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Brian M. Afuang

What Ulysse Nardin Now Uses Silicon For

High-tech material finds way into ancient decorative technique

APPARENTLY, ancient Romans and Egyptians practiced a similar craft by which these clever folks decorated their trappings, including caskets. But then trust the French, Florentines and Neapolitans in matters of style; they polished the technique to a degree that by circa 15th century it came to be known as “marquetry,” from the French term “marqueter,” which is to say to inlay stuff into assorted furniture.     

Marquetry, of course, calls for laying really thin veneers of material — ivory, shell, stone, wood, various metals and even animal bone — over (not necessarily into, as inlaying suggests) wooden surfaces, gluing or fusing these to create décor. The resulting patterns usually depend on those the decorative material itself came with. As it turns out, the craft received a further boost when a tool called the fret saw was invented in the mid-16th century, allowing artisans to cut various materials into really thin slices and in really complex shapes. And guess who mostly used fret saws before marqueters got their hands on them? Clockmakers.

So it’s only natural for marquetry work to find its way onto clock cabinets and dials. And, like most things used in clocks, the technique eventually landed on wristwatches, too, even if this development is a fairly recent one. It was only in 2010, for example, when Cartier brought out a dial adorned with marquetry; the watchmaker commissioned a known marqueter who previously did work on some Jaeger-LeCoultre clocks. Patek Philippe also released a couple of limited-edition pieces with marquetry dials since then, as did Hermes through its Arceau line, in which its most recent pieces — brought out in 2018 — used leather instead of the usual materials associated with the craft.

Ulysse Nardin is the latest watchmaker to turn to marquetry. And it does so by marrying this ancient craft with a really high-tech material.

The brand has pioneered in using silicium, or silicon — yes, the one relied on by computers and various electronic devices — since 2001. In watches, silicon is used mostly in movement components, particularly escapements, for their lightness, strength and ability to resist magnetism and corrosion. With its two new versions belonging in the X Collection, called Freak X, Ulysse Nardin has turned silicon into a decorative element through a technique it calls “silicium marquetry.”

As declared by its name, silicium marquetry means assembling wafers of silicon cut into segments with a plasma accelerator to create the décor. Like with other materials, the quality of the décor relies on the skills of artisans. Silicium, Ulysse Nardin says, is “extremely flaky and fragile when moved,” and the slightest mistake — like when a craftsman places a bit of silicon wafer on top of another, rather than interlocking them — could already chip their edges and ruin the design. Putting together by hand a collage of roughly 120 silicon pieces to create a mosaic on a watch’s dial is no small feat at all.

In the special Freak X marquetry pieces , one of the watches’ dial is adorned by a gilded “X” over a backdrop of different shades of blue while the other’s dial has a silvery “X” over a purplish-blue landscape. What the silicium marquetry dials afford the watches, Ulysse Nardin swears, is an ability to catch light and reflect this in numerous directions, creating both depth and brilliance not possible with a one-dimensional finish.

Ulysse Nardin

The Freak X, by the way, is pitched as the entry point into the Freak collection. While identical to its brethren, Freak X has a smaller 43-millimeter case (instead of 45 millimeters) and a winding crown — the Freak Vision and Freak Out models are known for their absence of this feature. But the Freak X still has the brand’s “baguette” movement which turns once on itself every hour to indicate the time, and which uses its central bridge as the minute hand while a wheel indicates the hour.

Of course, the Freak Vision’s new in-house self-winding cal. UN-230, which operates at 21,600vph and packs a power reserve of 72 hours, has a balance wheel made from silicium. Silicon, after all, is about substance as much as style.

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