Le Freak, c’est chic
Ulysse Nardin’s CEO Patrick Pruniaux talks innovation, new launches and the brand’s stirring #FreakMeOut campaign. The Ulysse Nardin #FreakMeOut ad campaign takes the idea of ‘a fish out of water’ to a whole new level. A tribute to the brand’s 170-year-old maritime heritage, the main shot shows a digitally enhanced great white shark, suspended in the air, “swimming” through the streets of Manhattan.
The ad celebrates the unconventional and the unpredictable, terms that easily apply to the Ulysse Nardin brand. Although the Swiss manufacturer is renowned for its fearless approach to innovation in watchmaking, at the same time, Ulysse Nardin has maintained a strong connection to its heritage, crafting its luxe timepieces out of the same building in Le Locle since 1865. “I have always been fascinated by the mystique surrounding Ulysse Nardin,” says CEO Patrick Pruniaux. “Although we are well known to watch connoisseurs, the brand is not that familiar to the public. This campaign is one way of showing what we are all about.”
Like the #FreakMeOut shark, Pruniaux’s own career path has also been quite unpredictable. While he was, for a time, well immersed in the luxury watch industry – spending nine years at TAG Heuer in sales and imports – he was wooed by Apple UK in 2010 to work on a mysterious new project that was kept tightly under wraps, even during his recruitment. By the time Ulysse Nardin hired him in 2017, he had worked on several key Apple launches, including the now-iconic Apple Watch. “Apple is a true innovator, and so is Ulysse Nardin. Apple taught me that you can do anything you want with a product. And Ulysse Nardin has that same sense of ambition and imagination.”
For Pruniaux, the introduction of the very first Freak watch in 2001 was a pivotal moment in Ulysse Nardin’s contemporary history. Launched by then-owner Rolf Schnyder, The Freak was unlike anything the horology world had ever seen before: a seven-day watch with no conventional case, dial or hand. Instead, a large boat-shaped bridge structure (another maritime reference) doubled as a minute hand. It was also the first-ever production watch to use silicon components. At the time, no other watchmaker had done something quite so out of the box. Public reaction ranged from curious, to baffled, to downright outraged. Today, The Freak is recognised as a pioneering timepiece and has since enjoyed numerous incarnations. When Pruniaux joined the company, one of his first decisions was to create a Freak collection that honoured the history of this outlandish model, thereby giving the new generation an updated range. One such result was the Freak Vision, which Pruniaux describes as “our laboratory on the wrist”. He adds: “The Freak Vision encapsulates many of the values of Ulysse Nardin, including our sense of boldness.”
The latest model, the Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision Automatic, caused quite a stir when it was unveiled at SIHH 2018 earlier this year. Not only is it the first automatic watch in the Freak collection, but it’s also arguably the range’s most wearable incarnation ever, with a sleeker, more modern design along with a new 3D-carved upper bridge inspired by a boat’s hull. Another model that drew in the crowds at SIHH 2018 was the Ulysse Nardin Diver Deep Dive. Housed in a robust 46mm titanium case and bearing the distinctive hammerhead shark logo, the watch is water resistant up to 1,000 metres. Limited to just 300 pieces, it was designed with Ulysse Nardin partner, free-diver and photographer Frederic Buyle in mind.
“Fred was the very first person to test it underwater,” says Pruniaux. “As a free diver relying on minimal equipment, he needed something strong and reliable for his explorations. When you’re in a remote location without access to parts or batteries, your comfort and, most importantly, your safety depends on having the best equipment.” More recently, Ulysse Nardin also launched the Marine Torpilleur Military Semper Fortis, a diving watch inspired by the traditions and spirit of the US Navy. “The Ulysse Nardin man is an adventurer,” adds Pruniaux. “He explores his own destiny and creates his own personal odyssey.”
Pruniaux could well be describing himself here. As a lifelong athlete who has spent years doing everything from skiing to running and martial arts like Krav Maga, he has always been the type of thrill seeker that the brand connects with. “You know, luxury these days is more about acquiring experiences than it is about acquiring things. So, when you buy a watch, you’re not just buying a timepiece, you’re buying a piece of the brand – the history, the values, the emotions and the experience that surrounds it.
Pruniaux tells us that despite his time working with Apple, he has no plans to bring a smartwatch to Ulysse Nardin. “There would be no point in Ulysse Nardin making a smartwatch; I just don’t think it would bring any value to the customer. It would be nothing more than a marketing gimmick, which is the opposite of everything that we stand for. So I will not do it. “My aim as CEO is not to change anything about the company’s DNA.I just want to write another chapter of the same story,” he concludes.