TimeZone Interview with Rolf Schnyder

Owner of Ulysse Nardin Watch Company


Interviewer: Richard Paige

February, 1999


TimeZone Interview with Rolf Schnyder, the owner of Ulysse Nardin Watch Company.

RP:  Richard Paige – TimeZone.com
RS:  Rolf Schnyder

RP:   Ulysse Nardin recently celebrated it’s 150th anniversary, and this is quite an achievement for any company, but what is it about the Swiss Watch Industry which makes longevity and history an essential for credibility?

RS:   Ulysse Nardin is one of the very few watch companies which has been continuously in production. The company was first owned and managed by 5 generations of Nardin’s before I took over in 1983. One should of course differentiate between a manufacture (or in English a manufacturing company) and a marketing company. The longevity and history only have a meaning if it refers to a watch company which conducts its own research and development and manufactures watches. This is very evident when one consults an auction catalogue of Antiquorum, Sotheby’s or Christies. They contain hardly any products of watch marketing companies and if they do, prices are extremely low. This means that timepieces made by traditional watch makers guarantee permanent value especially if such timepieces contain exclusive features and were produced in limited numbers.

The renaissance of mechanical watches of the 80’s saw many marketing firms seek out names of long deceased watch makers or watch companies and create brand names built around longevity. Only a few of these ventures will succeed provided they have the ability to create exclusive products. If not, the “Made in 18… (year)” has no meaning.

RP:   When you acquired the Ulysse Nardin Brand in 1983, was this a company in trouble trying to recover from the Japanese quartz revolution?

RS:   When I acquired Ulysse Nardin in 1983 I did not purchase a brand name, but bought the company which was in Chapter 11 but still active. I also acquired its building and manufacturing facilities as well as the existing stock. In other words it was a going concern but doing little business due to the quartz revolution. Our specialist for the old traditional marine chronometers, Mr. Leopold Berthoud has been with Ulysse Nardin 42 years and has still got a few years to go before he retires. It is true that Ulysse Nardin had its ups and downs but in its 152 years each generation of owners has produced some revolutionary or exclusive mechanical timepieces. Today it is like sitting on a peak and looking back. One recognizes other peaks in the back but ignores the valleys in between.

RP:   I find it to be an extraordinary achievement to actually recreate an old Swiss watch brand into something of an even higher caliber than the watches of it’s immediate past, was this carefully planned or did things just evolve?

RS:   When the thought first entered my mind to buy Ulysse Nardin, I said to myself that we have to create a mechanical watch which does not yet exist to ensure a successful comeback. I discovered quickly that exceptional inventions were mostly created by individual watch engineers and not in-house. After acquiring Ulysse Nardin, my first move was to seek out the creative brains of the industry and I discovered rather by chance the existence of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, who is a scientist, a historian and a watch maker with a very inventive mind all in one person.

RP:   Was it your idea to create the “Trilogy of Time”?

RS:   Dr. Ludwig Oechslin had previously built an astronomical wall clock – an Astrolabium. It was this complex and highly intelligent timepiece that gave me the idea to create Ulysse Nardin’s Astrolabium Galileo Galilei. The resulting wristwatch was an achievement that immediately allowed Ulysse Nardin to reclaim its rightful place in the history of mechanical watch making. It also gained an entry to the Guinness Book of Records.

In long discussions with Ludwig Oechslin, I understood his fascination with the relationship between space and time how our time is actually determined by our particular position within the Solar System, and the whole universe. I was excited by this extremely thoughtful way of relating to time. It gave me the impetus to create the “Trilogy of Time”. Without the genius of Ludwig, it would not have been possible to create such revolutionary mechanisms as used in the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus and the Tellurium Johannes Kepler.


Astrolabium Galileo Galilei


Planetarium Copernicus


Tellurium Johannes Kepler

RP:   The modern day Ulysse Nardin has accumulated the highest number of patents in mechanical watchmaking in the last decade, is this part of research and development for things to come, or are all the new patented ideas already being utilized in your present watch line?

RS:   For a while, we set up a workshop for Dr Ludwig Oechslin in Ulysse Nardin. That was until he announced that day to day routine work was impeding his creative thinking. As Dr Oechslin had mentioned many times, he needs the isolation to be creative and very often when he is hiding in his second home in the mountains in the vicinity of Rome, we have a problem even locating him. At times Ludwig comes with more ideas than we can digest and we have deposited several new patents for timepieces which will only come on stream during the next few years. Some of the recent developments were the results of my input to Dr Oechslin (the GMT +/-, the Big Date of the Perpetual Ludwig); others were again brand new inventions of his. One such is the extraordinary mechanism of the Perpetual Ludwig (affectionately named after this incredible genius) the only mechanical Perpetual Calendar movement which permits instant forward and backward adjustments over the quick corrector of a single crown.

Today we make it a point to make USEFUL complications and not just timepieces with many functions. There is a major distinction between Ulysse Nardin’s inventions with those of the other watch companies. While, in general, others tend to make use of existing pocket watch technology, refining the movements with the latest CNC equipment and obtain therefore improved accuracy or complexity, we tend to use a completely different way of thinking to produce totally NEW functions. An example is Dr. Oechslin’s patented epicyclical gearing systems for wristwatches. This new way of configuring the basis of the watch movement made it possible to produce such complex movements as those of the Trilogy and the Perpetual Ludwig. Another example is the fact that Dr Oechslin has always refused to work on a Tourbillon as he felt that Abraham Breguet has done this job 200 years ago and he does not wish to do what others did before him.

Perpetual Ludwig by The Master of Innovation

RP:   Do you find that spending much of your time in Asia has affected your business philosophy differently than if you had been living exclusively in the heart of the watchmaking business, Switzerland?

RS:   Living partly in Asia is giving me the same stimulus as the hills of Rome are giving Ludwig. Previously I had owned several large manufacturing facilities in Asia which had nothing to do with Ulysse Nardin. I did manufactured watch components and electronic devices. Three years ago I sold all these activities with a view to concentrate on Ulysse Nardin. The fact that I am seven hours ahead of Europe when I am in Asia permits me to find time for creative relaxation. When I am in Switzerland, I am caught in the machinery of day to day work from the early morning hours. When I am in Asia I can ponder in the pool or exercising in the mornings before I get into routine work with the faxes and phones coming in from Europe in the afternoon. To work at a distance would have been unthinkable a decade ago but the fax and e-mail make it possible today and I have no disadvantage communicating with my agents worldwide from wherever I reside.

RP:   One thing about Ulysse Nardin watches that has always impressed me is the amount of craftsmanship in the making of your enamel dials. Can you give us some background on how this evolved.?

RS:   It was due to a chance meeting that I discovered 10 years ago an enamel artist who has a small work shop in the Le Locle. This is where he restored primarily enamel dials of old pocket watches and wall clocks. It is then that I saw the potential to make the blue coloured baked enamel dials of our San Marco model. During one of my many meetings with the artist, he showed me an auction catalogue which contained a Patek Philippe watch with an enamel cloisonn dial made in 1958. He mentioned to me that the artist who made the dial at that time was his deceased father-in-law. It was then that I asked Michel why he is not trying to revive the art of making cloisonn dials which has passed away with his father-in-law. I offered a potential order of 100 dials for the Tellurium on which we have been working on at that time. It took the artist over a year before he managed to produce some cloisonn dials which I felt could be used. I even offered space to Michel to do his work in the Ulysse Nardin factory. However like many of these creative artists, he treasures his independence and still works out of his own workshop. Over the years he has improved his cloisonn techniques tremendously and transferred some of his know-how to his wife and daughter.

RP:   Are you a watchmaker?

RS:   I am not a watch maker myself but my very first job was with Jaeger LeCoultre Geneva in their marketing and advertising department. After that I was sent to Asia to market by a Swiss company to set up a distribution system in South East Asia for various Swiss brands. Later I moved into watch component manufacturing. Owning Ulysse Nardin made it possible for me to make a fulltime job out of a hobby and to satisfy my creative thirst.

RP:   What watches are in your collection, and what watches would you like to own?

RS:   Ever since I bought Ulysse Nardin, I attended watch auctions and I have collected Ulysse Nardin timepieces which represent the creativity of the firm over the last 150 years. Today it is rare that I do buy a Ulysse Nardin watch except if I come across a Ulysse Nardin time piece which is aesthetically or technically truly exceptional. I admire the achievements of other watch firms but I only wear myself Ulysse Nardin watches, primarily testing the latest creations.

RP:   The Internet. This word brings up high emotions in the Swiss watch Industry. Do you see the internet as friend or foe?

RS:   Like many people of my age group, I was initially skeptical of the internet. However being around in Asia I noticed the popularity of the Internet and I was quite surprised that until early this year, we could not work with internet in Le Locle since the local telephone system had not yet been changed to digital. Today I am totally convinced that the Internet is the greatest source of information and this at very low cost.

RP:   Do you think the Internet will dramatically change the way the watch business is run?

RS:   I am all for Internet to provide information on our products and our distribution and have urged our agents to do the same. However when it comes to sales, I feel that buyers of expensive mechanical watches want personal advise, wish to touch a product, play with it before they buy it. Then want to know where they can repair it when it is due for service or repair. Investing capital in stock and a retail outlet in a prime location does cost money and I therefore do not believe in making Ulysse Nardin watches available for sale through the internet. On the other hand, I myself have purchased often regular consumables through the Internet.

The internet may change the buying habits in lower priced watches, but I doubt that it will make a big change in expensive mechanical watches. If a person wishes to purchase a timepiece at a bargain price, there are plenty of watch auctions or watch conventions where bargains can be obtained without a guarantee that the watch works properly.

RP:   Do you ever visit TimeZone.com?

RS:   We visit Timezone regularly and I personally believe that it is the most influential and important communication service for watch lovers and collectors.

RP:   Where do you see Ulysse Nardin in the next 10 years?

RS:   As mentioned earlier, we have applied for or already obtained several new patents for timepieces which will only see the light in the next millenium. I am very confident that an innovative niche brand like Ulysse Nardin will always find its admirers and buyers. After all a watch is the only jewel the average man can wear and for many people it is an expression of culture, taste and personality. I have great confidence that Ulysse Nardin will continue to make heirlooms for future generations also in the next millenium. For a body to function well, it needs not only food but also a soul, and this is what we have in Ulysse Nardin and our products.

Best regards