It’s no small horological achievement to create a truly exotic movement. Building something that transcends beyond the usual suite of complications — even the vaunted tourbillon — to deliver something genuinely out of the ordinary is something only a small handful of brands have the capability to do, but nearly all of these watches struggle with a single pitfall: wearability. These unorthodox mechanical layouts come with packaging concerns more often than not, so when a watch comes along that combines this sort of out-of-the-box engineering with relatively drama-free dimensions, it’s something of an event. For over 20 years, the Ulysse Nardin Freak series has dazzled enthusiasts with its gear-train-as-minutes-hand concept, but in that time even this line has struggled with proportions. By contrast, the new Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is remarkably wearable and restrained for such a high-concept piece of watchmaking, and the result may well be the most attractive, tasteful, and above all balanced Freak model yet.

Like the Freak models that precede it, the Ulysee Nardin Freak ONE’s case has one instantly recognizable defining feature – there is no crown whatsoever, leading to a totally symmetrical case profile. From there, however, the Freak ONE diverges substantially from its forebears. Excluding the crown-less design, this DLC-coated titanium and 18K red gold case is basic, almost staid in comparison to some of its haute horlogerie competition. The lugs are a classic sporting taper with a narrow polished chamfer and clean linear brushing, and outside of the lack of a crown, the case sides are classic vertical slabs. In short, the Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE feels like a normal watch on the wrist. It may not exactly be small at 44mm wide, but it’s decidedly un-histrionic, particularly thanks to a combination of lightweight titanium and slimming black. When the size of an average crown is factored in, the Freak ONE wears more like a 42mm-wide watch, and the 12mm-thick case profile reinforces the “average sports watch” proportions on the wrist.

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Of course, there’s nothing average about the Freak ONE in actuality, and a closer inspection of the red gold bezel makes this immediately apparent. Based on the sharply faceted pattern of notches in this brushed and polished element, it may seem this bezel is out of alignment, but that’s the only real visual clue to the Freak ONE’s unique winding and time-setting system. Flip up the “Freak” plaque at 6 o’clock and the rotating bezel unlocks, but it’s not just the bezel itself that rotates. Twisting this bidirectional bezel also adjusts the time setting forwards and backward, giving wearers a large-scale tactile connection to the Freak ONE’s conversation-starting gear train. Around back, the sapphire display caseback is similarly unorthodox. By twisting the outer caseback ring counter-clockwise, wearers can manually wind the movement, although the Freak ONE’s innovative winding system makes that largely unnecessary (more on that later). While it may be both remarkably wearable and packed with intriguing gimmicks, the Freak ONE’s case is not without an Achilles heel – water resistance. This is the greatest hurdle facing the everyday-wearable ethos underpinning the watch, as a 30-meter depth rating leaves many sporting situations where the Freak ONE simply won’t be up to the task.

As with the case, the Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE’s skeleton dial builds on the Freak models that came before but presents these concepts in a cleaner, more refined package. Strictly speaking, only the narrow outer chapter ring with its light-printed Arabic numerals and applied gold indices is an actual dial surface, and everything else beneath the sapphire crystal is a movement component. Most of this real estate is taken up by a broad matte black disk with a delicate ridged texture, along with a printed Ulysse Nardin script logo. Thanks to the broad, heavily lumed applied gold delta shape here, this rotating disk serves as an hour hand. It’s the minute hand that truly steals the show, however. This is the Freak line’s signature dish, a rotating gear train assembly that circuits the dial once per hour and allows the movement, in essence, to revolve around itself. This assembly is significantly visually streamlined from previous Freak iterations, but Ulysse Nardin adds a cheeky nod to its own heritage in the form. The main bridge structure containing the gear train components and the minutes marker also forms the brand’s signature anchor emblem. The only other place the anchor logo appears is on the strap lining, which makes this an impressively restrained branding exercise. A flying balance bridge acts as a counterweight to the minutes hand, rotating alongside the gear train above the skeleton dial surface and acting as a dynamic visual highlight. In addition, thanks to the escapement’s placement on this rotating assembly, the Freak ONE technically sports a 60-minute tourbillon complication. It’s a conversation piece for the most die-hard of movement nerds, but the sheer mechanical spectacle of this assembly at work should be enough to make believers out of the uninitiated.

Ulysse Nardin powers the Freak ONE with its in-house UN-240 automatic movement. The basic specs behind the UN-240 are solid if not groundbreaking, with a hefty 90-hour power reserve at a 21,600 bph beat rate. However, the real mechanical showcase (aside from the one on the dial, of course) is the brand’s proprietary Grinder winding rotor system. Designed for ultra-fast bidirectional winding from even slight motion, the Grinder is undoubtedly a technically impressive piece of engineering. However, when compared with the view from the dial side, the caseback view of this winding system in action is rather undramatic. The assembly looks less like a traditional mechanical movement than a series of matte blasted concentric rings, with little in the way of contrasting finishes or artistic structuring to add visual interest.

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To complete the sleek and (comparatively) subtle black-and-gold look of the Freak ONE, Ulysse Nardin pairs the watch with a textured fabric-effect rubber strap in simple black. While this strap is supple and reasonably comfortable, it arguably lacks some of the spectacle of the rest of the design. However, as one last layer to the Freak ONE’s quirkiness, this strap comes mounted in reverse fashion, with the tang buckle end at 6 o’clock. Ostensibly this is done to accommodate a notch for the “Freak” plaque on the 6 o’clock case side, but it does reinforce the wearer with the sense that Ulysse Nardin dances to the beat of its own drum with this watch.

Creating an enduring piece of haute horlogerie is a challenge that few brands can meet, and still fewer can deliver a watch that breaks the mechanical mold without breaking with the normal conventions of wearability. With this in mind, the sleek, refined Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is a genuinely impressive achievement, one that pushes the boundaries of mechanical watchmaking while remaining feasible, comfortable, and stylish to wear nearly every day. The Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is available now through authorized dealers. MSRP for this watch stands at $68,600 USD as of press time. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.

Necessary Data
>Brand: Ulysse Nardin
>Model: Freak ONE
>Price$68,600 USD
>Size: 44mm-wide, 12mm-thick
>When reviewer would personally wear it: As a “nuclear option” for a watch meetup, or when attending high-end functions.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Well-heeled collectors looking for a watch that bridges truly exotic construction with relatively easy wearability.
>Best characteristic of watch: Mind-blowing movement concept; surprisingly balanced proportions.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Somewhat pedestrian strap pairing; comparatively uninteresting caseback view.

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