I was a technician for Ulysse Nardin at their service platform in Boca Raton for four years. UN is a Swiss watch company based on the border with France in Le Locle, and for the last 25 years they've continued to raise the stakes in the poker game that is ambitious horological complications. They hired me right out of school, and in 2008 I moved my wife and two cats down to South Florida before the term was even over. Studying to be a watchmaker means reconciling a model of perfection with the practical world. There's a lot of room for personal failure. After a week at the bench I realized two years of vocational instruction had given me just enough of a footing to really screw things up, which I did for three months until I was sent off to Le Locle for my first round of brand training.
A popular UN model is their Marine Chronometer, which has seen a number of variations. Currently it houses their manufacture caliber 118, and is styled to resemble the deck chronometers that Ulysse Nardin was famous for in the early part of the 20th century. When the technical director showed me to my new bench, the woman across from me was repairing one, by which I mean an actual fusee-driven naval chronometer. While I unpacked my tools, she chattered amiably in broken English, and another benchmate (an American trainee like myself) mentioned that the previous week she had filed a new chronometer detent out of a raw block of brass.
For a newly minted watchmaker, Ulysse Nardin can be like that: you keep meeting people doing things you've only read about in ancient books, or glossy magazines. People better at your profession than you can ever dream of being. I had lunch with a young man who specialized in the construction and repair of pieces like the Genghis Khan 789-80, a Westminster Carillon Tourbillon Jaquemarts Minute Repeater. I saw one of these movements gloriously in pieces, and when he offered to let me hold the tourbillon cage with one of his tweezers I declined.
On my second training trip to Switzerland two years later, I rented a room from the man who assembled and repaired the UN Royal Blue Tourbillon (caliber 799), a watch whose synthetic sapphire bridges are
People ask me if UN makes a good watch, and of course they do – that's a question for your sales person. But ask me anything about the Marine Diver or any of the caliber 24 Dual Time models, because I overhauled a thousand of them. I can walk you through the gear train of their justly famous Perpetual Calendar, larded as it is with Oechslin DNA, and point out the spots requiring hand finishing of components. Are you curious which of the many screws in the Marine Chronograph Annual Calendar require thread lock? Maybe not. But the truth is they make fascinating stuff.
The reason I still love this company is because they offered me a chance to participate in something complicated and beautiful – a path they still follow. They were kind to me in my apprenticeship, and showed me a degree of hospitality I had no right to expect. If you like, come down to TimeScapeUSA and have a look at a few of their pieces. We would love to tell you all about them.