December 3, 2018
by David Bredan
That’s right, this is an actual review of the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel, this very latest $99,000 halo-piece from La Chaux-de-Fonds. First things first, I have to say, kudos to Ulysse Nardin for being good sports and sending their latest tourbillon out for a review after I was rather critical about its presentation in the news article where we debuted this piece a couple weeks back. It was Stéphane, the Head of Research and Innovation at Ulysse Nardin who commented below the article to explain a few important details that were missing from the original press release and I did really appreciate that. Without further ado, let’s cut to the chase.
As is the case for any halo watch, there are two main and very different aspects to the appreciation of such a top-shelf exercise in fine watchmaking. First, there is the strictly technical aspect, where we lift the watch close to the loupe in front of our eyes or we crop deep into the macro photographs, all in an effort to understand and to appreciate the creative effort and engineering work that has gone into its creation. Second, there is the actual, real-world experience, when such a watch gets taken out into the real world, full of… well, everything. Exciting is the word I’m looking for because at this point the watch is no longer up close to our face, but down on our wrist and all we can do is catch glimpses of it as it performs its essential function: keeping and telling time. This real-world take is a completely different and indeed very special experience. I am at odds with which element to start, but I figure it’s best to gain an appreciation of its fine details and bold engineering first and with that in mind, learn what it was like to wear such a watch for weeks on end out and about in a metropolitan world.
At 44mm wide, the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel is a wide watch that compensates for its substantial diameter with an impressively thin profile. Irrespective of all that’s going on, the Free Wheel is a thin watch by the standards of any watch, not just comparably complicated ones. The case-back is slightly “bubbled” and the lugs are angled downwards steeply, so rather than a pointless exact measurement of thickness I’ll say that it feels, looks, and wears a little thinner than a Rolex Submariner on the wrist. It is wider and longer though. The case comes with the brand’s trademark triple lug design and while those could normally steal the show as far as exterior elements are concerned, the real showstopper here is the sapphire “cap” that pans across the top of the watch and reaches all the way down into an extremely thin, 18ct white gold case profile. It’s like a wrist-vivarium with a selection of highly exotic things kept safely and exhibited proudly within. It creates an airy look and feel, keeping the physical and aesthetic weight of the watch at an absolute minimum.
The massive sapphire front and side element also let a lot of light into the case and onto the many different components that appear to be sparkling with joy now that they are not hidden underneath a dial or a funky arrangement of plates and bridges. Thankfully, the sapphire piece appears to be amply AR-coated and so – despite its noticeably domed front – all components are easy to appreciate from afar or up close, without the annoying hindrance of excessive reflections.
A fun part of the watch is how you can see (on the image below) the white gold case glued to the sapphire cap from the inside. It sort of reminds me of how diamonds are held secure by their gold settings. The two lugs on the side are fully polished, including the heads of the screws that appear to hold the strap secure, while the center portions of the lug structures are vertically brushed. The crown exhibits comparable complexity with its brushed and polished parts. It often happens, and this piece is no different: on such a complicated watch, where there is so much going on to draw one’s eyes, certain components such as the case or crown often get overlooked. Even if, upon a closer look, one would rightly shiver at the thought of machining and engraving a piece as complex as that crown on its own. Not to mention the polish that is to be applied between the flanks and the brushed surface treatment on the higher parts. Even the aforementioned screws in the lugs have beveled and polished outer edges; these aren’t just some screws that came in by the hundreds from a supplier. No, these appear to have been finished to the same standards as much smaller screws are inside properly high-end movements. Apparently, placing such feats well on show really is the theme of this watch, down to such details. They really didn’t hold back on anything and while that sounds absolutely normal and expectable, it is not always the case.
All these, however, pale in significance when compared to the dial and its many shiny, contrasting, mind-tingling components. This is where the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel really stands out. A lot of it appears self-explanatory upon first sight – but it’s one of those things where the more you know, the more you can appreciate how much you actually don’t understand. As far as indications go, you get hours and minutes in the middle, indicated by two very large and very bold hands that have never ever failed to stand out against the dial – other issues I did experience with legibility, but more on that later. You also get a one-minute tourbillon at the 6 o’clock position of the dial; this doesn’t hack so you can’t really use it as a seconds indicator all that much, but it’s still there to give you a rough idea if you really want to time something within a minute. Last, but definitely not least, there is a power reserve indicator at the 4 o’clock position of the dial that, just like the tourbillon, is standing there all on its own, without any apparent connection to any moving parts whatsoever.
This latter feature, the fact these parts stand free, adds tremendously to the overall look and impression of these components, as well the entire watch itself. We have seen countless flying tourbillons and yet more power reserve indicators, but for them to be just sticking out of a dial like that shows them in a completely new light. The tourbillon includes Ulysse Nardin’s lubrication-free silicon affair for the escapement assembly – namely the escapement wheel, pallet fork, and its spider web-like structure. Take a look at how this cool tourbillon works with the video below.
To better understand the Free Wheel concept, let me quote Stéphane von Gunten, Head of Research & Innovation at Ulysse Nardin who kindly chimed in on the comments under my news article with an explanation that could only ever come from a modern watchmaker:
“The gear train on the left of the watch, between 8 and 10 o’clock, is a so-called “differential” and “demultiplifier” gear system. It is used to read the rotational information from and between (in and out) the two [mainspring] barrels and to reduce the speed in order to generate the correct rotational angle towards the power reserve indicator. The power reserve indicator is thus situated at 4 o’clock and is actuated by a double rake element underneath the dial, close to the Tourbillon area. All this gear train [the one on the left side of the dial] is composed of three levels of double planetary pinions, allowing to convert the 40 turns of the barrel-stack to the 270 degrees power reserve indication. Like the energy transfer that comes from the barrels to the Tourbillon, underneath the dial, this marvelous movement is kind of a tribute to “Mysterious Clocks.” It is the basic concept behind all of that. Showing the “best” elements of the movement – barrels, demultiplifier gear train, power reserve indicator and the Tourbillon with our Ulysse Anchor constant force escapement – is a super mix between the technics and the aesthetics of this high-end watch.”
Here is a closer look at the left-hand side component group that Stéphane referred to in his comment. This is the differential and demultiplifier, the three-level component group that essentially is a mechanical device that divides 40 into 0.75. That is forty turns on the mainspring barrels into 3/4 of a turn of the power reserve indicator. Better still – and I did need a loupe and proper macro photography to determine this – all the components are exquisitely finished. I almost (almost!) got tricked into thinking that there really wasn’t that much to be seen here, and unless you have truly excellent near-sight, that is more or less true. But take a high-quality loupe or some macro shots and boy, will your experience change dramatically. I cannot really describe how thin the bevelled edges are on the arms of these wheels, or how even the mirror polish is on their top surfaces – but it really is top-tier work, simply performed on a scale that is all the more smaller than what we see on plates and bridges and larger wheels. The top of the boomerang-shaped bridge has a frosted finish but its edges are nevertheless polished – with the dark screws and shiny surfaces nearby, this creates an unquestionably high-end look.
Understandably not completely free from distortions, the side view the sapphire cap of the watch provides is really very cool too. The three-dimensionality of high-end watches is frequently under-appreciated or, worse still ignored entirely. Here you at least get a somewhat better understanding of what’s going on and how much of a (very enjoyable) challenge it must have been for the Ulysse Nardin team to engineer these beautifully finished wheels onto and into one another. Top-tier work both in complexity and refinement, the sort of stuff that, I think, we will never ever see trickle down into more affordable price segments – it will always be reserved for the mid-five figures and up. Because unlike many other previously high-end and novel solutions, like forged carbon cases or extra-long power reserves and whatnot that we did see make their way into genuinely affordable price tiers, this combination of complexity and refinement does not bode well with the concept of the scale of economics. Not a complaint, just an observation.
The dial has an interesting gazillion-hole pattern to it – if you have trypophobia, you will probably not want to look at it with a loupe too long. Frankly, this pattern I could take it or leave it. It doesn’t move me in any way, other than that I can appreciate the challenge of finding a texture that works well with the rest of the design, without paling in its looks or overpowering the overall aesthetic of the watch. The rose gold version of the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel has a solid dial with a slate or earth-like texture to it that I prefer to this one, but that really is just down to personal preference.
The hands, as I had already mentioned, are insanely large. They even have a bit of black lume in the center. As lume, it is absolutely worthless unless you go from the brightest summer noon outdoors into the darkest room possible, but they do a great job at making the hands stand out against the super busy backdrop of black and white, shiny and matte surfaces that we see scattered all across the face of the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel. The sheer size of the hands also tells me that this is a strong movement, capable of moving these beasts around all day.
Speaking of the movement, the Ulysse Nardin UN-176 caliber was designed in-house, according to the manufacture. It features a 170-hour power reserve and runs at 18,000 vph, a slow beat so you can really see that tourbillon breathe. Let’s see what little there is to be seen on the case-back side of it.
The case-back, as I mentioned above, is slightly, but noticeably domed outwards, towards the wrist. Its massive sapphire crystal has a smooth surface and it merges with the white gold frame seamlessly. Funnily enough, while the original launch document referenced this as a place where there was “nothing to see,” this side of the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel actually is pretty exciting too! You’ll find some absolutely massive jewels that will give you a rough idea on the layout of some of the parts hidden on the dial side. I especially liked the little, rounded cut-outs where, at the 6 o’clock position, I could see a small and large wheel merging – this is where the tourbillon gets its drive and you’ll see a closer look on the image just below. On the upper half of the case-back, visible through similar cut-outs, I could see part of the winding mechanism revealed.
The texture of the large plate covering all of the back of the watch and hence filling the entire case-back is like miniaturized concrete. In harsh light like directly above it really shows its dense and gritty texture, while in softer light (as on the image further above) it looks soft and easy on the eyes. An obscure detail is the tiny “Ulysse Nardin Certified,” something that becomes all the more confusing once you look at its logo with a lonely pine tree standing in a field with a bright star above it. I have no idea of its meaning today and I doubt it will be any easier to figure out a hundred years from now – when we’ll be all gone but this watch will still be around, dazzling and amazing people that mechanical watchmaking was this awesome in the early 2000s. That, I think, is pretty cool. And unintelligible details like this little countryside scenery will make these watches that much more charming in the eyes of future-dwellers.
Nearly 3,000 words into it and finally we have arrived at this point… I did mean to pay my dues and explain the technical details of this watch before I told you how it actually feels on the wrist… But wow, there was even more to say than I had anticipated. Anyhow, in short, it is both more exciting and, in a few ways, more restrained than I had anticipated. I had the privilege and good fortune to wear this incredible piece for a number of weeks out and about, running errands and so on… And it is at times like these when one gets to discover what a watch really looks and feels like.
The laser sharp, hard-lit macro photography that I had used for most of this article was to show the extremely fine and minute details in a crisper way, hopefully making them easier to appreciate. In the real world though, on the wrist, the watch appears a lot more “velvety,” a lot like how it looks on the image above. There is a good separation between the different dial components. The glass looks crystal clear, appearing with just a tiny bit of presence as it encapsulates the precious-looking components underneath. The case is beautifully made, with soft-polished lugs and barely noticeable brushed surfaces. The dial – with its holes – is prominent and one does get hung up on it from time to time, but it hardly ever does steal the show.
At times I’d go so far as to say that the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel looks a lot like a normal watch. Like on the image above. At this time none of the polished edges reflect light sharply. The sapphire cap cannot really be perceived, the silicon parts in the tourbillon do not show up in bright purple and blue, and the overall layout looks pretty straightforward, really – strictly by the standards of this watch and how it can appear at other times.
Flick your wrist a tiny little bit though and the whole thing comes alive. Suddenly there’s immense depth, different parts of the components shimmer with light at the tiniest movement and the whole thing starts to look as expensive as it actually is. Over the weeks I could really appreciate this transformation, especially since knowing when and how it happens (depending on a million things such as amount, type and temperature of light, the reflection of the world around me at the time (open skies, indoors, whatever), the distance at which I am looking at the watch, and the amount of time I am looking at it. And sure, similar things happen with a regular luxury watch if it’s made well enough… But the scale and quantity of these transformations and exquisite details so neatly exposed is what propels the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel into haute horlogerie territory. Where your money goes in this instance is the absolute overkill in the number of neat details (think of the bevelled edges on the tiny wheels, the unique surface treatments, the massive sapphire cap, the neatly detailed white gold case and so on). Sure, there are more shouty luxury watches at this near-6-figure segment in terms of sheer visual complexity – you can get literally a dozen different indications on a dial if you really insist – but don’t forget that the point of this watch is the Free Wheel concept, where part of the fun is how part of the components have been hidden away.
When I look at this watch, I see an aquarium – for total nerds, I’ll say that it’s actually a terrarium, for it has no water in it – a glass display that safeguards and, at the same time, exhibits a selection of naturally beautiful things. I feel as though I could easily open up the case and fiddle with these very numerable parts, but I shiver right after entertaining that thought for I know I’d cause irreparable damage to those tiny little organisms. There is, I find, a rare, organic beauty to this watch. Some things are beautifully and proudly displayed, others work mysteriously in the background, hidden away from the human eye and mind alike.
The only thing to be aware of is that this is an expensive watch of which everyone can tell is expensive – even from afar. At times that’s what people buying these watches want, but some other times discretion is what matters. It would be idiotic to mention this aspect as a downside of the Tourbillon Free Wheel; anyone who buys an open-dial watch and moans that it isn’t discrete enough clearly loves to make unreasonable expectations. I guess what I am trying to say is that while I do very much enjoy all the brilliant details of the Free Wheel, I at times wished it was only me who could see them… And look at them for more than 10-20 seconds while out in the wild without looking like a total schmuck that’s eyeing his expensive-looking watch for a long time. Discretion, then, is not a strong point of the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel and while normally I wouldn’t even think of mentioning this element on a watch of this style and caliber, I do so here because once you appreciate the elegance of the layout and design, you won’t see this as an attention-grabbing effort in ultra-luxury, but rather as a labor of love put on display.
To return to some more realistic expectations, I do wish that the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel came in a smaller case. I wish that partly because I have narrow wrists and partly because I look at that black, feature-less band around the dial and think to myself: “that is exactly how much narrower I wish it was!” With a thickness of just over 13mm, having this come in at 42mm would not have been outrageous at all. Maybe the sapphire cap is the reason for this extension – if you scroll up, you’ll see how it isn’t a perfect box-shape but rather a dome that slopes downwards at its edges. That said, it will wear and look really good on those fortunate owners with a somewhat thicker wrist than my 17.5 cm (6.75in) thick wrist; but even so, I wish this outer ring had a minute track on it. Strangely, I had no trouble reading the time with the accuracy required by the sort of person who routinely buys watches priced at or above $99,000, but I felt I needed some point of reference when I was setting the time on the watch.
A wish, if I could have one, is this. I would absolutely love to see this dial and movement in a more ordinary case with a regular sapphire front, coming in at 42mm wide and with regular lugs. This dial with all these features looking back at me from a more wearable sized and classically styled watch that came in at a price point closer to Ulysse Nardin’s other tourbillons (closer to $50k rather than $100k) I think would do incredibly well. Now that I have gotten to look at and appreciate the many truly beautiful details that have been hidden all along in the components so prominently displayed on the face of this watch, I have really grown to appreciate the Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel on another level. The layout is the lasting sort of fun, and so is interacting with the watch and seeing the keyless works turn and the truly flying tourbillon rotate on its own.
I am absolutely sure that those who get one of these will end up wearing it a lot because it is a lastingly entertaining watch to wear with countless details to appreciate. It is a piece of modern watchmaking with so much of what UN knows thrown at it: super long power reserve, fancy, ultra-modern silicon escapement, flying tourbillon, sapphire, and white gold case, completely unique movement design and so on… And all that is packaged in a way that I’m sure will resonate with some – and will not with others. In short, I hope to see more iterations of this face, especially one in a more toned-down package at a competitive price.
Why would anyone buy the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel? I think the reason is basically exactly the same as why one would support an unknown (but otherwise really quite great) painter: out of appreciation and a personal resonance with the art itself. There are six-figure watches that you can own and sell for the same amount as you paid for it – select Richard Mille and factory-set Rolexes spring to mind along with a few obscure models that have a total fan base of 10 collectors when only 8 were made. But you don’t need to shop around for long to realize how some of the watch snob-favored references take a hit in value all the same when the game of musical chairs ends. What I’m trying to say is that this watch will make a couple dozen collectors happy in the world who tried it on and interacted with it and have consequently fallen in love with it. Despite the tremendous amount of money that it costs and the fact that it has a lot of work put into it, this will be a purchase made with the heart first and the mind second – not the other way around. And that’s all good because the mind will ultimately find a lot to enjoy.
What I think it takes for the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel to be successful is to get it into the hands of enough prospective buyers, let them view its fine details, comprehend its novel functioning and, perhaps most importantly, interact with it. Once enough of them sees the face of the watch come to life at the turn of the crown and appreciates the novel network of exotic parts, the Free Wheel will see no trouble finding its customers. The Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel in white gold is priced at $99,000 and you can find some basic information about it on the Ulysse Nardin website.
>Brand: Ulysse Nardin
>Model: Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel
>Size: 44 wide, 13.50mm thick
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes, duh!
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Big wrist, big income, big love for fine mechanics. In reverse order.
>Best characteristic of watch: Novel approach, great execution, no sense of restraint or compromise.
>Worst characteristic of watch: I wish this dial and movement would also come in a ~42mm regular case at around half the price. I’d sell a kidney for that.