If you’re into the design of mobile phones, or high-end watches, there’s a good chance you will have read about Ulysse Nardin’s launch of a ‘hybrid’ cell phone recently. Developed in partnership with SCI Innovations, the Chairman is aimed at the luxury end of the market currently inhabited by Vertu and a few smaller industry players. Unlike those manufacturers however, Ulysse Nardin has a huge amount of experience and brand heritage, and is widely respected for it’s ability to combine traditional watchmaking skills with technological advancements (Ulysse Nardin has been granted more patents in mechanical watchmaking than any other manufacturer). This product represents a significant milestone for Ulysse Nardin – not only is it the first digital product they have made, it is also the first time they have partnered with another company. It is also significant for me personally, given that the industrial design of the product was carried out by my consultancy, Matt Sinclair Design.
Ulysse Nardin Chairman in rose gold © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
Although the product has been publicly launched, there are a number of issues which remain confidential. Pricing, availability and delivery schedules are commercially sensitive for example, and a number of features are the subject of ongoing patent application processes. If you are interested to know more about the product your first point of information should be through this contact page. However in this post I will try to give an overview of the design and highlight the most significant aspects. I also intend to incorporate this project into my PhD thesis, and in later posts I will go into more detail about the design process, and explain why this inclusion is relevant and justified.
Rotor detail © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
Without doubt one of the most striking elements of the design, and the one which has attracted most attention, is the rotor on the back of the phone. This feature has been a requirement from the very first briefing document, and to a certain extent has driven the design of the whole product. Such rotors, which automatically wind a spring to power a watch, are a visible feature of all Ulysse Nardin watches. By requiring such an intricate and highly engineered component to be incorporated into the phone – a component which so clearly alludes to the brand’s heritage – a benchmark for the design and quality of the whole product was clearly set. The design and construction of the phone, whether viewed as a whole or by looking at individual features, had to meet the same exacting standards that Ulysse Nardin apply to all their products.
Reverse view of the rose gold version © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
The inclusion of the rotor, which was specially designed to charge a supplementary battery rather than wind a watch spring, also highlights another key philosophy behind the design and specification of the phone. In today’s mobile phone market, the ‘top end’ is almost exclusively involved in a race to add technological complexity. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it often takes place with little thought as to the actual benefits to the customer. A product which has been bought because it is at the cutting edge also dates quickly, as soon as a slightly better model is launched in fact. Rather than try to compete in this race, the Chairman phone innovates in an entirely new way. In this respect it is similar to Ulysse Nardin watches such as the Perpetual Calendars – the only mechanical watches to allow simultaneously synchronised adjustments of the minutes, hours, day and year indicators. Being the first mobile phone manufacturer to add a mechanical charging device not only indicates a new approach to thinking about the design of such products, it also creates a striking feature around which subsequent phones, and an underlying brand language, can be based.
Ulysse Nardin GMT ± Perpetual © Ulysse Nardin
In the early conceptual phase of the design, it soon became clear that, for a number of reasons, the best way to think about the mechanical construction of the phone was likely to be by designing a modular product. This was not a particularly ingenious insight: a modular approach lends itself to smaller production runs because the gains achieved by integrated approaches are typically only realised with the economies of scale offered by mass manufacturing techniques. However a modular construction would offer much more than just a default way to progress. Firstly, a further key criteria for the design was that the product should be customisable, as this would allow for product variants and limited editions – an important tool in the luxury goods market. Modularity allows parts to be interchanged, for example a gold cover on one variant can be replaced by a steel cover on another. Furthermore, such modularity allows customisation decisions to be made later, meaning they can be more responsive to customer requests, since they are not dependent on tooling schedules or economics. And finally, modularity enables another important aspect of the experience of owning the product – the offer of a guarantee to repair the phone, no matter how it is damaged. By utilising a modular construction, the Chairman can be disassembled and parts repaired or replaced, in a way that is generally impossible, or simply uneconomic, with conventionally manufactured products.
Limited Edition in carbon fibre and steel, based on the Ulysse Nardin Diver Perpetual © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
A mobile phone is in many ways a very different product to a watch, even if both have been designed as luxury items – it uses digital rather than mechanical technologies, it belongs to a relatively immature industry rather than one which has evolved over centuries, it is perceived as a tool of everyday use rather than an item to be brought out only on special occasions etc. Nonetheless, it was important to come up with a design and develop a design language which would complement Ulysse Nardin’s existing products, without creating a pastiche of styling cues. To help achieve this I analysed a significant number of Ulysse Nardin watches, grouping them into categories of my own making, and noting the similarities and differences. One particular insight which informed all the concepting work was that, compared to other brands, Ulysse Nardin watches appear less ‘severe’ and less ‘machined’. They are often more detailed and decorated than the plain, stark surfaces of competitors. Edges are more rounded, and metal surfaces are generally more polished (ie glossy). My impression was that although these are undoubtedly ‘masculine’ products, they are not being purchased by customers who feel the need to assert their masculinity.
Ulysse Nardin Chairman in rose gold and steel © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
As well as arriving at some broad guidelines which would help direct the design of the product, a list of features and details was also collated which would help the phone sit more comfortably within the Ulysse Nardin design language. The intention here was not necessarily to incorporate all these details into the design, but rather to gain a sensitivity to some of the clues which would identify a particular design as a Ulysse Nardin product:
Individually numbered products.
Visible screws on the rear.
Discrete (ie individual) buttons rather than grouped buttons. This implies smaller buttons with space around, rather than larger buttons whose edges touch.
Buttons should be prominent from the surface of the product, rather than flush with the surface.
Micro textures and patterns under the glass. Could also be replicated on the rear of the product.
Place emphasis on the thickness of the product, rather than the width or length.
Analogue dials to display information such as date or timezone
Colours: silver, gold, black, Ulysse Nardin blue. Red for emphasis.
Possible materials: gold, rose gold, stainless steel, platinum, titanium, rhodium, palladium, carbon fibre, zirconium dioxide (or similar ceramic), sapphire crystal, leather…
Ulysse Nardin Chairman in rose gold © Ulysse Nardin / SCI Innovations
In all, this project has been a fantastic experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to work with materials and production techniques which previous, mainstream consumer electronics projects have not allowed, and it has taught me a huge amount about the expectation of quality which the watchmaking industry accepts without question. Of course, I can’t consider my work done until products are in the hands of customers, and even then I expect to be receiving feedback which could inform the design of subsequent products. But right now, it’s extremely satisfying to know how well the Chairman has been received by both client and customers, and simply to be able to tell people about something I’ve been itching to show but have had to keep secret.