“I just love the Freak One. It’s just an amazing watch. It’s a status watch. It’s a killer watch,” enthuses George
Bamford, of Bamford Watch Department, and a Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve jury member. “I mean, just calling it the Freak is impressive enough because that must have been a huge risk when the collection was first launched over 20 years ago. But then you have all that design content, those big ideas. It’s freaking nuts. It’s freaking mad.”
In 2023, the Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve named Ulysee Nardin’s Freak One the winner of its ‘iconic’ category, acknowledging this latest iteration of the line debuted in 2001 – under the leadership of Rolf Schnyder and the watchmaking radicalism of Carole Forestier and Ludwig Oechslin – as totemic of something bigger than itself: a shift in the way watches were conceived and, in turn, perceived.
Here was a watch with no crown – the display is adjusted using the bezel, the watch wound using the casebook. More impressive still, here was a watch without a dial or hands, utilising the movement itself to display the time and, in turn, proposing that the movement could find visual expression as a kind of kinetic art. Here was one that also took a new approach to materials, being the first watch with a silicium escapement. Small wonder then that the Freak line has garnered some 20 patents for Ulysee Nardin.
“What made the Freak possible was that Rolf Schynder, when he acquired the company in 1983, was determined to make substantial investments in the manufacture. More importantly, he aimed to establish a manufacture with its own vision,” explains Clemence Le Rolland, Ulysee Nardin’s brand director for South East Asia and Oceania. Surely the effect of that vision was, however, greater than perhaps he imagined.
“[The Freak] deserves its current reputation for initiating the era of ‘modern’ watchmaking,” argues Le Rolland. “This era shifted the focus away from a classical, albeit high-end, approach to watchmaking to one that prioritized creating something entirely different and innovative. It inspired other watchmaking brands and brought a twist to haute horlogerie.”
Bamford agrees. He suggests that without the Freak – a watch given additional credibility in coming from a company of historic pedigree, dating back to 1846 – potentially new brands the likes
of Richard Mille or Urwerk, both also known for unconventional approaches to watch design,
would have had a harder time establishing a market following their launch soon after. Maybe the
timeline of modern watchmaking should be conceived as being BF and AF: Before the Freak and After
“We are more used to seeing weird and wonderful proposals in watchmaking more often now. Even in that context the Freak remains mesmerising: you look at it and immediately ask yourself ‘so how does this work?’. Figuring that out for yourself is part of what makes the design intriguing,” he suggests. “But what I think is especially telling is that Ulysee Nardin was taking that approach so long ago. To really appreciate the Freak you have to look at [watchmaking] history and appreciate what its launch did for the watch world at large. It’s akin to Swatch or G-Shock – it’s easy to overlook how radical they were when they were launched”.
Indeed, these and other pioneering watches might be too readily appreciated now as primarily being aesthetic leaps forward. And, as notes Maximillian Busser, Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve jury member and founder of MB&F – a brand that also benefited from the path paved by the Freak – the various iterations of the Freak have managed to be unconventional while also being lightweight, compact and relatively streamlined. Unlike so many other exotic watches, they have also managed to remain comfortably wearable even on a small wrist – something Busser cites as being a major trial in the creation of his own timepieces. And yet, he stresses, all that is to miss the real import of these groundbreakers.
“Sure, before [the likes of the Freak, RM001, the UR103 or the Harry Winston Opus 1] the look of high-end watchmaking was incredibly classic and conservative. But that’s not why for me the Freak
has to be considered one of the great contemporary watchmaking benchmarks of the early 2000s,” says Busser. “Rather it’s because it also required the development of an incredibly complex technology to make it come to life. These kinds of watches are not only about design. They’re not just about a nicely designed packaging of an existing movement. They represent overcoming enormous technical challenges. The Freak’s lack of a crown is a case in point. Since the movement turns on itself a traditional crown-stem wouldn’t have worked. And the solution just makes the watch that much more ground-breaking.”
From the Freak’s Dual Direct escapement – at a time when a watchmakers creating their own escapement was largely unheard of, George Daniels aside – to the idea of orientating the blades of the balance wheel to exploit air resistance for a more constant amplitude; from the hugely improved energy transmission of the Grinder automatic winding system to, more recently, the escapement being treated with a silicium and synthetic diamond plasma finish for abrasion and shock resistance… The Freak series has kept the innovations coming, without the original losing its relevance.
“Remarkably, although a multitude of new ideas have emerged since then, the Freak continues to stand out as a highly creative and unique watch,” argues Le Rolland. Indeed, in a way the Freak has come to replace the marine chronographs, with which Ulysee Nardin has long been closely associated, as the most direct expression of what the brand stands for today. Simply put, “it [expresses] Ulysse Nardin’s unconventional, avant-gardist mindset in its approach to watchmaking.”
This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue.
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