Is the Freak X the most interesting watch on the market?

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Ulysse Nardin, a utility vest and a hat.

When I think of interesting watchmaking, very rarely do two hand, time only pieces pop into my head.

Although practical, they’re boring, right?

In the 400 or so years since watchmaking started, the bread and butter features of a watch have been hours, minutes, and seconds (if you’re lucky).

It’s only later on in history that we start to see more exciting complications like the split second chronograph, Fuse and chain constant force mechanisms, perpetual calendars and innovative materials like Magic Gold and ceramic (thanks Hublot).

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with a watch that, on paper, is low on features But in the metal, implements those features in such an innovative way that it blows most other, more complicated watches out of the water. At first glance, it’s a simple time only watch that doesn’t even have a seconds hand. But look a little deeper, and you discover that the concept and execution is incredible. It even has a hidden feature that they don’t mention on the website (read on for more)

I'm of course, talking about the Freak X by Ulysse Nardin. A less than conventional watch that displays time like nothing else.  If you’re into boundary pushing horology, It’s not to be ignored.

Here’s why…

The Ulysse Nardin Freak X Titanium
The Ulysse Nardin Freak X in titanium

Who is Ulysse Nardin

To understand the Freak X, we have to elaborate on the origins of UN and what they have done for the watch industry.

The brand was founded in 1846 by a handsome, bearded chap named Ulysse Nardin in Le Locle, Switzerland. After his apprenticeship years, Ulysse started making marine chronometers, which was a bit of a flex for such a young watchmaker. The large gyro-stabilised clocks had to be incredibly accurate as sailors relied on them for navigation. If they were slow by even a couple of seconds, the ships could be kilometres off course. 

They didn’t have Google maps back then, I guess.

Unfortunately, the man himself died at the young age of 53 and his son took over ownership of the company. Paul-David Nardin, also with an incredible beard, took the company into the future and the rest is history.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and Ulysse Nardin develops the first escapement made using silicon components with the original Freak in 2001. This innovation allowed the watch to be more resistant to magnetic fields and a heck of a lot more stable to temperature changes. An impressive feat of engineering. When you look at the industry as it is today, most of the major brands use silicon in their movements. Rolex, Patek, AP, all use it.

The watch making industry owes a lot to Ulysse Nardin.

That's big beard energy.

A deconstructed Ulysse Nardin Freak X
Silicon components make up much of the Freak X's escapement system.

What Is the Freak X?

The initial inspiration for the Freak came from Rolf Schnyder, the current CEO and owner of Ulysse Nardin. He wanted to produce something never seen before and I can say with confidence, he did it. That thing was insane, especially for 2001, when everyone was wearing Panerias and aluminium bezel Submariners.

The true hero of this story, however, was Ludwig Oechslin. The genius watchmaker that was entrusted to bring Mr Schnyder's vision to life. With a vest, glasses and tie combo like this, how could he not be brilliant.

Together, these two vanguards set alight the traditional watch industry and turned Ulysse Nardin into a watch company on the cutting edge of technology and design.

Ludwig Oechslin and Rolf Schnyder CEO of Ulysse Nardin
From left: Ludwig Oechslin and Rolf Schnyder. The best duo since Batman and Robyn
The Original Ulysse Nardin Freak from 2001
The original Freak from 2001

The Freak x is a contemporary interpretation of the original Freak, launched in 2001, with some aesthetic and technical changes that make it a little more accessible for todays watch buyers.

Firstly, the freak is 43 mm, sounds big, I know, but it’s actually super wearable, even on my relatively small wrist. They also added a conventional crown where there was none before, the original had a case back winding and setting system. I suspect this decision was made to bring the Freak X down to a more approachable price.

Caseback of the Ulysse Nardin Freak X Titanium
The case back view of the Freak X

To speak briefly about the winding system, I’ve been lucky enough to play with watches that are much pricier, but my god, winding the Freak X feels like absolute butter, it's one of the best feeling movements in the industry.

The party piece of the Freak X, however, is the escapement system. The Balance wheel, escape wheel, balance spring & anchor all make up a large portion of the actual minute hand. This complete separation of the movement systems is accentuated by the stark contrast between the ‘hands’ and the dial, which has a large, inward facing wheel that drives the hour hand. The automatic winding system is relegated to the back of the watch to clear up space on the 'dial'.

Speaking of the dial, or lack thereof, it’s incredible that they have been able to incorporate such complexity while still allowing for great legibility. Although I will admit that there is a learning curve when spotting the hour hand. In some positions, like when the minute hand is directly opposite the hour hand, the latter is covered. It’s a flaw I’m willing to forgive, though, especially considering you get to look at that balance wheel pulsating right in front of you.

The Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Carbonium
The Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Carbonium

The details

Here’s what you need to know about the Freak X

The Movement - Calibre UN-230
Power reserve - 72 hours
Parts - 405
Functions - Hours, Minutes
Frequency - 3 HZ/21,600 VPH
Escapement material - Silicon
The Case
Size - 43mm
Material - Titanium, Rose Gold or Carbonium (Two thirds carbon fiber and one third high temperature epoxy)
Crystal - Sapphire front and back

Is the freak x a Tourbillon?

Well, kind of?

At its core, a Tourbillon is a mechanism that rotates the balance wheel (the regulating organ of the watch) once every 30–60 seconds to average out the negative effects of gravity.

When a balance wheel is being ‘pulled on’ by gravity in one direction, it can make the watch run either fast or slow. So, the position of the balance wheel relative to said gravity has an effect on timekeeping. That’s why if you put your watch crown down or crown up overnight, it will either be slightly fast or slightly slow. Got it?

Anyway, these effects are most apparent in pocket watches as they are always in one position, upright in your pocket. It’s hotly debated (mostly by me) whether a touribillon actually does anything in a wristwatch. The position of the movement relative to gravity is changing so much that it cancels itself out anyway.

When we look at the Freak X, we can see that because the balance wheel is incorporated into the minute hand, it will move around the dial once every 60 minutes, essentially creating a really slow Tourbillon. They don’t advertise this in their marketing, but I definitely see it as a bonus, or at least something to brag to your mates about.

The Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Rose Gold
The Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Rose Gold

Final thoughts on the Freak X

I can just imagine the meeting when Rolf pitch the Freak. All the Swiss execs sitting around a table when mr Schnyder, perhaps after having a little too much of the green stuff the night before, said. “I think we should put the movement on the hands” then, after a long pause as they stroked their beards, they shouted “espèce de taré!”, let's do it!

The Freak X is the embodiment of an idea that not everything has to be traditional to be great. I mean, just one glance at it, and you can see that it looks forward, not backwards for inspiration.

In an age when brands are doing the same thing over and over again, it’s so refreshing to come across a watch that truly is different.

The Freak got its name because it bore little resemblance to anything that came before it. It’s a glimpse into a future where creativity takes the place of tradition. A place where crazy ideas are cherished, and true innovation is a must.
That's the kind of future I want to live in.

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Cya in the next one.

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