How is a watchmaking masterpiece born? The story of Greubel Forsey’s groundbreaking Double Tourbillon 30°. By Paul Ashton
Perhaps it’s not surprising that scientists and philosophers, searching for something that expresses the complexity and artistry of the universe, have often relied on the watchmaker analogy. There is something beautiful about a hand-crafted watch, from its familiar solid and elemental structures to the mysterious orbits at its heart. It’s a beguiling place, where the mechanical meets the magical.
At times, it’s micro-mechanical with the magic on a quantum scale. This is brought home to me in one of the pristine technical rooms at the Swiss headquarters of Greubel Forsey, a watchmaker producing, in strictly limited numbers, the highest of high-end watches. A technician shows me a tiny box. Inside are a number of – what exactly? Hard to tell with the naked eye. All I can see are a few flecks of indeterminate material that resolves – if I stare at it for long enough – into something rectangularish. A technician places the box under a microscope and I am amazed to see perfectly formed screws in carbon steel. At a millimetre long, they weren’t fashioned by specially trained ants, but on Greubel Forsey’s lathes. I’m shown a variety of tiny toothed wheels, engineered to within fractions of a millimetre on the bank of CNC machines – in fact, if you miss by a fraction of a millimetre, you’re missing by a mile. All of the items are produced in house to ensure quality levels.
Lilliputian engineering is one thing, but Stephen Forsey – who founded Greubel Forsey with Robert Greubel in 2004 – is keen to emphasise that the art is just as important as the craft. “Traditionally, watchmakers were movement manufacturers, and the case and all the rest came later. We’ve brought all these disciplines together to break down the barriers. We will alter the movement to suit the design, to get the result we want to,” he says.
It’s a company philosophy that comes from experience: “Robert and I were working together in the 1990s making complicated mechanical movements, but we rarely met the designer. It was one of the frustrations for us. Here, the designer is integrated very early into the process, working with the movement technician. What Robert and I have tried to do is consider the watch as a whole.”
The beating heart of a finely crafted modern watch is the tourbillon, the hypnotically moving caged part of the movement that counteracts the effect of gravity on the watch’s ability to keep time. Though not new – it dates from the late 18th Century – it’s a fascinating interaction of gears and levers, and an opportunity for a watchmaker to show his virtuosity. It was an opportunity that Greubel Forsey grasped when they launched their first watch at Baselworld in 2004. The Double Tourbillon 30 ̊ has two of them.
The inner tourbillon, rotating every 60 seconds, is set at a 30 ̊ angle to the outer, which itself rotates every four minutes. That angle, combined with the different rotation speeds ensures that the watch’s balance – which rotates back and forth, keeping time – oscillates on all planes to average out positional errors. It was a four-year development but Greubel Forsey managed to keep the outer cage to just 15mm in diameter. The 128 components create tourbillons weighing just 1.17g.
The initial driver for the Double Tourbillon came from Robert and Stephen’s earlier work together. “We had worked on a lot of tourbillon doing is finding a traditional watchmaking DNA and adding an exquisite finish. The colour of the finish of the movement on the Double Tourbillon is reminiscent of fire-gilding, a process that you can no longer do because it involves mercury and is highly toxic. Today we use a galvanic process, but we are keen to reflect the tradition.”
You can see that past-meets-present theme reflected in Greubel Forsey’s facility – visitors enter a restored 17th century farmhouse which serves as the reception and communal area, before walking through to an avant-garde glass building where the legion of watchmakers, designers, finishers and technicians work. And the farmhouse itself provides an even more direct link to the origins of Swiss watchmaking: because of the altitude, local farmers, turned their attention to watchmaking when winter closed in.
In the assembly department seven watchmakers – a much younger team than I expected – painstakingly put together the watches from the engineered pieces, with one watchmaker taking control of one watch. A tourbillon takes about a month to assemble, and a whole movement, including testing, takes about six months. Working with the glass pressed close in on an eye, the watchmaker must clean each of the parts with black polish. Greubel Forsey’s most complicated watch – the Quadruple Tourbillon – has 590 components.
In the finishing department, all manner of alchemy takes place. Every surface of every component is hand finished – even the ones you won’t see. I watch a laser engraving mini-text onto the bridge of the Invention Piece. This text is Greubel Forsey’s mission statement, but it is for the owner’s eyes only (you get an accompanying scroll). A young woman shows me how she finishes a tourbillon bridge: hand brushing, with impressive concentration, to create a frosted decoration on the bridge. A fraction too heavy or too light and the pattern is lost as easily as if it were sand blown away by the wind. After this, it will be given a galvanic gold treatment.
It is no wonder, perhaps, that superyacht owners are often watch collectors. There is a surprising synergy between what Greubel Forsey do and what, say, Feadship do: a superyacht and a modern watch are each a finely finished example of the mechanical and the creative, where the vividness of the modern meets the reassurance of the traditional. So do Greubel Forsey get requests for bespoke items? “There are certain things we can do very readily. We’re happy to do engraving and small details such as a special dial. And if there’s a collector who really wants something that is unique in terms of mechanism then we can offer that too,” says Stephen.
“When we started out we did wonder if there were enough people who’d want something of such complexity. It was a leap of faith to think there was a client out there for the Double Tourbillon.” But thankfully the client list is healthy, and the staff has grown from an initial eight to 75 today. What has not changed is the concentration on exclusivity: just 100 to 110 numbered timepieces a year. “We work with specialist retailers, such as Marcus, who have the contacts with potential collectors. We have to make sure we reach these people.”
When you see the astonishing work that goes into a fine watch – the time it involves, the number of people, the collective levels of concentration – you begin to realise the appeal of ownership: to glance at one’s wrist and to enjoy a privileged moment with this small part of the universe, where the artisan and the artist come together in perfect harmony. SyW
This feature is taken from the September/October 2011 edition of SuperYacht World. Click here to buy the issue for your iPad.