Ulysse Nardin gives its pioneering anchor tourbillon escapement a suitably futuristic home at last
By Chris Hall
This is the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon “Free Wheel”. It’s the latest outing for Ulysse Nardin’s high-tech tourbillon, and this time the rest of the watch is equally advanced. The standout feature, as you will no doubt have spotted, is the absence of a dial – but this goes further than a simple open-worked design. Ulysse Nardin has effectively dropped the dial through the watch to reveal most, but crucially not all, of the movement, giving the impression that the tourbillon escapement, gear train, mainspring barrel and power reserve indicator are floating somewhat separately from each other. Hence, “Free Wheel”.
What this means in effect is that Ulysse Nardin has decorated the top of the mainplate (as we look at it; to a watchmaker, it’s the bottom) and done away with traditional bridges to hold the aforementioned elements above it – instead, we have some very modern looking chevron-shaped bridges for the tourbillon at six o’clock, the power reserve indicator at four o’clock and the third wheel of the gear train at around eight o’clock. They’re echoed by the openworked form of the barrel, and add considerably to the whole watch’s space-age aesthetic (something not dissimilar from modern-day Angelus). The keyless winding works – never the most attractive part of a movement, and rarely exposed or given the finest finishing – is concealed beneath a segment that brings to mind the stepped bridges of a Breguet or Greubel Forsey.
Of course, the tourbillon, power reserve and gear train are still connected as you would expect; that takes place beneath the not-a-dial to preserve the mystique. Ulysse Nardin is at such pains to stress that nothing is going on movement-wise on the reverse of the watch that it hasn’t even taken any photographs of the caseback, although we hear there is still a sapphire caseback window in case you’re eager to see what “nothing going on” looks like.
Speaking of sapphire, the second standout feature of the “Free Wheel” Tourbillon is the huge (the watch is 44mm wide) box sapphire encasing the whole thing. To maximise the effect of dropping the dial five or six millimetres through the watch, Ulysse Nardin has given the whole thing a greenhouse feel by doing away with 80 per cent of the caseband and letting us stare into that movement from all angles. We’ve seen a lot of impressive sapphire-work over the last two years, and while this is by no means the most elaborate, we’re told it still took months to research and develop, particularly when it came to polishing its every facet. There’s a lot of work being done by that crystal to maintain the structural rigidity of the watch too.
Aesthetically, the Executive Tourbillon “Free Wheel” comes in two forms, either white or rose gold with black “carbon leather” straps. The rose gold watch has a ‘dial’ carved from a chunk of slate – pretty interesting in itself, and potentially another watchmaking first – while the white gold version has a tech-ier honeycomb effect beneath the movement. Happily, these are not limited edition watches per se, although you can bet they will be rare. The watch will cost £89,900 in white gold and £87,200 in rose gold.
The Anchor Tourbillon
Let’s refresh our memory of Ulysse Nardin’s groundbreaking tourbillon escapement. Produced in collaboration with silicon R&D lab Sigatec, which UN co-owns with micro-manufacturing specialist Mimotec, it does away with pallet fork pivots entirely, instead choosing to suspend the pallet fork between the escape wheel and balance roller with two silicon blades, which flex back and forth. This means there’s no point of friction – no pivot at all – so no need for lubrication and one fewer thing to wear down. And in our opinion, the purple and blue hues that silicon adds to the watch are a welcome dot of colour.
The incredibly low-friction, lightweight and hardwearing properties of silicon mean that it’s really the only material with which you could attempt to build something like this. It’s also not susceptible to magnetic interference. Tim Treffry covered it for us in depth here when it was first used in 2015 – well worth a read if you want to understand more about how totally Ulysse Nardin has modernised something as old and traditional as the tourbillon.