RIP: Daniel Nebel Of Nord Zeitmaschine, The ‘Counterintuitive’ Independent Watchmaker
At the end of each year, I generally put together an “In Memoriam” post to honor watch industry figures who may have left us in addition to brands that may have gone bankrupt.
When I posted the 2020 In Memoriam at the end of the previous year, reader Andre Ekrem left a comment that Daniel Nebel, the independent autodidact maker behind Nord Zeitmaschine, had also passed away that year.
Now that the end-of-the-year (what should have been) revelries and reveries have passed, I find myself thinking about Nebel and his idiosyncratic watches, so I went looking for confirmation.
Indeed, the 49-year-old Nebel, born in 1971, had passed away on September 20, 2020 following several months of an undisclosed illness.
As he worked alone, I have no way to get further information. But what I can and feel I must do is introduce the two most popular models making up the four-watch Nord Zeitmaschine collection in his memory.
Nebel’s website is still online at the time of publication and, for those interested in acquiring one of the last few new Nord Zeitmaschine watches in existence, French retailer Freret-Roy might still have a couple of pieces in stock.
I have always thought that mechanically interested watch fans looking for something completely different, very reliable, and exceptionally rare would be well advised to check out the idiosyncratic boutique brand Nord Zeitmaschine.
Who was Daniel Nebel?
Daniel Nebel, founder of the watch brand Nord Zeitmaschine, trained as a mechanic rather than a watchmaker. The machines he learned to care for were all one-of-a-kind bespoke engineering for the aviation industry, production of truck tire rims, and even pipes for pipelines, however. All big stuff, not micro mechanics.
I feel, however, that coming from outside the closed world of horology gave Nebel the ability to think outside the established box. Over his years working in mechanics, he acquired knowledge in control engineering, hydraulics, and electronics. And he excelled at making prototype machines.
Around 1995, in parallel to his day job, Nebel began experimenting with making his own wristwatches. By 1997 he had built himself a small workshop at home and completed his first watch.
He soon realized that to make more sophisticated watches he would need a CNC machine. In the late 1990s these machines were becoming more common but were still exorbitantly expensive. So Nebel decided to build his own instead.
Eighteen months later his four-axis (most were three-axis at the time) CNC machine was complete, and Nebel began making and transforming the 12 tools he required to make the components for his watches. He continued to use this machine, then built himself another four additional CNC machines, including one to automatically print dials.
“Since my workshop is located in northern Switzerland and I have always been occupied with machines – which has certainly influenced the design of my watches – I decided to name my brand NORD Zeitmaschine,” Nebel once explained to me in his Swiss-inflected German.
“Nord” is German for “north” – though he was quick to point out to me that his own initials bookended the word, albeit in reverse order – while “Zeitmaschine” is German for “time machine.”
Nebel proudly explained that even as an army of one, he was able to manufacture many of his own parts such as case, dial, crown, and even inner components such as module plates, gear wheels, and bridges. Such pedantic attention to detail also explained why he could only produce about 30 watches per year.
Nord Zeitmaschine Variocurve
Nebel was looking for another way of displaying the time with no fixed center of rotation. Only after countless simulated constructions did the man educated as a mechanic come up with the solution: two segmented displays run by two counter-rotating eccentric cams resulting in the minute hand moving at different speeds with varying curves over the course of 60 minutes.
The Variocurve is an obvious eye-catcher, though telling the time on it takes some practice. Two counter-rotating eccentric cams placed at maximum distance cohabitate with two segment displays running counter to the hands, so that over 60 minutes the minute hand moves at different speeds with varying curves.
This 43.6 mm stainless steel timepiece is powered by an automatic ETA 2824 movement he modified himself, naturally.
I’d rather leave it to Nebel to explain the story of the Variocurve in his own words. “After studying the faces of many mechanical clocks, I noticed that with clocks with central hands, peripheral counters, retrograde displays, rotating systems, etc., the indicating element (hand, disk, cage, etc.) always rotates around a fixed axis. Due to this fact, the radius of the indicating element always remains constant. In most cases, this constant radius completes a full rotation or in the case of retrograde displays only a segment of e.g.,120°.
“I was looking for another form of display that involved no fixed center of rotation. At first, I was looking at levers and lever systems to solve the problem, but I found no solution. Either the displayed area of the time was too small or the path of the hand intersected or, in another construction, the optical appearance of the path of the hand was unfavorable. Only after countless simulated constructions did I come up with the solution with the two counter-rotating eccentric cams.
“After determining the correct positions of the fulcrums and the lengths of the levers, the resulting path that the hands follow was perfect for me. I chose the position of the eccentric cams so that the maximum displacement (maximum distance per minute) occurs on the hour. As a minor drawback it then turned out that in the range of one-quarter before and one-quarter past the full hour, the hand only travelled a small distance per minute as a result of the ‘dead point’ of the eccentric cams.
“Actually, one could easily have lived with the fact that during this low-displacement period, visibility was not that great. But because I was not quite satisfied, I looked for a solution and constructed for this area two segment displays that ‘run counter’ to the hands and thus improve visibility. Result: during the 60 minutes, the minute hand moves at different speeds and travels along a path with varying curves, which is why I came up with the name Variocurve and named the watch after it.”
Nord Zeitmaschine Freesdial
The Freesdial features dials that are not fixed in place. The name is a combination of “free dials” and “freestyle.”
This automatic watch housed in a 44.3 mm stainless steel case is also an obvious eye-catcher, though telling the time on it takes at least as much practice as the Variocurve.
Two counter-rotating eccentric cams placed at maximum distance cohabitate with two segment displays running counter to the hands, so that over 60 minutes the telescopic minute hand – whose length changes – moves at different speeds along the varying curves of the two movable dials.
The motion created by these interesting watches is simply fascinating. We won’t forget Daniel Nebel and his unique watches anytime soon.
Quick Facts Nord Zeitmaschine Variocurve
Case: 43.6 x 15.8 mm, stainless steel
Movement: automatic Caliber NORD N2 (base ETA 2824), 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, 42-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes; date
Price: approx. 15,000 Swiss francs
Quick Facts Nord Zeitmaschine Freesdial
Case: 44.3 x 14.7 mm, stainless steel
Movement: automatic Caliber NORD N4 (base ETA 2824), 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, 42-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes; date, GMT, day/night indication
Price: approx. 24,000 Swiss francs