The story of Ulysse Nardin

The history of watchmaking is punctuated by fascinating mechanical inventions, patiently acquired expertise, and technological triumphs. None of these discoveries and achievements would have taken place without the passion and genius of individual men and women. Over the centuries, as if illuminated by the same flame and driven by the same passion, these individuals have continuously furthered the development and growth of one of the most important sciences of all times, and the source of many others. This is the story of Ulysse Nardin, a continuous thread through time, woven by the interactions – both philosophical and physical – between a handful of exceptional individuals. From 1846 to the present day, from the founder to the current directors, they have turned a name – an independent and internationally renowned Swiss watchmaker – into one of the most dynamic and innovative brands in existence.

Chapter 1: History

When Ulysse Nardin was born in Le Locle on 22 January 1823, the region was already home to a wealth of watchmaking activities. Over more than two centuries, with the influx of Huguenot artisans who had fled France following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the mountainous region of Jura had become a centre for watchmaking and metal working. Steeped in this rich heritage of craftsmanship and technology, the region's master watchmakers were responsible for many discoveries and innovations. In this context of burgeoning industrialization – the industrial revolution would get underway in the second half of the century – and intense inventiveness – the chronograph (1815-16) would have a significant impact on his career – the young Ulysse came into the world.

Starting out as an apprentice to his father Léonard-Frédéric, himself a watchmaker, Ulysse Nardin went to work with William DuBois, one of the greatest experts of his age in precision timepieces, notably marine chronometers and astronomical watches. The young apprentice began specializing in complicated watches, and quickly spotted the potential of a niche market as maritime transport grew. In 1846, at the tender age of 23, Ulysse Nardin founded the company that still bears his name today, in Le Locle.

The business did well, but in 1860 the young watchmaker was given the opportunity to rise to the status of international leader among pocket chronometer manufacturers. That year, Ulysse Nardin acquired a new piece of equipment, a high-precision astronomical regulator used to adjust watches, invented by Jacques-Frédéric Houriet (1743-1830), creator of the spherical hairspring and author of many works on the isochronism of the oscillating organ. Ulysse Nardin then turned his attention to the design of ultra high-precision timepieces, and exported his products around the world. Two years later, he attained the holy grail of watchmaking at the Great Exhibition in London, winning the Prize Medal in the Complicated Watches category.

This was the beginning of the golden age of the Ulysse Nardin Manufacture. Its pocket and marine chronometers set the benchmark in both civil and military realms. In 1865, the business moved to new premises at 3, rue du Jardin in Le Locle, where its headquarters remain today. Ulysse Nardin died on 20 February 1876, marking the end of the first chapter in the company’s history. His son, Paul-David, then aged 21, took the helm.

The Ulysse Nardin company continued to grow, and its spirit of innovation ensured it enjoyed ever increasing success and renown. At the turn of the century, the watchmaking house was expanding at a remarkable rate: in 1878 it obtained a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, then a second at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In 1904, having made great progress in the modernization of its production methods and the manufacture of interchangeable parts, it supplied marine chronometers to the Russian and Japanese admiralties. In 1906, Ulysse Nardin chronometers won the top seven prizes in the Washington DC Naval Observatory competition.

Ernest Nardin, the son of Paul-David, joined the Manufacture in 1909. He was one of its directors when the family firm changed its status to “société anonyme”. His talent for precision adjustment won him many distinctions and first prizes. In 1923, at the international competition held at the Neuchâtel Observatory to mark the Breguet centenary – entered by British, French, Danish and Swiss chronometer makers – he won the only prize awarded in the marine chronometer category, out of the 29 pieces submitted. At this time, the company was developing wristwatches, and notably chronographs as of 1912. In 1935, it launched a 24” split-seconds pocket chronograph beating tenths of a second. Its extreme precision gained recognition in sporting milieus. Ernest Nardin died in February 1940 following a long illness. One hundred and fifty kilometers away, in Zurich, Rolf W. Schnyder was approaching his fifth birthday.

Chapter 2: the rebirth

He did not yet know it, but his destiny was already taking shape. A rebellious, swaggering young man, Rolf W. Schnyder left the family home at the age of 19. He initially headed for Geneva, where he found his first job with a watchmaker and learnt French. Then at 22 he left for Bangkok, where he became a distributor of Swiss watches in Thailand for an import-export company. It was the start of his colorful life in South-East Asia and a great love affair with the region. 

While putting in long hours for his Swiss employer, he led a parallel life as an adventurer. He travelled down the famous river Kwai on a raft from the border with Burma, camped out on Phuket beach before any hotels were built there, stayed in Laos and Vietnam during the war, and visited China in the midst of its Cultural Revolution.

Later, he played rugby for the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, organized tours taking European tourists to the most isolated regions of Thailand and on the Angkor temple route in Cambodia, where he decided on the spur of the moment to take up competitive water skiing. In 1967 he actually won the Hong Kong water ski marathon around the island. The following year, buoyed by his sporting successes and escapades, and spurred on by his entrepreneurial drive, Rolf W. Schnyder created the first Swiss watchmaking company in the Far East, in Thailand. Here, he developed precision components for Switzerland. These were followed by watch cases made in Manila, and dials produced in Kuala Lumpur. Each venture was a resounding success.

However, back in Switzerland, the quartz crisis was starting to wreak havoc in the watchmaking industry. Although the last official publication from the Neuchâtel Observatory praised the Manufacture for its 4,324 performance certificates obtained for mechanical marine chronometers (out of 4,504 pieces supplied between 1846 and 1975), Ulysse Nardin was not in good shape. In 1983, on the brink of collapse and with just a handful of watchmakers remaining on the team, the business was put up for sale.

That year, 1983, marked a turning point in the history of Ulysse Nardin. During a visit to Switzerland, Rolf W. Schnyder learnt of the firm’s difficulties. This visionary entrepreneur and watch fanatic soon got together a small group of investors, with himself at their head. “It was a calculated risk, in the sense that I was convinced that mechanical watches that were both unique and innovative could succeed on the market,” he said later. But everything had to be reinvented and recreated. Then came a chance encounter with Ludwig Oechslin. About to complete an apprenticeship in watchmaking and antique timepiece restoration, the young Oechslin – aged 31 at the time – had already studied archeology, ancient history and Greek. Five years previously, feeling he wasn’t suited to academic life, he had left Basel University to work for the Jörg Spöring workshop in Lucerne. 

A true genius, gifted beyond measure, Ludwig Oechslin had spent part of his apprenticeship at the Vatican studying a clock made in 1725 for the Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, Dorothea Farnese von Pfalz-Neuburg. Known as the “Farnese clock”, this timepiece featured mechanisms that displayed information about the sun and moon in their different phases and positions. Over four years, he dismantled, restored and reassembled – piece by piece – this object, which was presented as a gift to Pope Leo XIII in 1903.

Rolf W. Schnyder had seen one of Ludwig Oechslin’s first creations, an astrolabe, which he greatly admired. Inspired by Oechslin’s work on the Farnese Clock, this astronomical clock stood proudly in Jörg Spöring’s workshop. From then on, Rolf Schnyder was determined to miniaturize it and create one of the most complicated wristwatches in the world. Out of this ambition was born the legendary Trilogy of Time collection: the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler greatly impressed connoisseurs and confirmed the comeback of Ulysse Nardin as one of the greatest names in Swiss watchmaking. 

Chapter 3: the avant-garde watchmaker

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For over 20 years, Ludwig Oechslin was given carte blanche to express his genius at Ulysse Nardin. He masterminded the creation of several watches that figure as milestones in watchmaking history. One was the GMT± Perpétuel, boasting an unusual perpetual calendar with a second time zone that can be adjusted forward or backward. Another, the Sonata, features an alarm that can be set for within 24 hours, a world premiere. The Freak was the first timepiece to use silicon for its escapement with two impulse wheels. The Genghis Khan was the first ever Westminster Carillon Tourbillon Jaquemarts Minute Repeater. And the Moonstruck, which displays the cosmic interplay of the sun, earth and moon, indicates the rise and fall of the tides and the moon phases with phenomenal precision. The list is far from complete.

The common quality that links all these timepieces is innovation. This impetus led the brand to work with silicon before all the others, in 2001. In 2006, in a joint venture with Mimotec in Sion, Ulysse Nardin set up Sigatec, which specializes in the production of silicon components. In the same year, the Manufacture introduced its first caliber designed and made entirely in-house, the UN-160. Two years later, it helped establish DIAMAZE Microtechnology, a joint venture operating in synthetic diamond. This led to the launching of DIAMonSIL, a technology that involves coating silicon with nanocrystalline diamond, and which has been used on the Freak DIAMonSIL.

The man who orchestrated all these projects and who had the talent to turn the innovative ideas of Ludwig Oechslin into industrial realities, Pierre Gygax, has also played a key role in the resurrection of Ulysse Nardin. Known as “Mr Silicon” by his colleagues, Pierre Gygax trained as an engineer and began his career with Omega, before becoming the director of a plastic injection business, notably for the automotive industry. His expertise and enthusiasm for new technology soon caught the attention of Rolf W. Schnyder, who quickly employed him as his industrial director. Now the Manufacture’s Executive Vice-President, he is the instigator of all technological development at Ulysse Nardin.

However, the brand does not only invest in cutting-edge technology. In September 2011 it acquired Donzé Cadrans, its longstanding partner in traditional cloisonné and Grand Feu enameling. Sadly, Rolf W. Schnyder did not have the pleasure of signing the acquisition contract. He died suddenly in April 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, where he lived, a few months after his 75th birthday. Today, his widow Chai Schnyder, holder of a Master of Science in Manufacturing Engineering from Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom, is President of the Board of Directors. 

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