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Ulysse Nardin art deco tank 1947
Dating from 1947, this completely original black dialled gentleman’s Ulysse Nardin is very much a collector’s watch, and an item that will attract the buyer who is capable of assessing a timepiece on the basis of the quality of its mechanism, rather than one who purchases simply on the basis of brand recognition. Founded in 1846, this small Le Locle house has always been regarded as something of a purist’s manufacturer, and as a consequence of the limited scale of its operations, has remained largely unknown to the general public at large. If we stopped a hundred people at random in any city centre in the UK or the USA and asked them if they had ever heard of Ulysse Nardin, it would be surprising if any of them answered that they had. Yet the standard to which this firm’s vintage output was engineered and hand finished was, literally, second to none. The low key image of Ulysse Nardin is very appealing, and there are many collectors would much rather wear the piece here than its equivalent by Rolex, Omega or Jaeger LeCoultre from the same period.
Today, Ulysse Nardin continues, still building exceptionally fine watches for an educated clientele. The majority of the visitors to this site will already be familiar with the remarkable achievements of this house, but for anyone who is not, it will prove worthwhile to have a glance at the firm’s current website.
The condition of this particular watch is almost perfect, and while, if one looks closely enough with a jeweller’s eyeglass, there are a few tiny imperfections here and there, it is immediately obvious that it has only been worn on a limited number of occasions in the past. The elongated case ( with a length of a hair under 34mm) is in a very distinctive style, and while it takes the rectangular tank form that was very much in vogue in the inter-war period, it has the added twist of an angled striped section at either end, which gives the whole thing strong art deco overtones. A combination of a gold-filled front and stainless steel back is employed here, this immediately suggesting to us that the watch was sold when new in the USA. At this time, the import taxes levied on Swiss made good entering America were punitive in the extreme, and by importing only uncased movements, which were not subject to import duty at the same high rate, Ulysse Nardin, and its competitors, could still keep their products commercially viable in the face of stiff competition from domestic makers.
While not signed as such, having studied its construction at some length, we would be very confident in attributing this case to the Keystone Watch Case Co, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The serial number on the outside of the case, 230841, would fit in perfectly with Keystone’s records from 1947, and would tie in perfectly with the date of the movement. The company was one of the most respected of all the American case makers, and its work was used almost as a standard on LeCoultre, Longines and Ulysse Nardin models intended for the American market. Interestingly, the quality of its production was so exceptional that the firm was contracted to case flight instruments by the US government in World War II, but despite various lucrative contracts in this area, closed its doors for the last time in 1956.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this piece is its exceptionally attractive black dial. In the vintage watch world, it is universally accepted that, with only a tiny handful of very specific exceptions, black dialled examples are worth considerably more than their white dialled equivalents. The reasons for the disparity in value caused by a simple difference in dial colour are difficult to define exactly, but they stem from the dual factors of black dials tending to have been produced in smaller quantities in the first instance, and that they simply look very eye catching and dramatic. Unlike those on so many older watches, the dial on this one is completely original and has never been restored. Despite this authenticity, it remains in virtually perfect condition and is free from damage or deterioration. While black dials don’t suffer from the staining by dirt that so affects their white counterparts, they are vulnerable to fading if exposed to bright sunlight over any prolonged length of time, with the result that many that started off jet black are now a distinctly charcoal grey shade. The buyer of this watch need have no such concerns, and it would be accurate to say that its dial is effectively the same as it was when the piece was new in 1947.
One of the most difficult aspects for the newcomer to grasp is how dial format can dramatically alter the market value of a watch. While the case and movement may be identical, the layout of a dial, and the arrangement of its batons and numerals, can, quite literally in some cases, double or triple a piece’s value. When buying items for our stock, we are particularly interested in those on which the dials were especially attractive, with the consequence that many of the vintage watches for sale on this site come with dial variants that are difficult to find and not often seen elsewhere. The combination here of circular dots and large art deco arrowhead batons at the compass points is a very attractive one. In common with the original gilt hands, these batons and dots are completely free from corrosion and are still bright and shiny.
Vintage wristwatches are bought for a whole variety of reasons, but the buyer of this piece will almost certainly be an experienced collector who understands why Ulysse Nardin production from the heyday of the Swiss watch industry was so exceptional. Dials and case types will define and influence market value enormously, but the decision to buy a certain model of watch will almost always come from the knowledge that the mechanism contained within it is of the highest technical standard. Ulysse Nardin movements from the 1930s and ‘40s are particularly coveted on account of the company being one of only very few that had true “manufacture” status. For the uninitiated, it should be explained that this term is the one used within the Swiss watch industry to describe a house that has the capability to create its own movements from scratch without the need to purchase component parts from external sources. While this may seem fundamental, the truth is that, then as now, the vast majority of the key brands actually purchased ebauches, raw unfinished movements in their most basic state, from one of Switzerland’s corporate producers, and then proceeded to finish these as required, adding their own famous signatures along the way.
When viewed logically, if the ebauche from which a movement is created is of the best possible quality, there is no drawback to this type of unit from an engineering and technical perspective. The reasons that many modern collectors are increasingly drawn to manufacture built watches are perhaps more emotive. It can be extremely disillusioning to find that essentially the same movement, albeit in more crudely finished form, that is fitted to a watch that one has just paid a substantial sum of money to acquire, is also to be found in a variety of lesser watches by inferior brands, at much lower price levels. Ulysse Nardin movements from this period were created in-house under one roof in Le Locle, and are a genuine, undiluted product of this famous firm. These mechanisms represent the combined effort of an identifiable group of Ulysse Nardin employees and they are to be found in no other watch, by any maker.
Even fifteen years ago, when the market was far less informed than it is today, there wasn’t such emphasis placed on the manufacture issue, but a widespread interchange of detailed information, this being aided by the pervasion of the internet, has increasingly led to buyers being far more concerned that the movement contained in a watch they are considering buying was actually made by the company that signed it. Vintage Ulysse Nardin watches for sale in original condition are not cheap, but their integrity gives them an awful lot of credibility with connoisseurs and can withstand the most critical scrutiny with ease.
Another point that we constantly hammer home is that it is not enough to buy a watch purely on the basis of its initial quality. In the final analysis, however well made it was in the first instance, a watch movement is nothing more than a piece of high precision machinery, and will suffer horrendously if neglected and starved of lubrication. Quality servicing on a mechanism of this type isn’t terribly expensive, and if a basic clean and oil is performed every three or four years, a watch of this high grade will effectively be capable of running almost forever. While beautifully finished, these hand wound movements are quite simple and, as a consequence, tend to be very reliable if treated sensibly.
This particular movement is in extremely good condition, and it is not easy to differentiate between it and its equivalent in a brand new watch. Every surface and gear wheel gleams brightly, and there is not even the slightest hint of dulling to its rhodium plated finish, let alone corrosion. The entire upper surface of the movement is finished with wide Geneva stripes, these having been polished into the plates by hand with a rotating boxwood disk. Rather than being left plain, the plate edges are bevelled, and the jewels are of enormous size.
The signature “Ulysse Nardin, Watch & Chronom. Corp of America, Swiss, Seventeen Jewels, Adjusted Temperature” is stated on the bridge, together with the individual serial number for this unit, 531312. Notice how the Ulysse Nardin movements that were regulated to chronometer standard, like the one here, were assigned serial numbers, whereas no attempt was made to differentiate one example of the company’s routine production from another. Under strict Swiss law regarding chronometer testing, each movement that is submitted to the observatories for accuracy trials must have its own unique number in order that the potential for fraud is reduced and each item can be instantly identified at any stage of the testing procedure. It is a worthwhile habit to check that a watch is that is stated as being a chronometer on its dial also has a reference to temperature and positional adjustment on its movement, and a serial number. The unscrupulous will sometimes add the chronometer word to a dial to boost value, and checking for inconsistencies of this kind will weed out quickly those examples that are obviously not entirely as they should be.
It hardly needs to be said that, having been serviced on a regular basis throughout its life, this watch works perfectly today. Its movement contains no non-original parts whatsoever and has no evidence of any past repair work having ever been performed. All slotted screw heads are free from chewing and fortunately, it is clear that at no time has the piece ever falling into the hands of amateur or incompetent watchmakers.
We have fitted the watch with a black crocodile skin type strap and this remains in almost mint condition, having never been used. This is not a genuine Ulysse Nardin strap, the original having deteriorated to the extent that it was no longer serviceable, but it is almost identical in both appearance and construction to those supplied by the company in the 1940s, and certainly need not be changed in the foreseeable future.
Among the vintage watches for sale on this site, this is certainly an item that stands out. Its looks are dramatic, while the subtlety of the Ulysse Nardin name ensures that this item could never be regarded as ostentatious or vulgar. This is the perfect example for the buyer who wants to be confident that his timepiece is of the very highest possible quality, but who also takes a delight in wearing something rather more subtle than the collector’s set pieces by Rolex, Omega and Jaeger LeCoultre.
Primarily because relatively few wartime era Ulysse Nardin examples appear on the market, they are fairly difficult to value accurately. The London based auction house Sotheby’s included the identical twin to the watch here as lot 118 in its 19th November 1992 Geneva sale “Important Watches, Wristwatches and Clocks”. This had exactly the same striped case, movement and black dial, with the same distinctive mixture of circular dots and arrowhead batons, but was dated as being from 1945, two years earlier than this example. The pre-sale estimate for this lot was 2700 to 3000 Swiss francs, this equating to approximately £1000 to £1150 GB pounds. Even twenty years ago, it would have been a surprise if this estimate was not significantly exceeded, and today, not even the most incorrigible optimist would hope to secure the piece for this sum in a competitive prestigious auction environment.
The price of this watch is £1200 GB pounds. As a business, our policy is to try to significantly undercut both the specialist vintage watch shops in central London and the Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams auction houses. We can achieve this in almost every instance simply because of our location up in Yorkshire, in the north of the UK, rather than in the capital where commercial overheads are enormous. We work on a small profit margin and have been successful by turning stock over relatively quickly rather than having the same items sitting behind plate glass in Bond Street for months or even years on end. This is a lovely item of Ulysse Nardin’s superb work from the immediate post-war years and if it could be found in London, the asking price needed to secure it would be vastly greater than that needed to acquire it here.