Simply the Best?

The great
Ulysse Nardin GMT Perpetual
Experience Report
Part 1

by Marcus Hanke

© Text: M. Hanke; © pictures: M. Hanke, if not noted otherwise



Somewhere in the Ulysse Nardin main building, there is a desk with a drawer. In that drawer, there might be a sealed envelope, bearing with large, red letters the instructions: "To be opened by customer service department in January 2100". All the envelope contains is a small and thin booklet: the instruction booklet for the GMT Perpetual.

In that year, the Gregorian calendar system offers a less than nice surprise for the owners of mechanical timepieces with perpetual calendar mechanisms: Contrary to the normal cycle of four years, 2100 will not be a leap year. Instead, as in every full hundred years, the February 2100 will only have 28 days. This is how the clever astronomers of Pope Gregory's court corrected the calendar errors introduced by the fact that one year is a bit less than a quarter of a day shorter than 365 days. Therefore, every four years a leap day is introduced. By that, however, a little bit too much is corrected, which makes it necessary to leave out the leap day every hundred years. 2100 is such a year.

The learned reader might ask now: "What about the year 2000? According to the rule pointed out, it should have not been a leap year, but the February had 29 days!" This is true. Unfortunately, the correction made by leaving out the leap year every hundred years once again is doing too much. Consequently, the rule is not obeyed every four hundred years. 2000 was such a year, much to the luck of those owning a mechanical perpetual calendar. Since that year, the normal leap year cycle took place and the watch needed no corrective manipulation.

Since most perpetual calendars on the market feature fully programmed mechanisms, it is impossible for the user to make any changes to the program himself. Instead, the watch has to be sent to the - hopefully still existing - company, or given to a master watchmaker (hopefully, this profession still exixts then) to have the necessary changes applied.

But back to Ulysse Nardin: When Ludwig Oechslin, master of many sciences, for some time professor at the prestigious technical university of Zurich (ETH), and now director of the famous Swiss horological museum at Le Locle, developed the mechanism for the GMT Perpetual, it was important for him to enable the wearer himself to adapt the watch to the new cycle of one hundred years, without having to search a watchmaker capable of this task. And indeed, a quick turn of the crown, and the watch is ready again for the next century.

The problem is, however, that it is not clear, how the crown has to be turned, and this is where the UN customer service department will have its finest hour: Since the owners of a GMT Perpetual will spend much time to search through old papers, the cabinets and drawers in order to find the long forgotten instruction booklet - certainly much longer than it would need to correct the watch itself; the UN customer service will become the first and logical point where to ask for the invaluable information. And hopefully, Rolf Schnyder will make it sure that the staff of 2100 has an instruction booklet ready at hand.

Does an apparently minor problem, such as a day correction, to be done in nearly 100 years really justify to waste your time by presenting to you such a long text? I, as the author, say yes, of course. Because much more important is the lesson it offers: That things looking very simple at the beginning, as the change of one leap year in a hundred years, can be so complicated beneath the surface.

This experience perfectly fits the GMT Perpetual as well. When the watch was presented as the "Perpetual Ludwig" in 1996 (then without the GMT +/- mechanism), it was received with amazement. Never before a mechanical perpetual calendar had so effectively hidden its interior complexity behind an entirely window-based calendar display. Some were even taken aback by the watch's simple appearance, because then it was still a commonly accepted dogma that a complicated watch needs a complicated appearance, too. Yet here was a watch with legibility and usability being its foremost priorities.

If we take into account the fact that in 1996, Ulysse Nardin was still in a company in phase of consolidation, trying to position itself in the top league of watch manufacturers, the presentation of such an unconventionally looking perpetual calendar was not without risks. However, the last seven years have proven that the concept was just what many watch lovers world wide were waiting for, and the GMT Perpetual is among UN's bestsellers.

As a consequence, the watch has seen several iterations since. After the initial, limited series of the "Perpetual Ludwig" was sold out, Ludwig Oechslin even topped his development, by combining it with his unique and simple-to-use GMT-mechanism, creating the "GMT Perpetual". Since then, UN presented a true sports model, the "Acqua Perpetual", and the tonneau-shaped "Ludovico", both without the GMT-function.

Even the original "GMT Perpetual" is offered in a manifold of dial designs and case materials. The model presented in this experience test is the oldest and most classic of all "GMT Perpetual" variants, featuring a silver-white dial in 18k pink gold case with a diameter of 38.5 millimetres.

1. General Impression

This watch is a classic case of a two-faced appearance: In the presence of all the other high-end, complicated timepieces in the dealers' shop windows, the GMT Perpetual is prone to be overseen; it is not flashy, not oversized, does not look extremely complicated. Amidst its brightly shining colleagues, it appears like Cinderella in her working outfit. But how different the situation is, once the watch is taken out into everyday life! Contrary to what many believe, fine timepieces are still a very rare sight out in the streets. The GMT Perpetual starts to shine, its wonderfully warm pink gold hue is attracting more looks than any other watch I have worn. During academic conventions, I even started to worry that my colleagues could become envious ...

What at first looks a bit sober, becomes classic elegance, and despite its cleanness, the dial invites the lucky wearer to spend hours admiring its fine details; which, again, can be counterproductive during long and boring - sorry: fact-filled academic lectures.

After only a brief time spent with the "GMT Perpetual", the owner starts to wonder whether this watch could be the mythical grail of watch enthusiasts: the "perfect" watch. Well, it should be clear for all that "perfection" is not an objective standard, but a highly subjective impression. Additionally, what is perfect in one situation might be completely out of place in another. To remain in the field of horology, you won't be very happy with a highly complicated tourbillon or minute repeater some 50 metres

2. Case, crystal and crown

The case design is very unique, and definitely not well represented in the UN catalogue pictures. Since there, the watches are depicted with frontal views only. In real, the bezel, which looks a bit like a flat-pressed donut, is set atop the case, which is of similar shape, but thicker. Together the two parts result in what sometimes has with lacking respect been dubbed "pancake staple". These pancakes, however, are not topped by maple syrup, but by a slightly domed sapphire crystal. This blends into the outlines of the bezel so perfectly, that the fingertips do not sense any between the crystal and the metal. While some might consider the unique case design to be a bit weird, it is nevertheless extremely successful in effectively hiding the watch's height, making it appear far thinner than one would await at a height of 12.8 mm. This must be the reason why Ulysse Nardin is using that case design since a long time for nearly all its complicated watches.

The "donut" shaped bezel has got its opposite counterpart in the bezel of the larger, limited series GMT Perpetuals. There, the bezel is concave shaped, which again is not apparent on the official pictures, not even when one is looking at the watch through a shop window. Only when handling and touching it personally, one is aware of the difference. An advantage of this concave design might be that the shape helps to keep the bezel away from scratching incidents.

While this picture dos not reveal the difference in the bezel design ...

... this picture does so better. GMT Perpetual, limited edition in platinum.

The wonderful warm tone of the pink gold used by UN has been subject of discussions several times already. Neither too yellow, nor too pink, it leaves a very decent and luxurious impression.

Since this watch has Ulysse Nardin's unique GMT function, also developed by the genius Ludwig Oechslin, two pushers protrude from the case, reducing its water resistance to 30 meters; certainly enough for an elegant watch for everyday use. The pushers bear the symbols + and -, for advancing or setting back the 24 hours-hand by full hour jumps.

Adorned with Ulysse Nardin's anchor logo, set in gold into blue enamel, and protected by a coat of sapphire crystal, the crown is really a design highlight. Maybe not the most ergonomic one, since it is does not offer an easy grip; at least not for my rather clumsy fingers. However, if the watch is worn all the time (or left on a winder), the crown is not needed at all. While travelling, the local time is adjusted by means of the + and – pushers, which also serve for the setting of the daylight saving time. The calendar is a perpetual one, fully programmed until 2100. As long as the movement is accurate, it is not necessary to touch the crown at all.

For better legibility, the upper sapphire crystal is treated with an anti-reflective coating on both sides, which is very effective.

3. Dial and Hands

The GMT Perpetual is available with a manifold of different dial styles and colours. I chose the classic one, available since the launch of the GMT Perpetual: silver, with a touch of beige/pink, and a brushed surface. Some models have interesting guilloche patterns, such as the limited edition watches with 40 mm diameter cases. However, I think the sober look of the classic dial underlines the elegant understatement of the GMT Perpetual.

The small second's subdial is turned, resulting in an attractive contrast. The 24 hours-numerals on the rehaut indicate the GMT function. A nice touch is that the lower half of the ring, marking the time from 6 am to 6 pm, is held in a somewhat darker tone; not too much contrast to disturb the elegance, but just enough to be recognizable as indication of the night hours. The cut-out windows of the calendar show a very nicely structured outline. They do not have simply applied frames, which would have been a much cheaper solution, but are recessed, as if made on two separate layers. Several different steps are necessary to produce such windows.

An important issue for me on every watch is the dial printing. In this case, it is absolutely flawless. Calendar and GMT indications are printed in very legible sans serif numerals, while the company logo of course uses the classic serif typeface. If something could be improved, it is the line-weight of the month and day fonts. These are extremely thin, which make them difficult to read at a quick glance. Unnecessarily so, since the windows are large enough to contain the same abbreviations, even if they were printed a bit more boldly. I have the impression that the limited series perpetual I have checked, already uses a better font (see pics above).

Golden, faceted hour markers, which are all correctly lined up, further enhance the classic and elegant appearance of the dial, which, as we often say, is the "watch's face", and thus the most important 'interface' between the watch and its wearer - together with the hands. These are all heat-blued, finely finished, and - with the exception of the second hand - wear enough luminous mass to make them perfectly visible in the dark, even the tip of the 24 hours-hand. Luminous dots on the dial complement the "night visibility equipment". By the way, from a formal point of view, the non-limited standard version even has an advantage over the dial of the limited edition: The former has two dots at the 12 o'clock position, which makes it easy to recognize the correct time at night, even if the watch is not held in a vertical position. Classic pilot watches have the famous luminous triangle for that purpose.

Copyright January 2004 - Marcus Hanke ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved