[VIDEO] The Freak Gets an Edit, The Curious Ulysse Nardin Freak X Reviewed

Ulysse Nardin is a peculiar brand. They have long been at the forefront of horological innovation, from marine chronometers in the 19th century, to creating stuff like DIAMonSIL in the 21st. However, they lack a singular, cohesive aesthetic that’s coalesced in broader culture in the same way watches like the Speedmaster, Submariner, or Royal Oak have. Except for a watch called the Freak, that is. A concept first released upon the world in 2001, the Freak was as impressive technologically as it was shocking to behold. With a movement that pivoted on itself to display the time, it was (and remains) daring, innovative, and downright novel. But, it never quite enjoyed a ‘hip status’ in the same way other exotic watches from the likes of MB&F or Urwerk have since. This is likely due to a few reasons, but with the release of the Freak X in 2019, Ulysse Nardin is a whole lot closer.

The Freak is a watch that has always commanded attention, both technically and visually speaking. The concept placed the gear train atop the mainspring, within a carousel that itself served as the minute hand. There was no dial to speak of, but rather a rotating plate containing the hour hand underpinning the structure. Winding and setting was managed via the deeply scalloped, somewhat steampunk-ish bezel unit. The launch of the Freak also marked the very first appearance of silicon within a watch movement, something the brand has been a pioneer of developing. This is a dramatic watch to behold today, and back in 2001 it was surely mind bending.


[VIDEO] The Freak Gets an Edit, The Curious Ulysse Nardin Freak X Reviewed

Super Luminova
Box Sapphire
Rubber Synthetic
Water Resistance
50 meters
Lug Width
5 Yrs

Today, those early Freak references feel very much of their era, for better or worse, but the concept itself is just as compelling as it was over 20 years ago. In 2018, the Freak spawned its own collection, allowing Ulysse Nardin to take the concept in new directions. A move that’s paid off for them, and resulted in this Freak X, which is a modern distillation of the Freak idea, brought to life in an approachable, and frankly, usable manner. It’s a Freak for the masses. But has it lost a little too much of the outlandish personality in the process? We spent some time with the watch, and even took the opportunity to discuss it with a watchmaker, to find out. 

The Ulysse Nardin Freak is just about as exotic as they come. A wholly original concept brought to life by the brand that designed it. To offer context to my statement in the opening paragraph, it launched in 2001, alongside the first of the Opus series of watches from Harry Hinston (under the leadership of Max Busser), and six years after Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei formed Urwerk. The Freak lived in the same avant garde vein, however found itself pushing on a different set of boundaries. The genesis of the concept itself came from Carole Forestier-Kasapi, a legend of high watchmaking who currently serves as the head of Movements for TAG Heuer. 

It was a few years prior to the Freak that Carole Forestier-Kasapi was recognized for her central carousel tourbillon design with a Prix de la Fondation Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1998. She would go on to serve as advisor to Ulysse Nardin, alongside Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, who together would lead the effort to translate the design into what would become the Freak. Carole Forestier-Kasapi followed with a stint at Renaud et Papi and Van Cleef & Arpels, before ultimately joining Cartier in 2005. Her work there bears the same fingerprints, where she fostered the brand’s manufacturing capabilities, resulting in watches like the Astrocalendaire Perpetual Calendar Flying tourbillon and the Astrotoubillon. It was her work in 1998 that set that template, and I’ll take the opportunity to shout out Annegret Fleischer, who’s integrated chronograph design within the original Datograph was revealed just one year later by A. Lange & Sohne.

The original Freak from 2001

What made the initial concept of the Freak so compelling was literal thinking outside the box. This was the first time a movement had been deconstructed and placed within the confines of a dial component, completely visible to enjoy as it traverses the dial, placing the balance at the counter weight of the hand itself. Adding the drama of the movement was the drama of the case design, which leaned into a steampunk-ish direction, dominated by the deeply scalloped bezel unit. But this bezel was more than just an aesthetic component. 

One of the many unique features of Freak watches has been their bezel design and construction, due to the fact that it’s used to set the time of the watch. The Freak X is the first Freak to utilize a traditional crown along the 3 o’clock side of the case for winding and setting. We’ll get to why that is later, but it’s worth considering that this bezel feature has become something of a calling card for the Freak, a part of its identity both visually and functionally. 

As with many watches from the early ‘00s, the design of the Freak feels very much of its era, and thanks to these distinctive design features that are integrated so closely with mechanical features, it’s been a difficult mold to break out of. The Freak X seen here does so successfully, and re-contextualizes the design in the process. The focal point shifts to the center of the watch, the shape of the hands, and the orbital escapement, while the case itself fades into the background. This move was set up by the Freak Vision, which inspired the overall design of the Freak X.

The Freak Vision retained bezel ‘handles’ set into a thinner, more refined bezel assembly that allowed for practical usage to set the watch, while not infringing on the design. The Freak X takes this a step further by employing a single bezel piece framing the box sapphire crystal, and its services have migrated to the more traditional crown. That also means winding isn’t handled in the ‘grinder” style mechanism of previous Freaks, either. A somewhat disconcerting (though tremendously efficient thanks to the four-arm winding pawl) exercise necessitated by the structure of the movement. 

Freak Vision

The movement in the Freak X, dubbed the UN-230, is wound through the crown, and it uses the efficient “Magic Lever” system to which translates movement in either direction directly to the mainspring. The Magic Lever is a Seiko innovation that was first introduced in 1959 in the caliber 55 series. Ulysse Nardin uses their own version, which gets a slightly revised design but operates under the same principle. One criticism of the system at use here is the noise it makes during normal arm and wrist movements. It’s not exactly a pleasant sound, and it is noticeable, but not so much that it takes away from the total experience of the watch. 

All of these changes to the traditional Freak user experience are due to the fact that this particular Freak does away with a vital component of all prior Freaks, which is the gear train being placed atop the baseplate, rather than underneath it. While the fourth wheel is visible, though without an attached seconds hand, the remainder of the train is set into a planetary gear system within the movement, which is based on the excellent UN-118 caliber. This move allows for a more ergonomic experience which makes use of a crown, as well as an overall more legible and usable watch, if a touch less dramatic overall. While the bevy of gears is no longer in sight, the orbiting balance, or “floating oscillator” remains, and presents just as impressively here.

One of the less apparent omissions is the constant force anchor escapement which was used in the Freak Vision. This is another of Ulysse Nardin’s impressive innovations that dates back to 2014. Their anchor escapement features a pallet fork with no pivots, instead it’s suspended on two thin blades in a fixed position. The blades, which are rendered in silicium (as are the balance wheel, escapement wheel, balance spring, and anchor) buckle and back and forth, locking and unlocking the fork to receive impulse. The buckling that happens requires the same energy every single time, thus providing a consistent force throughout the wind of the mainspring. It is conceptually similar to the Girard-Perregaux Constant Escapement that was released around the same time, however done in a far more streamlined manner to be housed within the same space as a traditional escapement (more or less). 

Use of this anchor escapement would have been a welcome addition to the Freak X, and given top billing considering the configuration, however in light of this watch’s status as the new entry level Freak (if such a term can be applied), it would have only served to muddy the waters here. The Freak X is an exercise in reduction, an edit on the original idea, all in the service of creating a more usable, and accessible Freak. This is a watch that will get the Freak name in front of an entirely new generation of enthusiasts, and while it carries a tremendous amount of history, it also represents a new foundation. So what’s it like in everyday use? Well, surprisingly competent. 

The Freak X gets a 43mm titanium case, though rose gold and even carbonium versions were also made. On the wrist, this watch wears closer to 40mm thanks to the shape of the case profile. The case as a whole is rather unique, though you might not realize at a glance. There are multiple components coming together to create the case, and each side looks to be independent of the other, with dark blue inserts between the lugs that break the continuity. From lug to lug, the watch measures around 49mm, making this an exceptionally wearable watch, especially considering the somewhat exotic nature of what’s going on. 

It’s certainly an interesting case, but it never gets in the way of what’s happening inside. Rather, it’s one of those cases that you’ll start noticing and appreciating more and more with each wear. It feels modern, and I don’t see it being as susceptible to aging as prior generations of the Freak. I’d go so far as to say that would do well in other, non Freak applications within the Ulysse Nardin catalog, but that’s a discussion for another day.


Even with the welcome ergonomic changes and simplified movement, the Freak X reads as a Freak thanks to the design of the minute and hour hands. They are large structures that take a bit of getting used to, but I found them to be just as usable as a traditional handset with little fuss. The white tip of the minute hand is easy to spot from any distance thanks to its sheer size, and despite the wide hour hand sometimes getting lost in the shuffle, I found it relatively easy to get a read on where I was within any given hour simply from the minute hand alone. Surprisingly, the balance never really interfered with reading the time, largely thanks to how Ulysse Nardin has created contrast in the right areas between the hand structures and the base dial components. 

What makes the Freak X so compelling is the manner in which it finds balance between something truly innovative and exotic, and being everyday usable. One could argue that it’s lost too much of the outlandish Freak personality in the process, and I’d say that argument has some merit, but it’s also achieved something no other Freak has managed, and that is simplicity. This is a practical watch, which can’t be said for many other watches that play in this space of heavily altered and downright novel mechanisms for displaying the time. Sure, it doesn’t have the full train on display, nor the trick constant force escapement, but the Freak X is still instantly recognizable as a Freak, and once again, has made itself available to a new subset of enthusiasts in the process. 

The Freak X is priced at $26,400, which is quite a lot of money. I’d make the argument that it’s actually a lot of watch for the money, a much more interesting prospect than most watches found in the price segment. For context, the Freak Vision upon which this watch is based is priced at $95,000. At $26,400, the Freak enters new territory, and while Ulysse Nardin the brand may not enjoy the same cache as other luxury brands at the moment, they deserve every bit the respect demanded by their contemporaries. When I think of truly innovative watches in the price range, there’s really only one other example that comes to mind, and that is Ressence. 

The Freak as a concept, and as realized by Ulysse Nardin has served as a benchmark of horological innovation, from the materials at use, to the design of the movement itself, this is a watch that in no small part paved the way for the robust landscape of innovative and exotic watches we enjoy today. The Freak X carries the same DNA as the first reference released over 20 years ago, and what it’s lost in complexity, it’s gained in practicality and value, distilling the essence of the original thesis into something ultimately more usable, which might make it the most important Freak of all. The Freak X has bridged the gap between generations, and presents a platform ripe for evolution.

Overall, and aside from the considerable heritage it represents, the Freak X is a fun and interesting watch that skirts convention in all the right ways, without compromising core functionality. It’s pricey, and it’s not perfect, but this is exactly the kind of watch we need more of, and if it wasn’t already, shows exactly why Ulysse Nardin should be on every enthusiast’s radar.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.