Patrik Hoffmann on the Ulysse Nardin Freak

Freak me, baby

In the Freak’s 15 years on sale, it may appear that very little has changed of the iconic timepiece. In truth, the collection is something of a test bed for Ulysse Nardin innovation. The silicium escapement that needs no lubrication was introduced in the first Freak in 2001, updated in 2005 as the two-wheeled Dual Ulysse escapement formed of synthetic diamonds on silicon. The brand’s patent-pending UlyChoc shock absorber system which came later is a nickel-based novelty which allows for perfect re-centering of the balance wheel in the event of an impact. In the Freak Lab, the brand introduced date indication and adjustment despite adhering to the Freak’s tenets of having no crown, dial or hands. And if CEO Patrik Hoffmann is to be believed, it never will.

FEATThe-Freak_PatrickHoffman“It was a timepiece that was immediately understood by people in this part of the world. It was not like this everywhere, because the Freak created extreme emotions. When the first piece came out you had dramatic reactions, firstly because of the name. How can you call a timepiece the Freak?, we were asked. People didn’t understand the look, they didn’t feel it was aesthetically pleasing. But then you had the opposite, admiration from people who appreciated, well, the Freakiness. They understood what was happening, the message. So you had those two emotions at the birth of the Freak.”

“I have to say, I was not so confident when the Freak was proposed. Our late owner Rolf Schnyder, who was very familiar to our Malaysian clientele having lived here for some time, was many things to many people but I always say he had guts. The Freak was the internal codename, and at the end of development when we couldn’t find a more fitting name, we kept it. People then started calling Schnyder himself a Freak for going through with this but now 15 years later, we all agree it’s a great name.”

“In 2001, nobody at Ulysse Nardin expected that the Freak would have such a long run. It became an innovative piece, which is something I don’t think we foresaw at all. The initial idea for the Freak was to express time in a different way. We had, at that time, a new escapement in the drawer, a brainchild of Ludwig Oechslin who of course was instrumental in the Freak’s development. For a long time, it didn’t make commercial sense to put it in a timepiece because you don’t see the escapement anyway, there was no advantage for the end consumer. Then came the Freak, when we saw the design we knew it was right for the integration of this new escapement because you could see it. It made sense.”

FEATThe-Freak_1“There was a lot of back and forth at that stage, firstly because on the initial design for the Freak, time was almost unreadable. From a commercial perspective I went after Ludwig and told him it cannot be just a piece of art, it has to show time! Then after finalising the design, it simply would not work, mechanically. We realised very quickly it was because of the weight of the two escapement wheels. We did a test with aluminium wheels and it worked, but they disintegrated after 48 hours because they were too soft. We had to look for a new material and that’s where the silicium came in. It was very light and strong which were our main concerns, the fact that it needed no lubrication and was resistant to magnetisation were nice side effect which we didn’t know at that time. “

“All this was the start of making the Freak the platform of introducing new innovation so if I could and, its not always possible, I would introduce anything that’s new and innovative in the Freak. So it wasn’t just the look of the Freak, but the fact that it is an innovational timepiece which has kept it relevant and successful throughout these 15 years. “

“With Ulysse Nardin, people know they are getting true value and history, which is important. The Marine collection dates back a hundred years, when we used to make deck chronometers. It’s not that some marketing guru told us a few years ago that the marine world is untapped as a theme for timepieces. In today’s world it’s important that an end consumer can identify with a brand with a clear identity based on a true history. That history can be any number of years, but what matters is that it is true. It would be unfair for me to say that only a brand with a history dating back centuries has a true history, there are brands which are much younger that offer their own unique one too.”

“It’s not our intention to make the Freak durable for extreme environments, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. We don’t have to put everything into the same basket but durability, making it reliable and easily serviceable, has to be our goal for all our collections. Innovation, as I said, is the key principle for the Freak, if at some point the development allows it to withstand serious abuse, then that will be great.”

“The Freak is a like a laboratory on the wrist. Imagine a concept that just keeps introducing new breakthroughs, but we produce hundreds of pieces which is very unlike what concepts usually stand for. That’s what makes it fascinating, that it has sustained to be an innovative display of our technical excellence.”

Ulysse Nardin

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