A visit to the
Ulysse Nardin factory
Part II

by Marcus Hanke

March, 2002

Our first stop in the Ulysse Nardin building already was a real highlight: the department for technical development. Secured by heavy doors and key locks, restricted even to most UN employees, this department is the heart of what Ulysse Nardin is today. A small company that renown for its endless stream of innovations and novelties, clearly must put an emphasis on its development potential. The rooms we entered were therefore stuffed with CAD workstations with many young people sitting before them. Since the department had not been 'tidied up' prior to our arrival, we saw all the goodies UN is currently working on, even some of the company's well-kept secrets.

Behind closed doors: the development department

Radically new concepts often need refinement: The dual-direct escapement of the renown Freak is checked for influences by magnetism. A laser is used to measure the balance's frequency.

Of course, we had to promise to keep our mouths shut and our fingers firmly knotted, so we would neither speak nor write about the innovations we could glance upon. However, the stuff looked so complicated, that we could not figure out any details anyway. That this department does not only develop future mechanics, but is also here for troubleshooting with existing ones, we could see with the double direct escapement of the marvellous Freak. According to my sources, there were some minor problems with the early Freak watches, so we could see the specialists frantically working on modified movement parts, checking them for their functionality.

Somehow I always believed that the people building a watch movement have every detail clearly before their inner eyes. A large paper model of the dual direct escapement proved the contrary: Even master watchmakers sometimes need a visual aid to accomplish their job.

Another room was dedicated to the engineering sides of development: Following the calculations and plans drafted in the room just visited, parts of new movements and complication modules are manufactured on small, rather unspectacular-looking machinery. The parts are then thoroughly tested, modified, tested again, modified again, until being assembled into working prototypes. These are then worn by some selected employees and submitted to an 'everyday-use field test'. Experiences drawn from that phase are the base for further modifications, until finally the serial production of the parts is either commissioned to a specialized company, or executed in Ulysse Nardin’s new production facility at La Chaux-de-Fonds, if only a small series is planned.

A young employee produces parts for a new module on this CNC-machine

After that, our tour reached some more conventional areas: Stairs up and down, we hasted from room to room, visiting the watchmakers in their ateliers. Besides the assembly of movements and case parts, we saw employees busy decorating bridges and plates, checking the flawless functions of complicated watches, and many watch movers endlessly turning the finished products, during their in-house testing procedure. Also very interesting was the 'archive' of a multitude of movement parts. Painstakingly categorized and inventoried, thousands of vintage watch parts are resting in dozens of cabinets and drawers. Famous, nearly mythical names of times gone long ago, adorned the small signs: Venus, E. Piguet, Landeron, to name but a few. The historical value of this parts archive cannot be overestimated, and it will be great if some of them can be used to return some old watches into working condition again.

The movements of the Perpetual GMT are checked and assembled (pic of the watch © Ulysse Nardin)

Movements with UN's patented big date mechanism

Dials of the Marine Diver receive their blued hands

Far too quickly, the time had come to think about driving home again. The hours we spent at Ulysse Nardin were pure pleasure, mainly due to the great hospitality with which we were welcomed by Rolf Schnyder and his staff. And while I drove eastbound through the night, part of my mind was busy thinking about all the information received in Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, and being annoyed about the questions I had forgotten to ask. However, maybe there is a next time in Le Locle.…

From left to right: Martin Häussermann, Armin H. Flesch (the team from the German magazine Uhrenmagazin, yours truly

Text and Pictures:
© Marcus Hanke,
March 2002

Go back to Part I