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The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab Boutique Limited Edition

The Freak first appeared in 2001, and if you've gotten into replica watches in recent years it's easy to miss what the Freak represented (and how it strained the resources of the 2001 Internet to report on it). In 2001, Jean-Claude Biver was still three years away from taking over Hublot from its founder, Carlo Crocco; the co-axial escapement had been introduced by Omega only two years earlier; NOMOS was still four years away from using only in-house movements. Zenith had only just joined LVMH the year before; the Patek Philippe Museum had just opened. The Harry Winston Opus 1 would launch in 2001, thanks to a chance conversation at Baselworld between F. P. Journe and Max Büsser, then CEO of Harry Winston Timepieces. At least in the USA, a very many people who considered themselves serious fake watch enthusiasts were pretty much glacially indifferent if not outright hostile to Replica Rolex; you would still be able to buy Tudor replica watches in the U.S. for another three years.

The Ulysse Nardin Freak, 2001 Edition.

But despite that, the mechanical renaissance was well underway (albeit a lot less expensively than today) and a few people who were such imaginative watchmaking pioneers that the word "pioneer?is actually apt, were trying to make mechanical horology more than just a repository for treasured traditions. They were trying, as independents like Journe and independent-minded execs like Büsser were trying, to make mechanical horology about new designs, using new materials, and turning watchmaking into what it had once been: not just the creation of utilitarian time-telling machines, but a lively branch of the creative and decorative arts as well.

A few financial crises and a whole plethora of "creative?watches later ?some of them really successful, many more of them not, and very, very few both financial and creative successes ?it's worth remembering just how much of a debt both collectors and the industry owe to the folks who took big chances early on and who believed in bold strokes. One of these individuals was the late Rolf Schnyder, who took over Ulysse Nardin in 1983 and who, with the collaboration of his partner in crime, the eccentric but brilliant Ludwig Oechslin, would go on to produce groundbreaking and era-defining replica watches like the Trilogy of Time, and of course, the Freak.

The Freak was to many eyes, at least at first, weird to the point of being offensive. It was, and is, a seven day fake watch with a revolving movement about whose classification no one could agree; it had, and has, no conventional case, or dial, or hands. (You can see a post by PuristPro's Marcus Hanke on the production process for the original Freak right here.) The mainspring takes up the entire diameter of the case, and the movement gear train and escapement rotate once every hour and function as the minute hand. It's true that Ulysse Nardin had already made a name for itself in complicated watchmaking, and would go on to do even more remarkably inventive watches, including exotic astronomical complications like the Moonstruck, and chiming complications like the Sonata, but the Freak, almost 15 years after it first saw the light of day, remains a high water mark for sheer out-of-the-box horological imaginativeness.

Dual escape wheel "Dual Direct" escapement, Freak 2001, derived from Breguet "Natural Escapement."

Silicon escape wheels, Ulysse Nardin Freak 2001

It is, by the way, worth noting that ?as reported here in the Wall Street Journal ?that the Freak's genesis was a design originally produced by none other than Carole Forestier-Kasapi, the brains behind Cartier's Fine Watchmaking Collection ?the design she created was the one responsible for her winning the Breguet Prize in 1997. One of the most important features of the Freak, as it was finally produced, was a novel escapement, that used silicon for the two escape wheels: the Ulysse Nardin Dual Direct escapement, which gave impulse directly to the balance wheel. The introduction of the Dual Direct escapement was one of the first introductions of a new escapement in the post-quartz mechanical renaissance; at the time the Freak came out, the only other novel escapement to be successfully industrialized was the Daniels co-axial escapement.


Both had teething issues, even after industrial production had begun, but the fact that in only a few years, two viable alternatives to the lever escapement had found their way into wristwatches, was nothing short of astonishing, as was the very early use of silicon ?Ulysse Nardin was one of several watchmaking firms that began, in the early 2000s, to experiment with silicon components, and they were the very first to put silicon components into a production fake watch (they would be followed, in 2005, by Patek Philippe).

Ulysse Nardin Freak 28,800 V/h.

"Dual Ulysse" escapement, Freak 28,800 V/h. Two escape wheels but unlike the original Dual Direct, indirect impulse.

The Freak would continue to evolve, as well. The first major variation would be the Freak 28,800 V/h, in 2005, which debuted the Dual Ulysse escapement, the successor to the Dual Direct. Another major leap forward took place in 2007, with the introduction of the Freak InnoVision. This was a version of the Freak that included a ball bearing race for the mainspring barrel, the all-silicon Dual Ulysse escapement, silicon bearings in the going train, a silicon-nickel composite movement bridge, a one-piece silicon shock system, a silicon balance spring, and silicon escape wheels. In 2010, Ulysse Nardin introduced the Freak DiamOnSil (diamond-on-silicon) with a synthetic diamond and silicon escapement.

Ulysse Nardin Freak DiamOnSil.

Now interestingly enough, with all the technical variations on the Freak over the years, it has remained a fake watch that steadfastly resists the addition of complications. It's not hard to understand why if you look at the general design of the watch. Since the movement pivots on the central axis of the fake watch and rotates once per hour, it would be challenging to say the least to place an indication for a complication anywhere else on the Freak's dial (or non-dial, maybe we should say). Most complications, furthermore, run off an additional set of gears propelled by the going train, and to start placing an additional gear train on the Freak's movement ?which is rotating, don't forget ?would be not only really tough from an engineering standpoint (the additional mass alone would be a big problem) but also, probably, not very nice to look at either. However, the FreakLab limited edition has managed to do what no other Freak before it has done: add a complication. In this case, it's a calendar; the FreakLab is the first calendar Freak. (By the way, the FreakLab debuted at this year's Baselworld; the fake watch we're covering here is a boutique only LE.)

Ulysse Nardin FreakLab Boutique Limited Edition.

The calendar wheel of the FreakLab is located under the dial, and is visible through an aperture at 4:00. It actually runs under the hour hand, which turns once every twelve hours and is driven directly by the mainspring barrel. This is a pretty logical place for the complication and the calendar is a pretty logical first complication for the Freak, since the calendar wheel doesn't create much height, and it's relatively simple to have it indexed by the hour hand. The FreakLab is also quite a bit lighter than its predecessors, thanks to the use of titanium for the case middle, and carbon fiber for the bezel. Operation is similar to previous iterations of the Freak: the upper bezel is unlocked with a locking tab at 6:00, and you turn it clockwise to set the time, and counterclockwise to set the date. The bezel on the back of the fake watch is used to wind the seven day mainspring. Unlike previous Freaks, the FreakLab's balance is directly over the central axis of the watch, and it uses an updated version of the silicon shock system originally shown in the Innovision.

We've said that the Freak was a shocking fake watch when it was first introduced, which is certainly true. But it's also an instance of a much older idea taking on a new form, and becoming a vehicle for innovations that the originators of the idea couldn't have possibly anticipated. Back in the year 1878, in the United States, of all places, the Waterbury fake watch Co. introduced what was to become, for a few years, one of the most popular replica watches in America. The Waterbury Long-Wind had movement that rotated inside its case once an hour, and it was driven by a nine foot mainspring that took 158 turns to wind. This is the ancestor of the Ulysse Nardin Freak, and ironically enough the Long Wind was intended to be, not a luxury watch, but a cheap one, with only 58 parts total, and only three wheels in the going train.

This is not necessarily to say that Carole Forestier, or the development team at Ulysse Nardin, derived the design for the Freak from the Long-Wind. It is, however, to point out that watchmaking is a craft in which good ideas can find themselves realized in many different forms, over periods of time up to, occasionally, hundreds of years ?and that in watchmaking, as in so many things, it's at least as much about how you do what you do, as it is about what you do in the first place.

The Ulysse Nardin FreakLab, with cal. UN-210, ref. 2103-138_CF-BQ, $75,000. Case, 45 mm, blackened titanium, carbon fiber bezel. Hand wound, one rotation of the rear bezel equals 12 hours of power reserve. Frquency, 28,800 vph, minimum power reserve 7 days. Limited edition, 99 pieces, available only at Ulysse Nardin boutiques.

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