Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Ulysse Nardin Freak.
Who says the mechanical watch industry is stuck in the past? The same incredible material that has made the computing revolution possible is also impacting the world of the tiny spring-powered machines that inefficiently and expensively display the time on our wrists — but which are somehow enchanting. That material is silicon; and when the historic Swiss watch brand Ulysse Nardin introduced the first watch to incorporate it in 2001, called the Freak, it was met with skepticism and controversy.
Less than two decades later its use is widespread, and it promises to be the watchmaking material of the future. Why is silicon such a good material for watchmaking? To begin with, it’s for some of the same reasons that it’s useful in microchips and solar cells, but silicon is beneficial for other reasons that are pretty specific to watchmaking.
Terms to Know: When people in some parts of the world say “silicium” they mean the same thing as silicon, but “silicone” (with an -e) is something totally different.
Traditional watchmaking materials like steel have inherent properties that have provided watchmakers challenges for centuries. Temperature and magnetism can affect a movement’s timekeeping performance, and friction from interaction between parts eventually causes significant wear. Silicon is unaffected by any of these problems. Since silicon is so hard, it obviates the need for the lubrication traditional watch movements require — and that alone makes a huge impact on movement health and longevity, in part because oil ages as well.
For those reasons, as well as its extremely light weight, silicon is ideal for watch movement components like those involved in the escapement, the part of the watch that regulates timekeeping. In addition to these qualities, critically, silicon is also a material that’s inexpensive and widely available. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s making mechanical watches less expensive, at least for the time being: Working with silicon requires expertise and equipment outside watchmaking’s traditional wheelhouse. Unlike metal, silicon (a metalloid) is also brittle. Needless to say, incorporating silicon into mechanical watch movements also required significant research and development.
In 2001, Ulysse Nardin caused a stir when they released the Freak using silicon in its escapement, but also with a totally avant-garde concept. The use of silicon didn’t necessitate the Freak’s audacious design, but it was an appropriately outlandish way to introduce the controversial material. What makes the Freak so freakish? Most of the watch’s movement itself forms the minute hand, and the mainplate (with an arrow on it) rotates and does the job of the hour hand. The time is set by turning the bezel, and the movement is wound by turning a case back bezel. In other words, it aimed to rethink a number of fundamental watch features.
Since the introduction of the first Ulysse Nardin Freak, the brand has continued to build upon the concept with an entire line of fascinating and increasingly out-there Freak watches. However, silicon is no longer controversial and has been enthusiastically adopted across the watch industry. Particularly used for its antimagnetic properties in balance springs, it’s now a premium material that prestigious brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega proudly emphasize. The Swatch Group has even begun equipping some of its inexpensive 80-hour-power-reserve movements with silicon hairsprings.
Silicon is even providing watchmakers with new, cutting edge solutions that transcend the traditional escapement as in Zenith’s Defy Lab watch, which beats at 15Hz and is able to achieve unprecedented accuracy for a mechanical watch. Research and development of silicon in watchmaking continues, and promises benefits for accuracy, stability, durability, and even affordability in the future. It’s an exciting material for a wide range of reasons, not least for giving traditional watches room to grow into the century ahead.