Geneva Watch Days: Ulysse Nardin Wows with Its Blast Free Wheel Marquetry
When it comes to the use of silicon – or silicium – in watchmaking, Ulysse Nardin is a pioneer. The Le Locle-based brand’s revolutionary Freak was the first watch to incorporate this high-tech material when it was launched at the turn of the millennium, thanks to Ludwig Oechslin’s Dual Direct Escapement, which employed a pair of silicon impulse escape wheels.
Fast forward two decades, and Ulysse Nardin has once again harnessed silicon’s properties in a thoroughly innovative way. This time, it wasn’t silicon’s strength or lightness that the self-styled “Manufacture of Freedom” took advantage of, but its aesthetic attributes. The result, 2019’s Freak X Silicium Marquetry, was, to our knowledge, the first watch decorated with an artistic pattern of lustrous, multi-colored, wafer-thin silicon tiles, and its success ensured that further Freak X Silicium Marquetry limited editions followed.
Now in 2023, Ulysse Nardin has taken its silicon marquetry concept to a new level by combining this craftsmanship with the maison’s in-house “flying” UN-176 calibre to create the Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry. Launched at Geneva Watch Days earlier today, this eye-catching timepiece marks the first time that the art of marquetry has been deployed in the independent brand’s Blast collection.
Technical and Avant-Garde
With the Blast Free Wheel Marquetry, Ulysse Nardin has made a watch that manages to look strikingly technical while also being artistically avant-garde at the same time. That duality is made possible thanks to the UN-176 movement, designed so that its key elements are in plain view over a dial plate that acts as a blank canvas for artistic crafts.
Here, the dial plate accommodates an abstract, geometric marquetry pattern comprised of 103 tiny, blue-toned silicon tiles that are treated with a mix of light-absorbing matte and shiny polished finishes. These tiles form a vivid, miniaturized, monochromatic Mondrianesque artwork.
Each tile side touches an adjacent tile side, with no gaps between them, and their hand-assembly involves multiple hours of work by artisans who need considerable dexterity to avoid breaking the fragile silicon slivers that are only between 0.30mm and 0.35mm thin.
“Flying” Movement Components
In turn, the micro-marquetry forms a remarkable backdrop to a number of silver-toned movement components that seem to be floating over the silicon tiles without any apparent attachment, an illusion created by a constellation of circular openings in the dial plate.
Seemingly emerging straight from the blue marquetry, there is the mainspring barrel at 12 o’clock, offering a generous seven-day power reserve. Then there is the winding gear at 3 o’clock, with both this and the barrel lid decorated with silicon tiles.
At 4 o’clock, the power reserve indicator is in the form of an arrow that remains static while its disc – displaying one, two, and three bars of power – turns. Between 8 and 10 o’clock, we see the intermediate wheel, power reserve differential, and reduction gear forming a gear train.
And at 6 o’clock, providing some dial-side animation, is a flying tourbillon featuring the Ulysse Anchor Constant Escapement, whose escape wheel, anchor, and hairspring are also made from silicon (though, of course, the material has been chosen here for its functional qualities: lightness, flexibility, low friction, and anti-magnetism).
The back of the movement – on show through the display caseback – is a more sober affair. However, it does echo the front of the watch by revealing a few gears and pivots through circular cut-outs in a plate that is decorated with a matte blue silicon wafer.
Naturally, such a breathtaking dial and movement should, ideally, be accompanied by an equally arresting case, and the Blast Free Wheel Marquetry doesn’t fall short in that regard.
Indeed, it has been given a 45mm Blast-style case in white gold. Its angular, facetted lugs and geometric lines – accentuated through a mix of satin and polished finishes – act like a “claw” to the one-piece sapphire box that makes up the caseband and dial crystal. The latter allows for some really spectacular lateral views of the “flying” movement elements within.
Priced at $137,000 (excluding taxes), the Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is delivered with two strap options: a blue alligator leather strap and a blue velvet-effect rubber strap, each equipped with a white-gold deployant buckle. Other Blast Tourbillon straps offered by Ulysse Nardin can also fit the case.
For more information, please visit the Ulysse Nardin website.
(Photography by Pierre Vogel)