Living In Freaky Times: Ulysse Nardin FreakLab
Children today will never know what life was like before smartphones, social media, or even the internet. They have grown up in the connected world and as such cannot imagine a day without accessing the world wide web, texting friends, or streaming Netflix.
Community bulletin boards represented an old-fashioned version of Facebook, passing notes in class was the precursor to texting, and social media was simply going over to Billy’s house with your friends to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (or whatever show was on at 6:00 pm because everyone had an 8:00 curfew).
There will always be generations of people who do not know what the world was like before a certain time simply because they were not there to experience it or were too young to notice. For me, that is the world of watches.
When I was in my third year of college I began to truly take notice of watches and understand what the industry was up to. In 2005, a lot was already happening and some truly astounding watches were already on the scene. For a young watch nerd, the world of incredible avant-garde horology was alive and well. Just a few years before I would have been surprised to know that it was still largely emerging with just a few notable pieces to date.
Some are of the opinion that what changed it all was the introduction of the Ulysse Nardin Freak in 2001. Just four years before I sat up to take notice, the entire industry was turned on its head by one of the strangest watches to have ever been developed. The previous strangest watch may have been Vianney Halter’s Antiqua, though that watch still technically had (relatively) normal dials.
Now that I am aware of the industry, I know I will never live in a world without the Ulysse Nardin Freak – and the world of watches will always be filled with Freaks. That may have sounded weird, but you know what I mean.
New stuff in a now-familiar style
Even though the Freak is a staple of avant-garde watchmaking, I am continuously impressed by the continual improvements and inventions. That is why the most recent edition is the most appropriately named: it announces right there in the name – Ulysse Nardin FreakLab – that it’s the wrist-sized testing lab!
The reason we are all here is the star of the Freak: the flying tourbillon carriage. Where there would normally be hands to tell the time, the Freak utilizes a cantilevered flying tourbillon carriage containing most of the gear train plus the balance and escapement.
On the original version of the Freak the carriage was rather large and took up much of the inset dial. This is no longer the case as the tourbillon carriage is now the smallest it has ever been, and truly resembles a very large hand.
This is thanks to many small improvements over time, and most importantly relocating the balance to the center of the pivot instead of cantilevered off the side. This modification already makes the dial much more visibly open and much more readable.
Due to this, the hour indication disc has been moved inward from the edge of the case, allowing more room for larger hour numerals and better legibility. The balance isn’t the only helper with that as the entire upper bridge has been overhauled for space, weight, and design.
Appearing as an anchor over a sail, the upper bridge has undergone massive (I use that word lightly) weight reduction. The bridge is skeletonized and since the entire assembly is smaller, this means each wheel is smaller. Smaller skeletonized wheels, just like their larger predecessors, create a very noticeable weight reduction for the assembly.
Silicon and diamond
Another big help for weight is the use of silicon for the escapement and hairspring. Granted, there was silicon on previous models (that was a big part of its original awesomeness), but with the addition of the Dual Ulysse escapement of 2005, the FreakLab switches escapement systems.
It is also smaller than when the balance and escapement were part of an indefinable style of tourbillon some may have called flying and some may have called karussel (that is gone, so big weight savings there too).
The pivot jewels are all synthetic diamond. When combined with the silicon elements, this makes for a gear train needing very little lubrication.
The UlyChoc system
But this is not the most incredible change that has taken place in the newly designed bridge. That honor goes to the UlyChoc system.
Just so you know, that has nothing to do with chocolate so don’t get excited. I know I was a bit disappointed when I found out there was no chocolate in it, but the reality made up for it. The UlyChoc shock absorption system is an entirely new way to look at balance shock absorption.
The fine balance staff pivots (end of the axels of the balance wheel) are very fragile and are usually one of the first components to break if the watch experiences a strong knock or shock. For this reason, some kind of shock protection is an integral part of the balance mechanism.
The old Freak balance shock absorption system consisted of five components that allowed for a very slight movement of the balance pivot during a shock. The mechanism consisted of a chaton (bush) holding the pivot jewel and the capstone upon which the staff pivot rotates during operation.
The exterior of the chaton was shaped so that it could rotate, twist, and lift inside of the setting if the balance experienced a shock. Holding the bushing and jewels in place was a retaining spring clip locking the chaton into the setting, while still allowing some movement (as it was a spring).
There have been design changes and retaining spring clip changes over the years as better systems were developed, but they still used the same concept and same general parts. This is where the UlyChoc system flips it on its head.
Oh, the power of LIGA
Thanks to the amazing process of synthetically grown metal known as LIGA and a development from an earlier concept first seen in the Freak InnoVision, the UlyChoc system does away with the limitations placed on shock absorption systems by the retaining spring clip.
That clip was the source of many different designs around the industry in the past supposedly offering better shock resistance. Ulysse Nardin realized that instead of using the clip as the point of control, it could create a spiral silicon spring into which the jeweled chaton could be mounted.
This silicon spiral spring fits into the setting and is secured by the now-demoted retaining clip. This allows for a serious increase in the range of motion for the shock system.
It also reduces the possibility of the balance staff coming into contact with the sides of the setting, which was an issue with previous shock systems. Granted, it usually did not come to that, but it technically was possible with a severe shock.
In previous systems, the chaton played the role of guide as well – based on its exterior shape, determining how and where the movement (in case of shock) took place. This job also now belongs to the silicon spiral spring, which has consolidated functions into a more controllable component.
Did I mention this new silicon spiral spring is so incredibly tiny that it just takes up the space of an average sized jewel?
It is really, really small. And yet it provides more movement to the balance staff pivot than ever before, which reduces the chance of balance staff breakage (which used to be the main cause for a watch to stop working before shock protection systems) and it minimizes the risk of pivot jewel destruction as well.
An added bonus of this system, which other systems can’t claim, is automatic re-centering after a shock.
In previous shock absorption systems, the retaining spring clip allowed for movement, but it didn’t necessarily force everything back into perfect alignment again. In reality, the jewel and chaton could be slightly askew until it slowly walked or jostled back into alignment.
This was usually a minor issue, but if something isn’t perfect, it represents a possible improvement. And that is exactly what Ulysse Nardin has accomplished.
And the rest of the story
And the amazingness of the new tourbillon carriage isn’t all, there is still plenty more to enjoy around the rest of the watch.
Like the fact that this is the first Freak to feature a date on the dial. Thanks to the extra space afforded by the shrunken tourbillon carriage and resulting openness of the dial, a date function was added at 4 o’clock, set into the hour ring.
That addition makes this watch a truly functional everyday wear. Granted, it is so spectacular that no work would be getting done by you or anyone in your vicinity thanks to time spent gazing at this masterpiece. But, theoretically, it still could be worn every day.
Adding to that wearability is its absolutely massive (and I mean it this time) mainspring, boasting a seven-day power reserve. Given the power needed to turn that carriage (it’s light but still contains most of the gear train), seven days is a very impressive reserve for a watch like this.
The niceties of the FreakLab also include time and date setting using the bezel (bonus: no crown!), rear bezel winding (which winds an impressive 12 hours in one rotation of the bezel), and a lock on the bezel to keep the time from changing accidentally.
The FreakLab is increditastic, and being the latest in a long line of boundary-pushing designs and engineering, you know that this watch will be one seriously stout timepiece thanks to the constant improvements over the years.
The only problem I can see having with the FreakLab is increased jealousy from friends and coworkers, as well as a constant requests to check it out.
But, hey, I could live with that.
How about breaking bad? No, wait, breaking it down. Yeah, that’s it!
• Wowza Factor * 9.81 An extremely stout score with the original Wowza factor built in. Its name says it all, it’s a Freak!
• Late Night Lust Appeal * 98.1 » 962.03m/s2 Hmm, I see a pattern starting. The FreakLab is a watch that has had many WIS drooling until the wee hours of the morning, and this WIS is no different.
• M.G.R. * 69.81 The newest version of a movement that started a dramatic shift in a 400-year-old industry, of course it has a great M.G.R.
• Added-Functionitis * Mild A date function, finally! The FreakLab breaks tradition and becomes a complicated (complicated) watch. I would suggest standard-strength Gotta-HAVE-That cream for the about time swelling!
• Ouch Outline * 9.81 – Being lost in the woods with no footwear! This doesn’t sound too bad until you remember broken branches and spiked plants are everywhere. Combine that with a little cold weather and we are talking about pain! But I will totally sign up for that hiking trip if I could have this watch on my wrist.
• Mermaid Moment * 98.1 Minutes I’m guessing that this watch does not appeal to everyone, with many collectors being hardcore traditionalists. Considering this, the guaranteed Mermaid Moment time goes up. Regardless, when it hits you will be looking through the yellow pages for a disc jockey. (How dated is that sentence?)
• Awesome Total * 981 Multiply the number of hours in the power reserve (7 days x 24 hours = 168 hours) by the frequency of the balance in Hz (4) and add that result to the caliber number (210) plus the number of pieces in the limited edition (99). After a surprising bit of math we come to a seriously incredible total!
For more information, please visit www.ulysse-nardin.com.
Case: 45 mm, white gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber UN-210
Functions: minutes indicated by flying tourbillon carriage around dial, hours; date