Time To Tell Chronographs for collectors

The true story of Ulysse Nardin

26 May 2024

By Joël Pynson.

« The company currently has a selection of chronometers in Geneva with an average variation of less than 0.4 sec. per day. »

Advertisement Ulysse Nardin, 1877

Grande complication Ulysse Nardin, late 19th century. Vallée de Joux ébauche

The official history of Ulysse Nardin details the numerous awards won by the famous Le Locle company since its foundation in 1846, and its major role in the history of chronometry[1]. But curiously, no information between the beginning of the 20th century and the takeover by Rolf Schneider in 1983. As if this period of more than ¾ of a century were insignificant in the company’s history. We shall see that even if the events are difficult to reconstruct, they had a major influence on the evolution of the company and its current history.

Ulysse Nardin factory buildings, circa 1940

  1. The Nardin dynasty

The official story begins in 1846, when Ulysse Nardin set up his own business in Le Locle. In fact, it could begin much earlier. Ulysse’s father, Léonard Nardin, born in 1792, was already a watchmaker in Le Locle[2] and was himself a pupil of his uncle. Le Locle was the city of Swiss chronometry. Remarkable talents followed in their wake: Frédéric-Louis Favre-Bulle, Urbain Jürgensen, Henry Grandjean and others.

Ulysse, born in 1823, was a pupil of his father and William Dubois, and the first winner of the Neuchâtel Observatory competitions when they were inaugurated. He was a particularly talented watchmaker: at the London World’s Fair in 1862, he was awarded the highest prize: The Prize Medal. He went on to win a silver medal in Paris in 1867, first prize at the Neuchâtel Observatory competition in 1868, and a gold medal at the International Adjustment Competition in Geneva in 1876, thanks to chronometers presented by his son.

When Ulysse died in 1876, his son Paul-David took over. A pupil of Jules Grossmann, he too was an exceptional watchmaker, and steered the company towards the manufacture of marine chronometers, much in demand by admiralty all over the world. In 1877, he opened a counter in Geneva to market his chronometers, complicated watches and ladies’ watches. The quality was always remarkable, and awards rained in: Grand Prix in Paris in 1889, medal in Chicago in 1893, Grand Prix in Paris in 1900, in Milan in 1906, record at the Hamburg Observatory in 1906, and at the Washington Observatory the following year.

Ulysse Nardin watch presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, then at the Swiss National Exhibition in Geneva in 1896 and at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. It was designed by the Locle engraver Alfred Jacot-Guillarmod. The watch itself featured a chronograph and minute repeater.

A distinction must be made here between prizes won at Exhibitions, rewarding the good workmanship and aesthetic qualities of watches, and records won in Observatory competitions, rewarding the precision and regularity of chronometer operation. In the latter case, the merit was shared with the régleurs, also known as chronométriers, whose science and experience were indispensable to success in the competitions. And Ulysse Nardin was fortunate to be able to rely over the years on the Rosat dynasty, father and son, outstanding technicians and setters who accompanied the company for almost 50 years, and then on exceptional setters such as Dubois father and son, Henri Gerber, Louis Augsburger and Edouard Seitz.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Chronometer

Until the end of the 19th century, Ulysse Nardin did not manufacture its own ébauches. We know, for example, that Blanc & Hainard in Travers supplied certain movements for marine chronometers[3]. But the company soon registered movement models and began manufacturing marine chronometers, on-board chronometers and chronographs in Le Locle. For wristwatches, movements are sourced from renowned ébauches manufacturers.

Marine chronometer with electric contacts, aluminum case

Numerous technical improvements were made to marine chronometers: aluminium cases, winding system without having to turn the chronometer over, electric recording system, etc.[4] And to promote the quality of its chronometers, Ulysse Nardin submits them to competitions organized by the Neuchâtel Observatory.

  1. Bureaux Officiels and Observatoires

There were two ways for a Swiss manufacturer to obtain a chronometer bulletin: the official Bureaux de contrôle de la marche des montres, and the Observatoires in Neuchâtel and Geneva. The criteria for obtaining an “Observatory bulletin” were much more stringent than those of the official offices.

2.1. Observatoires

In the Observatories, the definition of the various chronometers evolved over the course of the 20th century, but to put it simply it was generally as follows[5]:

marine chronometer: large-diameter chronometer contained in a case with gimbal, Guillaume balance wheel, detent-spring escapement, beating to the half-second. The tests last 5 weeks and take place at 3 different temperatures: 18°C, 4°C and 32°C. To obtain a bulletin, the average rate deviation must not exceed ± 4 sec, and the deviation between the different temperatures (average daytime rate deviation) must not exceed ± 0.25 sec.

Ulysse Nardin deck watch

deck watches: these are pocket watches with a diameter of between 45 and 65 mm. These chronometers are tested at 3 temperatures and in 5 positions. The tests last 5 weeks. The mean rate deviation must not exceed ± 4 sec and the mean diurnal rate deviation must not exceed 0.35 sec.

Ulysse Nardin pocket chronometer caliber, circa 1922

pocket chronometers: these are pocket watches with a diameter of between 38 and 45 mm. Two types of bulletins can be obtained depending on diameter: 1st class and 2nd class. 1st class tests last 45 days in the 3 temperatures and 5 positions. For diameters greater than 38 mm, the mean running deviation must not exceed ± 5 sec and the mean diurnal running deviation must not exceed 0.5 sec. For diameters less than or equal to 38 mm, the mean running deviation must not exceed ± 5 sec and the mean diurnal running deviation must not exceed 0.5 sec. 2nd class tests last 28 days. The mean walk deviation must not exceed ± 6 sec and the mean diurnal walk deviation must not exceed 0.75 sec.

wrist-chronometers: these are watches with a diameter generally = 30 mm. The tests are the same as for pocket chronographs with a diameter of 38 mm.

2.2 Bureaux Officiels de contrôle de la marche des montres

In the 1950s, there were 5: Bienne, St Imier, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle and Le Sentier. For wristwatches, the tests lasted 15 days, in 3 temperatures and 5 positions. To be certified as a chronometer, the average diurnal rate in the 5 positions had to fall within a range of 0 to +25 sec, and the variation per °C had to be no greater than ± 1.4 sec.

2.3 Ulysse Nardin’s many awards


The Observatoire de Neuchâtel organized an annual precision competition where chronometers of all kinds were tested and rewarded. At first, however, there was a limit: the chronometers had to come from the canton of Neuchâtel, which excluded manufacturers from Geneva, who had their own competition in their city, but also manufacturers from Bienne or St Imier, i.e. Longines or Omega. This restriction was later lifted.

The prizes awarded during the competitions were numerous: series prizes for the 6 best chronometers, prizes for the adjusters, prizes for each type of chronometer, etc. In 1900, for example, Ulysse Nardin received 200 Frs for the series prize, 350 Frs for marine chronometers and 460 Frs for other chronometers[6] ! All chronometers that met the criteria were awarded a Prize, which explains why a manufacturer could win dozens of Prizes at a single competition, depending on the number of chronometers he submitted and the results he obtained. In 1904, for example, Ulysse Nardin won 16 prizes for its marine chronometers alone, and several more for other chronometers. Thus, Ulysse Nardin could claim a total of 282 Prix in 1910, 738 in 1920, 2072 in 1940, 3392 in 1950, and 4000 in 1960, which was celebrated with the creation of the Jubilé 4000 range. For marine chronometers, between 1887 and 1960 Ulysse Nardin won all the first prizes! To be perfectly honest, competition was rare, and for many years Ulysse Nardin was the only manufacturer to submit this type of chronometer to the competition. The on-board chronometer session was more closely contested, and until the 1930s it was Paul Ditisheim who came out on top. Subsequently, Ulysse Nardin had to contend with Omega, Movado and, above all, Zenith.


From 1947, the competition was open to calibers for wristwatches. As Ulysse Nardin did not manufacture this type of movement, it was unable to shine, and left Zenith and Omega to share the prizes.

Ulysse Nardin also presented watches to the Bureaux Officiels, particularly after the Second World War. In 1950, for example, Ulysse Nardin received 337 ballots at the Bureau du Locle. But in the same year, Rolex received 15,437 in Bienne…

  1. Continuation of the Nardin dynasty  

 c. 1920

Paul-David Nardin died in 1920. In 1922, the factory became Ulysse Nardin SA, marine and pocket chronometry[7]. There were almost 10 heirs, but Paul-David’s many sons, in particular Alfred, Ernest and Gaston, set out to continue their father’s work. The Nardin family is omnipresent: in 1927, Paul-David’s son Jacques and Alfred Nardin join the board of directors of the famous Manufacture Le Phare; in 1934, Jacques Nardin joins the board of Zenith; and in 1937, he takes over the management of Doxa, whose owner, Georges Ducommun, was his father-in-law!

Watches presented at the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition

c. 1940

However extraordinary the results of Ulysse Nardin’s marine chronometers, they were increasingly challenged by a formidable challenger: wireless telegraphy. It was now possible to send the exact time by radio to all warships and merchant vessels. The beautiful chronometer in its gimbal was kept for a few more years, as a back-up or in case of poor wave reception, but the multiplication of relays around the world gradually made it obsolete.

In the USA, the company was called Ulysse Nardin Chronometer Corp. The inscription “chronometer co” did not mean that the watch was a chronometer.

In 1957, Ulysse Nardin changed its corporate name to “Ulysse Nardin SA, Manufacture de montres et de chronomètres.” The term marine had disappeared.

The years that followed were difficult. The company was already producing high-quality “civilian” watches, as well as remarkable jewelry watches, but in this field it lacked the reputation, and distribution networks, of Geneva-based houses such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin. Nor could it innovate with exclusive calibers, since it didn’t manufacture its own movements. And above all, it was unable to produce models that were immediately identifiable with the brand, unlike Universal’s Polerouter, Omega’s Constellation or Zenith’s Port Royal chronometer.

Ulysse Nardin Sunstar, crédit Sotheby

Ulysse Nardin did try something new in 1960 with the Sun-Star chronometer, developed by Raymond Nardin in collaboration with New York-based navigation instrument maker Oscar Batori[8], then in 1961 with a quartz marine chronometer, developed in collaboration with Oscilloquartz, the electronics branch of Ebauches SA, but this type of instrument was no longer sufficient to sustain the company.

In 1963 Ulysse Nardin launched the Jubilé 4000 model to celebrate the 4000th Prix d’Observatoire. The model’s understated design was probably not sufficiently differentiating to boost sales. In 1965, Gaston, Raymond and Claude Nardin accepted an offer from the American company Benrus Watch to acquire a majority stake in the company[9].

  1. Ulysse Nardin in turmoil

For Benrus, Ulysse Nardin watches were luxury timepieces that had to be distributed in the United States by carefully selected retailers, and this was done as early as 1966. But even before this policy could bear fruit, Benrus was bought out in 1968 by two American entrepreneurs, Kiam and Petterson, who had cut their teeth at Playtex[10]. For Ulysse Nardin, it was the beginning of a downward spiral. Another American investor, a certain Gropper, took over Ulysse Nardin and associated it with the Marvin manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. But not for long: in 1971, Marvin went out of business, and the following year Ulysse Nardin was taken over by Leonardo Butscher, ex-commercial director of Zenith, with the support of the brand’s Japanese distributor.[11]

Chronometer with high-frequency caliber

Unicorne model

Efforts to revive the company, which now has only twenty or so employees, are commendable: revival of marine chronometer production, creation of original models such as the Unicorne chronometer with its high-frequency automatic movement (36,000 vph), or the La Bonne perspective model with its dial simulating a 3D effect, but the “quartz crisis” that hit the Swiss watch industry left Ulysse Nardin with little chance, and it was declared bankrupt in 1978[12]. In 1979, the company was bought at auction by Marcel-Edmond Schmid, head of Ogival, but two years later Ogival went bankrupt[13].

In 1983, Rolf-Willy Schnyder took over Ulysse Nardin’s share capital for 850,000 Frs, and successfully relaunched the company[14].

  1. Ulysse Nardin and timekeeping

Row of official timekeepers at the 1936 Olympic Games

Ulysse Nardin was known to all ship captains, but there was another profession that also knew the Locle-based company inside out: sports timekeepers. Ulysse Nardin pocket chronographs had a well-founded reputation for excellence: they were even delivered with a bulletin from the Neuchâtel Observatory[15] ! The tests for chronographs were even more stringent than for on-board chronometers, lasting 51 days, with tests in 4 positions and 3 temperatures, and above all with and without the chronograph running! The average deviation of daytime running, for example, was not to exceed ± 0.50 sec.

Ulysse Nardin chronometer chronograph à rattrapante

But Ulysse Nardin did even better. Ulysse Nardin produced chronographs with the famous 24-line CCR 1/10 caliber, capable of measuring 1/10th of a second, and therefore with an escapement beating at 36,000 vph, long before the development of the Clinergic 21 by F.A.R. (Fabriques d’Assortiments Réunies). Of course, other manufacturers also had pocket chronographs measuring 1/10th of a second, such as Longines or Omega, but at Ulysse Nardin these watches could be delivered with an Observatory bulletin! By 1953, 213 such chronographs had obtained a bulletin in Neuchâtel, and one of them even held a record in 1942, with an average daytime running deviation of just 0.12 sec!

Electronic timekeeping for sports competitions gradually took its toll on Ulysse Nardin pocket chronographs, which today stand as a superb testament to fine Swiss precision watchmaking.

  1. Ulysse Nardin calibres

Catalogue from 1949



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysse_Nardin#cite_note-:0-2

[2] La Maison Ulysse Nardin SA, Revue Internationale d'Horlogerie, 1924,

[3] La Fédération Horlogère, 1894

[4] La Fédération Horlogère, 1898

[5] Revue Internationale d'Horlogerie, (1950),

[6] L'ensemble correspond environ à 8 000 Frs 2024

[7] https://www.e-periodica.ch/digbib/view?pid=sha-001%3A1922%3A40%3A%3A2292&referrer=search#2292 

[8] Brevet CH 345 604

[9] La Suisse Horlogère, édition hebdomadaire, 1965

[10] L'Impartial, 22 janvier 1970, p.

[11] La Suisse Horlogère, édition hebdomadaire, 1972

[12] FOSC, 1978

[13] L'Impartial, 1982

[14] L'Impartial, 1983

[15] Journal Suisse d'Horlogerie, 1953,

©Time To Tell, 2024

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Most of the watchmaking archives were consulted at the Musée International d'Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and I'd like to thank the museum's curator, Régis Huguenin, and his team for their warm welcome.

The archives of the Fédération Horlogère, Le Davoine and L'Impartial are available online at www.doc.rero.ch

About Time To Tell: Time To Tell has one of the largest private digitized databases on the history of Swiss watchmaking, with over 2.3 TB of data on more than 1,000 Swiss watch manufacturers. This database has been built up over a period of some thirty years, and continues to be fed with around 50 to 100 GB of data every year. The database is made up of old documents, mostly Swiss trade magazines, dating from the late 19th to the late 20th century. Most of these documents are not available on the Internet. Historical articles published on time2tell.com always cite the sources used.

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