Remembering Rolf W Schnyder of Ulysse Nardin
Owner and CEO of Ulysse Nardin, Rolf W. Schnyder, reached for the stars when he created the first astronomical wristwatch. Time ’n Style pays tribute to an innovator whose passion and vision led Ulysse Nardin to reach its pinnacle of success
Date of Birth: 31 July 1935(1935-07-31)
Place of Birth: Zurich, Switzerland
At the Basel fair held in March earlier this year, Ulysse Nardin raised a toast to its owner and president, Rolf W. Schnyder, by presenting a limited edition Freak Diavolo. The collection was designed to commemorate Schnyder’s numerous achievements. However, on April 14, 2011, Schnyder passed away; he would have celebrated his 75th birthday this year. Schnyder’s tryst with timekeeping started at the young age of 22, when he was sent to Bangkok by a Swiss Trading Company to distribute Swiss watches. It marked the beginning of his 53-year journey in the world of watches. He is credited with setting up dial and watch case factories in Kuala Lumpur and Manila, respectively. All these units produced precision watch components for export to Switzerland. In a press release issued by the company at the Basel fair, Schnyder recounted his journey, “I found the exotic adventure I was yearning for—I discovered places no Swiss person had ever set foot (and even wrote about them for Swiss and other publications. I learned the language, roamed the country, selling Swiss watches and made my start as an entrepreneur. This area of Asia was unchartered territory for Europeans at that time, so I was able to do things impossible to do now, like building a raft at the Burmese border and floating down the famous River Kwai, camping on the beach at Phuket, spending time in Laos and Vietnam during the war, visit China during the Cultural Revolution, and more.”
Among his many interests, Schnyder played rugby for the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, organised tours for Europeans to Thailand and Cambodia, and competed in water ski marathons. In 1983, on one of his annual visits to St. Moritz, Schnyder found out that Ulysse Nardin was up for sale. Despite the bleak economic conditions and the company’s performance, Schnyder took on the challenge. By setting emphasis on innovation, he introduced the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, the Planetarium Copernicus, the Tellurium Johannes Kepler, the Minute Repeater Jaquemart San Marco, the Freak, and the Genghis Khan.
Family ties: Schnyder often shuttled between work in Switzerland and Malaysia, his home. Here, he lived with his Sarawakian wife Chai and three teenage children.
Personality: An explorer at heart with a passion for adventure, Schnyder travelled the globe. His travels took him through Thailand, Laos, Bali, Cambodia, China, South Vietnam and Japan. He even spent three months in the South Pacific sailing through the islands, from Fiji, Tonga to Tahiti and Bora Bora. Unafraid of challenges, he took over the reins of Ulysse Nardin and focused on mechanical watches, at a time when quartz watches were in demand. He correctly anticipated the return of mechanical watches. He gauged that innovation and craftsmanship would pave the way for its success. His innovative mind led to the design of the first astronomical wristwatch. The crisis stricken Ulysse Nardin was gracefully led to the top by Schnyder.
Hobbies: As Schnyder loved to travel he also wrote about his travel experiences. A report on River Kwai was published by a magazine Schweizer Illustrierte along with a picture clicked by Schnyder of River Kwai as the cover in 1959. In addition to writing and photography, he played rugby at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.
2003: “Spirit of Enterprise” Gaia Award by Musée International d'Horlogerie
2011: “Lifetime Achievement Award” by Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve Asian Edition
The Astrolabium Galileo Galilei watch was featured as the first astronomical wristwatch in the Guinness Book of World Records. Schnyder continued to lead Ulysse Nardin with timepieces that won awards.
2002: Watch of the Year Innovation Prize – The Freak
2003: Watch of the Year – Genghis Khan
2004: Watch of the Year – Sonata