A painter is nothing without a canvas. A writer is nobody without paper. A masterpiece owes its existence to a combination of several favorable
circumstances. Creative production occurs when imagination meets the real world, when artistic talent finds a patron. Such is the case with legendary Swiss haute horology brand Ulysse Nardin and the brilliant masterminds behind it.
In the Beginning…
Ulysse Nardin, the founder, was born in Le Locle, Switzerland, in 1823. For two decades, he worked with one of the period’s greatest experts in precision timepieces – William DuBois – and then, at just 23 years old, founded the watch company that still bears his name today.
The innovative, award-winning watch company grew and thrived – until 1983 when a quartz crisis forced its sale. But prevail it did, thanks largely to a chance encounter between men with a passion for watches. Rolf Schnyder, a businessman and visionary, provided Ludwig Oechslin, a brilliant watchmaker, with the perfect conditions in which to practice his art. Their collaboration has since produced watches that are nothing short of legendary.
Schnyder had seen and admired an astrolabe, one of Oechslin’s first creations, and was determined to miniaturize this timepiece to create one of the most complicated wristwatches in the world. It was a vision the pacesetters achieved many times over since then.
Behind Two Masterminds …
Today, Ulysse Nardin is a leader of innovation and independence in the Swiss watch industry. And it is Chief Operating Officer and engineer Pierre Gygax – the ‘father of silicium technology in watch making’ – who set the precedent, laying some of the most important groundwork for the manufacturer to grow its legacy well into the future.
Silicium is an extremely light but hard material that eliminates friction and removes the need for lubrication of the escapement – the watchmaker’s holy grail. It is a nanotechnology which has taken many years to develop.
“For those passionate about engineering, it is always interesting to reach milestones – such as the first hot air balloon, first airplane, first jet, first rocket. The mechanical luxury watch industry, however, had been repetitive for decades and generations. One changed only the position or shape of a tourbillon, the way to display the time, etc., but there was no impetus for inventors or engineers to think out of the box and come up with real novelties,” Gygax told South Florida Opulence.
“When Ludwig Oechslin proposed a new breed of escapement [the device in a mechanical watch that transfers energy to the timekeeping element], I immediately thought that it was a tremendous opportunity to bring back Ulysse Nardin within the club of the real ‘Manufacture.’ We needed to ensure our long-term technological independence by mastering in-house the manufacturing of all key strategic components. The escapement was one of them!” Gygax continued.
“My task was to materialize Ludwig’s idea into a well functioning mechanism. The moving micromechanical parts were to be extremely light and hard to allow this innovative concept to function correctly in practice.” Gygax knew very well the microelectronic application of silicium, but at the time, had no experience with
silicium used as a micromechanical part material.
“A professor at the Engineering High School who had researched the subject told me that this was possible. I tried and was immediately convinced that this material, and the selective photolithography process to shape it, was going to bring much to the world of mechanical watchmaking,” Gygax said.
Indeed it did. Gygax’s silicium escapement breakthrough was first introduced in the revolutionary watch design called the FREAK.
“By the use of a new material and a new manufacturing process to make micromechanical parts, we opened a new field of research and possibilities for engineers to exercise their imagination!” Gygax said proudly. “The collectors appreciate the change from a ‘me too novelty’ to a ‘revolutionary novelty.’ This was always the spirit of our grandfathers but with the means of today’s technologies.”
Throughout his 15-plus year tenure with Ulysse Nardin, Gygax has demonstrated that he is a change-maker, leading to the culmination of many of Ulysse Nardin’s most profound accomplishments. Ulysse Nardin is now recognized as a formidable manufacturing force in fine Swiss watchmaking.