Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE
Creating a truly exotic movement is no small horological achievement. Only a few brands have the ability to build something beyond the usual complications – even the high-profile tourbillon – to offer something truly special, but there’s one pitfall that nearly all of these watches face: wearability. These unorthodox mechanical layouts tend to create packaging issues, so when a watch comes along that combines this kind of out-of-the-box engineering with relatively drama-free dimensions, it’s a big deal. For more than 20 years, the replica Ulysse Nardin Freak series has dazzled enthusiasts with its concept of a gear train as a minute hand, but even this series has struggled with proportions in that time. By comparison, the new Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is remarkably wearable and restrained for such a high-concept watchmaking experience, and the result is quite possibly the most attractive, tasteful, and above all balanced Freak model to date. .
Like previous Freak models, the case of the Ulysee Nardin Freak ONE has one instantly recognizable feature – the absence of any crown, resulting in a completely symmetrical case profile. Since then, however, the Freak ONE has differed significantly from its predecessors. Aside from its crownless design, this DLC-coated titanium and 18K red gold case looks very basic, almost stuffy, compared to some of its haute horlogerie rivals. The lugs are a classic sporty taper with narrow polished chamfers and clean linear brushing, and the case sides are classic vertical slabs except for the absence of a crown. In short, the Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE wears like a regular watch on your wrist. At 44mm wide it may not be small, but it’s definitely not artificial, especially thanks to the combination of lightweight titanium and slim black. When the size of the regular crown is taken into account, the Freak ONE wears more like a 42mm wide watch, while the 12mm thick case profile reinforces the proportions of a “normal sports watch” on the wrist.
Of course, there’s actually nothing mediocre about the Freak ONE, as is immediately evident by taking a closer look at the red gold bezel. This bezel may look misaligned based on the sharp facet pattern in this brushed and polished element, but it’s the only real visual clue to the Freak ONE’s unique winding and time-setting system. Flip over the “Freak” plate at 6 o’clock and the rotating bezel will unlock, but it’s not just the bezel itself that’s spinning. Twisting this bi-directional bezel also adjusts the time setting forward and backward, providing the wearer with a massive tactile connection to the gear train that initiates the conversation in the Freak ONE. On the back, the sapphire display caseback is equally unorthodox. By turning the caseback outer ring counterclockwise, the wearer can manually wind the movement, although the Freak ONE’s innovative winding system makes this largely unnecessary (more on that later). While the Freak ONE’s case is extremely durable and packed with fun tricks, its Achilles’ heel is being waterproof. This is the biggest obstacle facing the idea of everyday wear of the cheap replica watches, as the 30-meter depth rating makes the Freak ONE simply not up to the task in many sporting situations.
Like the case, the skeleton dial of the Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is based on previous Freak models, but presents these concepts in a simpler and more refined way. Strictly speaking, only the narrow outer ring with its lightly printed Arabic numerals and gold hour markers is the actual dial surface, while everything else beneath the sapphire crystal is movement components. Most of the space is taken up by a wide matte black disc with a delicate ridged texture and printed with the Ulysse Nardin logo. Thanks to its wide golden triangular shape here with lots of luminous light, the rotating disc can be used as an hour hand. However, it’s the minute hand that really steals the show. This is the signature disc of the Freak collection, a rotating gear train component that makes one revolution around the dial every hour, essentially allowing the movement to rotate around itself. The component is visually significantly simplified compared to previous Freak iterations, but Ulysse Nardin adds a cheeky nod to its own heritage in the form. The main bridge structure containing the gear train components and minute markers also forms the brand’s iconic anchor emblem. The only other place the anchor logo appears is on the strap lining, making this an impressively restrained branding exercise. The flying balance bridge serves as the counterweight of the minute hand and rotates together with the gear train above the hollow dial surface, becoming a dynamic visual highlight. Additionally, the Freak ONE technically has a 60-minute tourbillon complication due to the escapement being mounted on a rotating assembly. It’s a talking point for the most die-hard sports fans, but the sheer mechanical spectacle of this rally at work should be enough to stop the uninitiated believer.
Ulysse Nardin powers the Freak ONE with its own UN-240 automatic movement. The basic specs behind the UN-240 were solid, if not groundbreaking, with a massive 90-hour power reserve at 21,600 bph. However, the real mechanical showpiece (aside from the dial, of course) is the brand’s proprietary Grinder winding rotor system. Designed for ultra-fast bi-directional winding with even slight movements, the Grinder is certainly a technically impressive piece of engineering. However, the view of the caseback with this winding system in operation is rather bland compared to the view from the dial side. The component looks less like a traditional mechanical movement than a series of matte sandblasted concentric rings with little contrasting finish or artistic structure to add visual interest.
To complete the Freak ONE’s sleek and (relatively) subtle black and gold look, Ulysse Nardin copy pairs the watch with a simple black textured fabric-effect rubber strap. While this strap is soft and fairly comfortable, it arguably lacks some of the features of other designs. However, as the final layer of Freak ONE quirkiness, this strap is mounted the other way around, with the tang buckle ending at 6 o’clock. This is ostensibly done to create a notch for the “Freak” nameplate on the case side at 6 o’clock, but it does enhance the feel for the wearer, and Ulysse Nardin dances to the beat of its own drum with this watch.
Creating a timeless haute horlogerie is a challenge that few brands are up to, and even fewer are able to launch a watch that breaks the mechanical mold without breaking normal wearing habits. With this in mind, the sleek, sophisticated Ulysse Nardin Freak ONE is a truly impressive achievement, pushing the boundaries of mechanical watchmaking while remaining practical, comfortable and stylish for almost every day wear.