Nobody in the 1970s could have predicted that mechanical wristwatches would see such mighty demand in 50 years. While it was the marketing genius of a stellar group of individuals that maintained the commercial viability of the mechanical watch, it was the technical virtuosity of Ulysse Nardin that led a counterrevolution that would change the face of watchmaking forever.
When the brand unveiled the Freak in 2001, it fomented a revolution on three fronts — design, mechanical and material — while being steeped in tradition. Its original design came from Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who saw the tourbillon as an entirely new way of displaying time. In fact, her concept of having a revolving movement surrounded by a giant mainspring had earned her the winning prize at the Prix de la Fondation Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1997, most notably beating the English watchmaker Derek Pratt who had just been the first to put a natural escapement in a tourbillon watch. Under the direction of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, a Vatican clock restorer, her proposal eventually underwent a complete reconfiguration. Among other things, he relocated the mainspring to the back of the watch beneath the gear train, giving it a week’s worth of power reserve.
The Freak was aptly named as it bore little resemblance to anything ever worn on the wrist. It was the first wristwatch wherein mechanics and aesthetics were virtually indistinguishable and where movement design was an extreme exercise in aesthetics. It marked the first instance that a movement was deconstructed to express time on its own and, in so doing, achieved a totally new, mechanics-celebratory language of watchmaking that will come to inform much of what independent watchmaking embodies today.
Prior to the Freak, watchmaking was a repository of age-old traditions and watches served only to emotionally connect us to those said traditions. They were generally constructed in a two- dimensional manner with the mainspring and balance occupying the same plane at the edges of a base plate, which is topped by a dial that is swept over by hands. The Freak, however, shocked the world in the way it defied and reconfigured centuries-old norms and brought an intellectual depth that only wonder-and- awe innovations can provoke. It lacked a proper dial, or hands for that matter; instead, mounted on a huge mainspring barrel was a linear gear train that made a complete revolution once per hour, doubling as the minute hand of the watch.
In this construction, the hour wheel arbor is mounted on the mainspring barrel and as the barrel unwinds, the hour wheel is driven against a fixed peripheral rack. It is secured in place by a bridge that acts as the hour hand. At the same time, the hour wheel drives the central pinion which, in turn, drives the entire gear train acting as the minute hand against an upper fixed peripheral rack. As such, the movement dispensed with the crown and keyless works; the mainspring is wound simply by rotating the caseback and time is set by rotating the bezel as the peripheral rack is fixed to the inner circumference of the bezel. Beyond that, the Freak was also the first wristwatch to incorporate a natural escapement, which was invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1789. Characterized by two counter-rotating wheels, the natural escapement was so called because each impulse was delivered directly to the balance roller at each vibration, setting it apart from every known wristwatch escapement in use today and eliminating the need for lubrication. The Ulysse Nardin Dual Direct Escapement solved the issue of tolerance Breguet faced during his time by replacing traditional metal with precisely formed silicon components produced via deep reactive ion etching (DRIE). Hence, the Freak was the first watch to incorporate silicon parts, thereby ushering in the age of silicon in watchmaking.
The properties of silicon have rendered it an extremely beneficial material for watchmaking. Being a third the density of steel, it operates with low inertia, meaning the amount of energy required to move a silicon component is far less, thus allowing a movement to run with greater efficiency. Secondly, it is harder than steel and has a completely smooth surface, allowing interacting components to work together without the need for lubrication and with insignificant surface wear over time. Thirdly, it can be fabricated with extreme precision and in complex geometries through DRIE, with no further intervention after they have been formed. Fourthly, it is also highly elastic and therefore, shock- resistant as it is capable of bouncing back to its original shape immediately upon impact. Last but not least, it is also anti- magnetic, counteracting the effects of a long-time foe.
The first silicon escape wheels were produced for Ulysse Nardin by Centre Suisse d’Electronique et Microtechnique (CSEM), a Swiss research institute that specializes in micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). More than that, the Dual Direct Escapement in the Freak ingeniously integrated Breguet’s two-level escape wheel construction into a single plane. Each escape wheel has 25 teeth with every fifth tooth protruding slightly with a pointed tip while the rest have flat tips. The teeth with flat tips serve to drive the next escape wheel and the pointed tips contact a pivoting stopper that delivers an impulse directly to the balance wheel at each vibration.
Freak 28’800 V/H: The Evolved Freak 
The Freak 28’800 V/h, colloquially known as the second generation, was introduced in 2005, featuring an upgraded escapement dubbed the Dual Ulysse Escapement.
The new escapement featured 18 identical teeth with hooked tips resembling shark’s teeth that nested on the edges of the revised stopper, as opposed to the first generation’s 25 teeth per escape wheel, five of which extended to engage the stopper. Because all the teeth are now functionally contacting the stopper, it resulted in a reduced sweep angle per tick, therefore a more stable mechanism. And since it required less time to revolve at this smaller angle, the new movement could accommodate a high frequency balance, hence the increase from 3Hz to 4Hz, or 28,800vph, giving rise to the model’s name.
Additionally, the annular balance wheel was also replaced by a free-sprung balance with four adjustment screws recessed into its periphery and a silicon hairspring. Apart from the escapement, the Freak 28’800 V/h also introduced a locking tab to prevent the bezel from turning inadvertently.
Freak Diamond Heart 28’800 V/H: The Experimental Freak 
The year 2005 also saw the launch of the experimental Freak Diamond Heart 28’800 V/h which introduced the first escape wheels and hairspring etched from synthetic diamond via DRIE. Synthetic diamond shares the same desirable properties as silicon, namely low density and low friction coefficient, but surpasses it in hardness, making it more durable. The parts were produced by Germany’s GFD (Gesellschaft für Diamantprodukte mbH), an institute that specializes in growing synthetic diamond using chemical vapor deposition. However, due to its high cost, it proved impossible to produce in meaningful numbers.
Subsequently, in 2006, Ulysse Nardin embarked on a joint enterprise with Mimotec and founded Sigatec, a manufacturer that specializes in both DRIE for silicon parts and LIGA (Lithographie, Galvanoformung, Abformung) for metal parts, enabling them to produce precision components that were light, corrosion resistant and nonmagnetic on an industrial scale and make them available to the rest of the industry.
Freak Diamonsil: The Advanced Freak 
Eventually Ulysse Nardin and GFD hit upon a less complex solution of incorporating synthetic diamond — DIAMonSIL, or diamond- coated silicon, derived by producing a layer of diamond on a silicon substrate. The novel material is essentially fortified silicon, boasting all the qualities of silicon including anti-magnetism, low density and the ability to be fabricated precisely, but with an improved surface hardness to ensure durability.
The result was exhibited in the Freak DIAMonSIL in 2007 which featured a Ulysse Dual Escapement made of DIAMonSIL. With the new material, the escapement reached its height, offering both high efficiency in energy transmission and a surface hardness that was practical for longevity.
Innovision 1: The Radical Freak 
In 2007, Ulysse Nardin also unveiled the InnoVision 1, a Freak that committed so thoroughly to a vision of a future empowered by silicon. It showed the world all at once not only the enormous potential of silicon in providing better resistance to shock, better rate stability and greater efficiency – qualities that are all inarguably beneficial to the end user – but also how sophisticated, three-dimensional fabrication could be helpful for a watchmaker. The movement boasted an abundance of silicon beyond the Ulysse Dual Escapement, including a silicon bridge for the dual escape wheels as well as a bi-material bridge for the gear train that comprised of a central plate made of silicon which was flanked by a nickel-phosphorus outer bridge, fabricated using LIGA. The use of silicon eliminated the need for jewels, enabling the movement to be designed with greater freedom while the use of silicon bearings on the bottom bridge for the gear train eliminates the need for oil cups as there is no need for lubrication. Additionally, it featured a silicon monobloc shock protection integrated into the balance staff which pivots on a silicon disk. The elasticity of silicon enables the disk to flex in face of shocks and return to its original shape instantly.
Most notably, the concept watch also saw the introduction of three-dimensional silicon components. In its infancy, silicon parts were mostly etched as flat, planar parts. But the most crucial bits of the oscillator in the InnoVision 1, namely the escapement stopper and security pin, the balance roller and impulse pin as well as each escape wheel and its pinion were each fabricated in silicon as a single unit with two levels respectively. In addition to being able to be manufactured to extremely fine tolerances, these multi-function single components also reduced assembly time.
Freak Diavolo: The Complicated Freak 
The Freak Diavolo was the first Freak with a flying tourbillon, making it, in operational terms, a tourbillon within a tourbillon. At the time of its launch, it housed the most powerful balance wheel for a tourbillon watch with an inertia of 8mg.cm2 and a frequency of 4Hz, while maintaining an impressive power reserve of eight days.
Typically, with the addition of a tourbillon cage, inertia and frequency are necessarily compromised to power and make room for the cage. To put things into perspective, the workhorse ETA 2892, which is not a tourbillon and hence does not have to overcome the additional inertia of a cage, boasts the exact same inertia and frequency. This speaks to the benefits of the Freak’s inherent architecture that can accommodate a strong mainspring, while the use of silicon in the escapement helps reduce inertia to ensure more efficient power transmission to keep the balance wheel oscillating.
Bringing more utility to the watch, the tourbillon cage also doubled as the seconds hand, which can be read against a semi-circular seconds bridge.
Freak Cruiser: The Seagoing Freak 
In 2013, Ulysse Nardin unveiled the Freak Cruiser, the first Freak that was water resistant to a depth of 30m, which was a fitting nod to the nautical ties cultivated by the brand. The case was enlarged from 42mm to 45mm and the signature bezel, which was fluted to look like a bottle cap in the original, was refined with larger notches that resemble waves, while the top of the bezel had a slim sawtooth decoration.
The Cruiser also saw one of the most appreciable aesthetic improvements in terms of the movement. The bridges for the gear train and balance wheel were now sleeker with a slim, skeletonized anchor-shaped design that no longer obstructs the view of the gear train.
FreakLab: The Calendrical Freak 
The FreakLab of 2015 went no other Freak had gone before, which is to add a date complication. After all the off-the-wall advancements the Freak had brought forth, it was amusing to bring back some normalcy with a complication that is presented in practically every other modern, mass-produced watch.
The date wheel of the FreakLab is visible through an aperture at four o’clock. As the crown and winding stem remained absent in the watch, the date is set by turning the bezel counter-clockwise, while time is set by rotating the bezel in the clockwise direction. Notably, the balance wheel was now positioned at the center of the watch, allowing it to closely resemble a typical minute hand. However, the fundamental architecture of the movement remained unchanged.
Further in, the brand continued to showcase its expertise in fabricating silicon components with the introduction of its own silicon shock protection system, dubbed the UlyChoc. While a typical Incabloc shock absorber system consists of a setting, a chaton, a balance staff jewel, cap stone and anti-shock spring, the UlyChoc incorporates a silicon spring around the chaton that houses the jewel and cap stone. Upon impact, the elasticity of silicon allows the chaton to move in its setting to absorb shock but re-centers it immediately.
Innovision 2: The Freakiest Freak 
The InnoVision 2 was a watch that put the very makeup of the Freak on steroids and wholly demonstrated that its eccentric construction, which might suggest a dead-end outlook, could evolve in unimaginable ways.
Among its 10 innovations was the Dual Constant Escapement. It operates on the same principles as a natural escapement but with the added benefit of delivering constant force to the balance wheel, regardless of the mainspring’s state of wind. This is made possible by constructing the escapement as a compliant mechanism which would use the elasticity of silicon to perform its mechanical function.
The Dual Constant Escapement comprises of a single silicon frame of an intricate shape with an integrated pair of blades that flex between fixed ends when tensioned alternately by the escape wheels, ensuring a very precise and consistent transmission of energy at each vibration.
The InnoVision 2 also saw the introduction of a silicon balance wheel that was combined with four adjustable gold weights on its periphery to achieve an ideal mass-inertia ratio. Being extremely light, the balance wheel incorporated micro-blades between its spokes to minimize air resistance.
But the most drastic evolution was the use of the Grinder automatic winding system, making it the first self-winding Freak. The Grinder mechanism relies on a flexible, circular frame with four pawls that connects a peripheral rotor to the winding wheel for the barrel. Each rotation of the oscillating mass causes one of the four pawls on the frame to turn the winding wheel. The four arms offer exceptional efficiency, twice as efficient as conventional automatic mechanisms in theory. This significantly reduces the need for hand winding, though it remains an option by turning the notched caseback.
Other exotica in the watch included a sapphire-coated silicon bridge, glass bridge with integrated shock protection for the balance wheel as well as Super-LumiNova filled channels that were integrated into the glass balance wheel bridge.
Freak Vision: The Futuristic Freak 
The Freak Vision, launched the following year, was the first Freak to have its entire gear train made from silicon, which minimizes energy loss due to friction and hence enhances power transmission. It also brought some of the most important advancements in the InnoVision 2 to a commercial reality, namely the Grinder automatic winding system as well as a silicon balance wheel with stabilizing micro-blades. However, the balance was enlarged and fitted with nickel inertia blocks. To make room for a self-winding system, the Freak Vision had a smaller and slimmer mainspring offering a power reserve of 50 hours on a 2.5Hz frequency.
The Dual Constant Escapement was replaced by the tried-and- tested Ulysse Anchor Escapement that was launched in 2014. It consists of a circular silicon frame that holds the lever in place. Instead of a pivot, two perpendicular, buckled blades of silicon on both sides of the frame converge at the pivot point of the lever. The buckled blades flex between fixed ends, providing a precise and constant flow of energy to the balance regardless of the torque from the mainspring.
The silicon gear train is held in place by a pair of skeletonized, delta-shaped central bridges that were inspired by the hull of a boat, giving the movement a lighter, airier appearance. Although the Freak Vision has a large diameter of 45mm, it was an exercise in practicality and elegance. The dramatic fluted bezel design was replaced by one that was circular and flat with three titanium riders for time-setting.
Freak Out: The Retrospective Freak 
Apart from the launch of the first serially produced self-winding Freak, 2018 also saw the release of one of the most desirable Freaks in modern times in that it retained the revolutionary architecture and escapement of the original but adopted the elegant anchor- shaped bridges of the Freak Cruiser, a redesigned bezel inspired by the InnoVision 2 and a lightweight case in titanium.
As a result of being made in titanium, the Freak Out was the most affordable Freak that kept all the iconic mechanical characteristics of the original. At the same time, both the uniform matte finish across the case and the redesigned bezel with a series of widely spaced double notches ensure that nothing detracts from the visually spectacular movement.
Freak X: The Daily Freak 
If the Freak of 2001 was the wildest watch to ever hit the market, the Freak X of 2019 saw a return to a semblance of normality with a technically streamlined movement and an aesthetically pared back design. As such, the Freak X is the most accessibly priced Freak yet made.
It abstracts the very essence of the Freak, namely an orbital oscillator and a silicon escapement, and realizes it in a more traditional automatic movement, which enables hand winding and setting via a traditional crown. The automatic caliber UN-230 inside is based on the brand’s workhorse automatic cal. UN-118 but with a module integrated in the baseplate. Visible on the dial, the module consists of a planetary gear system, made up of a large, fixed gear ring, a planet gear for the hour hand, and a central gear for the minute hand. While the rest of the gear train remain hidden, the escapement and balance wheel form the minute hand, completing a full rotation in an hour.
Freak NeXt: The Otherworldly Freak 
Launched that same year, The Freak NeXt was the first-ever high frequency Freak and hence the most dynamic. The concept watch fully exploited the elastic properties of silicon to achieve a frequency of 12Hz, three times that of a conventional balance wheel. While there have been several watches on the market that have replaced multiple parts of the regulating organ with a single silicon structure to achieve a high frequency, the Freak NeXt is the most interesting as it does not attempt to combine the balance and the escapement, effectively preserving the heart and soul of a mechanical watch.
Instead, the balance wheel is made up of four stacked silicon wheels, each fitted with eight micro-blades, with every pair forming a triangle. The entire balance wheel is secured to the movement with screws at two points and does not have a pivot, hence it operates without friction. The balance is impulsed by the Ulysse Anchor Escapement which also does not have a lever pivot and relies on the flexibility of silicon to deliver consistent energy throughout the course of its power reserve.
Additionally, the gear train is also made of silicon, reducing friction and wear. The performance gains in all these areas, namely low inertia and friction, enables the oscillator to operate at a dramatically high frequency, making it the most visually dynamic Freak. It is also equipped with the Grinder automatic winding system that consists of a peripheral rotor and a circular frame with quadruple winding pawls, which engage a central wheel that winds the mainspring.
Freak S: The Chronometric Freak 
While the Freak has always been as intellectually stimulating as it is visually captivating, the Freak S last year pushed the envelope even further by including a dual oscillator. Although watches that rely on a differential to stabilize the rate of two oscillators have grown steadily in numbers since the ’90s, orbital double oscillators that mark out the time is a truly unique achievement. The two silicon balance wheels and their respective DIAMonSIL escape wheels are inclined at a 20-degree angle symmetrically and are connected by means of a vertical differential that averages out their errors in rate. The fundamental architecture of the movement is similar to that of the original; as the time display rotates, a tiny pinion is driven against a fixed peripheral rack, thereby powering the gear train and balance wheels. The Freak S also utilizes the highly efficient Grinder automatic winding system, offering complexity and convenience in equal measure.
Freak ONE: The Freak that bridges the past to the future 
This year, Ulysse Nardin introduces a new Freak that showcases the Freak’s most essential and celebrated designs and technological advances throughout the course of its 22-year history. It took a few learnings from the Freak Vision of 2018, namely a highly advanced silicon balance wheel and a Grinder automatic winding system, and features shapely, open-worked bridges for the gear train inspired by the Freak Cruiser of 2013. But most importantly, its fundamental architecture remains true to the path-breaking original of 2001.
Although it relies on a traditional lever escapement, both the escape wheel and pallet fork have been fashioned from DIAMonSIL. In fact, it represents the first time this configuration has been employed; the lever escapement in the Freak X, for instance, was executed in silicon. Hence, it not only avoids the primary flaw of the Swiss lever escapement, enabling it to operate virtually frictionlessly without the need for lubrication but is also endowed with greater strength and resilience to withstand the test of time. It is paired with a lightweight but oversized balance wheel made of silicon. Notably, the Freak ONE has a frequency of 3Hz, which is slightly higher than that of the automatic Freak Vision and is also equipped with gold adjusting weights instead of nickel. All things equal, a high-power balance wheel maintains more stable timekeeping as the balance is less susceptible to shocks caused by wrist motions. The gear train is held in place by lean and clean bridges colored in rose gold, offering maximum visual access to the parts while providing superb legibility.
As is characteristic of the Freak, the Freak ONE is on the large side at 44mm. But its black DLC titanium case and slim, tapered lugs make it eminently comfortable on the wrist. Its rose gold architectural bezel offers a high contrast, yet is pleasantly subdued by a satin-brushed finish. All told, it makes for an extremely compelling Freak that preserves the trailblazing construction of the original while offering the convenience of a mechanically superior automatic winding system in a lightweight and undeniably cool package.
Now into the 22nd year of the Freak, one thing that remains true is that there is nothing quite like it. By addressing every line of inquiry in modern watchmaking, be it aesthetic, technical, technological or conceptual and integrating them like never before, the Freak single-handedly launched an era of horological rebellion that altered the course of watchmaking forever. It is, indeed, quite the freak — a brilliant outlier that once tested the vanguard and now continues to push it. And in doing so, it has become the watch of choice for the trailblazers, risk-takers and free-thinkers of the world, for the bold of heart and spirit, and those unafraid to smash past boundaries and let their freak flag fly.
In other words, it is a watch for the Freaks in all of us.