In a sinfully red boudoir chamber, three of the 18 red-gold and platinum Classic Voyeurs sat on velvet pedestals. The erotic watches – a tradition dating back to the 18th century and proof that sex has long been a driver of new technologies – were surrounded by whips and other tools you’d find at Mr Gray’s.
Demonstrated by an extremely red-lipped, somewhat risqué hostess, the watches feature two Jaquemart automaton couples, caught in erotic acts coinciding with the movements of the hammers of the minute repeater. Even though the booth created a buzz during the 28th SIHH, Ulysse Nardin’s new CEO Patrick Pruniaux stressed that the erotic watches play a small part in the company.
“It is a niche in a niche market. But it gives a sense of freedom and innovation. Go with it; let’s not be shy. But in 2018 the main focus is the Freak Vision,” says the 45-year-old with a background at Apple Watches, TAG Heuer and LVMH Spirits.
Embodying the first automatic watch in the Freak Collection, the Freak Vision builds on the silicon heritage the brand has been exploring since it first introduced the material to the watch industry with the original Freak watch in 2001. Among the innovations on the 2018 Freak Vision is a superlight silicon balance wheel welded with nickel mass elements – stabilised by silicon microblades that make for uniform amplitudes, thus increasing accuracy. The ingenuities are housed in a new case design made thinner than a French model, thanks to a box-domed crystal.
“The Freak Vision is a very strong piece from our R&D team, which is made up of crazy guys always looking for new ideas. Ulysse Nardin has always been an innovator,” Pruniaux says.
The main part of the Ulysse Nardin stand was, however, a blue, underwater experience – but in a different way, with ocean videos in the ceiling and “coral” sculptures by Damien Hirst – a suitable setting for the groundbreaking Diver Deep Dive. “It is a tribute to our long relation with the sea – and one way to express technical ability, that we can make a watch to withstand the pressure 1,000 metres down. So we made a very attractive, very different product, daring in technology, with a very bold design.”
History backs him up: the brand founded by Ulysse Nardin in 1846 was famous for extremely accurate marine chronometers. The historically award-showered brand was, however, hard hit by the quartz crisis and picked up in 1983 from the Nardin family by watch entrepreneur Rolf Schnyder, who paired up with genius watchmaker Ludwig Oechslin.
Since 2014 Ulysse Nardin has been part of the global luxury group Kering, listed as the third watch brand on the group’s website alongside Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard – mind you the latter has been asleep the past few years. With Pruniaux at the helm, the brand hopes to add freshness to the centuries-old watch industry. “We need to listen even more to the consumers in all countries and realise how they behave differently in different places. There is not one solution, there is not one product for all – variety is needed. So we have to make sure we have the right proposal, confirm we are in tune with the rest of the world. And we must be anything but rigid – here at Ulysse Nardin we are informal,” says the sneaker-wearing CEO.
Ocean connection and extremely technical abilities aside, the brand is also famous for its enamelling capabilities. Some of the enamel motifs are Chinese, for instance the “Year of the Dog” in the Classico Collection, a limited edition of 88 pieces housed in 18ct rose gold. “This came about, thanks to orders and expectations from our Chinese clients. Interestingly, that one resonates very well with Chinese and European clients. At that price (US$39,800) with a grand feu champlevé enamel, rose gold case and self-winding COSC-certified manufacture movement – this is spectacular.”
Along with the rest of the Swiss watch industry, Pruniaux is happy that Hong Kong and China have been warming up to watches again in the past six months, after a cool-down period. But he doesn’t take anything about the future for granted.
“One must be very aware about what the consumer expects, while remaining true to our values,” Pruniaux says.
“The fatigue in the Chinese market was not only about local factors – I think it was also on the watch industry itself.
“Some brands have done a lot to adapt themselves to the Chinese market, but in the process they lost their DNA.
“You must stick to your true values, because down the road it pays off. If you are recognisable, you send a clear message.
“It is better for a product to be like a person that not everybody likes, but everybody knows what you stand for.”