Watch­maker Greubel Forsey shares its me­chan­i­cal vi­sion

Stephen Forsey, one half of Swiss lux­ury watch­maker Greubel Forsey, speaks to Gulf Busi­ness about the rad­i­cal vi­sion of his in­de­pen­dent brand

Gulf Business - - FRONT PAGE - By Varun God­inho

IT SEEMS SCARCELY be­liev­able that a watch­maker would state that its ex­is­ten­tial pur­pose is not to pro­duce watches for sale. But for the La- Chaux-de-Fonds head­quar­tered watch­maker, Greubel Forsey, its mis­sion state­ment couldn’t be clearer. “Our fo­cus has been to un­der­stand the me­chan­ics of time mea­sure­ment. Our in­ter­est as watch­mak­ers is to re­search and in­no­vate, which is why we’ve es­tab­lished our own in-house lab­o­ra­tory," says Stephen Forsey, who along with Robert Greubel es­tab­lished Greubel Forsey in 2004 as pri­mar­ily a me­chan­i­cal watch re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion divi­sion.

"Me­chan­i­cal time mea­sure­ment has ex­isted for a few hun­dred years. Dur­ing that time, it went from a big tower clock to a ta­ble clock to a coach watch to a pocket watch and then to a wrist­watch. We’ve seen minia­tur­i­sa­tion, but fun­da­men­tally the same con­cept each time."

Watch pro­duc­tion for sale is merely an an­cil­lary busi­ness. “Of course at some time we have to build time­pieces and get col­lec­tors to be our pa­trons to sup­port our work to feed the ma­chine,” ex­plains Forsey who says that there are a to­tal of 115 peo­ple em­ployed at Greubel Forsey and their com­bined out­put is only 105-110 watches man­u­fac­tured for sale an­nu­ally.

The in-house me­chan­i­cal watch re­search lab­o­ra­tory at Greubel Forsey has led to a trea­sure trove of in­ven­tions. The com­pany has cre­ated 22 cal­i­bres since its in­cep­tion, eight of which are cur­rently in pro­duc­tion.

There have been seven ‘me­chan­i­cal in­ven­tions' – seis­mic break­throughs in me­chan­i­cal watch­mak­ing – de­vel­oped by Greubel Forsey in the last decade-anda-half too. If you're won­der­ing just how sig­nif­i­cant those in­ven­tions are, think of the first one, the Dou­ble Tour­bil­lon 30°, in which two tour­bil­lons ro­tate at dif­fer­ent speeds and the cages are in­clined at an an­gle of 30 de­grees rel­a­tive to each other. The goal was to max­imise the ac­cu­racy of the watch and to prove that a tour­bil­lon wasn't just a dec­o­ra­tive ac­ces­sory on a time­piece but one that could take per­for­mance and ac­cu­racy to the next level.

Greubel Forsey en­tered the Dou­ble Tour­bil­lon Tech­nique watch into the In­ter­na­tional Chronom­e­try Com­pe­ti­tion in 2011 and won the prize for the most ac­cu­rate tour­bil­lon time­piece. “The first in­ven­tion was ground­break­ing be­cause it was a new gen­er­a­tion of tour­bil­lons. We won the chronom­e­try com­pe­ti­tion in 2011 and eight years later we still hold the record for the per­for­mance of a tour­bil­lon wrist­watch.”

More re­cently, Greubel Forsey bagged the ‘Me­chan­i­cal Ex­cep­tion' prize for its $1.1m Grande Son­nerie time­piece at last year's Grand Prix d'Hor­logerie de Genève – pop­u­larly dubbed as the Os­cars of the watch­mak­ing world.

Then there's the com­pany's ex­per­i­men­tal watch tech­nol­ogy pro­gramme, which has again rein­vented a few core pil­lars of watch­mak­ing. The lat­est con­cept watch in this cat­e­gory is the Nano Foudroy­ante EWT, a watch in which Greubel Forsey is ad­dress­ing two fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of me­chan­i­cal watch­mak­ing – how to mi­cro­engi­neer watch com­po­nents so that they use a min­i­mal amount of space (with­out com­pro­mis­ing on per­for­mance) and how to make watch me­chan­ics ul­tra ef­fi­cient in their power con­sump­tion. With the Nano Foudroy­ante EWT, now in the pro­to­type stage, Greubel Forsey has hit the jack­pot. The foudroy­ante sec­onds mech­a­nism is smaller than any other foudroy­ante ever cre­ated. “We've been able to use 85 per cent less vol­ume than a tra­di­tional mech­a­nism for the same dis­play and per­for­mance,” says Forsey.

“An ob­jec­tive of the me­chan­i­cal nano pro­ject is to be able to in­crease the run­ning time of the watch – for the same vol­ume and the same en­ergy – to be able to make

the run­ning time up to 60 times longer than we could in the past.”

It isn’t about cre­at­ing more en­ergy then, but rather us­ing the en­ergy cre­ated far more ef­fi­ciently that is at the heart of the me­chan­i­cal nano pro­ject. What that means is that this watch could pos­si­bly have a power re­serve of a stag­ger­ing 180 days.

Along­side me­chan­i­cal in­no­va­tions in watches like the Dif­féren­tiel d’Egal­ité and Dou­ble Balancier, an­other ma­jor fo­cus area of Greubel Forsey is to safe­guard tra­di­tional watch­mak­ing tech­niques. An ex­am­ple is the Nais­sance d’une Mon­tre time­piece. Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Du­four de­cided to take on an ap­pren­tice and show him how to hand­craft a tour­bil­lon watch from scratch. They chose French watch­maker Michael Boulanger and over a course of six years taught him to build the Nais­sance d’une Mon­tre watch com­pletely by hand – an art form that he can then pass on to some­one else as well.

Greubel Forsey lays great em­pha­sis on artisanal crafts. Time­pieces like the Art Piece 1, cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with nano artist Wil­lard Wi­gan in 2013, had a nano sculp­ture placed in­side the watch – Wi­gan’s shapes these sculp­tures un­der a mi­cro­scope dur­ing the time be­tween his heart­beats in or­der to avoid shak­ing. Cer­tain com­po­nents of these sculp­tures can be smaller than a red blood cell.

Tellingly, of the 115 em­ploy­ees, 22 have the sole job of dec­o­rat­ing and hand fin­ish­ing ev­ery sin­gle com­po­nent. Given that they only make around 105110 watches, it means that each of these in­di­vid­u­als on av­er­age work on only five watches a year.

There are only around 1,400 watches cre­ated by Greubel Forsey since its in­cep­tion, though its rep­u­ta­tion has spread across dozens of coun­tries. “For just over 100 pieces a year, we are present in 35 coun­tries and have 42-43 re­tail part­ners of sale. Since the very be­gin­ning we’ve never sold di­rect to col­lec­tors, but worked with the sup­port of spe­cial­ist re­tail­ers who un­der­stand the phi­los­o­phy of Greubel Forsey. They are like our am­bas­sadors. Ev­ery time we meet a col­lec­tor from a new re­gion we don’t know, we try and build a col­lab­o­ra­tion with an am­bas­sador from that re­gion, with that am­bas­sador be­ing a re­tailer,” says Forsey. Here in the UAE, the watch­maker has part­nered with Ahmed Sed­diqi and Sons. “We’ve part­nered with Sed­diqi since 2005, al­most at the be­gin­ning of Greubel Forsey. The Sed­diqi fam­ily are pas­sion­ate watch en­thu­si­asts and they could im­me­di­ately un­der­stand that we had a dif­fer­ent mis­sion at Greubel Forsey and so they sup­ported us from early on. I’ve been com­ing to Dubai ever since then.”

Forsey says that he’d pre­fer Greubel Forsey not to be re­ferred to as a ‘ brand’. “I don’t know if we can call our­selves a brand be­cause it im­plies global aware­ness, vol­umes and a mar­ket­ing-driven ori­en­ta­tion – we don’t have any of that. We are more of a sig­na­ture, much more con­fi­den­tial, be­cause of the chal­lenges and time in­vested into each piece. The watches are ex­clu­sive and rare. Robert Greubel and I are in­de­pen­dent and have com­plete con­trol over Greubel Forsey so we can de­cide what we can do and won’t do.” And what they won’t do is ramp up pro­duc­tion any­time soon – likely never.

"We won the chronom­e­try com­pe­ti­tion in 2011 and eight years later we still hold the record for the per­for­mance of a tour­bil­lon wrist­watch"

Greubel Forsey Nais­sance d’une Mon­tre

Greubel Forsey Dou­ble Balancier

The Greubel Forsey ate­lier in La Chaux-de-Fonds

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