Sound Engineering

It’s both a pleasure and a problem: the degree to which we get attached to inanimate objects. How many tears have been shed over lost earrings, or thousands spent propping up the never-visited family cottage? When a child uses your Loro Piana cardigan to polish her Tonka trucks, you needn’t shout. She is telling you that, cultural associations aside, you paid $2,250 for an object—one that is exceedingly good at wiping mud from a toy. 

And then there’s the elevated place in the human heart for machines that do reliable work: The Honda Civic that started every morning for 20 years, or the Minolta whose shutter snaps as strong as the day you bought it. Oftentimes, the irrational love object is a watch, marking millions of minutes. We prize constancy in our tools—a neat counterbalance to our own ebbing, failure-prone emotional architecture. 

ABOVE: Working with the high definition audio manufacturer Devialet, Ulysse Nardin has created an “enhanced audible experience” for the wrist, the Hourstriker Phantom, a limited-edition of 85 striking watches. Photo courtesy Ulysse Nardin.

Most animate of all watches—and arguably, most winsome and dangerous—is the striking watch. Like a twee grandfather clock, it sounds the hour, cheerfully, helpfully, a holdover from the days when the electric light, radium-painted dials and Indiglo were science fiction. Such a watch, in the 17th century, exalted its wearer as one of the few with the experience of a “nighttime,” rather than an inky, indefinite “night.” 

Today, striking watches remain helpful after dark and are a boon for the visually impaired. To collectors, and manufacturers, they also represent a bravura undertaking—to make one is to origami fold a symphony into the shape of a sugar cookie. 

Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin helped revive the striking watch in the 1980s and, this century, has evolved the craft with pieces like the Genghis Khan, featuring wee Mongolian horsemen automatons that strike bells on the hour and half-hour. To begin to consider the virtuosity required to fashion one, recall the last time you tried to fix your reading glasses with that tiny, deeply afflicting screwdriver.

ABOVE: The Gold Phantom Opera de Paris speaker by Devialet. Photo courtesy Ulysse Nardin.

Their latest effort is their loudest: the Phantom Hourstriker, with a novel striking mechanism that produces an 85 decibel chime. (For the layman, 85 decibels, according to OSHA, is the volume of a diesel train at 45 mph from 100 feet.) The clanging is loud but resonant, sweet and insistent, like the chimes of a Swiss braunvieh’s bell as it canters up a hill. 

According to Stéphane Von Gunten, Research and Innovation Director at Ulysse Nardin, only in collaboration with high-end French speaker manufacturer Devialet could such a sound be produced. The crucial handoff was between the acoustic expertise and computer modeling ability of Devialet and the almost two-century-old practice of the Ulysse Nardin watchmakers. Devialet modeled the mechanism on CAD, and Ulysse Nardin brought it to life in three dimensions. 

The result? A tempest in a timepiece. Beneath the titanium and glass is a platoon of torsion arms that carry the energy of the initial hammer hit from a steel blade gong through a plate and to the thin rear membrane, which acts as an amplifier. This sequence—or “sound chain”—efficiently transfers a huge amount of sound pressure to the exterior of the watch. Von Gunten explained that the final result, a low tone between 2kHz and 8 kHz, was chosen because low frequencies are more audible. Think foghorn, but again: dulcet. 

ABOVE: The satin-brushed anthracite dial is a nod to the Devialet Phantom’s protective net used over the tweeter. Photo courtesy Ulysse Nardin.

The shape of the case is standard, but eagle eyes will be drawn to the eight small openings in the back, which allow the sound to escape, like steam from a Bünder Nusstorte. The watch face features another, albeit arcane, allusion: a design of stylized “Chadni Figures,” or patterns that emerge when sound waves travel through thin metal planes covered in fine sand. A black alligator strap affixes the whole affair to your wrist. 

Want to close the clasp of an Hourstriker Phantom on a semi-regular basis? Establish some thunder down under (your shirt cuff)? Retail price is $72,500, if the appropriately-numbered 85 piece run hasn’t already run out.

For that sum, Ulysse Nardin makes a high-quality titanium machine, as punctilious as a parson, that can howl with the fury of a scorned goddess. Why not risk a little unwise attachment? 

ABOVE: With over 160 patent technologies, Devialet offers some of the most advanced sound systems in the world. Photo courtesy Ulysse Nardin.

And if the relationship gets too boisterous—you, boarding the 4:58 out of New York like a man with his mistress at the one restaurant in town, waiting for the situation to escalate—worry not.

There’s an “off” mechanism.