A visit to the
Ulysse Nardin factory
Part I

by Marcus Hanke

March, 2002

Ulysse Nardin is one of my favourite watch manufacturers; for that reason I always wanted to visit the factory. However, I always shied away from the long driving. When one of the editors of the leading German watch magazine, the Uhrenmagazin called me in January and asked if I would like to join their team for a visit at Ulysse Nardin, I gladly said yes. After Ulysse Nardin accepted to accommodate another person, I happily stuffed some garments into a bag and drove off.

Map of western Switzerland

Distances within Europe may not seem long, but when you have to drive along a major part of the Alpine mountain range, a journey will become time-consuming. The factory of Ulysse Nardin is located in Le Locle, a town in western Switzerland, very near the border to France. From my hometown Salzburg in Austria, this is a drive of about 700 kilometres, through countless tunnels and along many beautiful lakes. A wonderful landscape this is indeed! Le Locle is situated in the Valley of St.-Imier, only a few kilometres from La Chaux-de-Fonds, with 1,000 meters above sea level one of the highest located cities in Europe.

 

This road apparently is the wrong one to Le Locle ...

After leaving the freeway near Solothurn, the road continues along several lakes again. The names of the towns I passed read like an encyclopaedia of watch making history: Grenchen, Biel, Le Landeron, Neuchâtel, Peseux … Charmed by the wonderful landscape and the beautiful weather, I wanted to take a short cut to the Valley of St.-Imier. An hour later, however, this attempt left me stranded in snow and ice near a deserted farmhouse in 1,500 meters height. Well, due to the lack of my navigational abilities I arrived late for the interview with Ulysse Nardin’s CEO, Rolf Schnyder. I hope he has forgiven my impoliteness …

After entering the beautiful blue building of Ulysse Nardin in Le Locle, I found the two gentlemen from the Uhrenmagazin already busy interviewing Rolf Schnyder and Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, the genius watchmaker, who is responsible for most of the innovative mechanics found in the watches of Ulysse Nardin. Since a year, Dr. Oechslin has been appointed the prestigious position of the director of the famous watch museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds. To the interview appointment he came with his little daughter, who showed an apparent disrespect for the important issues discussed, and preferred to abuse Rolf Schnyder’s nose and mouth instead.

Dr. Oechslin (left) with his little daughter, and Rolf Schnyder (right)

Rolf Schnyder with Uhrenmagazin's editor-in-chief, Martin Häussermann (left), and editor Armin H. Flesch (right)

The day was closed with a wonderful dinner in a small restaurant, which clearly mirrored the huge importance of the watch industry for this region: The walls were plastered with watch posters and pictures of famous horological personalities, and the round tables were in fact huge watch dials!

The beautiful old headquarter of Ulysse Nardin at Le Locle

Sunrise over La-Chaux-de-Fonds

I wonder when Mr. Schnyder will have the township rename that street ...

This sign says: "Ring the bell and be patient, please" - UN's employees are too busy producing fine watches and cannot answer the door promptly!

Mr. Pierre Gygax, UN’s technical director, picked us up early the next day; not to show us to the factory in Le Locle, however. Instead, we were to visit the new production facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds first. In order to maintain a certain independence from the important producers of watch parts, many of which have been purchased by large watch companies, Ulysse Nardin decided to build up an own production of certain watch parts. Some spacious halls were rented in La Chaux-de-Fonds, ironically located on the Allée du Quartz! As Mr. Gygax informed us, the new facility serves mainly for the production of prototypes and small series of watches. Additionally, when certain improvements to UN’s own movements and modules are planned, the appropriate parts can be produced quickly and used for extensive testing, before a large series of parts has to be commissioned to specialized companies. Therefore, the new production capability adds an enormous flexibility to Ulysse Nardin’s operations.

Armin H. Flesch inspects a modern spark-erosion machine, which can cut out multiple pieces at a time with highest precision

This milling machine produces such tiny watch parts that the waste material's volume is much larger than that of the parts itself.

Such tiny escapement parts are produced with the milling machines


Left: The accuracy of the wheel's measurements can be checked with that machine: Its outlines are projected onto the table by means of a system of lenses. Here they can be compared with the drawings.


Go to Part II