Return to Index  

The UN Dinner, or, the Agoraphobic Horologist emerges. . . .

September 5 2003 at 7:05 AM
Jack Forster  (no login)

I don't get out much, as they say, but when the UN Dinner was announced I was immediately intrigued, and when a certain gracious agent granted it possible that I attend, I remembered something that my Buddhist meditation teacher once said- that a good Buddhist should never refuse an invitation- and decided to go.

The night of the dinner I was in transports of anxiety. Scarlett O'Hara getting ready for the ball couldn't have been more nervous than I was about both sartorial and horological adornments. My closet being devoid of Nina Ricci suits and my shelf bare of UN watches, I settled on a turtleneck and blazer (what my wife calls the "yacht captain casual" look) and in deference to UN, wore no wristwatch, but rather carried a one hundred year old Waltham pocket watch.

Anxious at the prospect of meeting so many strangers at once, upon finishing with my last patient I wandered the streets of midtown Manhattan until my footsteps brought me to the window of Wempe. I spent five minutes looking in the the displays- and quite a time staring at a Breguet Tourbillon, in a surprisingly huge oval case- before the timepieces had exerted their inevitable sedating effect. Thus fortified, I proceeded to our rendezvous.

At the restaurant, after being greeted by two lovely and definitely single headed Cerberi, I was directed to a flight of stairs, and with the anxiety of Orpheus descending to Eurydice, I made my way down to the Chamber of Secrets.

The first person I met was a gentleman wearing on his wrist:

My momentary relief at having met someone who clearly had not lost any sleep about wearing a non-UN wrist adornment vanished a moment later when I saw this on his other wrist:

and realized (helped along by his affable and enthusiastic welcome) that I was in the presence of none other than the Man Himself, Dr. Thomas Mao. It may amuse our readers to know that we spent some considerable time looking at and admiring the features of the wrist radio, with which Dr. Mao was in constant contact with the banquet manager, although unlike the one pictured above, Dr. Mao's was in a restrained and elegant dress black, this being a Purist's dinner after all . It was with genuine glee that Dr. Mao demonstrated the chronograph- on the wrist radio!

Now, before I proceed, I must beg the indulgence of readers who attended with me. I have a chronically poor memory for names, and though I will do my very best to remember the first name and patronym of every attendee, I may find myself in error, for which I beg all your pardons in advance, and in exculpation offer the lateness of the hour, my considerable excitement, and last but not least the excellence of the wine.

If you go to a Purists dinner, you will meet Purists, and, and as Ms. Ping Tsai so aptly observed on Watchrap, people who are passionate about things are interesting people! The first person I spoke to, a gentleman with a scholarly mein, is Ronald who works for Lockheed Martin and who unfortunately is unable to discuss even the general details of his work. With visions of the Skunk Works and Area 51 dancing in my head, we instead proceeded to a long, learned (on his end) and interesting conversation on high precision quartz and atomic timekeeping, during which I learned, among other things, that I can't afford my own atomic clock and that the International Space Station's orbit is decaying.

Among others, I was also privileged to finally meet Mr. John Davis, whose articles were for me, as for many of us, the first entree into the world of intelligent and well written criticism in an industry where so many writers struggle to be merely grammatical, much less interesting. (I greatly admired John's beautiful PVD coated Seiko Diver Automatic, which managed to be both elegant in its' shimmering dark veil, and to exude a kind of techno-goth-scifi vibe which puts the AP T3 Terminator watch to shame.) I was also introduced to Mr. William Roseman, who among other things is a pioneer in the open source software movement and is the mayor of the town of Carlstadt:

which sports enthusiasts will notice is proximal to the Meadowlands Sports Complex where the Giants play, and whose administration he counts among his responsibilities. I was beginning to feel like the lone slacker in a gathering of Da Vinci's- I had expected a room of multitalented overachievers, and my expectations were clearly going to be surpassed. Mr. Roseman was kind enough to show me his Patek and share his enthusiasm for the acquisition and repair of vintage Girard Perregaux Gyromatics, and we shared a few war stories about trying to handle shock springs on a cluttered dining room table. I also met one of our most enthusiastic posters, Dr. Jay Whose Last Name I Have Somehow Never Contrived to Remember (!), who was kind enough to bring his AP Jules Audemars Handwound, which I examined at great length under the lens of the incredibly powerful Nikon magnifier he'd brought with him.

These fascinating personal and horlogical distractions were brought to a conclusion by the call to dinner, and when we were settled at our tables, a gentleman in a tan suit with open-necked shirt, who moved with a briskness and energy belying both the hour, and his burdensome responsibilities, arose to address us in a soft yet penetrating voice speaking an excellent English with a slight German accent. I recognized him immediately:

as he is here pictured with that true Leonardo of modern horology, his partner Dr. Ludwig Oechslin- it was the indefatigable Mr. Rolf Schnyder.

Mr. Schnyder's comments were as interesting for what they did not say as what they touched upon. For those of you who lament the decline in craft, the ascendancy of the brand, and the primacy of the marketing focus group over the master watchmaker and designer that seems to be the order of things in the modern watch industry; for anyone who has ever felt that true innovation is so much the exception rather than the rule as to be almost nonexistent; for anyone who has rolled their eyes at a "product launch" at Basel which has turned out to be nothing more than a hastily rehashed dial or a pro-forma enlargement of a case- let me say at once, that in Ulysse Nardin, in Mr. Schnyder, and in Dr. Oechslin, you will find a company and a team dedicated with commendable single mindedness to the pursuit of true excellence.

Mr. Schnyder's subject was not sales figures, nor market penetration, nor marketing trends- instead, it was a fascinating disquisition on the influence and genius of Dr. Oechslin (whom he fondly and familiarly referred to simply as "Ludwig," in the same way that Cosimo D'Medici would have said, simply, "Leonardo") and on the genesis of the great innovations which now grace the UN line. He shared with us the story of how he and Dr. Oechslin first met (a journey through Switzerland during which he came upon an astrolabe clock in a master watchmaker's workshop; and when he asked who made this, the response was, "Crazy Ludwig!"), the story of the development of the Trilogy of Time, fascinating technical insights into both the joys and the unforseen pitfalls of bringing entirely new movements to production- well, the only way to do justice to the interest which his speech would have given to anyone with even a passing interest in horology would be to offer a complete transcript, which it passes the competence of my memory to do.

What treasures were paraded before us! I was lucky enough to be seated at a table next to a gentleman whose last name it shames me to have forgotten, but whose first name is Patrik (tm 9/9/03) and who is the head of the US division of Ulysse Nardin, and whose enthusiasm for the products of which he is the custodian is infectious. Like a great general Mr. Schnyder has surrounded himself with great officers, and this gentleman's depth of knowledge and excitement over his work was as palpably genuine and infectious as that of Mr. Schnyder himself. He was kind enough to, with unhesitating alacrity, unstrap his Sonata from his wrist:

and I found myself, in stunned amazement and a transport of horological joy , handling not merely an alarm watch, but the unique UN Sonata, and what's more, prototype #001.

I have remarked already elsewhere on the perils of forming an opinion of a watch based on photographs, but in the case of the Sonata, the difference between the pictures and the reality is so marked as to bear repeating. Pictures do not, and cannot, do justice to the Sonata, and to the lovely play of surfaces and control of light which the watch exhibits. The controversial hands were designed, as he proudly told us, by Mr. Schnyder himself, and far from clashing contribute considerably to both the overall and unmistakeably unique appearance of the watch and to its' functional legibility. I was told that the prototype runs in 97 jewels, but that the final product will run in somewhere around 115, and Patrik was happy to demonstrate the alarm function, which Mr. Schnyder also did, with the grin of a child opening a longed for Christmas present. The sound of the Sonata's alarm is as far from the risible flatulence of most alarm watches as the piano playing of Glenn Gould is from the keyboard excursions of my enthusiastic three year old- the sound is an almost eerily clear and penetrating ringing, which pierces the air with the clarity and tone of fingers nimbly playing the water glasses, to paraphrase Bram Stoker.

Also I had the opportunity to examine, by the courtesy of a young man seated opposite me (Mr. Hermes, whose first name I think I remember but which I will not essay for fear of occasioning even further embarrasment) a UN Freak. As Mr. Schnyder remarked, "When you ask Ludwig for a Tourbillon, you get the Freak!" An utterly remarkable piece, not the least for the fascination of trying to understand the Dual-Direkt escapement- a watch for which an entirely new method of fabrication had to be invented for the wheels:

With these diversions we passed an excellent dinner, punctuated with fascinating conversation- at my left was, I believe, Mr. Jim Rothbarth, who was kind enough to amaze me with stories of his inventions, and who showed me his UN Blue Max:

and Mr. Schnyder passed around two wonderful artefacts, safely encased in Lucite display boxes: the base plate and complete movement, sans case and dial, of the Sonata. As William Roseman remarked, wistfully holding it up to the light, one could be quite happy just taking the Sonata movement home and putting on the shelf!

Over dessert, Mr. Schnyder treated us to a slide show of images from inside the UN facilities, more stories of how the Trilogy of Time, Freak, and Sonata came to be, and then, there was fifteen minutes of considerable levity as we attempted to compete, table against table, in a contest of horological and UN related trivia. May I say without odious comparisons that my table, helped considerably by our preprandial conversations with the UN staff, carried the palm in the contest, though hampered somewhat by my unfortunate penchant for shouting out uninformed guesses, and helped considerably by Mr. Rothbarth's ability to apparently calculate, with a speed that would put a Cray XMP to shame, the exact number of meters/arc seconds at the Earth's equator in his head.

After dinner, we were able to view- and to actually handle!- at our leisure, an incredible treasury of pieces from every level of UN's product line. Without indulging in further prolixity let me just say that I am completely convinced by the new UN 1846, that the cloisonne dialed watches are the last word in pure aesthetic satisfaction, and that the technical genius of the high end complications would repay, literally, the contemplation of many years.

A word about the UN line overall. As an independent, UN has been able to do, in a relatively short period of time, something which I would have thought well-nigh impossible. There is an absolutely unique and distinctive quality to both the design and technical focus of UN watches. It would be impossible to mistake them for the products of any other company, and their completely idiosyncratic blend of classicism with almost Rococco exuberance runs through the entire product line. This kind of distinctiveness would be unusual were it confined merely to the execution of cases and dials, but combined with UN's quite frankly unparalleled technical innovation, it is nothing short of breathtaking.

If I could, as an admittedly novice enthusiast, make so bold as to make the observation, the real challenge for UN seems to me to make collectors aware of just how much sheer depth of integrity and excellence the UN line represents. It is not saying too much to say that any single one of the UN high complications of recent years would have been sufficient to secure any other watch company's reputation as a fearless innovator- the Freak escapement, the moveable day/night line of the Tellurium, and the gearing of the Planetarium are just three of the examples that spring immediately to mind, and this is without speaking of the remarkable Sonata- and the embarrasment of riches that is offered by Ulysse Nardin runs the risk of either surfeit or incomprehension.

But we ought to be overjoyed, as enthusiasts, that this is a risk which UN, almost alone among watch houses, is willing to run. The collaboration between Mr. Schnyder and Mr. Oechslin is, as I have already remarked, reminiscent of that between the house of Medici and the Divine Leonardo, but unlike the forbiddingly remote works of the Renaissance master, the products of this modern collaboration can be had at a price which, while by no means available to everyone, is nonetheless amply justified. Considering what else is available at similar price points, a collector can consider the UN complications as something which represents a value for the price that transcends the question of economic or investment value. The values on display from UN, for all their cutting edge design, are the very old fashioned ones of uncompromising integrity, fearless innovation, and bold risk taking, and that these phrases are slightly shopworn does not lessen the surprise and gratitude one feels that for once they are genuinely on display.

At the end of the dinner, Mr. Hermes and I had an opportunity to chat for a moment or two with Mr. Schnyder. One of us delicately mentioned that, with such a staggeringly unique product line, UN must be an attractive target for acquisition. But at the raising of this subject, Mr. Schnyder just shook his head and laughed.

"Why would we want to sell?" he said, and grinned. "We want to keep doing things that are interesting ."

Thank you Mr. Schnyder, to your able and enthusiastic staff, and to Dr. Mao and the Purists for making possible an evening that I'll remember for many years to come!

Warm regards,

Jack Forster

This message has been edited by thepurist178 on Sep 9, 2003 9:07 AM

 Respond to this message   
Responses Home Page