Patrik Hoffmann entered the 2012 BaselWorld Fair in March with the buoyant air of a man at the top of his industry. Just a short year earlier he had been named the CEO of Ulysse Nardin, one of a very few remaining independent luxury watch firms. Only a day before BaselWorld, in front of the assembled watch press, Hoffmann had announced Ulysse Nardin’s own serialized automatic movement, Caliber UN-118.
As one would expect, an optimistic mood prevailed in and around UN’s busy BaselWorld booth. The company had secured its own destiny by vertically integrating its movement manufacturing.
But there was also a somber note to the proceedings this year. This was the first BaselWorld in Ulysse Nardin’s modern incarnation without its late CEO and owner, Rolf Schnyder, who passed away just after last year’s fair. In addition to nurturing Ulysse Nardin into a powerful luxury brand with global reach, Schnyder had formed part of a small contingent of industry leaders, along with Nicolas Hayek, Jean-Claude Biver and a few others, who were responsible for the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking in Switzerland.
On the one hand, producing movements in-house is a major breakthrough for Ulysse Nardin, which in recent years has relied on ETA ébauches, in addition a small production of in-house Caliber 160 numbering in the hundreds, and a few complex chiming movements produced not far away at Manufacture Christophe Claret.
On the other hand, Hoffmann is leading Ulysse Nardin back to familiar territory. Historically, Ulysse Nardin made the bulk of its calibers in-house and was known for building robust, ship-ready marine chronometers used for nautical navigation. Starting with 2012 and Caliber UN-118, straightforward timekeepers such as the Marine Chronometer Manufacture will be fabricated entirely in-house, with the goal of reaching seventy percent in-house production in a few years time.
The centerpiece of Ulysse Nardin’s 2012 novelties is the Marine Chronometer Manufacture. Never before has a Ulysse Nardin watch been so thoroughly crafted in-house. In addition to its movement, the watch is graced with an enamel dial fired in the ovens of Donzé Cadran, the Le Locle dial maker acquired by Ulysse Nardin late last year. According to Hoffmann, every component of the Marine Chronometer Manufacture limited edition is made in-house except the case and the sapphire glass.
The late Rolf Schnyder decided that Ulysse Nardin should manufacture its own base caliber over a decade ago, Hoffmann told International Watch, partially as a response to declarations from the Swatch Group that it would cease delivery of ébauches early on in the next decade. But even though the decision to make a movement in the form of Caliber 118 was reached over a decade ago, Ulysse Nardin only pushed its final plan to go ahead with its Caliber 118 movement at its La Chaux-de-Fonds manufacture two and a half years ago.
Today, Ulysse Nardin manufactures approximately twenty-five percent of the movements it uses to power the 25,000 watches it makes per year. Eventually, Hoffmann would like to see this figure settle at around seventy percent in-house movements. This will be achieved through the firm’s new state-of-the art manufacturing floor, which Hoffmann showed the press in early March. See sidebar.
One of the most talked about aspects of the new Caliber UN-118 is the method of manufacture the firm has devised. Hoffmann has said that this “industrialized” method of movement manufacture, variants of which can be seen at Breitling and at TAG Heuer, has never been implemented to the level that Ulysse Nardin has achieved in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Of course, there are aspects of watchmaking that can only be performed by skilled watchmakers sitting at a workbench, especially in the assembly phase, but Ulysse Nardin has pushed the limits of industrial production in order to maximize output and quality while keeping prices reasonable.
The escapement at the heart of Caliber UN-118 is the result of a collaboration between Ulysse Nardin and Sion, Switzerland-based Sigatec, a Ulysse Nardin subsidiary with years of expertise in crafting silicium microcomponents. The escapement is made entirely from DIAMonSIL, a proprietary material that results from a combination of slick, flexible silicium with hard and durable synthetic diamond. The movement is the first from Ulysse Nardin to feature an in-house-produced DIAMonSIL escapement in conjunction with an in-house silicium balance wheel with adjustable screws and silicium 1.1.1 hairspring. (Readers may remember that this balance wheel was first deployed in Ulysse Nardin’s Sonata Silicium in March of 2008.)
Other key features in the movement include its sixty-hour- power-reserve, 248-component construction and a date function with easy forward or backward setting. Of course, because Caliber UN-118 will be used to power the Marine Chronometer, each movement will be submitted to the independent COSC for chronometer certification.
Marine Chronometer Manufacture
With its penchant for clever model names, early adoption of technologies such as silicium, and diverse product lines, Ulysse Nardin has attracted a steady following of collectors in search of everything from the very height of haute horologerie to accessible luxury models (Few others could bring the innovative Sonata, groundbreaking Freak, astronomical complications, and a diverse array of minute repeaters with jaquemarts as well as simple time-only chronometers). Though the firm has made more than its share of collector’s pieces, its flagship is the Marine Chronometer, the watch that more than any other conveys the essence of Ulysse Nardin and its history as a ship chronometer manufacturer. For this reason, the firm’s decision to debut its new manufacture caliber in the Marine Chronometer Manufacture comes as little surprise.
To celebrate its release of the caliber, Ulysse Nardin is offering a 350-piece limited edition version of the Marine Chronometer Manufacture cased in rose gold. This limited edition is further divided into three versions, denoting its availability on an alligator strap, a rubber strap, or on a solid rose gold bracelet. Each of these three timepieces comes with a beautiful Grand Feu enamel dial created in-house at Ulysse Nardin’s Donzé Cadran subsidiary in Le Locle.
Grand Feu enamel dial making, as International Watch readers know, is always a painstaking process in which many attempts at perfection must be discarded and started over. This is especially true in the case of the Marine Chronometer Manufacture dial because it comprises three individual parts—the main dial, the small seconds subdial, and the power reserve indicator—each of these must fit perfectly together when the dial is “assembled”. The look of the snow-white enamel is exceptional, as the photographs make plain, its striking whiteness punctuated by black roman numerals and hands as well as a few touches of red on the power reserve indicator and small seconds chapter.
Besides being notoriously difficult and costly to make, the long-term advantages of an enamel watch dial are manifest. Few other materials possess the stability of enamel, which never fades or yellows, but looks exactly the same in 50 or 100 years as it does when it emerges from the oven. Having Donzé Cadran in its fold also makes Ulysse Nardin one of a very few firms capable of manufacturing enamel watch dials.
Collectors will also notice that the size of the Marine Chronometer has been bumped up a few millimeters to 45 mm and outfitted with a redesigned crown for easier handling. The grip on the crown is rubber, making winding and time setting a breeze. Though this piece is not a dive model, its water resistance is a very impressive 200 meters, further evidence that for Ulysse Nardin, the name Marine Chronometer is much more than a marketing slogan.
Collectors who can’t get their hands on one of the 350 gold pieces will be able to choose from several unlimited options, including one in titanium with a gold bezel as well as a titanium-stainless steel version. The titanium-stainless steel piece, the Marine Chronometer Manufacture’s entry point, will be priced at a very reasonable $9,800 Swiss francs. For less than 10,000 Swiss francs one gets a completely in-house movement with a state-of-the-art DIAMonSIL escapement and silicium balance. In addition to its COSC certification, the movement’s mainplate is also stamped with new the in-house Ulysse Nardin quality certification.
iW: Please tell us how you came to lead Ulysse Nardin.
Patrik Hoffmann: I moved from Malaysia to Florida to join Ulysse Nardin in 1999, where I was responsible to build up Ulysse Nardin in the United States. For the last four years I was commuting between Florida and Le Locle and got more and more involved in the international sales and marketing side of Ulysse Nardin. The unfortunate death of Rolf Schnyder is the reason that I am leading Ulysse Nardin as CEO today. Rolf’s tragic death came as a surprise to all of us, but for the good sake of Ulysse Nardin and its independence, Rolf Schnyder had a succession plan set up some time ago and we are now a team of five dedicated people leading the company.
You have replaced one of the instrumental figures in modern watchmaking in Rolf Schnyder. How do you plan to carry on his legacy while also forging your own path for Ulysse Nardin?
Foremost, it will not be possible to fill Rolf Schnyder’s shoes and it is not my intention to lead the company the same way Rolf used to. My colleagues and I have a clear way of continuing the independent and innovative path of Ulysse Nardin and there was no need to turn the ship around last spring. We will continue the path of Ulysse Nardin in producing innovative products with new materials and to become even more independent in the manufacture of movements.
What are your major goals for the manufacture?
We just introduced the Caliber 118 in our iconic Marine Collection, a fully in-house conceived and produced movement. Even the hairspring (Silicium), the escapement (Diamonsil) and the Oscillator are manufactured in-house here in Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds and our sister company Sigatec in Sion. We will produce and assemble 3000 of the Caliber 118 movements in 2012 and between 8000-10,000 in 2012. The Caliber 118 is a completely integrated movement dedicated for our Marine collection. The production of yet another base caliber has already started and by September of this year, we will launch a new high-end never-seen-before complication that will be driven by this new base caliber. Needless to say that Silicum and Diamonsil will be an integral part of all our new movements.
Ulysse Nardin is one of the last independent brands. Have you received any offers for purchase, and would the company consider being sold?
Yes you can imagine that offers were received before and after Rolf Schnyder’s demise. But, the Schnyder family made it very clear during several occasions over the last 12 months that the sale of the company is not an option. Ulysse Nardin is not for sale.
What role will the U.S. market play in Ulysse Nardin’s future?
The U.S. has been an important and strong market for Ulysse Nardin since the year 2000. Even during the crisis in 2008/2009, Ulysse Nardin was able to extend its market shares in the United States. We opened a new office and service center in Florida last year, where we employ six watchmakers. Although we have opened two monobrand boutiques in the U.S. over the last two years, the independent watch retailers will remain the cornerstone of our distribution. We believe that the United States will remain an important market for Ulysse Nardin.