A veteran of haute horlogerie’s top-division players, Ulysse Nardin is not a household name like Rolex, for example. As Susanne Hurni, head of marketing at Ulysse Nardin, points out: “We are less a ‘me too’ brand and our customers dare to be different.”
Attending the SIHH watch salon in Geneva this year, Ulysse Nardin showcased extremely complicated watches like the North Sea Minute Repeater, complete with gold Jaquemart oil rig cranes moving in time to the chimes of the minute repeater, and this beautiful Classico Manufacture model with a Grand Feu enamel dial. Embodying the technical audacity for which the brand is renowned and the age-old technique of Grand Feu enamel, the Classico Manufacture sums up the spirit of the brand to perfection and comes with a retail price that is destined to attract a new generation of watch lovers.
Since 1846, when the young Swiss watchmaker from Le Locle, named after Homer’s epic hero, turned his hand to watchmaking, the sea would play a pivotal role in the brand’s direction, renowned for its precision marine and pocket chronometers.
The dial of the Classico Manufacture model is handcrafted using Flinqué enamel with a guilloché pattern on the base, which is in turn covered with layer after layer of Grand Feu blue enamel baked repeatedly in a kiln at temperatures of 800-1200 °C.
Ulysse Nardin's Classico Manufacture is powered by a mechanical automatic movement designed and produced by the Swiss manufacture with the brand’s groundbreaking silicium hairspring and anchor escapement and the possibility to set the date forwards or backwards, a technical feat seldom seen in mechanical watches (£7,000).
The odyssey of Ulysse Nardin
The story of Ulysse Nardin is intimately related to the sea. Since 1846, when the young Swiss watchmaker from Le Locle – named after Homer’s epic hero –turned his hand to watchmaking, the sea would play a pivotal role in the brand’s direction, renowned for its precision marine and pocket chronometers.
Ulysse Nardin has been navigating the waves of watchmaking uninterruptedly since 1846. Innumerable awards (over 4,300 to date) and technological patents have marked the voyage, and, in the same way that navigational technology has altered dramatically since the 19th century, Ulysse Nardin’s watches sail well ahead of the times. Ultra-complication watches and state-of-the-art materials are hallmarks of the brand, which was the first to incorporate silicium (silicon) in its movements, an innovation that dramatically improved precision and durability and which was quickly adopted by leading Swiss watch manufacturers.
The renaissance of Grand Feu enamelling
It’s one thing to have a state-of-the-art machine below deck, quite another to enjoy the smooth wood finishes and gleaming brass winches on deck. The face of a watch at Ulysse Nardin is as important as the movement and, in 2012, Ulysse Nardin took another step in the direction of independence and acquired Donzé Cadrans, a prestigious Swiss enamelling company. Now all Ulysse Nardin’s enamel dials are made in-house by the expert Swiss artisan enamellers of Donzé Cadrans, where 300-year-old techniques like Grand Feu, Cloisonné, Champlevé and Flinqué techniques are still practised.
Enamelling is a devilishly difficult beast to tame, and it takes seasoned experts to create the sophisticated enamel dials that add a touch of classic beauty to Ulysse Nardin’s Classico Manufacture watch. Applied to the dial using a goose quill, enamel becomes liquefied when heated to temperatures of 800-1200 °C and adheres to the metal base.
The problem with enamel is that it is hard to control and requires multiple firings after the application of every layer. At any stage the enamel may crack, bubbles can emerge on the surface and leave tiny holes, or the colours might not be what the artist had in mind. Reject rates of around 60% are standard, but when the right effect is achieved the beauty of the enamel is incomparable, with an everlasting intensity and shine.
In the case of the Classico Manufacture model, the dial is crafted using Flinqué enamel with a guilloché pattern on the base, which is in turn covered with layer after layer of Grand Feu blue enamel. The rippling waves that emanate from the centre of the dial and the intense navy-blue enamel evoke the maritime soul of the brand and, with its translucent quality, looking at the dial is like peering over the deck into fathomless depths. Decorated with classic white Roman numerals, a small seconds counter and a round date window, the 40mm stainless-steel case makes it a practical watch for everyday wear.
A sophisticated manufacture movement
A mantra for a handful of very high-end watchmakers these days is verticalisation, which means producing as many components as you need for your business under one roof to avoid having to rely on third-party suppliers. Since 2013, Ulysse Nardin has begun producing its own in-house movements, and the Classico Manufacture is powered by a mechanical automatic movement designed and produced by the Swiss manufacture with the brand’s groundbreaking silicium hairspring and anchor escapement. Housed in a classic 40mm stainless-steel case, one particularity of the movement is that the date function can be set forwards or backwards, a technical feat seldom seen in mechanical watches.
Charting a course marked by innovative mechanical solutions, refined artistic techniques of the past and a markedly independent streak, Ulysse Nardin’s mission to create watches of remarkable beauty and unique personality is right on course.