175 years to Ulysse Nardin, the Le Locle based watchmaker. 1846 was the year that they designed their very first Marine Chronometer. These were prize winning machines, scooping up the first prizes in the chronometry competitions of both Geneva’s and Neuchâtel’s observatories. Forty-five admiralties were kept on course, navigating the high seas thanks to Ulysse Nardin’s superlative craftsmanship. Those were machines of the future, back then. But if we were to imagine machines, at present, which would be futuristic, the Ulysse Nardin UFO might just be the one. The reinvention of the chronometer, UFO, might just be it!
Is it a table clock or a buoy?
It’s a swinging mechanical depiction of the movement of the waves. It is a triple-timed zone amalgam of the past, present and future. Once again, Ulysse Nardin has launched something completely unexpected – a new addition to its cabinet of curiosities, inspired by innovation and exploration, the seas and the skies. This UFO contains all of Ulysse Nardin’s horological history in one single object, from the marine chronometers of the 19th and 20th centuries to the Freak in 2001, to the Blast in 2020. It is simply out of this world. “Reissuing a watch from the past by reusing vintage codes was not part of our creative intentions for this anniversary object. On the contrary, we wanted to reverse the trend and make a leap forward of 175 years, rather than a leap backward. We always look ahead. We wondered what a marine chronometer designed in 2196 would be like,” explains Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin.
With its 663 components, and triple-dialled time zones, the Ulysse Nardin UFO is the futuristic interpretation of what Ulysse Nardin’s designers, engineers, and watchmakers think a marine chronometer should look like in 175 years’ time. This UFO has been designed to guide the explorers of the future, whichever seas they may sail.
Taking the ocean as the ultimate inspiration, the movement of the Ulysse Nardin UFO is that of the waves made mechanical. The entire structure of the clock is built on an imbalance, on a gentle swing which recalls the ebb and flow of the tides, the perpetual movement of the ocean. The secret of the balance is its blue half-spherical aluminum base, which contains a tungsten mass. The base and glass bell are joined by a bayonet mounting system, which looks similar to the old systems of marine chronometers from which the glass could be unscrewed.
Whereas marine chronometers were housed in wooden boxes and set on gimbles to counteract the effect of the ship’s constant sway, Ulysse Nardin reverses this. Here it is the object itself that makes waves when it is nudged gently. Weighing 7.2kg, the UFO swings up to 60° from its axis – an amplitude of 120 degrees – and the engineers have accurately calculated the center of the gravity/mass/inertia ratio, which allows UFO to swing neither too fast nor too slowly and without significantly affecting the operation of the balance.
It isn’t just the Ulysse Nardin UFO’s movement that is inspired by the ocean, the architecture is too. The bell under which this incredible creation is housed suggests floating black and yellow cardinal buoys – objects that also provide inspiration for the X sitting in the spine of the table clock. From above, the construction of the UFO seems almost kaleidoscopic, with its emblem, the marine anchor, dominating the heart of the rosette.
The Ulysse Nardin UFO is mesmeric enough, but attention should also be paid to the ovoid glass bell under which it sways. It has been created by Romain Montero, a 26-year-old artisan glass blower who works for Verre et Quartz, a technical glass-blowing workshop located on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Neuchâtel. He had the responsibility for handcrafting for every one of the 75 numbered limited-edition UFO glass covers.
“The biggest challenge was the overall aesthetics of the glass tube. To get 50 spotless glass bells, I had to blow out three times the number, 150 bells. You need to blow gently, as if you want to make a soap bubble. Even so, the glass is imperfect at the base and is sensitive to micro-vibrations during blowing, but there is beauty in those imperfections and small flaws,” explains Montero.
To manufacture each 3mm-thick tube, it was necessary to stretch the glass when it was still hot, for more than 45 minutes, using only the naked eye, on a traditional glass-maker’s lathe at temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees. As it is heated the glass is transformed, becomes orange, red, white and morphs through all the hues of pink. The total process takes almost half a day of work: cutting of the glass, blowing, checking the blowing and the measurements, furnace annealing, cutting again, lamination, final and visual inspection, and then cleaning.
“From the moment you heat the glass, you disrupt the atoms. It’s the heat that creates the disruption. It’s inevitable. This creates weaknesses in the material that can lead to spontaneous breakage, which is not what you want. You need to release the tension to achieve perfection,” Montero explains.
Like all the most successful voyages, it takes an experienced crew. For this particular journey, Ulysse Nardin decided to collaborate with the celebrated clockmaker Maison L’Epée. Comprising 663 components, and with one year of power reserve supplied by its six extra-large barrels, and a balance wheel rim that reaches the spectacular diameter of 49 mm, Ulysse Nardin UFO displays the time on three trapezoidal dials, which are so complex it takes 28 hours to manufacture just eight of them. Having three dials allows the owner to display three different time zones at once, seen from three different angles.
The XXL brass balance wheel beats at 0.5 Hz and the objective is twofold: to maintain a power reserve never before offered – one year – and to make the movement of the object like a meditation; gentle and soothing with ample time to admire one alternation (half oscillation) per second. The addition of a dead- beat second adds to that sense of this table clock being a meditation on time, with the passing of each second uniformly marked.
Ulysse Nardin UFO comes in a wood treasure chest aged as if it was discovered washed up on a beach; something that appears to come from the past but with a message from the future contained within. Inside, you will find UFO, but also its operating instructions, its warranty card and a special place for its winding key. It takes 40 wind-up turns with a square-end stainless steel key to wind up the mechanism for one year. Each dial has its wind-up notch, which is also used to set the time (four notches in total, one for winding up and one for each time zone wound up using a single key).
So while the clock poetically emphasises on the past, present and future, through the 3 dials, there are still a lot of voyages left for us. Some literal, some inspirational, some imaginative.