Ulysse Nardin Freak collection reaches a new orbitBy Bhanu Chopra
The Freak was first introduced in 2001. It heralded a new age of materials engineering with its use of silicon components and unconventional design. The partnership between Ulysse Nardin and its manufacturing partner, Sigatec, was part of a journey that would lead to many important innovations in watchmaking. Revolution takes a look at the evolution of the Freak over the past 20 years, culminating with the most recent version: the 2022 Freak S. It’s a fascinating look into innovative and boundary-pushing design by master watchmakers that have created some of the most interesting watches ever to grace the industry.
When Rolf W. Schnyder and Ludwig Oechslin joined forces in the 1980s, they transformed what was essentially a traditional, yet innovative watch manufacturer, into one of the most exciting brands on the market. Together, they explored new paths and developed new ways of thinking about watchmaking. The Freak of 2001 was just one example of their groundbreaking partnership, bringing a new vision of a carrousel movement to life. The 42.5mm case had no crown, no dial and no hands. The timepiece relied on a cleverly designed carrousel tourbillon, albeit a tourbillon by technicality since its balance is housed in a revolving structure. Unlike a traditional tourbillon that completes a rotation every minute, the Freak’s tourbillon completes a rotation once every hour. The debate about this technicality continues within the watch community until today.
The Freak was the first watch to make effective use of silicon. It was also one of the few examples of a watch with a brand new escapement, something that was almost unheard of at the time.
Oechslin was brought into the project to help solve some of the early technical challenges, and his vision and expertise brought the Freak into reality with some astounding and unique innovations. In addition to reimagining the carrousel so that it would become the time display, his design increased a limiting 10-hour power reserve into an astonishing seven-day reserve. His work on the dual direct escapement on an old clock was engineered into the Freak on top of the movement to showcase the invention.
It was also the first time that the components were manufactured out of silicon, driven by the need to deal with the added inertia from two escape wheels. The light weight, non-magnetic properties, corrosion resistance and almost no need for lubrication make silicon an ideal material for use in watches, and the Freak was the first time watchmakers were committed to incorporating it into a design.
In 2001, Rolf Schnyder explained, “Nearly 20 years ago, I acquired Ulysse Nardin. It was a calculated risk in that I was convinced that mechanical watches so unique and innovative could gain a foothold in the market, and apparently I was right. The Freak embodies this historical breakthrough achieved by Ulysse Nardin and by the watchmaking industry in general, and is by far our flagship model.”
2005: Freak 28,800V/H
In 2005, the follow-up Freak 28,800V/h introduced a few upgrades. Ulysse Nardin moved from the dual direct escapement to the Dual Ulysse Escapement that featured an indirect impulse. The oscillator was updated from 3Hz to 4Hz. This version had an increased case of 44.5mm for a more formidable profile and introduced a bezel lock to secure against accidentally moving the time setting.
2005: Freak Diamond Heart
In 2005, the Freak got a glamorous makeover with escapement wheels and parts made with synthetic diamonds, another industry first. It continued the unique DNA with no crown and the dual direct escapement. The 44.5mm case was made of platinum and set with diamonds for a truly beautiful take on the Freak concept. The UN-200 caliber remained as a manual winding movement with a seven-day power reserve.
2007: Freak Diamonsil
With the cost of synthetic diamond going up, Ulysse Nardin shifted to a new material, DIAMonSIL. It is the first timepiece sporting a synthetic nanocrystal diamond escapement grown on a silicium raw part. The company still uses the material in their UN-118 caliber today. Another worthy mention in 2007 is the InnoVision 1 concept watch featuring several technical innovations that were implemented into future Freak editions.
2010: Freak Diavolo
In 2010, the Freak experienced a significant aesthetic update with a new colorway of black and red replacing the primarily blue previous versions. Diavolo is the Italian word for devil, and it referenced the brilliant red accents that formed the shape of horns for the power indicator. This version was also unique in that it included a flying tourbillon regulator as well as the carrousel tourbillon that acted as a minute indicator as it completed each rotation per hour.
This version also saw a Freak Diavolo “Rolf 75” version released for Rolf Schnyder’s 75th birthday that switched up the red accents with a bright yellow. It was a limited release of 75 pieces and featured Schnyder’s signature on the bezel lock. There was also another first for the Freak line with the Only Watch Freak Diavolo that was the only Freak to be made with stainless steel.
2013: Freak Cruiser
Claude Emmenegger, known for his involvement in the creation of the Royal Oak Concept, was brought on board to create the Freak Cruiser. This version included a softening of the bezel into rolling waves. It also experienced another increase in size to 45mm and showcased the first water resistant (30 meters) bezel.
In this model, a new design element is the anchor shape on the minute hand. The aquatic design is carried to the rear of the piece with engraved waves on the back.
2015: Freak Lab
Moving the oscillator to the center of the watch, the Freak Lab also introduced a date indicator for the first time in the collection. The brand added the complication at the four o’clock position with a curved aperture design that managed to maintain the simplicity of the previous Freak versions. With a black and gray colorway and a redesigned bridge, this was a more somber design of blackened titanium and carbon fiber.
The centered design allowed the balance wheel and spring to be brought in closer to the center of the movement and resulted in weight reduction. The Freak Lab also debuted the brand’s new shock absorber, the UlyChoc, with a simplified new design making use of silicon to reduce effect of shock in the movement.
2018: Freak Vision
The Freak Vision benefited from many of the innovations of the Ulysse Nardin InnoVision 2 concept watch (a follow-up to InnoVision 1 concept), including the first time a Freak has been fitted with automated winding using the Grinder Automatic Winding System concept. The regulating organ also saw a major innovation as Ulysse Nardin introduced a lightweight silicium balance wheel with nickel mass elements and stabilizing micro-blades within the UN-250 caliber movement.
Aesthetically, this model’s design took a turn for bolder lines, the soft waves of the bezel replaced by a three- dimensional design that takes advantage of the layered mechanism with a modern, clean overall look.
2019: Freak X
The 2019 Freak X version saw a change in size to a 43mm case and got a crown for the first time. Due to the smaller case redesign, it is the most wearable “everyday” Freak. The black and gold colorway was a handsome choice to showcase the UN-230 automatic caliber. This was also one of the most accessible versions in terms of cost.
With a conventional rotor and silicon parts, the Freak X lived up to the line while simplifying some of the technicalities. It is a carrousel movement where the central bridge acts as a minute hand and one of the wheels indicates the hours.
2019: Freak NeXt
As a concept watch, the Freak NeXt introduced the technical advancement in flexible parts. The flying oscillator was built on a three-dimensional architecture that included flexible silicon blades. With a regulator operating at 86,400 vibrations per hour while maintaining a decent 70-hour power reserve, the NeXt was a technical masterpiece for the collection. Since it operated at the high frequency of 12Hz, there were 12 limited editions made of Freak NeXt.
2022: Freak S
The evolution of the Freak collection over two decades culminated in the introduction of the 2022 Freak S. Introduced at Watches and Wonders 2022, it takes the Freak concept into the future with a truly space-aged design concept. With two blued DIAMonSIL oscillators integrated into the carrousel movement at a 20-degree angle using golden bridges, there is a built-in error correction system for ultimate precision.
The baseplate is covered with a black aventurine disk, a nice stellar canvas for the spacecraft spinning toward its conquest of time. The intricate components of the new UN-251 automatic movement is on full display. A luminescent pointer rotates to display the hours on the periphery of the dial, while the nose of the rocket indicates the minutes. The design is reminiscent of a futuristic rocket powered through the star speckled darkness of space.
The already efficient Grinder Automatic Winding System also gets an update to take advantage of slight wrist movements for even greater stroke and lower friction.
The watch is limited to 75 pieces, 40 of which will be available in 2022. The watch is paired with a handsome alligator strap that features a rose gold cutout and closes with a self-folding clasp of titanium with black DLC.
The evolution continues
The Freak collection of watches was always meant to step outside of the traditional watch, showcasing technical innovations and unusual architecture. The self-styled “laboratory on a wrist” is a showstopper of a timepiece. With a carrousel movement that is beautifully finished while introducing many new innovations, Ulysse Nardin is shaking up the industry with their thoughtful and unique take on watchmaking.
Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, sums it up best, “The Freak is a watch whose revolutionary soul is regularly fired up by new technical challenges. Like the heroes of Homer’s Odyssey who visited many unknown lands, we at Ulysse Nardin continue to explore all possible roads offered by science to ensure constant improvement in the precision and functionality of our time-keeping instruments.”
Ulysse Nardin Freak S, Ref 2513-500LE-2A-BLACK-5N/1A
Movement: Self-winding caliber UN-251; 72-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours and minutes indicated by the movement’s rotation
Case: 45mm; 5N rose gold, titanium with black DLC and black ceramic; water resistant to 30m
Dial: Black aventurine
Strap: Black alligator leather with rose gold cutout; black DLC titanium folding clasp
Price: USD 137,200
Availability: Limited edition of 75 pieces (40 pieces for 2022)