A masterpiece always owes its existence to a combination of several favorable circumstances. The success of Ulysse Nardin, relaunched in 1983, is largely due to a chance encounter between two men with a passion for watches. Rolf Schnyder, a businessman and visionary, provided Ludwig Oechslin, a brilliant watchmaker, with the perfect conditions in which to practice his art. Their collaboration produced watches that were nothing short of legendary.
A painter is nothing without a canvas. A writer is nobody without paper. Since the dawn of time, creative production occurs when imagination meets the real world, when artistic talent finds a patron. Like a work of art, Ulysse Nardin – since its relaunch – has owed a great deal to the providential meeting of two extraordinary men. Rolf Schnyder, intrepid businessman and visionary, gave Ludwig Oechslin, a genius of watchmaking and design, the support he needed to express his virtuosity. By creating some of the most noteworthy watches of recent decades under the Ulysse Nardin signature, these two great friends succeeded in reviving the past glory of one of the most dynamic Swiss watchmakers of them all.
It all began in 1983, when Rolf Schnyder decided to acquire Ulysse Nardin, which had fallen on hard times and was slipping into obscurity. Everything had to be reinvented and recreated. Then came a chance encounter with Ludwig Oechslin. About to finish his apprenticeship in watchmaking and antique timepiece restoration, Oechslin – who was 31 at the time – had already studied archeology, ancient history and Greek. Five years previously, feeling that he was not cut out for an academic career, he had temporarily left the University of Basel for Jörg Spöring's workshop in Lucerne.
A genius with unprecedented talent, Ludwig Oechslin had spent part of his apprenticeship at the Vatican studying a clock made in 1725 for the Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, Dorothea Farnese von Pfalz-Neuburg. This timepiece, known as the "Farnese Clock," possessed special mechanisms for the display of information about the sun and the moon in their different phases and positions. For four years, he dismantled, restored and then reassembled – piece by piece – this object, presented as a gift to Pope Leo XIII in 1903. "I applied what I had learned in archeology," he points out today. "Examining a clock like this one is like unearthing a treasure, one layer at a time."
This was the start of a remarkable career. His thesis on the subject of the Farnese Clock earned him a doctorate in philosophy and the history of applied sciences from the University of Berne. At the same time, he traveled through Italy, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, in search of astronomical clocks made by 18th century monks and dissected twenty-five of them. He carried out a tremendous amount of work on each one, making painstaking measurements, calculations and interpretations. No man had ever carried out such a monumental undertaking before. Ludwig Oechslin later taught his work at several universities, among them the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Zurich.
Before he met Ludwig Oechslin, Rolf Schnyder had already seen and admired one of his earliest creations, an astrolabe. Inspired by Oechslin's work on the Farnese Clock, this astronomical clock stood proudly in Jörg Spöring's workshop. From then on, Rolf Schnyder was determined to miniaturize it and incorporate it into one of the most complicated wristwatches in the world. Another result of his determination was the legendary Trilogy of Time collection. This trio of watches – Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, Planetarium Copernicus and Tellurium Johannes Kepler – greatly impressed watch connoisseurs and confirmed the comeback of Ulysse Nardin as one of the greatest names in Swiss watchmaking.
This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For over twenty years, Ludwig Oechslin was given carte blanche to express his genius at Ulysse Nardin. He masterminded the creation of several watches that figure as milestones in watchmaking history. One was the GMT± Perpétuel, boasting an unusual perpetual calendar with a second time zone that can be adjusted forward or backward. The Sonata features an alarm that can be set for within 24 hours, a world premiere. And The Freak – whose carrousel tourbillon transforms the rotation of its movement into timetelling indications – has seen many innovations and was the first timepiece to use silicon for its escapement wheels.
With each breakthrough, the watchmaker and scholar, backed by Rolf Schnyder and the company, took watchmaking expertise to its limits. He drew his inspiration from history. "In the course of my extensive research, I came across ingenious, long-forgotten ideas and technical solutions, such as epicycloidal gears. This wealth of know-how, which permeates dozens of projects that I left for Ulysse Nardin to carry out, is part of the brand’s DNA."
Presented at Baselworld 2009, the Moonstruck is an excellent example. Seventeen years after the Trilogy of Time, this astronomical watch is still completely inhabited by Oechslin's genius. Entirely developed and designed at the Ulysse Nardin premises, it represents the cosmic interplay of the sun, earth and moon, indicating the rise and fall of the tides and the phases of the moon with phenomenal precision. The Moonstruck not only features a silicon escapement and balance spring produced using the latest advances in technology, but also the patented quickset function enabling one to change the time zone quickly by adjusting it forward or backward.
Saved from obscurity by Ludwig Oeschlin and translated into successful business propositions by Rolf Schnyder, who recognized the latter as a supremely gifted watchmaker, the unique fund of know-how available to the Ulysse Nardin premises has become its most precious secret. This knowledge, constantly expanding, holds out the promise of new creations – like so many works of art – for many years to come.