Ulysse Nardin Woos Chinese With Historical Anchor Plus Futuristic Bent

PARIS — New generations of Chinese consumers are discovering Ulysse Nardin, some through extravagant pop-up installations streaked with neon lights — outlining its signature X, which features on diver and skeleton watches — and huge models of sharks.

This story first appeared in the April 7, 2021 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

One of a slew of European luxury labels clamoring to meet Chinese consumers on their home turf with immersive, experience-oriented set-ups, the label’s sporty thrust and atypical designs, anchored by its marine heritage and an unusual stamp of early legitimacy, are helping build relevance with certain high-end consumers.

“We’ve got good momentum in the Chinese market,” said Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive officer of the Kering-owned watchmaker. “The market understands the historic side of the brand — the marine heritage — and we see consumers there are really interested in both the disruptive and historic watchmaking sides of the brand, with the Freak, the Blast and X,” he added.

The tradition-busting Freak watch famously debuted in the early Aughts with no case, crown or hands, while the Blast has an assertive, masculine edge.

Adding to its historic credibility, the label was referenced early on in the Chinese encyclopedia Cihai. A copy of the first edition, published in the 1930s, features the term ‘chronometer,’ naming Nardin as making the best one in the world. No other watch labels are mentioned in the reference book, a copy of which is on display in the label’s Shanghai boutique.

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The brand has been reinforcing its physical presence in the country, and opened four stores over the past two years: two in Shanghai, one in Beijing and one in Chengdu.

“We are after measured expansion, it’s not our role to be widely distributed, but we’re in nice locations with good partners — we’re quite satisfied with this,” said Pruniaux.

Online, the brand is distributed through Farfetch in the country, and is rolling out its own e-commerce this year.

Ulysse Nardin pop-up store in Chengdu Courtesy of Ulysse Nardin/Akai Chenke

Reflecting on the country’s evolving tastes, consumers of high-end watches are looking for fresh styles, noted the executive.

“A good number have really shifted from classic luxury consumption for classic watchmaking for a more sporty, and contemporary style — we have a good offer to meet them,’’ he said, pegging the age range of the brand’s clients in the country at between 30 and 40 years old — younger than in other markets.

Stores and sprawling temporary set-ups project the label’s modern bent, but also make links to the brand’s history.

“When people say we have an audacious approach to watchmaking, well, it didn’t start yesterday — this is both attractive and reassuring,” said Pruniaux.

The house has reinforced teams in China over the past three years, and now has local headquarters in Shanghai. A combination of close coordination with teams in Switzerland, combined with autonomy for local teams there has been key to the brand’s strategy.

“They have a big influence on our strategy, we are constantly in contact with them — they play a very important role,” he said, describing the teams in the country.

The brand, which is taking part in both the Geneva and Shanghai legs of Watches and Wonders, will present its Blast hourstriker watch, with an automatic flying tourbillon for the movement and a price tag of $104,000, as well as an unusual table clock dubbed the UFO.

A reinvention of the chronometer that transposes the movement of a wave into the mechanical realm, the UFO sits in an aluminum and blown-glass case, weighing just over seven kilos. The idea was to pay homage to the label’s origins — which date back 175 years — making chronometers for sea navigation, by imagining what such an instrument would look like another 175 years from now.

“We wondered what a marine chronometer designed in 2196 would be like,” said Pruniaux.

Asked about the importance for the brand of coming up with unconventional pieces, the executive suggested the strategy is necessary.

“It’s our DNA — we don’t have a choice. It’s who we are as a company — and who we are, period. It’s absolutely essential,” he said. “One of our values is this freedom of tone.”

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