Ulysse Nardin’s surprisingly enduring Freak Lab still represents watchmaking’s cutting edge. James Gurney revisits its history.
As Ulysse Nardin announced a new edition of the FreakLab, dressed all in blackened titanium and carbon fibre, it’s worth pausing to consider quite how unlikely it was that the Freak would still be spawning new versions nearly fifteen years after the original was unveiled at Baselworld in 2001.
Back then Ulysse already had a reputation for being unconventional, a quite inevitable result of the partnership that existed between Rolf Schnyder, the man who rescued the company from imminent collapse in 1983, and Ludwig Oeschlin, a polymath historian, watchmaker, physicist and linguist. By 2001 Ulysse Nardin was known both for out of the ordinary complications such as the “Trilogy of Time”, a series of astronomically inspired watches (shown above), and more sophisticated than expected simpler complications such as the GMT+/- Perpetual.
It was known too that Ulysse Nardin had an interest in exploring novel materials and manufacturing technologies for critical watch components and even the invitation for the launch at Baselworld promised something ground-breaking, but that did nothing to distract from how momentous the arrival of the Freak was.
Here, for the first time, was the promise of a watch that would maintain its rate across a range of temperatures, regardless of magnetic fields and see servicing needs reduced to almost nothing. It was entirely appropriate that that such radical change came in the form of a carrousel movement with “Dual Direct Escapement”, that had neither crown nor conventional hands and presented its silicon core for the world to see. Unsurprisingly, the Freak was a complete hit with the watch press, though few thought of it as anything but a concept watch and a conversation piece.
Once the fuss died down, it became apparent that the new technology had a long development path to follow before making the Nivarox obsolete – it’s only now that component printing technologies such as DRIE (Deep Reactive Ion Etching) and LIGA (a German acronym for lithography, electroplating and molding) are becoming commonplace. What was not predicted was that the Freak would go on to become a staple in the Ulysse Nardin catalogue.
Over the years, Ulysse have introduced various refinements and innovations: 2002 saw the first balance springs made from synthetic diamond using the DRIE process, while 2005 saw the Dual Direct Escapement uprated to run at 4Hz – the two wheels that form the central element of the Dual Ulysse Escapement having 18 active teeth compared to the five in the previous version (this also meant each impulse is active for a shorter part of the balance oscillation meaning greater stability). DIAMonSIL, a combination of synthetic diamond and silicon was introduced in 2008.
The latest in what has become quite an illustrious line is a boutique-only limited edition of 99 pieces which advances the movement construction yet further, while also housing the watch in new materials. The carbon fibre and titanium feel appropriate for the watch – more so than such materials sometimes do on new releases.
The new FreakLab boasts a a re-centered balance wheel, a date function, and the breakthrough, in-house designed UlyChoc safety system – a one piece shock absorber for the balance staff. It has a caseband and horns of blackened titanium, and a bezel of carbon fibre. The rotating bezel is fastened and released by a safety clip at 6 o’clock; the bezel is used to set the hours and minutes (clockwise) and the date (anti-clockwise). Underneath the watch is another bezel which is used to wind the watch – as is the case with all Freak watches.
It seems that the Ulysse Nardin’s Freak has truly grown up, though how long Kering, the ultimate owners, allow the name to stay will be interesting to see. The watch is still the test-bed for new ideas, but its success and longevity is proven. If you want to know where the industry is heading in terms of technology, this is the only watch you need to see.