“I just love the Freak One. It’s just an amazing watch. It’s a status watch. It’s a killer watch,” enthuses George
Bamford of Bamford Watch Department and Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve juror. “I mean, just calling it the Freak is impressive enough because that must have been a huge risk when the collection was first launched over 20 years ago. You have the big ideas, but then there’s all the design content. It’s freaking nuts. It’s freaking mad.”
In 2023, the Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve named Ulysee Nardin’s Freak One the winner of its ‘iconic’ category, acknowledging this latest iteration of the line debuted in 2001 – under the leadership of Rolf Schnyder and the watchmaking radicalism of Carole Forestier and Ludwig Oechslin – as totemic of something bigger than itself: a shift in the way watches were conceived and, in turn, perceived.
Here was a watch with no crown – the display is adjusted using the bezel, the watch wound using the casebook. This watch was even more impressive, as it did not have a dial, or hands. Instead, the movement was used to show the time. The first watch to use a silicium-based escapement, this was a revolutionary approach in materials. The Freak line is the reason why Ulysee Nardin was able to obtain 20 patents.
“What made the Freak possible was that Rolf Schynder, when he acquired the company in 1983, was determined to make substantial investments in the manufacture. More importantly, he aimed to establish a manufacture with its own vision,” explains Clemence Le Rolland, Ulysee Nardin’s brand director for South East Asia and Oceania. This vision had a far greater impact than he ever imagined.
“[The Freak] deserves its current reputation for initiating the era of ‘modern’ watchmaking,” argues Le Rolland. “This era shifted the focus away from a classical, albeit high-end, approach to watchmaking to one that prioritized creating something entirely different and innovative. It inspired other watchmaking brands and brought a twist to haute horlogerie.”
Bamford concurs. He suggests that without the Freak – a watch given additional credibility in coming from a company of historic pedigree, dating back to 1846 – potentially new brands the likes
Richard Mille and Urwerk are also well-known for their unconventional designs.
After their launch, they would have faced a more difficult time in establishing a customer base. Perhaps the
The timeline for modern watchmaking can be thought of as BF andAF: Before Freak and After
“We are more used to seeing weird and wonderful proposals in watchmaking more often now. Even in that context the Freak remains mesmerising: you look at it and immediately ask yourself ‘so how does this work?’. Figuring that out for yourself is part of what makes the design intriguing,” he suggests. “But what I think is especially telling is that Ulysee Nardin was taking that approach so long ago. Look at the Freak in order to really appreciate it. [watchmaking] It is important to understand the impact of its launch on the watch industry. It’s akin to Swatch or G-Shock – it’s easy to overlook how radical they were when they were launched”.
These and other pioneering timepieces are often viewed as aesthetic advances. And, as notes Maximillian Busser, Grand Prix of Horlogerie de Geneve jury member and founder of MB&F – a brand that also benefited from the path paved by the Freak – the various iterations of the Freak have managed to be unconventional while also being lightweight, compact and relatively streamlined. Unlike so many other exotic watches, they have also managed to remain comfortably wearable even on a small wrist – something Busser cites as being a major trial in the creation of his own timepieces. But, Busser says, that’s to miss out on the true importance of these groundbreaking timepieces.
“Sure, before [the likes of the Freak, RM001, the UR103 or the Harry Winston Opus 1] The high-end look was incredibly conservative and classic. But that’s not why for me the Freak
has to be considered one of the great contemporary watchmaking benchmarks of the early 2000s,” says Busser. “Rather it’s because it also required the development of an incredibly complex technology to make it come to life. These watches aren’t just about the design. They’re not just about a nicely designed packaging of an existing movement. These watches represent the triumph of overcoming huge technical challenges. The Freak’s lack of a crown is a case in point. Since the movement turns on itself a traditional crown-stem wouldn’t have worked. And the solution just makes the watch that much more ground-breaking.”
From the Freak’s Dual Direct escapement – at a time when a watchmakers creating their own escapement was largely unheard of, George Daniels aside – to the idea of orientating the blades of the balance wheel to exploit air resistance for a more constant amplitude; from the hugely improved energy transmission of the Grinder automatic winding system to, more recently, the escapement being treated with a silicium and synthetic diamond plasma finish for abrasion and shock resistance… The Freak series has kept the innovations coming, without the original losing its relevance.
“Remarkably, although a multitude of new ideas have emerged since then, the Freak continues to stand out as a highly creative and unique watch,” argues Le Rolland. In a sense, the Freak is the new face of Ulysee Nardin, replacing the marine chronographs with which the brand has been associated for many years. Simply put, “it [expresses] Ulysse Nardin’s unconventional, avant-gardist mindset in its approach to watchmaking.”
This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue.
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