The FREAK

 

“FREAK”  (frik) not found before 16th c. possibly introduced from dialects and cognate with OE frician – to dance........a capricious prank or trick, a caper.....a product of irregular or sportive fancy.

 

What’s in a name?

Everything really. This overview of definitions traced through time by the OED seems to cover the inherent qualities of this timepiece rather thoroughly. But the casual observer who fails to consider the unclear rules and fashionable concepts which people tend to use in judging usefulness or beauty of appearance in the biological and technological world, might think the OED’s more negative 20th century definition of a freak as ’A monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species’ a more apt description of this watch. For the way we perceive what constitutes evolution in the world of organic and mechanical matters, are, just like those changes in meaning meticulously recorded in the OED, subject to continuously shifting viewpoints through the course of time. Nor to ignore the fact that the close examination of both subjects is a difficult task, especially when we try to compare the evolution of nature which took place over hundreds of millions of years, with the evolution of mechanical knowledge which covers barely thirty thousand years. Yet, there are similarities between both that might help us to mentally fantasize about the place the FREAK might conquer within the context of horological history in the 21st century.

         

As to the parallels with the shifting viewpoints of evolution- I firmly believe that one of our fur-clad forebears must have said “Ugh” when he saw the first example of a feathered dinosaur called archaeopteryx run past the early morning fire on the plains of prehistoric China millions of years ago. He probably thought such a beast a ‘freak’ of nature. But a time traveler from the future viewing the same scene would immediately recognize the predecessor of the songbird in his garden. Ulysse Nardin’s FREAK is just like our new-born archaeopteryx; an evolutionary jump of horological mutation so far ahead of traditional watchmaking, that we have to stop and take a quick breath in order to realize what’s been presented to us. But we are in luck. Whereas Mother Nature rarely divulges her evolutionary secrets without a fight or at very least several veils of mystery, Ulysse Nardin are prepared to share their journey with us. That fact that we are being given this chance to catch a glimpse of the developmental process and the people involved in the (r)evolutionary horological development of the FREAK is highly unusual, in that most Swiss watch manufactures are generally more tight-lipped than the CIA, so the stories never get told.

 

The First Link

Without forcing the reader back to the dawn of archaeopterian prehistory, we pick up the start of the FREAK’s story at the end of the 19th century with the Danish gentleman Bahne Bonniksen (photo right), who invented the carrousel tourbillon in a patent of 1892 and later settled in England. At the beginning of the 20th century he was able to produce large numbers of these movements from a factory in Coventry, which scored so well in timing tests that they were even purchased by the English Admiralty. In the regular tourbillon, the balance wheel and complete escapement are mounted within a rotating carriage, which completes one rotation usually (but not always!) every 60 seconds in an effort to cancel out the effects of gravity. This carriage is an integral part of the going train of the movement. Bonniksen’s idea was to create a geared platform on which the balance wheel and escapement are mounted. This platform is not part of the going train, merely taking its energy via a gear touching the third wheel of the going train to allow it to complete one rotation approximately every 52.5 minutes. Without going into too much detail, the carrousel tourbillon is easier to manufacture and less delicate than the classical tourbillon- whilst it still in essence combats the effects of gravity on the balance wheel, albeit to a lesser degree. Bonniksen’s own watches with his new movements sold well, and were also sold to other makers for use in their own watches. It is also interesting to note that Bonniksen’s factory, some years later, was also producing speedometers for cars and motorcycles in the same manner that Jaeger Le Coultre did for carmakers such as Citroën).

The Second Link

Enter Carole Forestier, who in 1998 received the ‘Prix de la Fondation Abraham-Louis Breguet for her concept prototype of the carrousel central. Her idea entailed a large platform on which the entire movement turned within the watchcase, with the mainspring placed in the very limited space between the outer edge of the movement and the watchcase interior. Ulysse Nardin were very impressed by her work, purchased her patents and employed her at UN as a technical advisor to work out further details of her concept together with their engineers in an effort to develop a production ready model. This proved more difficult than was expected. The original concept movement had some unresolved physical and theoretical problems which meant, among other issues, that it would not run much longer than about 11 hours after being wound, much too little for practical daily use. At a certain point, Forestier and UN separated amicably and this is where the FREAK ‘s birth really starts.

 

Keep On Truckin’.........But Travel Light !

This problem of energy supply was the first and most essential problem of the design that required clear solutions before the rest of the watch could be thought out. It was in actual fact the beginning of the unusual solution of building the FREAK ‘inside out’. As we all are aware, keeping just a standard lever escapement in a wristwatch running for a few days already costs quite an amount of physical energy, with many quality watches not giving much more than about 40 to 48 hours of practical power reserve. Just imagine how much more energy is required to keep an entire movement, physically hundreds of times heavier than a simple balance wheel, escapement and going train turning around for several days! The problem became a kind of horological power Olympiad and the entire FREAK prototype development (the watch was finally christened FREAK only after the entire development phase was completed, by the way) hung upon the solution of this basic and essential issue. One of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin’s several experiments were to fill up the entire area under a concept testing movement with the largest mainspring possible, a mainspring that would be much more at home within a clock than a watch. The large mainspring gave excellent results with more than enough reserve energy. (In the final version of the FREAK a Nivaflex 1 mainspring is used that measures some 1.8 meters supplying a power reserve of more than one week!). However, this solution put drastic constraints on the rest of the FREAK’s spatial development, since everything above the spacious mainspring would have to utilize the limited space between it and the dial side glass perfectly and with great efficiency, yet not compromise the quality and accuracy of the movement in any way. The first prototypes suffered visually from the problems of extreme height of the combined movement, mainspring, dial and hands. A definite pluspoint however is the fact that there is no traditional crown winding necessary; one just turns the bezel on the back of the watch to wind it, eliminating more parts and possible problems.

 

Truth or Consequences

Let’s examine this aspect of height more closely so we can understand the consequences of the above on the solutions sought for during the FREAK’s construction. In a normal watch, the mainspring barrel occupies one area under the dial, the going train another, etc. All the parts communicate with one another but are displaced from the central axis of the watch, which is most prominently occupied by the minute and hour hands and their corresponding wheels and pinions. Besides the height of the basic movement and dial, the visible time functions available to the user affect the height of a watch drastically. Add a central seconds hand for instance, and the entire watch height grows appreciably, since the second hand must clear the minute and hour hands. (Automatic watches increase this height problem even more, since the vast majority have the rotating mass for the winding system rotating around another central axis on the back of the movement directly under the minute and hour wheel. Not to mention the additional winding mechanism necessary to transfer the energy of the rotating mass to the winding barrel). In short, anything mechanical or visual that rotates from the central axis of the watch movement or dial will greatly affect the height of the watch- and therefore the users comfort, personal taste and possible sales as well.

 

In the FREAK, an additional consequence of the placement of this unusual energy source is the completely new function given the central pivot. Normally this spot is occupied by the minute and hour hands. Now it was given major responsibilities for two quite different roles, namely: transferring the energy from the mainspring, and acting as a pivoting point for the entire carrousel movement to turn upon. In order to accomplish this a pivot end point had to be created on the dial side that registered with this centrally placed pivot. And where on earth were the minute and hour hands to go? On what could the carousel movement pivot be secured in order to be able to rotate correctly? To quote Dr. Oechslin: “The FREAK wasn’t born out of some amazing flash of insight or sudden singularity of reasoning. Hard work has always proved to be my real source of inspiration, bringing the solutions to me one by one. When one problem gets solved, then I think ‘maybe this area can be made to function more efficiently’ and a kind of organic growth takes shape, almost like a tree growing branches, each solution affecting the next. It was just hard work really...... If something didn’t work as planned- well, then you let it go, and like a child, continued to ask simple questions and look for simple answers. This is my only real strength, I think. If tradition and schooling say ‘it should be like this’ then I become stubborn and think ‘why shouldn’t I try it differently?’ The solutions are always present if you dispose of the standard methodologies and traditional ways of looking at things”. The mainspring had to stay and the design had to solve all the problems it presented in organic fashion, step by step.

 

Transparent

If you can’t pivot on thin air, why not pivot on the next best thing: sapphire glass?  In the most untraditional watchmaking fashion, the idea came to place a small pivot point let right into the dial-side watch glass. Many people who look at the FREAK never even notice this little golden dot in the middle, which appears at first glance to be part of the movement itself. With the central axis of the watch solid and aligned between this pivot point and another point on the mainspring’s back cover, the rest of the watch design was a question of reductio to essentials.

 

 

A Tale of Two Escapements

During this critical phase, a parallel trajectory concerning the escapement was being followed within the company. The prototype development phase included 2 types of escapement: a standard Swiss lever escapement and the new dual-direct escapement designed by Dr. Oechslin.  The decision as to which would best fit the new movement was to be taken after the dual-direct system had been completely developed.

 

I feel it is rather important to take stock of the accomplishment that this represents.

It is already an amazing feat to create a watch such as the FREAK from the ground up. Such new products are rare and amazing in themselves. But in the conservative world of Swiss watchmaking, new escapements are rarer still. The co-axial escapement developed by George Daniels took him years of painstaking development, and more years still in order to convince industry leaders of its inherent and practical value. In the FREAK we have two industry milestones united in one watch, within the time span of merely a few years.

 

The drawings shown here give a very good impression of the functioning of this new escapement. The real essential of the movement is however contained in the small and unassuming, slightly pear-shaped ‘stopper’ (shown in yellow) which is mounted on the triangular shaped lever (shown in green). The stopper blocks each wheel in alternating fashion, ‘awaiting’ the moment that the balance wheel is able to finish its descending supplementary arc after which it then releases the stopper, allowing the (previously stopped) wheel to accelerate and give another impulse to the balance impulse tooth, thereby assisting the balance wheel on to its next ascending arc in the opposite direction

The purpose of the dual direct escapement was to combine the best features of two already existent, tried and proven escapements, the chronomter escapement and the standard Swiss lever escapement. As is the case with the chronometer escapement, the impulse is given directly to the balance wheel, and as in the standard Swiss lever escapement 2 impulses are given- but in the case of the dual direct system these impulses are symmetrical and equal, whereas in the aforementioned system they are not. Because of this symmetry and that fact that the stopper does not play any role in energy transmission, the vertical and horizontal functioning of the escapement are identical. Since there is no sliding friction of a tooth against a plane, no lubrication is necessary.

 

Notice my use of the word ‘accelerate’ in describing the dual direct escapement. If you look closely at the drawings, you can see that only every fifth tooth on the 1st and 2nd wheels is complete. The use of the stopper mechanism has the consequence that the teeth of the wheels had to be built such as to clear the stopper when the balance is in its neutral position (see drawing 6). So the wheels literally must accelerate very quickly to allow the following complete tooth to reach the balance impulse tooth at the correct moment. This acceleration problem came to light in the test phases of the escapement. First, wheels were made of brass, but these gave rather poor timing results. Aluminum was tried, which is course much too soft for any practical application within movements, but good enough to test the ‘lighter is faster’ theory. The timing results improved dramatically. Various metals were tested that offered lightness and durability for these critical components, but none were truly satisfactory.

 

Silicon Valley- In the Alps

These discoveries led to the careful examination of some space age technological solutions in order to allow the escapement to function in optima forma. In his function as VP of UN and head of the production team for the dual-direct escapement, Mr. Pierre Gygax, himself a former watchmaker, sought contact with Mr. Andre Perret of the ‘Centre Suisse d’ Electronique et de Microtechnique’ otherwise known as CSEM, located in Neuchâtel. It is a truly remarkable company with some direct connections to the Swiss watchmaking industry, some of which are its major stockholders. Interestingly, many of their projects are developed under the auspices of a range of specific partnerships. Could you imagine stranger bedfellows than Rolex and the Swatch Group working together on watch development? Unheard of?  Well think again, for they already have done. Together with CSEM they helped develop low power, microprocessor compression techniques for use in quartz based watches.

 

The fascinating aspect of CSEM is the extremely broad range of expertise they are able to supply under one roof. Just to give you an idea, these are just some of the products they invented and/or patented in 1999: artificial retinas, facial authentication software for security systems, microlenses for glass fiber networks, a miniature microphone measuring 1mm x 1mm, measurement systems for the analysis of raw milk.........and a large number of items only an astronaut could fully comprehend.

 

Their work for UN however was something that the more down to earth watch-lover could appreciate. Namely, the production of the 2 gears in the dual direct escapement. Silicon, the stuff chips are made of, was the material of choice as it is lightweight yet remains very sturdy in small dimensions and is accurately formable utilizing the specialist possibilities of plasma ion etching in which CSEM are world leaders. For the people at CSEM, UN’s needs were a piece of cake, since the majority of their micromechanical products were already being cut out of pure monocrystaline silicon in dimensions not much larger than the width of a human hair. In comparison, the wheels of the dual direct system with their 5mm diameter were almost gargantuan in size.

 

Monocrystaline silicon is literally, as the word itself implies, one large, artificially grown crystal of pure silicon. That it is a single crystal created under special conditions is essential to production, since this means that all the atoms are aligned in the same direction- thus eliminating the chance of breakage during manufacture in areas that could ‘go against the grain’, the kind of areas typically to be found in crystalline forms grown outside of laboratory conditions. And this regularity of atomic structure is important not only for silicon based manufactures in general, but for the plasma ion process in particular. The plasma ion technology utilized by CSEM makes use of a unique character trait of sulfurhexafloride gas, namely that when placed within a vacuum chamber and subjected to a very intense electromagnetic field, it reacts strongly by excitation, the gas molecules ‘searching’ for a partner solid to bond with. It etches the parts out by literally ‘pulling’ the silicon out atom by atom from those areas that are not covered by a mask of protective oxide (i.e. the masked bits become the wheels, the rest gets ‘whisked’ away). Since the gas removes solid material on the atomic level, it can be utilized for unbelievably small parts with the accuracy of one micron (1 micron = 1 millionth meter). The CSEM has also refined the dispersion of the gas and strength of the electromagnetic field so that the parts are cut virtually true, i.e. the teeth and faces of the wheels are also cut at right angles to the surface as the plasma etches ever deeper. (Once the silicon atoms have bonded with the gas they are positively charged; so directing the electromagnetic field also affects the direction that they ‘leave’ the solid). In the same fashion as computer chips, a single wafer can produce a large number of wheels in one operation.

 

As CSEM also have in house expertise in tribology- the study of friction and the lubrication of moving parts- they have even invented a way of depositing a layer of carbon possessing diamond like strength on the faces of these gears, insuring both smooth operation and durability.

 

Add the Bare Essentials

With the above problems of escapement and energy under control, the question of movement and hands had to be solved. For a watch that needs only to show the minutes and hours, a standard going train comprising only 4 wheels is needed. (Readers who are familiar with the Corum ‘Golden Bridge’ watch using this concept have seen how ‘empty’ a basic watch interior can be). So there was really no need for a large baseplate, especially since the standard winding mechanism, via a crown combined with the usual mainspring barrel were no longer being used.

 

Once you’ve decided to have the entire movement pivot centrally, and this pivot is also providing the energy to the movement via a centre pinion, as described above, the going train platform- whatever shape you give to it- must engage with fixed teeth along its outer perimeter. Otherwise it is physically impossible for the carrousel to turn at a correct rate.  The touch of genius in the FREAK is the idea of working out the reductio to bring it all together and simplify. If you can calculate the rotation of the carousel to work at 60 minutes per rotation as opposed to Bonniksen’s 52.5 minutes, then pure logic requires only a minimal mental jump to give the movement platform the actual role of minute hand. And this is only a step away from gearing the mainspring drum with an hour wheel, said wheel allowing the drum to rotate with the correct ratio for the hour whilst also transferring energy to the centre pinion. There remains only the visual tweaking of these roles requiring some design treatment for visibility and legibility. The dial of the FREAK is almost non-existent, being a transparent ring with numbers along the outer edge, placed above the mainspring cover. All of these solutions also resolved the height problem mentioned above, as the space between the mainspring drum and dial side glass could not be filled in a more efficient manner. And it also meant that the owner merely has to turn the bezel to set the time!

 

(All this simplicity came at a particular cost however. The unique design with its two moving bezels meant the development of very special gaskets that are stepped in several stages to insure a degree of water resistance combined with ease of movement. They are so secret that I was not allowed to even photograph them, as they are a simple, yet essential part of the Freak’s functioning. Since the movement is pivoting right in the dial side glass, the assmbly and construction was a critical issue. If the glass was not fixed absolutely at 90˚ for instance, then the entire movement could possibly bind up against the internal toothed rings and not function. So new techniques of assembly also had to be developed in paralllel with the Freak’s development. In actual fact, almost one year of full additional research were to pass after the initial presentation in Basel.)

 

In the drawings, these important fixed rings with their interior facing teeth are plainly visible. Although fixed in relation to the movement, they do turn along with the bezel when winding (back bezel) or setting the time (dial side bezel). They are also small works of technical art requiring special treatment because of their diameter and thinness. As you can see in the drawings the lower ring engages with the (partially visible) hour wheel located under the hour pointer affixed to the mainspring drum (in blue),The upper ring engages with the 1st wheel (located under the minute pointer) of the the movement / minute  platform. The mainspring’s energy reaches the 1st wheel starting with the rotation of the mainspring drum which turns the hour wheel in the lower ring as mentioned above. This rotation of the hour wheel drives the centre pinion, which in turn drives the going train.  All is kept in check by the escapement, which strictly releases the many days of power a bit at a time,  allowing everything to proceed at the proper rate.

 

For all this outward simplicity, the interior of the watch has its own particular and more complicated design features. Keeping a watch with two rotating bezels waterproof is no easy feat and highly specialized gaskets had to be designed to keep everything properly protected, yet allowing the freedom of movement necessary to be able to turn them for the adjustment of the time and winding the watch. Some parts of the FREAK have exceptionally small tolerance levels, which at times pushed the watchmakers to desperation. Originally designed with 19 jewels, three were added at the last stage to the mainspring barrel construction, supplying additional stability and ease of action.  And the case design, which on the exterior looks clean and simple, is on the interior a highly complex piece of metal machined on several stepped levels and having to provide the highest tolerances-since the inner edge of the watch case is also crucial to the movement’s circular rotation and seating. Working out all these details, even after the FREAK was in its final form, was time consuming. But that is part of the game for a product as exceptional as this one.

 

Design challenges

The watch designer is always an anonymous creature in the world of watches, but it is certain that the readers of these pages have unwittingly seen Raimondo Brenni’s handiwork somewhere on these pages as he is a prolific designer within the Swiss watch industry. (We will be devoting a separate article to his work in a later edition). He was given the job to design the FREAK’s exterior, and had specific problems to solve.

 

In a movement as unique as the FREAK’s, it was noted at quite an early stage that a small diameter did not give correct visual results. In small diameter prototypes, the minute hand covered the hour hand for too long a period during its travels, and in general, legibility was poor. This meant that the decision was taken to produce the FREAK in only one size, a fairly large diameter of 42mm, but it would nonetheless have to look good on various sizes of wrists- a difficult task. Brenni dedicated much time to this issue. By carefully shaping the lugs and supplying a watchband with slightly pre-formed curving sections where the band joins the watchcase, a model was found that looks and feels convincing on small as well as large wrists. The large notched and turning bezels front and back were not only a necessary and pleasantly tactile way of setting the time and winding the watch, but had the additional visual value of making the watch visually smaller. Having had a FREAK on my rather small wrist, I must admit that it fit and felt as comfortable as can be imagined.

 

Hands on

If you are lucky enough to become the owner of one of these truly exceptional and highly sought after timepieces, then you have not only the most perfect marriage of tradition and technique imaginable on your wrist, and a mobile horological sculpture, but a piece of the Ulysse Nardin family as well. From the young technicians, developers and watchmakers up to the company management- all live and breathe a passion for exceptional watchmaking. The prototype of your watch was not only tested in the factory, but also on the wrist of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin who subjected it to the heat of the Italian sun whilst gardening, the wrist of Pierre Gygax for weeks at a time under the rigors of family life, and on the wrist of Rolf Schnyder in the tropical humidity of the Far East.  This kind of exceptional passion for watchmaking reflected from all levels of the company, is the real secret behind the FREAK’s birth and success. And assuredly, the further success of UN in the 21st century.