December 7, 2020
by David Bredan
Let’s cut to the chase. At the time of writing, new stainless steel Rolex Daytona watches on eBay or Chrono24 are available from $24,500. This means at least some folks out there are paying this much (or a whole lot more) for what actually is a great watch at its $13,150 retail price. I’ll refrain from passing judgment over these lost souls or calling them outright mad for paying such extortion-style premiums to just be another person with a Daytona. Rather, I will do my part by showing them what they are missing out on: the Ulysse Nardin Freak X, for example, a historically important, amazing-looking watch designed and built to make even the most hardcore Rolex advocate drool — given they do actually like watches. The Freak X is a watch that retails for $21,000 in titanium and $24,000 in carbon, as pictured here. So, should you skip the never-ending line to crowned royalty and become a Freak instead? Read this and judge for yourself.
The Ulysse Nardin Freak well and truly was an absolute freak of a watch, one that shocked conservative watch lovers, industry leaders, and media. And it did so not just by the unusually honest name. Its bringing down of conservatism in watch design empowered such creative minds like Max Büsser, Martin Frei, Felix Baumgartner, Stephen Forsey, and many others. How so? Since its launch in 2001, the Freak and its inside-out movement layout has forever changed what can be done in the realms of ultra-high-end watchmaking. It destroyed age-old “rules” of luxury watchmaking with just as much force as the steel Royal Oak did some thirty years before it — and that’s true even if Ulysse Nardin isn’t as shameless about elbowing out the Freak’s deserved recognition as Audemars Piguet is when it comes to its bread-and-butter Royal Oak.
Historically, the rulebook had only allowed flat-looking, albeit mechanically complicated, watches to carry big price tags and bigger brand names. Ulysse Nardin and the Freak paved the way for the extremely novel haute horlogerie creations of Cartier, Hublot, Richard Mille, Jaeger-LeCoultre (Extreme L.A.B, anyone?) and many, many others. Watch and movement designs that had been an absolute no-no became an absolute must for even the fanciest and Frenchest of names in the business.
Conceived by Carole Forestier-Kasapi (who then went on to become Head of Cartier’s Haute Horlogerie department) and realized by Ludwig Oechslin, Rolf Schnyder, and the rest of the Ulysse Nardin manufacture who also deserve credit, the first Freak was far from perfect. It actually had the end of the center axis protrude through the front sapphire crystal (hardly a luxurious solution, to say the least). Plus, it was bulky, expensive, and, yeah, a freakish-looking watch. But over the years, the Freak showed relentless evolution and showcased some of the pioneering innovations of Ulysse Nardin in material technology and watch design, alike. Oh, and also in price reduction, this borderline uncharted territory in Swiss luxury watch development. Ending a long run of ever-cheaper Freak models, the Freak X will likely forever be the cheapest Ulysse Nardin Freak with the aforementioned starting price of just above $20,000. Now you know why this collection is a true freak in more than one way in the eyes of the rest of the industry.
The first impression the Ulysse Nardin Freak X watch makes on you depends heavily on the types of watches you are frequently exposed to. Just because you are in the $20k market for a watch doesn’t necessarily mean you frequently encounter horological exotica because it, by definition, is rare and hard to come by. Compared to run-of-the-mill, popular luxury watches of this price segment by Cartier, Rolex, Omega, and even most by Hublot, the Freak X is, well, incomparable. It is because, well, just look at it. That being said, when compared to six-figure exotics such as those heavy-on-the-eyes creations by Urwerk, Richard Mille, and other outlaws, the Freak X is nigh-on timid. It is for its compact size, light weight, comparably streamlined design, and low-key color palette. It has 12 lumed hour markers over a round dial as opposed to three indices randomly thrown around an amoeba-shaped face. You wind it through a regular crown instead of negotiating a function selector and rotating a component that probably shouldn’t at all be moving on a quality timepiece. Last, but not least, it sits on your wrist with a light touch rather than looking and feeling like a device used to disarm Russian atomic reactors.
First impressions are a mixed bag, though — so much so that, even days into wearing it, I am yet to make my mind up about the Freak X vibe — and that’s all the more true when it’s so oddly combined with a Carbonium® case and an alligator strap. In this pictured configuration, it looks more like a watch that I hastily put on a strap I had laying around than a timepiece carefully orchestrated by an army of designers.
We all should appreciate the fact that this more restrained look is likely to resonate better with prospective buyers who want horological exotica without the in-your-face vibe exhibited by just about every other alternative. To a more subdued point, it’s also important to note that many outlandish watches make the mistake of having every component taken to the max in terms of design, which just takes away from the centerpiece of a given watch. In other words, I am glad the strap isn’t something off-the-wall and that there aren’t 10 different colors and fonts on the dial. However, this cardboard-like, extra thin alligator strap in blue (next to a monochrome watch head) just looks off to my eyes, even at first sight. Fortunately, Ulysse Nardin offers some other cool-looking straps, plus the convenient lug design means you can place any other conventional strap on the Freak — something I would certainly recommend doing to better complement the watch head. And, again, Ulysse Nardin offers a host of other iterations including a red and black cased version – although too many of them err too far on the side of caution and conventionality, I think.
Let’s get a bit more personal. Wearing the Ulysse Nardin Freak X fills me with what I could best describe as a sense of pride, such that is scarcely sourced from the simple act of wearing a watch. Not to mention that I am fully aware it’s just a review loaner, not a piece I can call my own. Still, that’s the overwhelming sensation I get from both the importance as well as the novelty factor of the Freak. In essence, the Freak is characterized by its massive minute hand with an inverse gear track on its outer edge and a flippin’ awesome space-age balance wheel in silicon on the other. That’s the Freak, and there’s nothing else like it. And it’s not an also-ran in the dimension of “crazy haute horlogerie” but the very concept that has opened the portal leading us into said dimension. As much as I appreciate a technically complex rattrapante or a beautifully made tourbillon, there is a vibe of effortless badassery from the Freak that is unmatched by those arguably fragile and filigree complications.
I do have some complaints, though. The Freak X — to my tired watch journalist eye that has seen positively (and negatively) outlandish watches of all sorts — is a bit too timid and, again, in most of its case-dial-bracelet configurations, a bit of a hodgepodge. To be fair, to every friend and relative I have shown it to, even fellow watch lovers, found it to be jaw-drop awesome. I can see it in their reactions and, believe you me, they have grown accustomed to me handing them some extraordinary timepieces of the years. Still, if you look at the entire range, there are far too many black or dark blue dial options with zero bright dials thrown into the mix (with the exception of the all-white piece) that has possibly taken things too far in the other directions. Sure, the overwhelming majority of luxury watches have black, dark blue, or other conservative dial colors, but these do no favors to the Freak X as they only serve to disguise the over-the-dial assembly and make its details and construction more difficult to appreciate. They do look tasteful and overall well-balanced, but the nine-reference collection arguably should have had at least some brighter alternatives.
A prime example of this is just how epic (and how much more alive, complicated, and expensive) the Freak X limited edition for The Hour Glass appears, as captured in the wild by WatchesbySJX. Even the brown alligator strap looks beefed up (pardon the pun) and a better match on that. Some small tweaks like this, I believe, could introduce successful versatility to the Freak X range and better highlight just how special it truly is.
Although far from perfect, the Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Carbonium feels good on the wrist owing mainly to its light weight, its 43mm case diameter (that wears very much on the small side of 43mm), and its relatively slim case profile. The Carbonium case segment is only 7.5 mm thick, topped by a domed and stepped bezel finished off by the domed (a.k.a. “boxed”) sapphire crystal. Make no mistake, this isn’t a thick watch made to look thin with the additional stepped bezel and sapphire wizardry. It genuinely is a positively slender watch without any of the annoyances associated with a bulky design, such as constantly getting caught on things or hung up against the edge of a sleeve. The watch head is very light, indeed, which is always a plus as far as real-world wearability is concerned.
Carbonium® is “a new generation of material entirely sourced from the French aerospace transformation sector. Composed of two-thirds of intermediate modulus carbon fiber and one-third of high-temperature epoxy, Carbonium® brings its structural properties and a totally unique aesthetic to the parts obtained.” The phrase “totally unique” is a bit of a stretch, as it is very much comparable to other forged carbon cases, but what is cool as that Ulysse Nardin sources Carbonium from Lavoisier Composite, which recycles and “upcycles” these from carbon used in the construction of civil commercial aircraft.
On the minus side, the Freak X does like to wobble around the wrist even with a proper tight fitting of the strap – which isn’t how you’ll want to wear it, at least not in the beginning. First of all, the eerily smooth inside of the leather strap makes it prone to sliding over the skin. The second criticism with the strap is the stubbornly stiff padding near the lugs that forces the strap against the wrist, making it a lot less compliant in following the curvature of the wrist. Right after receiving the piece, I had to store it with the straps up rolled up tight to improve their flow around the wrist, but even then the first inch on either side down from the lugs remained just too stiff for comfort. It takes a fair bit of extra effort to bend the padded section to a more compliant shape which, frankly, shouldn’t be a case on any watch – and yet it still is on the overwhelming majority of padded straps, not just those on the Freak X.
To be fair, during daily wear, the Freak X had, more often than not, proven to be a comfortable watch to wear. Its lightness and, once you get there, its comfortable fit around the wrist often had me check if I still had the watch on – and that’s a trait of only truly comfy watches. Some minor adjustments could ensure that the Ulysse Nardin Freak X is comfortable to wear right out of the box.
The in-house designed and manufactured UN-230 caliber powers the Ulysse Nardin Freak X watch. It is a self-winding movement with an impressive 72-hour power reserve matched to a 3 Hertz operating frequency. The latter isn’t something to write home about on regular movements, but here it is combined with a massive balance wheel – whereas 4 Hertz is almost exclusively combined with much smaller balance wheels with less inertia. Don’t forget to factor in the immense strain placed on the movement by the huge minute and hour hands and you’ll see just how impressive the 3-day/3Hertz spec is for this movement.
The original Freak could not have come to life was it not for Carole Forestier-Kasapi’s idea to have a mainspring as wide as the entire movement placed at the base of the caliber. That huge and hugely powerful spring was required to do all the heavy lifting required by the Freak’s unprecedented construction. No keyless work (those bits and pieces by the crown that transfer power from the crown to the mainspring) could have survived the task of winding that ginormous spring and so the original Freak was wound by rotating the entire caseback, no less. By contrast, the Ulysse Nardin Freak X we are looking at today has a regular crown at the 3 o’clock side of the dial. Better still, it even has a full-size self-winding rotor. These two components are tangible and visible proof of the technological advancements realized by Ulysse Nardin during the 20-year (and counting!) development period of the Freak – and that progress is to be applauded, even if it appears to have taken us backward. Because it, in fact, has made the Freak easier to wear and to use on a daily basis.
The balance wheel and escapement are all made from silicon, a technology that Ulysse Nardin has not only mastered but, in fact, pioneered in-house. That know-how shows: even with the naked eye it’s easy to appreciate the massive size of the balance wheel (made possible, in part, by the light weight of silicon) and its immensely complex geometry. Its self-regulating micro-blades (hint: read that out loud for full effect) were designed to use air resistance to stabilize amplitude and consequently increase accuracy. Some small nickel adjusting weights are also there, reminiscent of the adjustable moment of inertia screws set into the periphery of old-school balance wheels.
The balance wheel and pallet fork also shimmer in the high-tech purple hues of silicon. Their geometry and shape are realized to extremely close tolerances and, better still, they are free from issues related to lubrication or magnetism. No lubrication or further fine adjustment (of pallet jewels and the like) is required whatsoever on these components that are known to be susceptible to very high wear and tear. In summary, if the Freak layout wasn’t enough on its own, the Freak X actually sports what possibly is the most impressive balance assembly in its price segment (and a fair bit over that).
Its self-winding mechanism has the sort of system that is found, for example, as “Magic Lever” winding in Seiko watches or as Pellaton self-winding in IWC watches. On the caseback side of the Freak X these components jump out right at you as they are among the very few parts that are in silver in a sea of black plates and bridges. This, again, I think is a bit of a shame. An all-black movement may look cool, but I somehow find it a lot more difficult to appreciate. It’s like a movement in camouflage, which is precisely against the point of a see-through caseback in my mind. Still, the Magic Lever system and its V-shaped arm and rotating wheel you can see easily.
One issue with the UN-230 caliber is that it is distinctly loud – I reckon too loud. And it’s not a beautiful sound, either. It’s what could be best described as a “dry,” mechanical sound that is made not just by the Freak X, but a host of other Swiss mechanical luxury watches. It’s loud enough that when driving a quiet car on the highway you can distinctly make out the self-winding system’s whirring sound when lifting your arm to rest it on the door/window when driving. The flip side to it though is that one gets the highly efficient bi-directional Magic Lever winding and, more to the point, one does get used to it. Right out of the box this sound was a big distraction but about two weeks into wearing it I genuinely wouldn’t notice it once throughout the day. All that said, making it hand-wound, slimmer and quieter would have been preferable.
Looking at that massive, stepped, open-worked minute hand make the rounds around the face of the Freak X is abso-freaking-lutely awesome. It just is. And to see the huge balance wheel perform its oscillating-scintillating dance on its other end, and to know the high-tech geometry and materials science involved in its production, well, that catapults this whole concept well into WIS (watch idiot savant) heaven territory. The in-your-face three-dimensionality of the Freak X and its effect on how it can be appreciated cannot be overstated.
The Freak X is its own thing both in its aesthetics and in its place in modern watchmaking history. To return to our opening argument: The Rolex Daytona is none of these two things. It’s a great watch and, again, a solid proposition at its ~$13k retail price. In some ways, especially with regards to out-of-the-box wearing comfort and quietness of operation, the Daytona is more refined, too. But the Freak X, I reckon, is in another league both in terms of enjoyment and durability of enjoyment. And it’s not like one had to make any sacrifices in terms of actual long-term wearability: Once the strap has broken in, or you found one that was a better match, it comes close enough in terms of comfort and versatility.
As I said, whether the Freak X is something those in the market for a ~$20k watch to consider is for them to ponder. It isn’t a perfect watch, but at least it is not a boring watch, either. In fact, it is everything but that. And starting at $21,000, the Ulysse Nardin Freak X damn well is among the absolute best offers available right now – and when I say available, I mean actually available.
Not perfect in every way, the Freak X is one extremely likable and still mighty impressive watch. A bit more courageous color palette across the collection could go a long way in bringing more out of the most streamlined and affordable Ulysse Nardin Freak watch to date. Still, after all is said and done, the Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Carbonium is available for $24,000 USD and it is well and truly worthy of every true watch lover’s prioritized consideration.
>Brand: Ulysse Nardin
>Model: Freak X Carbonium (reference 2303-270/CARB)
>Size: 43mm-wide, 14mm thick, ~50mm lug-to-lug distance.
>When reviewer would personally wear it: Any time, though I would want to mix things up with better strap choices.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: All of them with this much to spend on a watch.
>Best characteristic of watch: It’s a Freak! Plus it’s the most affordable and most wearable one yet that has nevertheless maintained its edge.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Much too loud self-winding. The collection could do with more exciting/more contrasting dial options and better-judged strap options.