Ulysse Nardin, upholding a tradition of innovation

How do you turn innovation into a driver of differentiation and success? We put the question to Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, a luxury watch Manufacture that joined Kering in 2014.

Patrick Pruniaux

Innovation, from concept to practice

“In the ultra-competitive environment of haute horlogerie, or luxury watchmaking, our pioneering spirit is one of our greatest assets and has enabled us to build up our own client base.” Patrick Pruniaux says innovation has been crucial to boosting Ulysse Nardin’s name and international recognition. The company that joined the Kering Group in 2014 has been a ceaseless innovator, working tirelessly to improve its models. One result of this was Innovision 2, a concept watch containing no fewer than ten major innovations presented at the 2017 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), Geneva’s international watch fair. Of all the innovations unveiled last year, the Grinder surely caught the most attention. The new self-winding mechanism offers twice as much energy efficiency as it harnesses wrist movements to wind the watch. For the 2018 SIHH, the Grinder features for the first time in the celebrated Freak collection, which since 2001 has boasted a series of revisited models combining the brand’s latest technological innovations with a strong marine-themed visual identity. This collection is destined to take on iconic status in the world of watchmaking.

“For us, innovation is driven by a quest for performance. It’s never about imagining clever new gadgets or coming up with fancy packaging. We designed Innovision 2 to expand the functionalities of our models”, Patrick Pruniaux explains. Ulysse Nardin has a fundamentally authentic and honest relationship to innovation – a rare quality in the watch industry and a key advantage. From concept to commercial reality, it took just ten months for the Freak range to incorporate the Grinder in its Freak Vision model, along with a 24-hour time display (rather than a 12-hour display) and glass minute hands. Other innovations built into Innovision 2 that will be incorporated in future models include a dual constant escapement, direct silicium bonding with Deep Reaction Ion Etching (DRIE), a silicium balance wheel, a sapphire-coated silicium bridge, 24-karat gold wheels (usually made of brass), a glass bridge with integrated shock protection for the balance wheel and Super-LumiNova filled channels integrated into the glass balance wheel bridge. “We are going to add these features to our collections over time”, says Patrick Pruniaux, whose CV includes stints with Apple and LVMH.

Innovation in the blood

 While it is fashionable today to talk about innovation, for Ulysse Nardin, it is a matter of culture and history. Ulysse Nardin himself, who founded the brand back in 1846, was a trailblazer in the field of chronometry. Merchant and navy ships used his award-winning chronometers to precisely measure longitude relative to time. In the wake of the quartz crisis in the 1980s, which affected most haute horlogerie firms, another visionary entrepreneur, Rolf W. Schnyder, took over the reins at Ulysse Nardin until 2011. Working alongside watchmaker and scientist Ludwig Oechslin, who continues to act as a consultant to the brand to this day, Schnyder breathed new life into the brand, establishing it as a leader in mechanical watchmaking with major technical innovations. Ulysse Nardin was the world’s first watch manufacturer to perfect a silicium dual direct escapement, which became an emblematic feature of the Freak series. Most luxury watchmakers went on to follow suit, using silicium for their escapements.

Striking a balance

To constantly stimulate innovation, the firm assigns 15% of its personnel to R&D, which is well above the sector average. “We count on the agility, open-mindedness and technical inventiveness of our people: anyone can come up with an idea, just like in a start-up”, says Mr. Pruniaux.

One of his priorities is to combine innovation with “true” luxury, namely authenticity. This is the safe-haven value prized by collectors of luxury watches, who have little interest in smartwatch apps but swoon before a precise display. “This careful blend of traditional know-how and technical inventiveness preserves the authenticity of a great brand, which is truly innovative while always upholding watchmaking traditions. Very few products are as modern as an Ulysse Nardin watch, which distills value and history, and expresses individual personality while still being an intimate object that does not rely on external power sources. In other words, it is incredibly contemporary”, he argues. To safeguard its craftsmanship, Ulysse Nardin is careful to hire people with a passion for watchmaking. Stéphane Von Gunten, Head of Laboratory and New Technologies and a former Patek Philippe employee, is a prime example. He was born into a family of watchmakers and has a deep love for the subject, constantly looking for the right mix of new technologies and respect for tradition. “We’re no cleverer than the watchmakers of the past, but we do have a better toolbox. We must take advantage of these new technologies by innovating, while at the same time preserving our elegant traditions”, he says. “Our task is to remain true to the values that make up Ulysse Nardin’s DNA: Marine, Precision, Innovation, Reliability and Passion for Watchmaking.”

Mr. Pruniaux goes further, identifying innovation as a driver of authenticity, “We are the guardians of the watchmaking tradition, but that does not stop us from picking up the pace of innovation.” Watchmaking will remain true to its roots now and in the future.


Photo credit : Kering