The Sound of Music

Ulysse Nardin's

presented by Marcus Hanke

© text and pics (if not otherwise noted): M. Hanke, 2003

When I visited the Ulysse Nardin factory in January last year, I noticed an interesting-looking watch on the wrist of Pierre Gygax, UN's technical director. Asked about it, he only disclosed that it is a prototype, undergoing "field testing". That was all, no further details could be extracted from him. It was funny to observe, however, that when we were at lunch in a small brasserie at Le Locle, that Pierre made sure the shirtsleeves would cover the watch, whenever people entered the restaurant. Le Locle is a small village, with a high density of watch companies. Everybody knows everybody within the business, and of course, everyone is trying to catch a glimpse on what may be a competitor's secret novelty.

Only much later, I could squeeze out the inofficial info about a new alarm watch, dubbed "Sonata", from UN's CEO, Rolf Schnyder. Since I am fully aware of Ulysse Nardin's tradition to offer new and unconventional solutions, I complemented that info with some other interesting complications in my imagination. The invitation to the "Sonata's" public presentation, held on the evening before the Basel watch fair would open its gates, reveiled that I had been not so far from the truth:

The invitation to the "Sonata" presentation was made like a concert program

To the presentation, a large room in the restaurant "L'Escale", directly neighbouring the main hall of the fair, had been dedicated. Press and enthusiasts were eagerly trying to look through the covers of two glass columns, which apparently contained the new watches. Yet we had to be patient, since first, Ulysse Nardin's president, Rolf Schnyder, opened the presentation with a brief summary of UN's success during the last years.

Rolf Schnyder

In spite of unsecure economic times, UN managed to increase not only its sales, but is still hiring more staff to handle the work. In 2002, a new factoring facility has been established in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where prototypes and own movements are produced. Keeping the development of innovations as its central focus, UN received several international awards for its work.

Then Mr. Schnyder turned to the new "Sonata", and mentioned that its development had started as early as 1997, based on the invention of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, who for many years was the "genius" behind many of the most important products by UN. The legwork, however, was done mainly by the team, headed by Pierre Gygax and Lucas Humair. The dedication of all involved in the project resulted in a more than remarkable timepiece, and confirms once again UN's firm stand as one of the most innovative watchbrand.

(from left to right) Ludwig Oechslin, Pierre Gygax and Lucas Humair

Only then the covers were removed from the glass cases, and we could finally see what Rolf Schnyder was talking about, while a pianist played a classic sonata (by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach? I knew it, since it was a popular piece, but unfortunately I could not remember its composer), with the "Sonata's" beautiful and melodic chime - played over loudspeakers - perfectly matching the music.

While Pierre Gygax explained the watch's functions, I fought my way through the people, trying to inspect the real pieces.

Pierre Gygax, explaining the Sonata's functions

Unfortunately, the watches were to be strictly kept in the showcases only, but as I am a really nice guy, a heavyweight prince charming with penetrating persuasiveness, finally the Cerberi of UN gave in and showed them to me outside the showcase.

Renato Bonina, manager of Ulysse Nardin Europe (EU),
teasing me with the new marvel

My first close look

Eh ... interesting - was my first thought. weird - my second thought. intriguing - the third, fascinating - the fourth. What I saw, certainly was a typical UN, following the design tradition of the Freak more than that of the GMT Perpetual.

Sonata in 18k white gold, pic © Ulysse Nardin

The "dial" is in fact reduced to a cutout bridge, which spans over the top metal layer. This is decorated with vertical stripes. The two upper subdials for countdown and alarm time are fixed with blued screws. We have seen several similar "dial" designs recently, and normally I like them very well. They look technical and exclusive at the same time. However, after having given the issue more than just a few thoughts, I am not so sure that I like it on the "Sonata" as well.The reason for my doubts are the hands. These are unlike anything I have seen before on a wristwatch; elegantly curved, they seem to connect architecture with music, their pointed heads featuring luminous mass - indispensable on a travel and alarm watch, IMO. I like the hands, but they transport a completely different feeling than the cutout dial/Geneva stripes combination underneath. Together, they do not harmonize, but step on each other's toes, to express it freely.

In my opinion it would be better to give the "Sonata" a conventionally closed dial, without any guilloche pattern, similar to that of the standard GMT Perpetual. Then the "musical hands" as the watch's major design feature would not be compromised by the business of the dial. On the other hand, the current dial layout with the striped bridge is stunning, but the view on it is disturbed by the hands. With simple and straight hands, this part would be much more impressive.

These are, however, my very personal comments, and I would be happy to learn your opinion about it. Finally, you should keep in mind that the watches seen in Basel are still from the very limited pre-series. Until the real serial production is set up, the design might be modified to a certain degree.

Sonata in 18k pink gold, pic © Ulysse Nardin

Yet the part most interesting for us, is, of course, the movement. The cal. UN-66, as it was designated, consists of more than 450 parts, 97 (!) jewels ensure perfect function with minimum friction. It is an own development of UN, and there also is no externally supplied "base movement" whatever.

Cal. UN-66, rear view, pic © Ulysse Nardin

Cal. UN-66, frontal view (under the dial), pic © Ulysse Nardin

It makes the "Sonata" world's first mechanical wristwatch alarm that can be set be activated within 24 hours. Normally, this is only possible within twelve hours: If it is, say, 4 p.m. now, and you set a conventional alarm watch to wake you up at 7 a.m., it will chime already at 7 p.m., because the mechanism cannot differentiate bewteen a.m. and p.m. On the "Sonata" you can set the alarm time exactly to the minute to any time a.m. or p.m., as you like. The small alarm time subdial at 2 o'clock displays the activation time. On the left dial, at 10, you see the time that is left until the alarm sounds. This helps you setting the alarm for a time a.m. or p.m., depending on the time still left from now on. In our example above, the countdown dial would display 15 hours left, when you set the alarm to ring at 7 a.m. Otherwise, it would only show three hours. Activation of the alarm is done by pressing the pusher on the left side. A small pointer on the dial shows the current status.

Now this alone would not be spectacular. But there is also UN's unique and famous GMT mechanism: With pressure on the pushers that are neatly integrated into the crown protectors on the left and right sides of the dial, the hour hand jumps forward or backward, to show the correct time for the timezone you have entered. The 24 hours-hand in the subdial at 6 remains unchanged, showing the time at home.

If you are in a plane at 10 o'clock in the evening, and set the alarm at 8 the next morning, your countdown dial shows that you still have 10 hours to rest. But then you land in your destination town in the East, where the local time is one hour later. This also means that you have one hour less to sleep. You press the + button to move the main hour hand on your "Sonata", and the countdown dial is updated automatically, showing one hour less. This is a really great function! Well, one might ask, if this is not a bit academic, but then, mechanical watches themselves are academic, aren't they?

Another highlight of the Sonata is an acoustic one: the chime. At the preset alarm time, a tiny hammer beats on a large coil, resulting in a clear and absolutely melodic sound. The "bing, bing, bing!" is loud enough to be present when the watch is worn on the wrist, even during conversations in busy places. The alarm's exceptional power reserve of up to a minute should be enough to wake up in the morning. As a standard, it is planned to give the Sonata a solid back, in order to exploit the maximum sound voume from the coil.

Solid caseback; red stripe belongs to the protective sticker

However, Rolf Schnyder had one of the watches finished with a displayback, to exhibit the beautiful movement. There will be some experiments, whether the displayback affects the chime too much. Otherwise, it might be possible that the production series will have a displayback, maybe as an option on special order?

Displayback on one of the pre-series watches shows the indigenous UN movement

Until now, there is no price given for the watch, which is quite logical: UN wants to avoid any embarrassing price corrections, since the production costs can only be assumed once the actual serial production has been set up. The only thing that can be said is that the huge development and production effort will have its price, and those that are looking forward to replace their cheap quartz travel alarm clocks with the "Sonata" might rethink their plan.

The "Sonata" will not be a limited series, since it limits itself, due to the low production numbers. I have no doubts that it will take its place among the other famous Ulysse Nardin innovations, such as the astronomic watches, the GMT Perpetual, the Freak, and the Genghis Khan. Thanks to Rolf Schnyder and his "dream team" for surprising us again every year!

Dr. Ludwig Oechslin proudly shows his brainchild

Comments, suggestions, and corrections to this article are welcome.

Copyright April 2003 - Marcus Hanke - all rights reserved