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Ulysse Nardin GMT Perpetual
Experience Report
Part 3

by Marcus Hanke

© Text: M. Hanke; © pictures: M. Hanke, if not noted otherwise

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6. Using the GMT Perpetual - Ergonomics:

a) Setting and use of the perpetual calendar:

The nice thing on a perpetual calendar is that, normally, it is not necessary to touch it; all calendar indications are pre-programmed and need no human intervention - in theory, at least.

First, the watch has of course to be initially set when it is worn for the first time. Then, it has to be set again whenever it has stopped for longer than a day, which is likely to be the case when it is stored safely during the holidays, for example. And finally, there is the infamous February of the year 2100, when the mechanical program of the wheelwork fails before the Gregorian calendar (see Part 1).

Therefore, it is a good thing if a perpetual calendar watch makes these adjustments easier for the wearer. Similar to the famous "Da Vinci" of IWC, the GMT Perpetual allows the quick setting of the calendar indications by means of the crown only, which is very convenient and simple:

The crown has two settings: The first one only winds the movement. The second one is for quick-setting the calendar indications, either forward or backward, as you like it. In case the indications are set forward, the mainspring is also wound, which makes turning the crown a bit more stiff than backwards, when the mainspring is not affected. Finally, the third position sets the hands (including the 24 hours-hand), AND the weekdays independently, which does the trick in 2100.

To set the watch after it has been stopped for a while, the wearer has to follow these steps:

  • wind it a bit, so there is some energy in the mainspring
  • use the third crown position to set the weekday to the day before the one you want to have. The hour hand should be in the lower half of the dial, since similar to most calendar watches, the setting should not be done while the wheelwork is actually busy changing the date.
  • In the second crown position, all other calendar indications are set to the date before the actual one.
  • Again in the third crown position, the hour hands are turned forward, until the correct weekday and time are shown.

This might sound complicated, but after the first time, this procedure is managed extremely quick.

However, the UN-32's finest hour comes whenever the calendar has to be adjusted backwards. As noted above, all lever-based perpetuals only work in one direction. If the owner makes the error of turning the calendar forward too much (which is not so unlikely as it appears: Conventional calendar displays by means of small hands and subdials can look a bit confusing, especially if combined with a chronograph), he has only two options: either to let the watch rest and stop, until the wrongly set date has come, or to have it opened and mechanically adjusted by a watchmaker, or even the manufacturer. In the case of the dreaded year 2100, the first option even would not work at all; hopefully. A better alternative is offered by those watches that have separate correctors for all single indications, which allow to compose individually every desired date. However, the presence of up to five additional holes in the case is not a good base for making a sportive watch with this perpetual calendar movement.

A small drawback, independent from the perpetual calendar, is the lack of a hack second. this seems to be a remnant of its origin as a chronograph movement. Many contemporary chronograph movements have no hack second, such as Zenith's El Primero, or the Piguet 118x. And the trick known by users of these movements also works on the GMT Perpetual: It is possible to stop the movement by exerting gentle pressure on the crown in the third position (setting of time) in counter clockwise direction. If the watch has been synchronized with the time reference, the crown is released, or given a gentle clockwise pulse, which immediately restarts the movement. With only a little practice, this procedure works very well.

However, I cannot believe that it should been difficult to integrate a simple hack second mechanism. This would be a welcomed upgrade.


b) Using the GMT function:

All the GMT-watches currently on the market can be classified in two categories. I name them "at home"- and "abroad"-watches. The first category apparently has the user in mind, who stays at home, but has communication partner living in different time zones. The main hour hand can only be set by turning the minute hand all around the dial, as in every other watch as well. Only the additional 24 hours-hand (or a similar rotating bezel) can be independently set in hour jumps. Therefore, the watch is used best at home, and the second time zone indications can quickly show which time it is anywhere else, but not here.

Ulysse Nardin has decided to build a true "abroad"-watch: The 24 hours-hand is set together with the hour hand, thus it keeps track of the time at home. Whenever the wearer travels to another time zone, a quick setting changes the main hour hand, in jumps either for- or backward, so the time zone of the new location is quickly reflected on the dial, without having to change the minute hand, thus loosing the accurate time. The 24 hours-hand still shows the time at home. Other brands have developed similar systems, but there the hour hand is adjusted exclusively by means of the crown. While this facilitates the use of a really watertight case, it also is less convenient, and regularly replaces the quick setting of the date with that of the hour hand, further reducing the comfort. UN uses two pushers, one for advancing the hour hand, the other for moving it backwards. Of course, the date is fully coupled, so the calendar display will change accordingly, if the hour hand is moved forward or backward over midnight. The whole mechanism works absolutely flawless, and it is a big fun of letting the hour hand whirling around the dial. Just don't forget to memorize the original position!

Originally, I was a bit worried about accidental changes of the time because of the prominent pushers. However, these need a clearly defined pressure, and an unintentional change of the hours never occurred.


c) Legibility:

It seems that the design of perpetual calendars has undergone a rather drastic change within the last twenty years. In the beginning, wearers of such a watch liked to see its complicated nature reflected on the dial, with many thin hands and small subdials, sometimes even combined with the indications of a chronograph. Up to three different indications, combined in a single subdial, are an ergonomic nightmare, similar to threefold assigned buttons on modern electronic devices. Other small subdials show all 48 months of a full four years-cycle at once.

More recently, perpetuals with more legible indications have been introduced, and were an immediate success. The most famous of these purely window-based perpetuals without doubt was the "Perpetual Ludwig", followed by the GMT Perpetual. The size of the windows makes it easy to read the display, except, however, the weekday and month, which suffer under the ultra thin lines of the font used for the letters. Giving the strokes more weight would immediately improve the legibility, without necessitating larger windows.

Some critics have complained that the different date windows seem to be located rather accidentally on the dial, which makes it difficult to read. Well, there is some truth to this, indeed. Yet the position of the windows is of course determined by the mechanics, so any alternations are hardly possible. Additionally, one has to note the cultural differences between the different nations: While in Europe, the date is always read before the month, it is the opposite in America. For a European, it is very easy to read the GMT Perpetual's calendar display, once he trained his eyes to follow a strict, but logical path on the dial:

The blued hands offer a very good contrast over the silver dial, so they are clearly detected even in bad ambient lighting. A very minor problem is that the difference in length of the slim hands is not so large, so it is possible to confuse them in poor lighting conditions. However, it is no instrumental watch, and I would never want to do without the elegantly shaped hands.

Unlike many other complicated watches, Ulysse Nardin developed this watch immediately with everyday usability in mind. Good legibility at night is a vital part of this capability. As I noted already in my experience review of the Marine Diver, Ulysse Nardin uses a luminous mass, Super Luminova, of extremely fine grain, which guarantees very good luminosity through all the night. Even the tip of the 24 hours-hand is illuminated.

d) Wearing comfort:

The watch itself is not very heavy and not too large, with 38.5 mm diameter. Lacking sharp edges on the lugs, it rests very comfortable on the wrist.

The thickly padded strap is rather stiff at the beginning, but after some days, it follows the contours of the wrist. Initial problems, however, I had with the deployment clasp. This is rather long, and has a very distinctive curve at the hinge end.

This shall make fit the clasp around the wrist. Since I have a relatively wide wrist, the clasp did not reach around the wrist, resulting in this curve painfully digging into my skin. After some days of growing discomfort, I visited my dealer, asking him to replace the clasp with a standard buckle. Instead, he fully solved the problem by means of a trick: He simply swapped the two strap parts from their lug mounts. Normally, straps are mount in a way that makes the closing direction of the clasp going from the 6 o'clock position of the watch. For wider wrists, it is generally better to have the clasp close from the 12 o'clock position instead. After that quick procedure, the clasp was very comfortable to wear.


7. Accuracy:

Those familiar with my reviews know that I am not very worried about the issue of accuracy. The times, when I filled pages with accuracy protocols for every position and temperature are over since long ago, and I have acquired a very pragmatic approach: I do not measure the accuracy in seconds per day, but in weeks per minute. Reason behind this is the fact that a deviation of one minute is my personal tolerance in everyday use. If I miss my bus because of that minute, it is time to reset the watch again. Therefore, all I do is to check my watches against a radio-controlled clock every now and then, simply counting how many weeks it needs until they are off by a minute. An accuracy of two weeks per minute, which roughly corresponds to an error of four seconds per day, is fully tolerable for me. The GMT Perpetual did not give any reason for troubles, since it needs about four weeks before it reaches the one minute-limit. Consequently, it needs 12 corrective interventions per year, which is a very good value.


8. Conclusive remarks:

Why no moon phase?

Prominent component of nearly all perpetual calendars is the display of the current moon phase. Consequently, many people miss that indication on Ulysse Nardin's Perpetual. Besides the more simple reason, that the mechanism might not offer enough free space to accommodate the additional moon phase display, there is a more philosophical reasoning behind the lack of an astronomic indication: This would not fit into a digital system.

Let's not forget the personality of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, the man behind the GMT Perpetual: an academic, professor of technological history. He had studied philosophy, physics, astronomy, archaeology, history, history of arts, classic languages. His "Trilogy of Time", a series of three astronomic wristwatches, invented for Ulysse Nardin, and the magnificent Türler clock in Zurich, embodied his personal philosophical concept of the cosmos and man's place within. Against the background of the cosmic movements, man tried to measure and to categorize. However, the calendar systems these efforts evolved into, were not based on the continuous flow of time, but were something binary.

To explain this, allow me some simple comparisons: In our language, we only have "today", or "tomorrow", but not "half past today", or "nearly tomorrow". In our calendar, at 23 o'clock, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, we still have "today, the 13th" - for example. Only a second later, we have the 14th. Until the last second of the year, it is still "this year". A second later, it is "next year", which will remain so for 365 days. The real world in cosmos is different: Earth's path around the sun is a steady movement. Mankind's calendars are just like the efforts to digitalize an analogue signal: It is impossible to achieve a real copy, the dissolution into 0 and 1 cannot show all the quarts, halves, which are really part of "time" as a cosmological concept.

Ludwig Oechslin's "Trilogy of Time" does not have date displays. These dates would be strange elements within displays that are based on continuous astronomical movements. From that point of view, the GMT Perpetual is the perfect partner: While the "Trilogy" shows the calendar of the cosmos, the perpetual depicts the calendar of mankind; strict, rigid, binary. A moon phase display would destroy the whole concept, as would a date window on a Planetarium.


Ulysse Nardin Planetarium: cosmic calendar display

Personally, I wish that some time, Ulysse Nardin would offer a "calendar" set, consisting of a Planetarium and a GMT Perpetual, so both facets of time, physics-made and man-made, were covered in one exclusive set.


Simply the best?

Why do I have Tina Turner's song in my mind, when looking at that wonderful watch? Of course it would not be fair to announce Ulysse Nardin's GMT Perpetual as being the best perpetual calendar watch under the sun. Too few of the alternatives have I checked personally, or worn for a time. Other manufacturers offer great perpetuals, too. But I think it is justified to state it a bit differently:

The best simple.

No other mechanical perpetual calendar watch offers that much practical value, comfort in use as travel watch, easy legibility, ease of maintenance and adjustment, all together in a clean and highly elegant design.

However, the word "simple" is certainly the wrong choice when it comes to describe my personal emotions when wearing that watch. Never before has a design, that looked so sober and simple in the pictures, exerted such a fascination of complex beauty on me. On my personal list of the most beautiful timepieces, this watch is still and unchallenged ranking on the first place.

Most watch enthusiasts follow the quest of finding the "holy grail" of horology. Beautiful the perfect watch should be, elegant, fit for everyday use, complicated, exclusive. Everybody defines this picture of a perfect watch according to his own preferences, so it is clear that such a "holy grail"-watch cannot exist. However, I am convinced that Ulysse Nardin's GMT Perpetual is very close to that ideal. For me, at least, it perfectly fulfils its role as mystic cup . . .

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Copyright January 2004 - Marcus Hanke ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved