 4,324 certificates out of the 4,504 issued – a rare feat for a company that had owed its origins to the humblest specimens of personal industry!

However, as someone once famously said, the truest essence of timelessness is precise timing, and Ulysse Nardin got it exactly right in 1938, when it was acquired by business mogul Rolf Schnyder. He, along with legendary watchmaker Ludwig Oechslin, infused the already advanced technology of Ulysse Nardin with a vision – and the era of complicated pieces of ethereal beauty was ushered in by the Swiss company. In fact, their showcase timepiece, the ETA 2892, became a legend in the world of timepieces when its precision in time-keeping technology became an industry vanguard, serving as the base movement standard for many established watchmakers worldwide. Ulysse Nardin particularly focussed on getting the fundamentals right – an idea which reflected heavily in the near-perfect automatic winding that Ulysse Nardin models sport. The beat rate was increased to give the heart of the timepiece more power and grunt, and the final reading read close to 28,800 BPH within a reduced armature diameter of 25.6 mm, from a slightly unwieldy 28 mm. This allowed Ulysse Nardin watches to find application in a wider sphere where precision speaks the final word. The result toyed with the breath of the entire watch-making industry, in the form of their new model, the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei. Made with a passion for producing a work of art capable of being the truest tribute to the ethereal genius of Galileo, the Astrolabium displayed local time, solar time, and orbital motions of the sun and the moon, their eclipse positions as well as a near-accurate positioning of several constellations. This watch garnered near-flawless reviews, and more-than-generous accolades from the industry, as well as collectors. The Guinness Book of World Records entered the watch in their archives in the year 1989, as the world's most functional watch with twenty one distinctive, predefined functions. To borrow a hackneyed expression, quite literally, a star was born. Post the success of the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, collectors waited with bated breath as Oechslin repeated this feat of genius with two other astronomy-themed watches, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler. Seen as a fitting tribute to the legacy of these great figures in astronomical studies, these three watches constitute the much-sought after triumvirate of what Ulysse Nardin aptly calls the Trilogy of Time. This unique series is one of the most coveted series of watches that all draw their inspiration from one particular theme, and has graced the covers and splash pages of magazines commanding international repute. However, perhaps the greatest recognition of its stature in the world of timepieces came its way in the year 2011, the month of April. On the 13th of April, at an auction of historically significant timepieces titled “Important Watches and Clocks”, Sotheby's New York invited bids on this trilogy of watches. Even by the prestigious standards commanded by Sotheby's, the three watches - Planetarium Copernicus, Tellurium Johannes Kepler and the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei generated tremendous levels of anticipation among collectors, and were finally sold off at $134, 500. More recent entrants into the Ulysse Nardin Hall of Fame include the GMT Perpetual (in 1999) and the Freak Blue Phantom (in 2001), a tourbillion, crownless watch that consist of one mechanical hand that bites into gear-teeth of the inner watch face. In the year 2009, Ulysse Nardin took their commitment to interstellar aesthetics to an entirely new, sophisticated level with the launch of two watches called The Moonstruck, and Planet Earth. These watches were designed to honour and cherish a rich heritage of watch-making, first propounded by legendary watchmaker Dr. Ludwig Oechslin. These were limited edition models that would later come to adorn the wrists of only a select few, the few thousand people spoilt by personal royalty.

But it would perhaps be only foolhardy if one thinks of Ulysse Nardin only as a watchmaker with an eye for exquisite detail. For decades, the name has been synonymous with the intricacies of precision and innovation in timekeeping technology. Keeping to this tradition, Ulysse Nardin had brought out another celebrated model from its Freak series the Freak DIAMonsil. For watch aficionados all over the world, this was the first glimpse into the watch-making technology of the future - Ulysse Nardin incorporated a revolutionary, patented Dual Ulysse Escapement that was made from diamond and silicium. In the same year, Ulysse Nardin came out with the model InnoVision, a concept model that housed not one, but ten never-before-seen technological innovations within its chassis.

The DIAMonsil technology propelled most of the innovations in the 2011 line-up for Ulysse Nardin - including the Ulysse Nardin Caliber 118, with a self-winding base. The Caliber 118 is a watch made and assembled almost entirely in-house, and marks a new era of diamond-covered elements within precision movement technology. As one would point out, precise timekeeping has always been a forte with this Swiss Watchmaker, and the new line-up does perfect justice to that image.

Ulysse Nardin, in many circles, is hailed as the pioneers of functional styling in wristwatches - something most watchmakers often tend to ignore in their quest to register a statement in 'ultimate' beauty. This perhaps is the reason why Ulysse Nardin auctions often tend to snowball into hotly contested events, causing massive excitement and frenzy among even seasoned collectors. Prestigious auction houses like Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's also seem to love the eccentricities of this Swiss watch label, as Ulysse Nardin watches are something of an auction house favourite. In the month of June, 2009, a rare Ulysse Nardin automatic skeletonised model was sold at Christie's for a whopping $10, 625. A rare Ulysse Nardin model in its own right, this one was an 18K gold wristwatch with concealed movement features. The watch body bore highly detailed engravings and emboss work, elevating it to an extremely desirable piece of collectible. Case no: 146 28 083, or as the model was known to collectors, however, was not the only high profile Ulysse Nardin piece of work that enthralled collectors at Christie's. In that very same month, Christie's sold another limited edition 18K white gold wristwatch with a horde of features that were literally made to enthral. The wristwatch had multiple functions like date, dual escapement as well as barometer, and was signed Ulysse Nardin chronometer, 1846 - 2006. This watch also fetched a whopping $10,625, just as a sign of Ulysse Nardin being something of a favourite with the collectors frequenting Christie's. June 2009 saw Christie's selling off a certain exquisite and rare platinum Ulysse Nardin, an automatic hour-striking clock watch that was graced with an Automaton Jacquemart, and an enamel dial. This watch, among others of its kind, serves as a beautiful reminder to Ulysse Nardin's commitment to the art of enamel lacquering in its watches, an art considered by many even within the watch-making industry as a dying art. Needless to say, this extremely rare timepiece, signed Ulysse Nardin, San Marco, Sonnerie En Passant, enticed all present on that very day at Christie's, and sold for a laudable price of $22,500.

However, one must never think that Ulysse Nardin garners interest only at Christie's, as Sotheby's also commands a respectable slice of the pie. On October 2009, a white gold automatic Ulysse Nardin watch sold for a massive $15,295.12. The watch (REF. 320-22 NO 499) had dual timezone features, along with automatic nickel lever movement features, 34 jewels and mono-metallic balance.

It has been more than a hundred and sixty years since the birth of the company- and during this time it has constantly explored the field of horology and astronomy. It is not only innovation that Ulysse Nardin strives on, but also imagination. Stellar artisanship is also something that collectors give Ulysse Nardin credit for, as one would easily see from Ulysse Nardin's innovation graph. Precision with innovation has always been a priority within the Ulysse Nardin philosophy, and practical evidence that serves to remind the world of its timeless commitment to superlative standards of watch-making is the FREAK Diavolo, from the now-legendary FREAK series. The Diavolo exists in the bleeding edge of technological innovation, using photolithography and specific alloys and elements to power its heart. The FREAK Diavolo makes extensive use of elements like silicium and LIGA nickel, using technology developed independently within its in-house facilities. The result is a wristwatch that celebrates the timelessness of accurate time, and the permanence of a watch that bears its rigorous extremes with the precision of the tourbillion carousel, as well as a secondary tourbillion that tells time to the second.

There would perhaps be companies bigger than Ulysse Nardin, watchmakers who make their wristwatches into precision time-telling instruments. But few could perhaps replicate the sheer passion and joy that goes into the tenets of individual craftsmanship within each wristwatch that comes out of this Swiss stable. With each individual piece either telling the world of the lost glories and interstellar secrets of Kepler and Galileo, or representing the intricacies of the lost art of enamelling, or even re-telling the lineage of marine chronometers, Ulysse Nardin revels in its own niche; the niche where time speaks of the individual commitment to the progress of history, the legacy where each wristwatch tells a different story of time.

Tags: collectibles

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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.