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A BIG sailing boat hung over Ulysse Nardin's booth in this year's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Geneve (SIHH). It was the Swiss watch brand's first appearance in the 26-year-old watch fair, and it wanted to make an impression.The boat is a reminder of Ulysse Nardin's DNA, its long history in making marine chronometers. This is also the year of the America's Cup race – and Ulysse Nardin, owned by French luxury group Kering, is sponsor of Artemis Racing, competing from Sweden. The boat reflected the sponsorship as well.
"America's Cup is new to us, and it's the first time we're involved in a sponsorship of such magnitude," says Patrick Hoffmann, Ulysse Nardin's chief executive officer.
Naturally, Ulysse Nardin has a new watch to mark it – the Marine Chronograph Manufacture Regatta, a timepiece with an innovative and easy-to-use regatta timer. Two members from the Artemis Racing team had helped to design it.
All regatta chronographs have a count-down feature, but the Marine Regatta's is unusual – its countdown period can be set backwards and forwards.
Yet Mr Hoffmann was not so keen to dwell on the Marine Regatta when he was in Singapore recently. In interviews with the media, his focus instead was on two other timepieces in the brand's new collection: the Freak Innovision 2 and the Marine Tourbillon Manufacture.
The Marine Tourbillon is a top of the line flying tourbillon powered by a Ulysse Nardin in-house movement, the automatic calibre UN-128 with a 60-hour power reserve. The movement is housed in a 43 mm stainless steel case on a rubber strap. What is remarkable is the watch's price, which starts at an affordable 27,900 Swiss francs (S$39,897). Most tourbillons in the market easily cost three times as much.
The Freak Innovision 2 has no price tag because it is not for sale. This experimental one-off concept watch takes Ulysse Nardin's signature carousel timepiece – the original Freak – and loads it with a plethora of technical innovations. These include a double escape wheel, constant force escapement – with most of its parts made of silicon – and a silicon balance wheel with gold weights.
Freak Innovision 2 also boasts an efficient automatic winding mechanism that relies on springs to operate; wheels made of 24k gold that has been hardened; and a prominent balance bridge made of glass, the same material used for the minute hand.
In highlighting these two new timepieces, especially Freak Innovision 2, Mr Hoffmann had larger points to make. "Leading into the future of Ulysse Nardin, the one I'm most proud of is the Innovision 2," he says. "This year is the first time we're at SIHH. We've a nice boat at the entrance. It's the year of America's Cup and (the boat) is a marketing tool. But (Freak) Innovision 2 proves we're very much a product innovation-driven company, and will continue to be."
The Freak – Freak Innovision 1 – was launched in 2001. Wildly unconventional with no dial, no crown and no hands time display, it was the talk of the watch world when it burst onto the scene. The avant garde timepiece was also the first to innovate with silicon escapement components (which increase time-keeping accuracy). Since its appearance, the trailblazing Freak has become Ulysse Nardin's platform for new innovations.
Last July, Mr Hoffmann asked his research and development team to pick and pack 10 of Ulysse Nardin's best innovations in the past decade into what is now known as Freak Innovision 2.
"We chose 10 because we wanted to have strong ones," the Ulysse Nardin boss says. "We can always have more but I wanted to make sure they're viable, something we might be able to use in the future."
Five of the innovations are now patented; the remaining five are still pending. Some of the innovations cannot be commercialised but others will appear in the Ulysse Nardin watches to come – perhaps as soon as in next year's collection.
This is the process of industrialisation which, in Ulysse Nardin's factory, has reached a new level of efficiency, according to Mr Hoffmann.
"Today we've a totally integrated production (system), which means there's only really a handful of (watch) companies in Switzerland that can produce the hairspring out of silicium," he says.
Silicium, or silicon, is a chemical element that is stable, shock-resistant and requires little or no lubrication. This means that you do not have to send in your Ulysse Nardin timepiece for servicing often. So instead of the standard one-year warranty, Ulysse Nardin has extended it to five years for its watches.
Tighter production in recent years has also slashed the brand's manufacturing costs. "That's why we're now able to come out with a tourbillon which is so affordable," Mr Hoffmann says. "Even the enamel dial, the efficiency of how we produce has changed tremendously in the last four to five years. We have a new system, and waste has been reduced from 70-75 to 50 per cent."