SIHH has always been full of surprises, and this year is no exception. We witnessed for the first time a Royal Oak in all ceramic, Greubel Forsey joining an exalted group of manufacturers with their first grand sonnerie timepiece, and yes, a million-dollar watch made of cheese.
Many however will unwittingly look past the Ulysse Nardin Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu, for it is, after all, ‘just another’ classical timepiece. The truth is, what makes the watch a surprise is not immediately apparent, and so we are here to make it known. By the end of this review, we will have hopefully given you 28,000 reasons why the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu deserves mention and why it surprised us.
The case, dial, hands
The Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu comes in a case with a fluted bezel that is exclusive to the brand’s Marine collection. The Marine collection pays tribute to marine chronometers that the company’s founder, Ulysse Nardin, was famous for. The case of the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu measures a contemporary 43 mm in diameter and is made of stainless steel. The screw-down crown at 3 o’clock is rubber-coated and protected by crown guards.
The dial, as the name of the timepiece would suggest, is made of kiln-fired grand feu enamel. It is crafted in-house by enamel specialists Donzé Cadrans, who were acquired by Ulysse Nardin in 2011. Enamelling is a decorative art that is mastered only by a handful of craftsmen today. In high-end watchmaking, a significant percentage of grand feu enamel dials – which are heated at temperatures of 800-900 degrees celsius – are typically rejected due to imperfections. The ones that endure the manufacturing process are as beautiful as they are durable.
Enamel dials have always been coveted by connoisseurs for it’s aesthetic qualities. The enamel dial in the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu is milky white and appears luscious. Needless to say, it is also blemish-free. It adds a bit of decadence to an otherwise sporty timepiece.
In line with the marine chronometer theme, the black roman numerals and hour/minute hands are highly visible against the white backdrop and ensure good legibility. A power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock lets the wearer know if the watch needs a top up to maintain optimal timekeeping. On the opposite side of the watch at 6 o’clock, there is a big cut-out that displays an imposing flying tourbillon. The rotation of the tourbillon cage, which is brushed on its top surface, is mesmerising – a reminder of the manufacturer’s technical prowess. Together, the two displays at 12 and 6 o’clock pay tribute to the iconic dial design of marine chronometers.
The Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu is powered by the new in-house calibre UN-128 which features the brand’s silicium spring and escapement. The 36-jewelled, self-winding movement has a commendable power reserve of 60 hours at a modern 4 Hz beat rate and is COSC-certified for precision and accuracy. Of note, the cage, wheels, screws and hairspring of the flying tourbillon are produced entirely by Ulysse Nardin.
Finishing on the movement is neat and attractive. The bridges are decorated with circular Côtes de Genève on the top surface and finished with hand-bevelling and polishing on the edges. Evidently, the wheels are also grained while every screw on the movement is evenly blued. The anchor-shaped central winding rotor of the calibre UN-128 is adorned with two decorative anchors on either side and blue inlay in between.
Let’s get straight to the point: the Ulysse Nardin Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu is priced at CHF28,000. Yes, you heard right, CHF28,000! This level of value in high-end watchmaking is almost unheard of in recent years. Consider this: for CHF28,000, you get a grand feu enamel dial, a flying tourbillon, a power reserve indicator, an in-house, COSC-certified movement, and the brand’s proprietary silicium technology. Granted CHF28,000 is not a small sum of money, but what you get in return is immense in value.
Naturally, we had to compare the watch in review with (one of) the most affordable Swiss tourbillon available today: the Tag Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T. The Carrera Heuer-02T is priced at an unprecedented USD15,950, which converts to roughly the same figure in Swiss Francs.
So, does the Tag Heuer provide better value? The watch is definitely more attainable at almost half the price of the Ulysse Nardin but, in our opinion, does not offer greater value. For one, the Tag Heuer is devoid of hand-finishing and decoration, which is absolutely not the case in the Ulysse Nardin as we have articulated above. The hours spent on skillful hand-finishing separates a fine watch from the industrial, and contributes significantly to a timepiece’s final price tag. In addition, the Ulysse Nardin comes with a grand feu enamel dial which is torturous to perfect and highly-prized (and -priced, normally). Considering these factors, the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu is easily superior in value to the Carrera Heuer-02Ts.
From within the brand, only one other tourbillon watch comes close to the pricing of the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu, and that is the 2016 Executive Skeleton Tourbillon. Also made of non-precious metal (titanium), the Executive Skeleton Tourbillon is an openworked (dial and movement), time-only watch with a flying tourbillon. It is also equipped with the brand’s silicium escapement wheel and balance spring. While the watch is hand-wound, it boasts an impressive 170 hours of power reserve. At the price of CHF38,000, the Executive Skeleton Tourbillon undoubtedly offers the proverbial bang for the buck. However, we feel that the 2017 Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu has bested its cousin in the value segment. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a grand feu enamel dial plus power reserve indicator, on top of an automatic movement with a flying tourbillon just can’t be beat at CHF28,000 – a full CHF10,000 less than the Executive Skeleton Tourbillon.
We had to do a double take when the price of the watch in review was first revealed to us at SIHH. The Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu is a treasure chest of horological treats, and at CHF28,000, it is value for money based on today’s obscene pricing standards. This is Ulysse Nardin bringing back the bygone days of sensible watch pricing, and as such, they deserve a pat on the back. For the sake of the industry’s future, one can only hope that this sort of competitive pricing becomes a trend rather than a fleeting anomaly.