This is the Ulysse Nardin Freak, and it is quite simply put the craziest watch ever created. Arguably, there are quite a few intriguing watches out there, but this one is by far the most quirky of them all. The manufacturer is known for introducing many exquisite innovations and tasteful complications in the watch industry, among which a perpetual calendar that goes backwards and forwards, a completely free-floating tourbillon and experimental escapements.
Yet, Freak was the first watch of its kind. And the name does not come from the reaction people had when they saw it for the first time, but directly from the man in charge of Ulysse Nardin back in 2001, Rolf Schnyder.
Schnyder purchased the company in its ailing years, following the quartz crysis and decided to make Ulysse Nardin a breath-taking name with one impeccable piece of innovation. The Freak watch did just that, with all its never-seen-before features.
Embracing the name, the watch's exterior is perplexing. Instead of a dial, the Freak has an enormous cavity - almost as deep as the watch itself, and being only 12mm thick, it gives the watch a cavernous effect. And instead of hands, Freak just displays a movement. This means that the minute hand, which of course rotates once every hour, is also a kind of tourbillon—although instead of just the escapement rotating over and over again, it’s the entire movement. The hour hand is perhaps a little more traditional, although it’s still far from normal, fixed to a disk that rotates in its entirety behind the movement.
This is only the beginning, because this watch gets even crazier. As if having the entire movement rotating around the dial in place of the minute hand wasn’t enough, the movement itself is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking ever created. Why? Because in 2001, this calibre was the first ever in watchmaking to use the material silicon. Even if silicon is being used all over these days, back then it was unheard of. Antimagnetic and capable of being formed into some incredibly wear-resistant, complex shapes, silicon is the modern miracle found in watchmaking escapements.
The Ulysse Nardin Freak was the first to implement this. And not only that, but Dr. Ludwig Oechslin (the master watchmaker at Ulysses Nardin) didn’t just replace standard escapement parts like-for-like with silicon ones—he redesigned the escapement entirely. By using silicon’s incredible ability to take on any two-dimensional shape, no matter how complex, a twin escape-wheel system was developed that uses four contact points instead of two to keep the balance wheel spinning.
Even more interesting is the way you set the time on this particular watch. You reach below the bezel and pull up a little plaque that lists the movement’s rate of 28,800 beats per minute.
Afterwards a bezel can be grasped to turn it. This rotates entire movement until it’s pointing in the right direction to tell the time.
It's almost absurd to watch the whole mechanism spin around like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
As for the winding, the Ulysse Nardin retains keeps aweing - the mechanism just as freaky as the rest of it. You start by turning the watch over, grasp the case back and twist in the direction of the little arrow, and the seven days of power reserve will begin to wind up. Even crazier still is the little window that goes around as you wind, revealing the enormous size of the mainspring. It's only as big as the main case.
So all in all, not only does it look mind-bending, the way you read it is puzzling, the way you set it is unique, and even the way you wind it is completely special. A timeless piece of unmatched innovation and exquisite design.