Time: Russian Dressing

  • Michael Balfour

A crowd gathered last summer in Moscow’s Sobornaya Square, within the Kremlin walls, to watch 120 Presidential Guards in full regalia perform a 40-minute display of drills and dressage, accompanied by the horns and bass drums of a finely tuned brass band. The ceremony did not mark a Russian holiday, nor the anniversary of a military victory, but, rather, the opening of an exhibit of historic watches. The event had been organized by Ulysse Nardin to commemorate the Kremlin’s 200th anniversary, which coincided with the Swiss company’s own 160th anniversary.

 

Although the watchmaker, which is headquartered in Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, has no significant historic link to Russia, Ulysse Nardin wanted to make a dramatic impact, and so it maneuvered through the various bureaucratic hurdles to book the Kremlin for its birthday party. When celebrating Ulysse Nardin’s milestones, Rolf Schnyder, who acquired the brand in 1983 and now serves as its president, does not settle for hotel ballrooms where guests are served canapés and a choice of red or white wine. He once introduced a new watch model by hosting an elephant polo match in Nepal, and he marked the 150th anniversary of Ulysse Nardin, which first established its reputation by making top-quality marine chronometers, by sailing a three-masted schooner 700 miles up the River Rhine to the ancient Swiss university city of Basel for its annual spring watch and jewelry fair. Still, securing the Kremlin as a party venue was unprecedented. “No commercial exhibition has ever taken place in the Kremlin, which is the equivalent of Capitol Hill and the White House together, though they had been solicited often,” explains Schnyder.

In November 2005, on the night that Russian authorities approved the exhibition—which followed two years of discussions—Schnyder awoke at 3 am with a vision of a cloisonné enamel dial watch nested in an elaborate Russian enamel egg. “I jotted it down on a piece of paper in the Moscow hotel and went back to sleep,” he says. “The next day, I began taking photos of the various angles of the St. Basil Cathedral in Red Square and the monument of Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, the liberators of Moscow [in 1612], whose images eventually were engraved on the watch casebacks.”

Schnyder’s next stop was St. Petersburg, where he sought out the renowned Russian artist Andrei Georgievich Ananov, whom he had met about nine years earlier. Ananov, a contemporary jewelry master, is considered a successor to Peter Carl Fabergé, who crafted the first of the 50 imperial eggs in 1885. The egg was Fabergé’s response to Alexander III’s request for an unusual Easter present for his czarina, Maria. Ananov, who, like Fabergé, was born in St. Petersburg, had pursued a career as an actor and film director in the 1970s, but following the births of his two daughters, he turned to his other great love: crafting jewelry and precious objects d’art. In 1989, Ananov founded his company, Russian Jewelry Art, which specializes in decorated and gem-set enamel eggs depicting famous Russian cathedrals. More than 15 years ago, he received approval from the owners of the Fabergé brand name to establish a company called Fabergé from Ananov.

At Schnyder’s request, Ananov traveled to Moscow to study the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed, whose colorful domes are the most prominent structures of the Kremlin skyline. Built on the orders of Czar Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584) to commemorate a Russian military victory, the cathedral consists of nine churches and is named for Basil the Blessed, who was buried there in 1588. Basil was known as Basil Fool for Christ for his eccentric and ascetic practices that included going naked in the cold and weighing himself down with chains.

Ananov has depicted the cathedral in diamonds around the perimeters of the 30 translucent blue enamel eggs that Schnyder commissioned. The eggs are supported on bases portraying Ulysse Nardin’s anchor-and-chain logo, which references the brand’s origin as a builder of marine chronometers. Each egg opens to reveal a 40 mm timepiece with a cloisonné enamel dial that also depicts the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed. The watch, aptly named St. Basil in Red Square, contains an automatic certified chronometer movement in an 18-karat rose gold and platinum case.

Artist Michel Vermot of Le Locle, Ulysse Nardin’s hometown, crafted the dials, which Schnyder claims are the most elaborate ever produced. To capture the many facets of the cathedral’s onion-shaped domes, Vermot had to narrow the gold wire, which outlines the scene, to a thickness of .06 mm. Each dial required more than a yard of this gold wire, 30 separate baking processes, and more than 80 hours of labor. “Naturally it had to be a Russian theme,” says Schnyder, who revived the art of cloisonné watch dials in 1992, when Ulysse Nardin introduced the highly complicated Tellurium Johannes Kepler and a subsequent series of ship-motif cloisonné pieces. “It is a perfect marriage of the best enameling work of Russia and of Switzerland. The two just complement each other.”

The genesis of the St. Basil–themed eggs and watches was last summer’s exhibition at the Kremlin, History in Time, which showcased 116 historically significant timepieces built by or belonging to Ulysse Nardin. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, presided over by the Russian deputy minister of Culture, Youri Yakovlev, and featuring the performance by the Presidential Guards, Schnyder drew attention to a pocket watch and chain that the early 19th-century Russian watchmaker artist Bronik off had carved entirely out of wood—not only the chain and case, but the mechanical movement as well. Ulysse Nardin also displayed its recently acquired Dondi Astrarium, an astronomic clock built to the specifications of the celebrated 14th-century Italian artist Giovanni Dondi. In addition to these antiques, Ulysse Nardin showcased a number of contemporary masterpieces that included the Westminster Tourbillon Minute Repeater Genghis Khan, the first Westminster carillon tourbillon jaquemarts minute repeater, whose automaton figures move in synchronization with the chiming gongs. Also on display was the brand’s Trilogy of Time, the three-piece set of groundbreaking astronomical wristwatches comprising the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler.

The genesis of the St. Basil–themed eggs and watches was last summer’s exhibition at the Kremlin, History in Time, which showcased 116 historically significant timepieces built by or belonging to Ulysse Nardin. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, presided over by the Russian deputy minister of Culture, Youri Yakovlev, and featuring the performance by the Presidential Guards, Schnyder drew attention to a pocket watch and chain that the early 19th-century Russian watchmaker artist Bronik off had carved entirely out of wood—not only the chain and case, but the mechanical movement as well. Ulysse Nardin also displayed its recently acquired Dondi Astrarium, an astronomic clock built to the specifications of the celebrated 14th-century Italian artist Giovanni Dondi. In addition to these antiques, Ulysse Nardin showcased a number of contemporary masterpieces that included the Westminster Tourbillon Minute Repeater Genghis Khan, the first Westminster carillon tourbillon jaquemarts minute repeater, whose automaton figures move in synchronization with the chiming gongs. Also on display was the brand’s Trilogy of Time, the three-piece set of groundbreaking astronomical wristwatches comprising the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler.

 

Despite the retrospective nature of the Kremlin event, Schnyder is focused on Ulysse Nardin’s future. Earlier this year, he unveiled the Anniversary 160 collection of wristwatches, which is limited to 1,000 pieces: 500 in white gold and 500 in red gold. The slightly oval-shaped watch is powered by the brand’s first completely in-house conceived and executed self-winding base movement, the Caliber 160. The movement features the ultralight silicium Dual Ulysse Escapement, which debuted in the Freak 28’800 V/h. The Anniversary 160 has an oversize date display, visible through a double window, and a small seconds indicator—recalling those used in marine chronometers—with a so-called direct-drive design that negates any loss of precision traditionally incurred by this function.

“What makes Caliber 160 so outstanding is that it has the revolutionary Ulysse Dual Escapement that requires no lubrication,” explains Schnyder, noting that the groundbreaking base caliber will power future models. “Also, the balance wheel assembly has been designed and manufactured in-house, and this is a rare feat in the watch industry.” Naturally, such a daunting challenge did not deter Schnyder in the slightest.

 

 

Ulysse Nardin
561.988.8600
www.ulysse-nardin.com

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