Ulysse Nardin’s R-Evolutionary Pierre Gygax
A lot is changing at Ulysse Nardin, but then again a lot isn’t changing. What remains constant at Ulysse Nardin are innovative products that continue to surprise and delight, getting better and better as the brand progresses deeper into its modern era.
A recent chat with Ulysse Nardin CEO Patrik Hoffmann revealed an extreme sense of contentment at the state of affairs inside the company since the takeover by luxury group Kering was announced in July 2014. (For more on that see Ulysse Nardin’s CEO Patrik Hoffman Comments The Kering Takeover.)
A further positive move was the hiring of Hartmut Kraft to run the U.S. operations of Ulysse Nardin and sister companies Girard-Perregaux and Jean-Richard. I have known Kraft for a very long time, and his added enthusiasm for haute horlogerie and smart commitment will be a major benefit in raising much-needed raising of awareness in this important world market. To hear Kraft’s own take on the appointment announced in May 2015, please read Got A Minute? Hartmut Kraft, CEO Kering North America Luxury Watch Division: Ulysse Nardin, Jean-Richard, And Girard-Perregaux.
But, perhaps for me, the biggest news was what could be called the semi-retirement of Pierre Gygax from Ulysse Nardin, effective as of July 1, 2015. He will remain an outside consultant for the brand he has devoted the last 18 years of his life to as well as for the committee that now oversees Sowind manufacturing (part of the Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard package).
A life of invention
Gygax was an integral part of Ulysse Nardin’s rise to becoming one of the watch industry’s pioneers in new materials. “He was our brain,” Hoffmann commented with a little laugh. “He helped in building the manufacture, but naturally not alone. The team was (and is) very important.”
It would seem that throughout his long career, Gygax has always been interested in the new, the coming, and that which is ahead of its time. Quartz for example. A not very widely known fact is that quartz watch regulators are actually a Swiss invention even if it was Japan’s Seiko who industrialized quartz watches and made them a household commodity.
Upon graduating as an engineer in 1973, Gygax spontaneously decided to apply to work at Omega, who was at the time “fighting to have the most accurate quartz,” as he once explained to me. “I wanted to take part in this battle!” Gygax and his team developed a high-frequency quartz movement known as MegaQuartz, which beat at a frequency of 2.4 Mhz. That’s 2,400,000 Hz – nearly 100 times faster than the 32,768 Hz of standard quartz movements. By comparison, modern mechanical regulators generally beat at 4 Hz.
He then spent fourteen years working with new technologies involving injection molding technology for the watchmaking, automotive, and electronics industries. “I can tell you that [working with those fields] opens your mind!” he assured me.
Ulysse Nardin’s need for new materials
In 1983, Rolf Schnyder bought Ulysse Nardin, a historical cornerstone of Swiss watchmaking, which had unfortunately not done well during the hard times mechanical watches experienced during what is generally known as the “quartz crisis.” Ulysse Nardin needed a new injection of lifeblood and ideas, and Schnyder chose remarkable projects to resuscitate the brand’s identity, mechanics, and reputation.
Though many of the ideas originated with extraordinary watchmaker and thinker Ludwig Oechslin, it was only when Schnyder hired Gygax in 1997 as Ulysse Nardin’s “industrial manager” that the brand began to equip itself for the incredible technical path it had begun to wander down.
“I had the task to step-by-step ‘internalize’ all technologies, skills, production capacities, quality management, etc. needed to insure the long-term life and development of Ulysse Nardin. This part being entrusted to me, Rolf was able to work with [now CEO] Patrik Hoffmann on the market side: distribution, marketing, subsidiaries, etc.,” Gygax revealed in his affable way.
Gygax was instrumental in putting the nickel-phosphorus LIGA, silicon, and finally synthetic diamond technologies to use for the brand, high-tech materials that have shaped crucial components within Ulysse Nardin’s forward-thinking timepieces and concepts since 2001.
These new technologies were needed for the most part to realize Oechslin’s groundbreaking Freak model, a watch that is actually a wrist-sized laboratory and one that in many ways has changed the course of modern watchmaking.
“[We needed] silicon to solve Oechslin’s Dual Direct escapement, which we used in the first Freak,” Gygax explained. “Metal wheels were too heavy and could not be accelerated to kick-start the balance. Rediscovering this technology – which is now applied to micro-mechanical parts and no longer electronic circuits – I realized that these processes were giving unbelievable freedom of design to our engineers.”
Though Ulysse Nardin is best known for the cutting-edge Freak, its collection also comprises evergreens such as the GMT line, the Maxi Marine, and the Executive Dual Time – all of which have come out in countless, popular variations.
Ulysse Nardin is also known for rare mechanical delicacies such as the famed astronomical Trilogy, the Moonstruck (which depicts the tides, position of the moon and moon phases), the Jacquemart repeaters with their unique enameled dials, and the Sonata, a countdown alarm combined with the brand’s own clever dual time display.
Traditional and new: together
Of late, though, it has been the manufacture Maxi Marine Chronometer line that garners the most attention. Its Caliber UN-118 is a true in-house, industrialized, C.O.S.C.-certified chronometer mechanism containing the brand’s own DIAMonSIL escapement and a genuine enameled dial.
“I think that mechanical watchmaking will last long as the customer likes to own an object created by human beings who have put passion, skill and personal engagement into it,” Gygax explained his view of where haute horlogerie is headed.
“One can create with old materials and techniques the same thing we can achieve with ‘new’ materials and technologies. However, a silicon escapement is not less poetic than a traditional Nivarox escapement.”
While he will be missed in the day-to-day of Ulysse Nardin, Hoffmann stresses that Gygax is not gone. “He thinks too much outside the box to just fade away. We are glad to have access to his expertise: he is still on the board of Diamaze; that was his baby.”
Diamaze Microtechnology SA is a joint venture between Ulysse Nardin, Sigatec, and the GfD Institute (a producer of diamond components for tools and the medical industry) to create diamond-coated silicon and “growing” synthetic diamond as exhibited in 2007’s Freak DiamonSil.
“What a fantastic period I’ve experienced with marvelous, kind, and entrepreneurial people in jobs that I have loved and in an area I am passionate about,” Gygax recently enthused.
Hoffmann does see this a bit as a passing of the guard. “The evolution of product is the most important thing at the end of the day, though.” That is one thing Ulysse Nardin will never retire from or tire of: evolution.
For more information, please visit www.ulysse-nardin.com.