From Mars To Your Wrist: The Technology Behind The Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt
When the Ulysse Nardin Freak first launched in 2001, it marked the start of the use of silicon hairsprings and heralded a turning point in the industry. 18 years after this successful launch, the manufacture has introduced a new type of regulator with flexible blade springs featuring a suspended silicium structure. In doing so, Ulysse Nardin ushers in a whole new era of innovation in oscillator design.
In a world increasingly in search of technical precision, the ability to fashion micrometric parts from silicium wafers using state-of-the-art tools paved new creative paths for engineers. When the Ulysse Nardin Freak NeXt concept watch was launched at London's Serpentine Gallery, Tom Pike, a professor in electrical and electronic microengineering at ICL, was on hand to show an ultra-sensitive micro-seismometer hewn from a single silicon crystal which was installed inside the latest American Mars-bound probe and designed to measure seismic activity on the Red Planet.
The presentation was the first opportunity for those present to hear the sounds emitted by a distant celestial body thanks to the silicon sensor's ability to react to the finest vibrations. It also helped draw a parallel between space technology and those developed in-house for the new Freak NeXt by Stéphane Von Gunten, head of Research and Innovation, in association with Sigatec, the company's Sion-based partner factory specializing in the treatment and machining of silicon components.
As Stéphane Von Gunten pointed out, the innovative new balance wheel generates no friction and requires no lubrication, and represents the culmination of 10 years of research and development, "with the latest Freak NeXt, the manufacture is proud to unveil what appears to be the ultimate paradigm shift in mechanical watchmaking, one that began in 2015 with the launch of the Ulysse Anchor flying escapement."
So what's new about this timekeeping instrument? First, it's adorned for the occasion with an imposing satin-finished 45 mm diameter titanium case. Second, the white rubber bezel in complete with SLN which glows luminescent green in the dark. In fact, it hits you as soon as you set eyes on its unique display. The oscillator is carried aloft by the carrousel performing a complete revolution in one hour via an eye-catching rainbow-colored oscillator which ranges from blue to purple to green depending on the viewing angle.
This unusual optical effect is a result of the surface oxidization that gives the silicium all of its watchmaking properties. Furthermore, once the show is over, the viewer will quickly note the unique 3D design of the piece. In effect, the carrousel-borne oscillator endowed with a silicium minute wheel and aerial construction makes it appear suspended in mid-air between the crystal and the caliber's mainplate serving as the dial of the watch.
This comprises a coherent assembly featuring four superimposed flexible mechanisms using the elasticity of the silicium blade springs and a more solid layer that serves as a flywheel. Each of the wafer-thin elements is connected to one another by shafts that are driven and glued to boost the compensating elements of nickel.
With the flying oscillator and 3D architecture devoid of a central axis, Ulysse Nardin presents the industry with a balance wheel endowed with a high moment of inertia obtained by means of a series of wafer-thin superimposed mobile parts, which perform rapid oscillations of great range.
The innovative oscillator, no thicker than a conventional Swiss mobile anchor escapement, boasts a construction based on 32 silicium micro-blades measuring 16 micrometres in width, connected to each other without contacting the bottom-plate and thus forming 16 triangles in 4 separate parallel layers. This thereby renders the piece totally friction-free, apart from the inevitable, albeit negligible, friction with the air.
The duly optimized oscillator, which might one day replace today's versions given that they have the same space requirements and beat at the very high frequency of 12 Hertz. Efficient and virtually insensitive to shock and inertia forces, this COSC-certified regulating element offers particularly high precision. Furthermore, it is highly energy-efficient. Despite the oscillation frequency being increased threefold, the new-generation regulator also features a 30% increase in power reserve on its calibre UN-25X, thereby securing 70 hours of independent running time, once the barrel is fully wound via the automatic winding system. The Grinder, as the system is known, refers to the revolutionary mechanism integrated into the Freak InnoVision 2 in 2017 to increase the efficiency of the associated movement almost twofold.
A fascinating piece on the grounds of its originality and corresponding technical prowess, the new escapement incorporated into the Freak NeXt prompts professionals and the buying public to muse on the future of watchmaking. In any event, the sheer remarkability of the new regulating mechanism makes this piece and its increasingly powerful design, all the more desirable… In a way, the Freak NeXt can be seen as a forward-traveling time machine, and by demonstrating the contribution that science can make to the modest wristwatch, it embodies the human ingenuity required by the industry to maintain that all-important challenge.