Friday, 3 September 2010

Greubel Forsey... It’s A Kind of Magic


I had the distinct pleasure of spending some time with Stephen Forsey a few months back and blame it on my busy schedule to have taken this long to share words and photos from our encounter then. My thanks to Stephen for his time, the great communications folks at Greubel Forsey and team at Yafriro for setting this up.

Stephen was in town as well to launch the latest offering from Greubel Forsey,
the Double Tourbillon 30° Edition Historique and also meet with their customers in Singapore. Their authorised retailer here, Yafriro, also has plans of setting up a dedicated space for Greubel Forsey in their Marina Bay Sands shop in time to come which is definitely a good thing.

DT30° Edition Historique


The following then is a short writeup from my chat with Stephen.


In a world where exclusivity matters, where art, science and mechanics are very much part of the equation and where words like isochronism, positional performance and differentials are part of the vernacular, there are two watchmakers who have come together to successfully marry these unique and somewhat disparate elements in spectacular fashion.

In my mind, technical wizardry materialised in gears and beating escapements, eking out microseconds of improvement from ticking machines and the creation of visual splendour at the same time is almost an arcane magic. So on to meeting one of the foremost wizards of this magic realm then, with powers of conjuring exceptional horological marvels in our time.

horological genius and a gentleman...

[Note: The responses were given by Stephen but have been worded from my perspective.]

What inspires the work at Greubel Forsey and what inspires you?

Greubel Forsey is a unique pairing of two living watchmakers to create art and poetry in the wristwatch. Both Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey have very rich experiences with complicated watches from their time before they started the company and now are interested in pushing the envelope on what can be achieved in timepieces.

Stephen shared with me as well that he gets inspiration from the serenity of the countryside around the manufacture and being close to nature. It’s calm and tranquillity being a quiet pleasure.

He also has interest in vintage cars and he mentioned of a 1920s Bentley that he is working on with his father and brother but perhaps not much time to spend on that interest due to the work required and time to commit for his passion and work in horology.

Who are the watchmakers both living and past that you respect the works of?

In terms of chronometry, some of the early watchmakers have garnered his admiration. Thomas Earnshaw, who released works under Thomas Wright (as he had no money at the time to do so under his own), who was a contemporary of John Arnold, was the genius inventor of the detent escapement chonometre. (Read more about him here)

A lot of key inventions also came from the time after John Harrison’s breakthrough with the marine chronometer in the 1780-1783 period. What was amazing of course is that these watchmakers had created these mechanisms without the aid of calculators, not to mention computers and technology available today.

In terms of watch finishing, the renowned work of Philippe Dufour was noted as exceptional. At a more industrial level, Lange and Sohne has also catered for a very high level of finishing in their timepieces.

[raph’s note: I view Greubel Forsey as also achieving exceptional finishing in their timepieces and have continued the pursuit of chronometry similar to the esteemed watchmakers mentioned.]

Evident in the Tourbillon 24 Secondes (T24S) as with all their timepieces


Why the tourbillon and what are your views of other multi-axis tourbillons out there?

The tourbillon is an attractive and visible complication. Its original intent of negating gravitional effects and purpose to precision timekeeping may not be fully realised in wristwatches which is why Greubel Forsey decided to endeavour to deliver relevant tourbillon systems for wristwatches with the performance that people are hoping for.

With regards to multi-axis tourbillons, Anthony Randall (some info here) had created a two axis tourbillon in the 1970s and several watchmakers have based their multi-axis tourbillons on this model. Referencing this system, Greubel Forsey developed the DT 30° with their own unique take on things.

As they did not intend to develop one that would need the balance to turn a full 90° angle, to keep the movement thickness within reason, Greubel Forsey looked to see what was the best angle of offset to have for their system. The DT30° features one carriage which rotates once per minute and is inclined at 30°, inside another carriage which rotates every four minutes. They found that 30° was the best angle, removing the extremes of frictional effects, keeping the amplitude high and managing to average out errors on the balance induced by gravity.

You have created new inventions for the tourbillon system for the wristwatch, are you looking to invent new systems for other types of complications or develop a new escapement?

Greubel Forsey has created three completely new systems for the tourbillon and before they were made, the world didn’t know that it was needed as they didn’t exist before they had come up with it. The important thing was it was pleasing to their target customers who not only had the wealth to acquire these timepieces but the sophistication to appreciate the art and science that could be found in them.

The intent is not to develop something different for the sake of it as well but to improve on what has come before and build things that are more functional, more useful.

The team is currently working on a proprietary development methodology called EWT (Experimental Watch Technology) to experiment, test and ratify their projects in-house. Two inventions current in EWT are the ‘Binomial’, a mono-material balance-and-spring wheel combination mechanism using isochronically stable materials. [raph’s note: if I recall correctly I believe a synthesized diamond oscillator was mentioned as being used for the balance wheel and parts of the escapement.]

Next, the "Différentiel d’Egalité", a spherical differential device. While it is not a typical constant force remontoir, this differential works similar to a car differential to transmit equal power to all the four tourbillons while allowing them to rotate at different speeds. What is present than are two escapement systems that have been employed to function independently in different planes. This wonderful concept is one that has been realised after 5 years of research and development.

Quadruple Tourbillon


How does the technology of today help in the realisation of your inventions?

The simulation tools of today aid in progressing the realisation of Greubel Forsey’s inventions. In a new invention there are a number of prototype phases in progressing theory to reality. With the technology of today and simulation tools available, it can help to eliminate a prototype phase that was otherwise needed.

An example can be seen in the T24Si where the decision to use a 3 pillared cage instead of a 4 pillared cage was ascertained with the help of computer simulation factoring in the weight of the cage, inertia, the speed of rotation and angle of inclination.

Invention Piece 3


It has also allowed them to make the most in performance, whereby they are able to plot within the simuation the effects of inertia with reductions in the weight of the cage. With the aid of this, the team was able to determine that the weight of 0.32gms to 0.4gms was ideal as it does not affect amplitude. Materials such as a high strength alluminium alloy, avional, and titanium are used for their strength and lightness and as such the overall weight is 0.39grams.

How much time do you spend testing your inventions typically before introducing them to your collection?

For the 24 seconds Incline, they had spent 3.5 years in development and testing and they had spent 5 years for the Quadruple Tourbillon. Through the testing process, the watches were improved upon and refined. An example of a change that was made was to include a sapphire bridge in a sort of ‘top hat’ section of the Quadruple Tourbillon timepiece.

Did the Global Financial Crises at the end of 2008 and effects felt into 2009 have an impact on your order book and has there been any changes to the demographics of your clients?

Today, 60% of the watch is made in house. The other 40%, comprising case, sapphires, dials, deployant clasps etc are made by specialist suppliers to the exacting standards demanded by Greubel Forsey. For 2008, Greubel Forsey had already secured a full order book and were looking to produce these pieces for their customers, however some of their suppliers had a more significant impact from the trying times and had to take measures to get by. This included reducing staff or the number of their work hours a week and as such deliveries were delayed to Greubel Forsey, stretching out delivery times.

2009 was also a challenging period but it allowed Greubel Forsey to spend time on other projects such as establishing the manufacture in La Chaux de Fonds which uses the structure of a restored 17th century farmhouse (raph’s note: it looks to be a fantastic structure. Do read the wonderful post on this by Ian Skellern here… and here)

Greubel Forsey also had a look at managing their global network of retailers and looked to ensure their presence with distributors in US & Europe, Russia and Far East were strong. In this regards, they have also worked closely with Yafriro in Singapore and they have plans on catering for a dedicated space for Greubel Forsey in the Marina Bay Sands location contributing to the presence and branding of Greubel Forsey in Singapore.


Participation from Richemont

Stephen shared that it has been a good relationship and one that has been mutually beneficial. With the buy-in from Richemont, it allowed Greubel Forsey to grow their business with a seasoned partner that can offer great advice on how to expand in different markets and they also had the opportunity to expand and build their facility in La Chaux de Fonds. Each partner has had the benefit of leveraging off the strengths of the other.

What are the plans for the future?

Greubel Forsey started out in 2004 at Basel and since then, it has released several new models and grown to its current production of 100-110 timepieces a year, ranging from CHF300+k to 800+k list. Relevant invention was important and reliability as well. A strong R&D process was also put in place to build innovative solutions.

They currently have 65 people in Greubel Forsey and 35 in Complitime and are looking to grow that number on the production side in the near term. They have a healthy order book and would like to expand on production to keep up with demand which is always a happy problem to have for manufactures.

They have also decided to go for a worldwide network of distributors for their watches even though they could have probably sold all of them to one or two markets.

In closing…

As our time together was coming to an end, a parting comment by Stephen stayed with me. He had mentioned that his and Robert’s intent was to make timepieces that when people were to pick them up, they would have difficulty putting down as it would then mean that they’ve managed to do something really good.

In the eyes of this reviewer and enthusiast then, my oh my, how they have succeeded.


[to delve further in the world of Greubel Forsey do explore the information on their site here Greubel Forsey ]

a high watermark... raphmeister and stephen forsey


Stefano said...

Very interesting read!

Exceptional timepieces with prices to match these are targeted at connoisseurs with bottomless pockets.Us mere mortals can only enjoy interesting reports like this one and some photos.


raphael too said...

Glad u liked it Stefano and in agreement with your statement :) Cheers

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