When you talk about the founding fathers of the mechanical watch renaissance, you routinely hear the names Nicolas Hayek and Jean-Claude Biver, but another that belongs right alongside them, even if he is remembered for his work with a single brand, is the late Rolf Schnyder of Ulysse Nardin. Schnyder rescued and revived Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision 45mm in the 1980s before dragging it into the modern age of contemporary mechanical watchmaking. After meeting his longtime collaborator Ludwig Oechslin, now of Ochs und Junior, Schnyder pivoted his company from being a maker of traditionalist wristwatches to a brand dedicated to championing new technologies and materials, most famously silicon. Though Schnyder is no longer alive, his spirit lives on in the company he revived. Today we’re going hands on with the heir to one of Schnyder and Oechslin’s most famous creations, the Freak.
Today, the vast majority of the watchmakers at SIHH have at least experimented with “new materials”; I dare say that you can’t really call silicon a new material in watchmaking any longer, especially if you consider its routine use in the ateliers of titans like Breguet and Patek Philippe. Facing competition from other companies that have seen the value of crafting escapements from this predictably low-friction material, Ulysse Nardin has sought to innovate further within the field of its use.
The escapement within the Freak Vision’s UN-205 movement is an interesting example of Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision 45mm doing just that. Here we see the company’s Anchor Escapement, first introduced in 2014. It’s improved upon with a super-light balance wheel that recalls the one seen in Ulysse Nardin’s Innovision 2 concept watch last year. The wheel is fitted with nickel mass elements and micro blades that stabilize the wheel’s motion through air friction. This oscillator beats at a steady 2.5 Hz. The original implementation of the Anchor Escapement from 2014 came inside a standard tourbillon mechanism; here we see it on a Freak, which turns the whole movement itself into a tourbillon.
The Anchor escapement, you may recall, dispenses with the customary pivot for the pallet fork. Instead, the fork is suspended in space between two perpendicular flat springs that are linked to one another. The escape wheel must supply enough force to impel the fork to push those springs to either side. And because the fork itself is suspended in space, there isn’t any troublesome friction to contend with. When the minimum threshold of force fails to be met, the escapement stops abruptly, rather than progressively supplying less and less power. In a normal lever escapement, this would lead to the paradoxical effect of a watch running faster and faster, with lower and lower amplitude, until it finally came to a halt.
This particular example of the Anchor Escapement offers 50 hours of power reserve, and all of it at a constant amplitude. It’s worth mentioning that the principle behind the UN Anchor escapement – the need for a minimum amount of energy to move flat springs between stable states – is shared with another famous constant force escapement at UN sister brand Girard-Perregaux.
This watch also features the Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision 45mm Grinder Automatic Winding System, which UN claims is twice as efficient as its conventional winding systems. It does this by lowering the winding system’s torque, so that the energy of slight movements can be captured and stored in the mainspring. The whole gear train is also finished in silicon, enhancing power transmission and lowering friction along the way.
The Freak Vision is a very large watch at 45mm in diameter, but as you can see in the above wrist shot, it doesn’t wear huge. The case is made from 950 platinum, and the bezel is made from titanium and blue rubber, which makes lots of sense in this case: you set this watch by turning the bezel. This watch is read like any other Freak. The hours are indicated by the rotating arrow pointing at the periphery of the dial. The minutes are the long, rotating arm of the freak mechanism. And since the escape wheel is located on that arm – and the whole escapement’s position is completely rotated over the course of an hour – it’s a kind of tourbillon.
.The Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision 45mm will sell for $95,000, no small amount of money to be sure, but also one that doesn’t seem unreasonable for a fully platinum timepiece featuring such an innovative mechanism. Additionally, the Freak is now a full-fledged family of watches within the Ulysse Nardin portfolio (instead of just a set of limited editions), so we can expect more models to debut in the near future.