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Vintage Ulysse Nardin Watches For Sale
Vintage Ulysse Nardin watches occupy an interesting niche in the world of collectible horology. The quality of the firm’s movements has always been absolutely first rate and its cases were finished to a superb standard, but curiously, the business has remained a far lower key concern than most of its competitors. For many potential buyers for whom a Rolex might be a little too showy and ostentatious, a vintage Ulysse Nardin might make an ideal choice. The general public won’t recognise the brand, but experienced vintage watch connoisseurs most certainly will, finding its subtle, cultured image extremely appealing.
Ulysse Nardin was founded in 1846 in the Swiss town of Le Locle, which many readers will recognise as also being the home of the Zenith company. From the outset, the firm targeted the top level of the watch market and quickly realised that by achieving very public success in chronometer accuracy contests held within the Swiss watch industry and at the major world trade exhibitions, a superb reputation could be established that would enable the company to charge a premium for its products. In 1862, Ulysse Nardin won the gold medal at the London Exhibition, spectacularly beating all other entrants. This achievement and, almost unbelievably, over 4300 other awards, had an enormous benefit in defining Ulysse Nardin’s enduring image as the maker of very high grade, sophisticated watches for a small, discerning customer base. To this day, Ulysse Nardin has registered more patents for technical breakthroughs than any other Swiss luxury watch manufacturer.
Over the years, we’ve had quite a number of early vintage Ulysee Nardin watches for sale. Interestingly, these don’t tend to be from the World War I era, but usually from just after, typically from the mid to late 1920s. Almost without exception, these have had Swiss rather than British hallmarks and it seems to follow that the majority of Ulysse Nardin pieces from this era were sold new either in Europe or in the USA, where the company had been represented since 1860. We try to carry a carefully chosen selection of both European and USA market vintage Ulysse Nardin watches, with cases manufactured in their respective continents of sale in order to avoid high rates of taxation on imported Swiss watches at the time.
Ulysse Nardin has always been a small elite company rather than a mass market brand. Its production figures have never been made public, but it is obvious that these were tiny when compared to those of the industry giants. On page 219 of Gerald Viola’s excellent book Time in Gold, it is suggested that Ulysse Nardin’s sixteen staff produced quantities of between 2500 to 3500 pieces per year, though unless Mr. Viola had access to company archives, there may be a considerable degree of speculation in this figure. Lacking the capital to develop new movement calibres of its own, Ulysee Nardin gradually began to purchase movements in raw, unfinished form from third party suppliers and re-work these in-house to its own specifications. Certainly, careful examination of post-war vintage Ulysse Nardin watches will reveal the source of the basic movement blanks from which they are derived. Some of the most technically impressive vintage watches we’ve bought and sold have been Ulysse Nardin models from the 1950s. The pettiest of purists may disapprove of the use of externally sourced movement blanks, but the fact is that the end result after processing in Ulysse Nardin’s workshops was so superbly finished and regulated that it could only ever be criticised in a rather jealous way on purely emotive, rather than logical, grounds. We see a parallel situation in the luxury car industry, with small independent brands, like Bristol and the sports car makers TVR and Lotus, purchasing engines from other, larger manufacturers before rebuilding and tuning them in their own facilities. The cost of designing, testing and manufacturing either a car engine or a watch movement from scratch is enormous and simply not something that would ever be economically viable for a niche market concern.
Ironically, Ulysse Nardin’s staunch refusal to lower standards almost led to the company being consigned to oblivion during the quartz crisis of the 1970s. The whole traditional Swiss watch industry was rocked to the core by the influx of imported battery powered watch movements and there simply wasn’t a place in the market for a small operation painstakingly manufacturing tiny numbers of very costly high precision mechanical watches. Thankfully, Ulysse Nardin was pulled back from the brink in 1982 when it was bought by the Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Schnyder who appreciated that to lose such a remarkable brand, with a history of so much technical achievement behind it, would have been a tragedy.
Today, Ulysse Nardin continues in much the same way that it always has, in its role as a low profile producer of expensive, extremely well made watches for a small and educated audience. We don’t see Ulysse Nardin watches in the high street and they are sold through a small network of independent jewellers in the most prestigious areas of the world’s major cities. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear that Ulysse Nardin even has a British distributor, and it appears that those central London outlets that carry its watches purchase them directly from the factory in LeLocle. It is difficult to imagine anyone buying a Ulysse Nardin, either vintage or modern, who wasn’t a genuine watch enthusiast and equally, it remains one of the most respected brands among those who genuinely understand what goes on inside their watches and are capable of judging them on finish and construction standard. Ulysse Nardin is not at all a fashion house or a lifestyle company, but is a very serious watch making brand that has, from day one, pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved in mechanical movement design and refinement.
Classic Ulysse Nardin watches are certainly very safe purchases that will continue to appreciate in value in the future. The brand has a lot of accumulated credibility with collectors and it is almost impossible to envisage any scenario that could result in this being lost. When the quality of their movements is taken into account, they are undoubtedly very undervalued at the moment and if “discovered” by a wider audience, their values will jump dramatically, just as those of competitor IWC did in the late 1990s when appreciation of what had previously been a very low profile company filtered through to a much wider audience following its takeover by the Richemont group. All high quality vintage wristwatches have proved to be excellent investments over the last twenty five years and during this time, the worth of Ulysse Nardin pieces has climbed steadily, never dipping in value at any point, despite the prevailing economic climate. In almost every Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams specialist wristwatch sale of the last two decades, there have been vintage Ulysse Nardin pieces and these have, without exception, sold for good, solid prices.
In the final analysis, personality will play a significant part in an individual’s decision as to whether to buy a vintage Ulysse Nardin watch. The quality of these items is as good as it gets and their appearance is very attractive, but perhaps more fundamental than this in the eyes of many fans of the brand is its upmarket, tasteful image. There is nothing in the slightest bit vulgar or ostentatious about the classic Ulysse Nardin models and for this reason alone, there will always be a discreet section of the vintage watch buying public that will choose watches by this house as its first preference.