The Ulysse Nardin Sonata is a watch with an alarm complication, but it’s different from any other alarm wristwatch we’ve ever seen â and it looks the part. The styling for the Sonata has always been polarizing, but the new version is by far the most restrained version of this watch so far, and its less flashy appearance, its ease of use, and its technical sophistication make it one of the most interesting alarm watches out there.
The Ulysse Nardin Sonata has had an interesting history â the watch originally debuted in 2003 and at the time it was (and still is) quite unusual: It’s an alarm wristwatch that can be set, to the minute, to any time in a 24 hour day (most alarm watches have a 12 hour window for setting the alarm, but the Sonata has you covered for both AM and PM) and which, as well, chimes on a cathedral gong. Alarm watches that can be set to a specific hour and minute are very much the exception to the rule; one example is the Omega Memomatic. As many HODINKEE readers will know, most alarm watches work by means of a hammer striking a pin attached to the inner caseback, which produces a characteristic buzzing noise. Probably the most typical example of this complication is the famous Vulcain Cricket, which is extremely loud. There are very few other alarm watches that chime on a cathedral gong, which is a wire gong generally used only in sonneries and repeaters. Of course, one example of a watch with an alarm complication and which also uses steel gongs is Patek’s Grandmaster Chime.
In addition to the alarm function, there’s a countdown indicator showing approximate elapsed time until the alarm sounds, as well as a dual timezone function which is identical to that found in Ulysse Nardin’s Dual Time and GMT +/- Perpetual watches. The alarm is also coordinated with the GMT function, and when you switch timezones, the alarm countdown will add or subtract the number of hours’ difference between home and local time (as long as you remember to use the +/- pushers on either side of the case to re-set local time before falling asleep, an alarm set to wake you up at 8:00 AM in Geneva when you take off from New York, will wake you up at 8:00 AM Geneva time, not New York time).
The very first version of the Sonata from 2003 was aesthetically challenging, to put it mildly. It was a love-it-or-hate-it design and quite a few hardcore collectors and connoisseurs found it visually disharmonious, irrespective of how harmonious it might have been sonically, and expressed some skepticism over the general direction in which the design had been taken.Â
One such critic was Dr. Marcus Hanke, at ThePurists.com, who was present at the original launch. The first version of the Sonata was, like the present version, technically fascinating but the ovoid, skeleton hands in particular did not strike him as sympathetic, so to speak, with the rest of the design; he wrote: “The reason for my doubts are the hands. These are unlike anything I have seen before on a wristwatch; elegantly curved, they seem to connect architecture with music, their pointed heads featuring luminous mass…I like the hands, but they transport a completely different feeling than the cutout dial/Geneva stripes combination underneath. Together, they do not harmonize, but step on each other’s toes, to express it freely.”
Over the years, other versions of the Sonata have been produced, with somewhat more sober interpretations and the Classic version is very attractive, with its handsome blue-striped dial. It’s also considerably less cluttered looking than the original, thanks to the replacement of the original analog countdown dial with a graduated, colored countdown sector (rather like a power reserve indication) which, although it no longer shows the precise remaining time, makes for a cleaner look.Â
The speed at which the alarm chimes is controlled by a fly governor more or less identical to what you’d find in a minute repeater; the governor is visible through an aperture in the dial, and, as with the original, there’s an on-off indicator for the alarm rounding things out.
The watch sounds like it ought to require careful perusal of the owner’s manual before use, but in fact it’s so intuitive in its set-up that many owners with little experience of wristwatches will probably be able to figure out how to use it on their own (although reading the manual is probably not a terrible idea under any circumstances). The button in the crown on the left turns the alarm on and off, and in the first position the crown on the right winds the movement if turned clockwise, and the barrel for the alarm if wound counterclockwise (there’s a hard stop when the alarm’s fully wound). The two pushers, marked + and -, move the local time hour hand in one-hour jumps, forwards or backwards. There are no markers for the minutes/seconds but they’d have added some additional clutter to an already pretty busy dial, and I don’t think anyone will really miss them.
Ease of use is generally a major hallmark of Ulysse Nardin’s complications â a philosophy which goes all the way back to Dr. Ludwig Oechslin’s early work for the company. Â
The movement is Ulysse Nardin’s caliber UN-67, which is the most recent version of the caliber UN-66; UN-66 was used in the first version of the Sonata when it launched in 2003. It’s an extremely complex movement â there are over 400 parts â and while the UN-66 ran in 97 jewels, UN-67 runs in 109 (!). One of the most noticeable differences between UN-66 and 67 is that the newer version no longer has the numerical countdown timer, which as we’ve already mentioned, results in a cleaner dial. In both the older and newer versions of this movement, the only potential downside is that the alarm isn’t especially loud and if you’re a reasonably deep sleeper and you’ve set the alarm to go off when you’re deep in delta wave slumber, UN-67 may not be enough to rouse you to consciousness.
For all that the Sonata might have, in its original version, been a pretty challenging watch in terms of design (at least to many of us) over the years, it’s continued to evolve and I think the present version is pretty delectable, if still quite different â the Ulysse Nardin aesthetic which is derived from the almost violently disruptive Freak, has now become something we’ve all gotten a bit more used to, although it’s still very much off the beaten track. Cleaner design and generally more tractable aesthetics aside, this is one of the most intelligently designed watches I’ve ever used; its excellent ergonomics and very intuitive operation (as well as its generally idiot-proof design, which helps ensure it’s unlikely to be damaged by its owner) are both an encouragement to use the watch as the globe-trotter’s companion that it was meant to be.
The Ulysse Nardin Classic Sonata is a limited edition of just 99 pieces, priced at $28,000. It is available exclusively at Ulysse Nardin boutiques. For more, visit Ulysse Nardin online.
Movement, caliber UN-67, with silicon balance spring, balance roller, and guard pin. 42-hour power reserve. Â Hours, minutes, seconds; alarm on a cathedral gong; dual time system with big date and instantaneous timezone adjustment. Case, titanium and stainless steel; 44mm.