In Focus Watches

Ludwig Oechslin Talks Origins of the Ulysse Nardin Freak and What Being a Watchmaker Really Means

Ludwig Oechslin

When you’re told that you’ll need a translator for an interview, your heart kind of sinks. It’s not a great start. But when the person that supposedly doesn’t speak English comes out of the gate just shy of fluent, you know you’re in for an interesting time. But then, this is Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, a man whose career has ranged from studies in archaeology, ancient history, and Greek to revolutionising (literally and figuratively) watchmaking with the Ulysse Nardin Freak. Unexpectedly speaking English is par for the course.

The Freak, for those who don’t know, is one of the seminal watches of the early 2000s. The seminal watch, some might say. It came at a time when its breed of haute horology was simply unheard of; a contemporary meteor crashing into the old school design landscape. That said, even for veterans of watchmaking, the Freak is a heady concept, so rather than sum it up, it’s best said in Ludwig’s own words.

Ulysse Nardin Freak 2001
Ulysse Nardin Freak 2001

The original Ulysse Nardin Freak

“You have no mainplate and the entire calibre is rotating on itself. No dial, no hands and the time is indicated by the movement. The principal is that there is no boundary between case and watch as the case is participating in the movement to make this kind of contemporary, kinetic interpretation possible. This is the original concept.”

Before delving too deeply into the Freak, it’s worth expanding on the horological landscape at the time. High end watchmakers were, in the 1980s and ‘90s, attempting to redefine their craft in the wake of the quartz crisis of the 1970s. Expertise and competence were lost as manufacturers closed one after the other, to the detriment of watchmaking at large. Indeed, most of the people working in the watch industry at the time weren’t, to Ludwig’s definition, watchmakers at all.

Ulysse Nardin Freak 2001 Sketch

2001 Ulysse Nardin Freak sketch

“You need two things for watchmaking,” he explained. “To be a true watchmaker means that you make the parts of the watches and can calculate how to do it. You have both the mathematical skill to be able to design and understand the concept, and manual feeling for making pieces. Most in the watch industry are not watchmakers; an assembler is not a watchmaker. A watch designer, without the feel for the materials and what you can do with them, is not a good watch designer.”

It’s the kind of outlook that the late, great, George Daniels would have likely approved of; after all, the Daniels method is about designing and building every part of the watch, as paragon of British horology, Roger Smith, will happily explain. But even then, Ludwig found these kinds of watchmakers slightly trapped in their approach.

Ludwig Oechslin
Ludwig Oechslin

“Watchmakers like George Daniels were looking at the past, re-learning old techniques. It was all classical watchmaking like repeaters, perpetual calendars and the like. We wanted to escape all that.” So how does one Kylo Ren the past? Developing any watch is a tall order, but developing something that’s not anchored in the past, not tied to any previous concepts, that’s all-but impossible. The answer is to break it down into different parts.

“It’s not one concept; there are three or four different concepts behind it,” Ludwig explains. “The first comes from an idea entered into the Breguet competition in ’96 with a rotating movement; the second is my development of a new-ish escapement. The third is that I had the idea to make the spring wheel the whole diameter of the case. It wasn’t developed all at once but bit by bit until we brought them all together into one watch, the first concept watch that went on the market.”

Of course, new concepts require new approaches and one issue Ludwig had with the initial designs was the materials. His new escapement needed something better than steel. And so Ulysse Nardin were one of the first watchmakers in the world to turn to silicon.

Ulysse Nardin silicium components

Ulysse Nardin’s Silicium components

“Our CEO at the time, Pierre Gygax, had friends in the technical school of Le Locle, who were working with silicon for electronics. They realised you could make bigger parts from it and thought that, perhaps, it could be used in watchmaking. We initially tried aluminium which wasn’t good enough; then we tried silicium. It’s lighter, has really good resistance, offers less friction and made most of the superior performance of the new escapement.”

When it arrived in 2001, there was nothing else like it. The first ‘hyper’ watch, if you want to use that term, was both a technical and architectural marvel, back when that kind of intensely modern haute horology just wasn’t around. Hell, even today with brands like Urwerk, MB&F, and Armin Strom making downright insane timepieces, the Freak more than stands up.

Ulysse Nardin Freak S

Ulysse Nardin Freak S

In fact, the Freak has been a mainstay of Ulysse Nardin’s high-end stable for over two decades and has seen considerable evolution and refinement in that time; there’s a visual gulf between the original Freak and last year’s Freak S, for example. But the latest timepiece in the collection is the best example, not because it’s hugely different, but because it’s essentially a greatest hits of Freak developments over the years.

Freak One draws many elements from the collection’s timeline and the concept dates back to the 2001 original. It has DIAMonSIL treatment, introduced in 2007, on its escapement with a silicon hairspring first used in 2008. Its aesthetics reference 2013’s open gear train and 2018’s updated legibility codes. Finally, the black DLC titanium and rose gold material is inspired by the aforementioned Freak S from 2022. It does beg the question however, that if this is a greatest hits, where else is there to go?

“It’s a complex concept, so it’s difficult to evolve in a certain manner. We don’t have the freedom you do in a traditional watch, with its case containing a timepiece inside. But we can still play with materials and there will definitely be some more projects and technical ideas coming in the future. After all, anything that can become a classic always has a future. You see it with Rolex, you see it with Patek Philippe. After 22 years, I believe that this watch is also a classic, while having the possibility to make new experiences with new materials, new concepts within the watch itself.”

Ochs und Junior two time zones + date

Ochs und Junior two time zones + date

Those concepts however will likely have to move on without Ludwig, given the man himself is no longer at Ulysse Nardin. Instead, you can find him helming his own watch studio, Ochs & Junior, and the two couldn’t be more aesthetically different. O&J is all about minimalism, with complex horological functions hidden behind streamlined dials and displays. It’s a masterclass in simplification and makes for an eye- catching collection of watches, and a good part of that expertise comes from Ludwig’s own work.

You see, like Daniels and the other horological greats, Ludwig also learned a few tricks from the past. But whereas they were looking at wristwatches from the late 1800s, his mechanical inspirations go back far further. He was responsible for the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, once the most complicated wristwatches in the world. He built the Türler clock (now in the MIH), and even restored the Vatican’s own Farnese astronomical clock, dating back to 1725. Perhaps his most intriguing achievements however is one that brings together his grounding in archaeology and Greek with watchmaking: the Antikythera mechanism.

Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galileo Galilei

Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galileo Galilei

This mechanism was found off the coast of the Greek island of the same name and at first, archaeologists had no idea what it was. They knew it had a gear in it, but its use eluded them. There were theories, but Ludwig put them into practice by actually building a working model of the Antikythera mechanism, which turned out to be a working orrery designed over two millennia ago. That’s not just old watchmaking; that’s ancient.

And as you may have noticed, it tapped into another love of Ludwig’s – as do his other works of clock making – that being astronomy. So why astronomy? As Ludwig concisely puts it, “I want to show people and help them understand what’s around us, to show them our place in the universe – that we are nothing!”

Well, that might be true in the grand scheme of things, but in the here and now, Dr. Ludwig Oechslin remains one of the most significant figures in modern watchmaking. A polymath of epic proportions and an incomparable watchmaker, there’s nobody else quite like him.

More details at Ochs and Junior.

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About the author

Tom Pettit

Born into a family of watch lovers, Tom is both co-founder of Oracle Time and the driving force behind its creative direction. A lover of retro watch design, surfing and the great outdoors his usual glasses are nicely rose-tinted.