In watchmaking, silicon is often used for its remarkable technical properties, although it seldom plays a key aesthetic role in the overall design of a timepiece. That said, Ulysse Nardin has been creating silicon marquetry dials since 2019, and as its latest new release for Geneva Watch Days 2023, the brand is bringing this unique mosaic aesthetic to its ultra-modern and angular Blast lineup. Based upon the Blast Free Wheel concept, which suspends key components of its movement above the dial on the front-side of the watch, the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry takes this same underlying design and uses it as a canvas to showcase a captivating marquetry dial that is made from interlocking slivers of blue silicon.
Crafted from brushed and polished 18k white gold and measuring 45mm in diameter by 12mm thick, the case of the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry (ref. 1760-401-3A/3A) offers a different profile compared to previous Free Wheel models and it features a more angular lug design that is closer to what you will find throughout the rest of the Blast collection. Like its predecessors, the top side of the watch receives a highly convex glass-box sapphire crystal that forms both the top surface of the watch and also the sides of the case, which allow the various movement components and silicon marquetry dial to be viewed from multiple different angles. While the angular open-worked lugs extend to partially cover the top and bottom sides of the case, the glass-box crystal creates a bubble-like terrarium effect in order to maximize the visual impact of the movement components suspended above the dial.
While the overall aesthetic of the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is undeniably modern and quite a bit more sporty than previous Free Wheel models, this timepiece is still a high-complication watch with a tourbillon and constant escapement, which means that it is highly unlikely that it will actually be used as a sports watch. Consequently, the new Blast Free Wheel Marquetry offers the same 30 meters of water resistance as its siblings to protect against daily wear and incidental contact. At the 3 o’clock location is a signed winding crown, while the reverse side of the watch receives a display-style caseback that is fitted with a flat sapphire crystal and secured around the perimeter by six small screws.
Fitted to the angular integrated lugs of the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is a two-piece blue rubber strap that features a velvet texture on its outer surface and is completed by a singed white gold deployant buckle. Additionally, included with the Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is a blue alligator leather strap for owners who prefer a slightly more elevated and dressy overall appearance, and while the integrated-style lugs guarantee that third-party strap options will be relatively limited, the new Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is also compatible with other straps that are produced for the brand’s various Blast Tourbillon models.
Powering the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is the same manufacture Caliber UN-176 manual-wind movement that can be found inside other models from the Blast Free Wheel series. Running at a frequency of 18,000vph (2.5 Hz) with an impressive 7-day power reserve, the 249-component Cal. UN-176 also features a flying tourbillon and the brand’s signature Anchor Constant Escapement, which won the Tourbillon Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2015 and guarantees a perfectly even impulse on the balance wheel, regardless of the watch’s power reserve. While many of the movement’s key components sit on the dial side of the watch, the reverse side of the Cal. UN-176 inside the new Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is adorned with a blue silicon plate that can be viewed through the sapphire display window in the caseback.
Similar to a number of other Ulysse Nardin watches (including the Freak), the new Blast Free Wheel Marquetry features a fully integrated design, and it showcases the most interesting components of its movement above its dial, rather than having the entirety of the movement positioned below the dial’s surface. The overall layout and orientation of the display is shared with other Blast Free Wheel models, and just like its predecessors, all of the various dial-side components on the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry offer a “flying” design, which gives them the appearance of floating above the dial with no visible connection points to the rest of the movement.
At 6 o’clock is a flying tourbillon with Ulysse Nardin’s high-tech Anchor Constant Escapement, while the barrel that supplies the Blast Free Wheel Marquetry with its 7-day power reserve appears opposite it at 12 o’clock, and it is adorned with blue silicon marquetry to match the dial surface below it. At the 4 o’clock position is a power reserve indicator, which displays the remaining duration of autonomy with a rotating disc that has different numbers of bands to represent the amount of tension in the mainspring barrel. The rest of the dial-side components consist of the intermediate wheel, power reserve differential, and reduction gear, which are all positioned on the right-hand side of the dial, while the winding mechanism that connects the movement to the stem sits on the left-hand side above the power reserve indicator.
Despite representing a new case design for the Blast Free Wheel series, the highlight of the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is easily its blue silicon marquetry dial, which represents the first time that the brand has featured one of its silicon marquetry dials on a model from the Blast collection. Constructed from 103 interlocking pieces of blue silicon, the individual slivers measure between 0.3mm and 0.35mm thick, and the different thicknesses of the pieces, combined with their alternating matte and mirror-polished surfaces create a stunning three-dimensional mosaic that serves as the backdrop for the various movement components that are suspended above it.
Entirely unaffected by magnetism and temperature fluctuations, silicon features a number of remarkable properties, and when used for the balance spring and escapement of a watch, the performance benefits can be significant. Ulysse Nardin was the first brand to incorporate this high-tech material when it introduced a silicon balance spring to the Freak collection in 2001, and the brand even has its own silicon component manufacturing facilities, which enable it to continue to be a pioneer in the material. Although silicon can be highly resilient when used in specific applications, the material is actually naturally rather brittle, and the utmost care must be taken when hand-assembling the marquetry dial of the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry to prevent damage to the ultra-thin silicon layers that form its surface.
Just by looking at the Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry, even uninitiated observers will likely be able to determine that this new model will be rather expensive, and this only becomes even more apparent when you start adding up the premium features that are offered by this new model. The case is crafted from solid white gold, the movement is a serious heavy-hitter with a tourbillon and a constant escapement, and the blue silicon marquetry dial is a true handmade work of art. Consequently, the new Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry is accompanied by an official retail price of $137,200 USD, which represents a solid premium compared to the two other Blast Free Wheel models in the brand’s current lineup. That said, this isn’t just the blue version of an existing watch, and its updated case design and blue silicon marquetry dial make the new Blast Free Wheel Marquetry one of the most visually arresting timepieces in Ulysse Nardin’s entire catalog. While this shimmering geometric dial may be somewhat of a divisive aesthetic, marquetry is a highly traditional artisanal craft, and using shards of silicon to reimagine the intricate appearance of marquetry creates a thoroughly modern appearance that simultaneously preserves a historic form of art that has been around for centuries. For more information on the Ulysse Nardin Blast Free Wheel Marquetry, please visit the brand’s website.