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Ulysse Nardin Freak Lab

As much as watchmaking has developed in the last century, the basic ingredients of a timepiece have not changed much. Whether you own a Patek, a Rolex, or a Seiko, chances are they will have a dial showing the potential times, and the minute and hour hands indicating what time it is right now. Now imagine a watch without a dial, a minute, or an hour hand. What kind of freak of nature am I talking about? The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab Tourbillon ref. 2100-138.

Ulysse Nardin has a colourful history to look back on, something you need in order to have the guts to disrupt the watch industry. The brand was founded in 1846 with the goal of creating marine chronometers, and would go on to supply fifty of the world’s leading navies. That technology losing its relevance in the advent of digital time, the company ended up reinventing itself as a luxury wristwatch producer with the arrival of Rolf Schnyder in 1983.

In the years that followed, Ulysse Nardin would release highly complex instruments paying testament to their technical prowess, but none left quite the impact as the release of the Freak did in 2001. To truly understand its gravitas, it has to be seen in perspective of the industry at the time. There simply was nothing like it in the shell shock state that the industry followed itself in the aftermath of the quartz crisis, and it would be the Freak which would pave the way for brands like MB&F to experience their success today.

Without the conventional units of time, how does the Freak dial actually display the time? It does so by using a baguette movement (think simply in terms of the form of a baguette cut) which additionally functions as a minute hand as it rotates around the inner ring of the case, and is geared to an hour hand found beneath it. The movement is impressive beyond just how visually striking it is. It uses a UlyChoc Safety System which reduces the amount of parts used in a conventional shock absorber and replaces it into a single silicon component, reducing friction and allowing the balance to re-center itself after receiving a shock. The freak also has the legacy of being the world’s first production watch which used silicon, featuring the avant-garde material in their unique dual Ulysse escapement.

Despite being in its resourcefulness completely detached from its marine chronometer origins, Ulysse Nardin nevertheless made the effort to pay respect to their ancestry by virtue of many subtle cues in the design. The Bezel, which is also used to set the time and date by rotating it and locking with the badge at 6 o’clock once done, is engraved with waves around its edges for enhanced grip. This oceanic imagery is enhanced by visual depth achieved through the lack of a traditional dial. In the centre the gear train looks like an isolated ship on the open ocean. The idea here is that the “lower deck” shows the hour hand which is shaped like an anchor while the “upper deck” carrying the gear train, balance wheel, spring, and escapement is meant to look like it has a sail at its top. Just don’t get too convinced by this marine design, as the watch is only water-resistant to 45 meters.

The FreakLab specifically sets itself apart by being the first model to include a complication into the Freak collection. Meant here is a date wheel which is integrated at 4 o’clock, and while the no other complication in the watch industry seems to divide the watch community like the calendar one does I still think it is worth it in this case by virtue of it only taking little away from the overall symmetry of the design. So, while this timepiece is highly unconventional and a lot to handle, the more you spend time with it you realize that it is both legible and logical. Dare I even say this watch may be practical?

Well, to call this watch practical is probably pushing it a lot, after all this limited-edition piece of 99 watches comes in an 18k white gold case with a diameter of 45mm. Nevertheless, Ulysse Nardin manages to do something with the FreakLab that only very few can achieve. They changed everything about a timepiece, and yet the result is surprisingly simple in its execution. This is one of those watches that in hindsight makes so much sense that you have to ask yourself why it took so long for somebody to make it. That will be the legacy of the Ulysse Nardin Freak collection, it was the first watch daring enough to really shake up the dusted world of horology and took our hand to lead us into the crazy market we get to enjoy today.