In the small but fascinating world of watchmaking, some timepieces deeply influenced the whole industry. The Submariner almost defined what a dive watch should be. The story behind the Speedmaster is still an immense source of fascination. The Royal Oak created his own and so-respected category, the luxury sports watch. In a much more discreet way, Ulysse Nardin, in 2001, introduced a watch that deeply changed the face of modern watchmaking: the Freak, a watch that can be considered as the mother of concept watches and of silicon. Its time for us to review its successor, the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab.
The Ulysse Nardin Freak, a 15 years history
In a time not that far away, watches were made with metals, entirely with metals. Their escapements and balance springs where made in the most advanced alloys possible, but still, this was metal. Then, before the madness of the 2000s came, watches were small, round, classical – even sports watches were in fact quite understated. Well, in 2001, this perception changed for ever, when Ulysse Nardin, a usually rather conservative manufacture, presented a watch that was a game changer, in terms of design and display first, but mainly for the technology it introduced.
The first Ulysse Nardin Freak dates back to 2001 – not that far obviously but also a long time ago, considering the immense evolution the industry has seen in the latest 15 years. However, this watch, which might be to often seen on the wrist of showing-off young rich people on Instagram, next to a Lamborghini and a huge cigar, has much more to transmit to the real connoisseurs. First of all, this watch was a game changer as it introduced for the first time in a watch for sale a material we’re all familiar with now: silicon.
One of the first examples of the Freak, in its early execution – source: watchprosite.com
Indeed, in 2001 the Ulysse Nardin Freak was the very first watch to incorporate an escapement made of silicon. This non-magnetic, non-lubricated and efficient material definitely changed the industry and watchmaking, and the Freak was the first example of this turning point. This material also implied new manufacturing technologies, such as LIGA or 3D printing (in the most recent developments). Later, in 2005, Ulysse Nardin chose to use a diamond escapement and that same year, they’ve been introducing the Dual Ulysse escapement. Developed by Ludwig Oechslin, its objective was to improve reliability through an ingenious, simple, symmetrical architecture. The Freak has always been a research laboratory for Ulysse Nardin, and things continue with the recent FreakLab.
Then, we also have to talk about design and display. When introduced in 2001, the Freak came like a blast: huge, bold, unusual, different from everything people had seen so far. The Freak redefined the concept of case, crown or hands, with a unique design and concept. As such, it can be seen as the mother of concept watches and bold, unusual design. It certainly had a huge influence on some of the greatest independent watchmakers, and on the rest of the industry. The Freak is more important than what people may think. It’s a milestone, and its successor, the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab is still writing the story.
The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab, a worthy successor
Since its first introduction in 2001, the concept of the Freak greatly evolved and improved (yes, when looked with 2016 eyes, the first Freak looks kind of outdated). The new Ulysse Nardin FreakLab is however based on the same concept, the same idea, the same display and mechanism, still with an impressive technology and this uniqueness that made the first one so desirable. Many details changed, the movement has seen new features, a new architecture and the design is completely modern, but the overall concept is here.
We tend to summarize the Freak to the introduction in a commercial watch of silicon, which is true, but not only. The Freak was an entire concept, something unique display-wise, design-wise and mechanically-wise. First of all, it relies on a movement built in a very specific way. It is composed of several layers, something that is not the case in most watches, where the movement’s parts are all inserted in-between a main plate and bridges. Here, the first layer is the barrel (and the barrel only), on almost all the surface of the movement. Then, there’s the main plate, which serves as a base for the rest of the movement and encloses the main spring. This plate has another use: indicating the hours. Indeed, this layer rotates once every 12 hours. Finally, there’s the mobile parts of the movement, a large bridge on top of the watch, which comprises most of the regulating organ and gear train. This carrousel indicates the minutes, thus rotating once per hour, and as holding the regulating organ, it creates a one-hour tourbillon. The recent Ulysse Nardin FreakLab has slightly evolved on this point but does not revolutionize the idea.
Finally, there’s design. If you look closely, there must be something missing in this watch; the crown. Indeed, since its inception, the Freak, and its successor the FreakLab, are crown-less watches, that can be operated via the bezel (time setting) and the caseback (winding).
The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab – a research laboratory
When the conversation comes to the Freak family, innovation, technology and research are certainly to be taken into account. The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab comes with a very unique escapement called Dual Ulysse silicium escapement that gets rid off the traditional pallet fork and escape wheel. Two silicium impulse wheels, each with eighteen active, meshing teeth, alternately activate a stopper which transmits its energy directly to the balance staff, first in one direction, then in the other. This mechanism requires no lubrification and always delivers its force in the direction of the rotation of the balance wheel, minimizing friction.
The other novelty of the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab is its anti-shock device that protect the balance wheel – the UlyChoc. A classical system comprises five micro-elements: the block, the setting, the jewel, the counterpivot and the spring. The new UlyChoc mechanism reduces the numbers of parts and comes with a very complicated silicon spring that avoids forces of play and friction, enabling the balance staff to be perfectly re-centered in the event of an impact and that replaces three of these functions in a single part.
All these technologies are of course unique to the FreakLab, at least for the moment. Indeed, Ulysse Nardin has showed how they were mastering silicon, when introduced in 2014 the Ulysse Anchor Escapement, later used in a production watch, the Ulysse Nardin Anchor Tourbillon. This watch relies on silicon’s flexibility to create a constant force escapement, rather small, reliable and easy to implement in production watches. As impressive this watch is technically-speaking, it would have been impossible without the researches done previously on the Freak. Ulysse Nardin benefits from one of the longest track-record in the use of silicon and can be seen as a master of this technology. Same will certainly go for the UlyChoc, still used only in the FreakLab for the moment, but that could be implemented later, in more standard watches.
The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab, a unique display and user-experience
What makes the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab is that it’s not a movement that drives hand. In fact, the movement is the display of the time. This might sound rather complex but in fact, the FreakLab is extremely easy to understand and to use. It might not have some hands, at least in the traditional perception of hands, however time reads like in every other watch, in the instinctive way. In fact, the dial, which is fact the main plate of the movement, with its teak-like, boat-inspired pattern (remember that the roots of Ulysse Nardin are Marine Chronometers) plays the role of the hour hand, rotating on a 12-hour scale, pointing the current time via a large, easily readable and luminous (in the dark) arrow.
As for the minutes, you just have to look at the tip of large movement bridge, which in fact rotates on its own axis, like a normal minute hand, once per hour. Everything is simple, clear and in fact rather usual, on a daily basis, as both hand rotate on 360 degrees, just like a normal watch. The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab, compare to its predecessors, adds a display of the date, again classical and legible, without disturbing or loading the dial.
Then comes the use of this watch, which, as we told you, does not feature a crown. So for the two daily operations, setting and winding, you have to look at the bezels (yes, plural). To set the FreakLab to the right time, first you have to pull out the “lip” at 6, disarming the bezel, which an now freely rotate. By rotating this notched bezel, you actually make the whole movement rotate, and thus actuate the large minute bridge on top, to set both the minutes and the hours. The winding operation is done via a second bezel, this time on the caseback side, again via a rotation process.
Considering the immense size of the barrel (which occupies almost the entire diameter of the watch), you can imagine the power reserve to be long – and you’d be right, as the FreakLab can store 8 days of energy. As we’re talking manual-winding movement, a power reserve indication is always a welcome feature. In the FreakLab, no traditional sub-counter or gauge but a simple, yet clever display. An aperture on the carbon fiber back that also allows a display of the power reserve – the closer to the center the spring is, the more wound it is, something indicated with two gauges. The closer the spring is from the blue area, the less power you’ll have left. To summarize, the FreakLab is extremely friendly on a daily basis. Time reading is instinctive for such a concept watch, with bold design and daily operations are also easily done, with the help of these two bezels.
The related evolution of the design and of the mechanics
Compared to the very first iteration the Freak (see photo on top of the article), the FreakLab has evolved, becoming more mature, more subtle and of course, more modern. The main evolution concerns the central bridge, which holds the balance wheel, the escapements and the gear train. In the FreakLab, it is now more compact, more opened and more discreet than before. This have an impact on the visual side but also on the mechanics, as the balance wheel is now perfectly centered and no more cantilevered, on the opposite side of the arrow. The FreakLab feels lighter and at the same time more legible. This has no effect on the way this movement acts however. It is still a carrousel, acting like a one-tourbillon, as the whole escapement rotates once per hour on its own axis.
Then, and that’s not something we’re going to complain about, the case of the Freak, with this “Lab” version, has also evolved, becoming possibly less bold then before, but certainly more elegant and subtle. The case, in 18k white gold, measures 45mm – close to the 44.5mm original size (which must have been seen as enormous in 2001), but is simpler, sleeker and cleaner. The lugs are sharper and more curved, resulting in a watch pretty comfortable on the wrist, despite its size. The profile of the bezel, previously deeply notched, is also more subtle. Finally, the bezel features a matte black insert, which virtually reduces the size of the watch. Combining the new minute bridge, with a sleek case and a new dial, more opened, you’ll obtain a watch that feels surprisingly understated, knowing its pedigree and how everything started in 2001. What was a UFO at the time of its presentation has become a mature watch, almost discreet compared to some of the boldest modern creations – and honestly, we like it.
Conclusion about the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab
All together, this new version of the Freak feels like being the adult one, especially in terms of design. However, the concept of the Freak resisted to the ravages of time and to a race for the complication, as it remains as pure as it was when launched. This concept has not aged a bit and feels as fresh as the first day, with just a more contemporary look and the addition of the latest developments of the Ulysse Nardin manufacture, all over its life. The freakLab is the pinnacle (for the moment) of the life of this icon, which celebrates its 15th anniversary. For such a concept watch, it’s almost unique. The Freak has served the innovation spirit of Ulysse Nardin for years and hopefully, it will continue to do so. Having one is having the summary of all the researches done by some of the greatest watchmakers, including the one and only Ludwig Oechslin. Just for that, the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab is a must have, together with all its mechanical and visual qualities. Price: 95,000 Euros for this 18k white gold edition (limited to 99 pieces) or 75,000 Euros for the carbon fibre and titanium boutique edition (also limited to 99 pieces). More on www.ulysse-nardin.com.
Specifications of the Ulysse Nardin FreakLab
- Case: 45mm diameter – 18k white gold – Sapphire crystals on the front; carbon fibre and sapphire caseback – 30m water resistant
- Movement: Calibre UN-210, in-house – hand winding – 8-day power reserve – 28,800 vibrations/h – Hours, minutes, 8-day Carrousel-Tourbillon, Dual Ulysse silicium escapement
- Strap : black alligator strap with white gold folding buckle