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Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 redefines the human touch in...
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Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 redefines the human touch in watchmaking

Friday, 15 November 2019
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Carol Besler

“Watches are functional art.”

Carol Besler covers watches and jewelry worldwide.

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5 min read

Holding the Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 in your hand is a little bit like holding the Mona Lisa. So far, there is only one of its kind, and it is a thing of almost sublime beauty.

It took more than 6,000 hours to make the watch, which Stephen Forsey reckons is equal to three years in work hours. The watch was laboriously made by hand (at least 95% of it), and that means something more than what most watch brands mean when they say hand made, which really means hand finished. Here, the hand made components include case, dial, hairspring, balance wheel, escape wheel, lever, roller… Actually, it might be easier to list the five things out of the watch’s 308 components (272 for the movement and 36 for the case, dial and hands) that are not made by hand: mainspring, jewels, crystal, case gaskets and spring bars for the strap. Everything else was born of human touch: “It was a huge project intellectually, and it was a big push for our team to put it together,” says Forsey.

When you build a mechanical watch by hand, you give life to it.
Stephen Forsey

The biggest question that comes to mind is ‘Why do this?’ And the short answer, to paraphrase, is: Because we can. “Obviously it would be easier to nip out and buy an ETA,” says Forsey. “Or a Sistem51 (Swatch’s all-machine-made movement), which is a fantastic achievement, a movement never touched by human hands. On the surface, it’s the same thing, only this is very, very different. The Hand Made 1 is about expertise and craftsmanship and skills, and keeping those skills alive is part of our culture. When you build a mechanical watch by hand, you give life to it, you interact with it… it’s something quite remarkable. A year or two ago, people said we wouldn’t need to teach children to write by hand anymore because they don’t need to, but it’s part of our human culture. Finding that passion for mind-to-hand connection is something we aspire to.”

Completely different techniques

The second biggest question is ‘if you’re going to go this far, why not 100% hand made?’ The answer is, quite simply, “It’s already such a massive project, and we had to get on with it.” says Forsey. “Let’s say you factor in the spring bars – there are three parts to a spring bar, and to make one would have taken another few months. The gaskets would also have taken another few months. And we’re already in it for so much time. A tourbillon carriage takes 35-times longer to make by hand than a machine-made one; a wheel, 600-times longer. To make a screw by machine takes about 15 seconds. In the rest of our collection, we take four minutes to do them because of the hand finishing. For the Hand Made 1, it takes eight hours, if you’re very good. You need to master completely different techniques.”

It’s the right time to refocus on the craftsmanship of watchmaking.
Stephen Forsey

What isn’t in question is that if anyone has what it takes (including the fortitude) to make every component of a watch from scratch, it is Greubel Forsey. Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey and their small team have been making parts by hand since the beginning (since 2001 with CompliTime and 2004 with Greubel Forsey), mainly for restoration purposes or to replace parts that are broken, damaged or worn. “But once we started making inclined tourbillons, we realized we needed a certain quantity of parts, and we made the conscious decision to make them using modern machining techniques,” says Forsey. “But we never lost the expertise – the rest of our watches are already 45% hand made. We combine machined parts with the highest possible level of hand finishing.”

Strict criteria

Why return now, then, to an all-hand-made watch? Forsey says it’s the right time to refocus on the craftsmanship of watchmaking. “Fifteen years ago, when we launched, even the most dedicated collectors’ knowledge was not as high as it is today,” he says. “Today, collectors and enthusiasts have a much finer and more detailed knowledge of finishing and of watchmaking in general, thanks partly to the Internet and the growth of the watch community.”

Hand Made 1 © Greubel Forsey
Hand Made 1 © Greubel Forsey

Before embarking on the project, Forsey says they set a few criteria for what would constitute hand made:

  • To call the parts hand made they had to be made from raw material with tools or a hand operated machine that could be driven by an electric motor. Otherwise all the cutting of the metal must be done with hand operated tools.
  • It must be hand finished, which is no different from the way all Greubel Forsey timepieces are already made.
  • Each one would be built by a single watchmaker (another thing GF was already doing in their collection).
  • It had to be 95% hand made.

Just as H. Moser rebelled against the leniency of the new 60% requirement for Swiss Made watches two years ago with its “Swiss Mad” watch, Greubel Forsey might be blazing a trail to elevate the definition of “Hand Made.” In which case, only a very small handful of watches will be ever be considered to authentically qualify. Not surprisingly, there is strong interest in the Hand Made 1 (priced somewhere between CHF 650,000 and 1,000,000), but how many can Greubel Forsey make in a year? “Maybe two, maybe three. Possibly five ultimately,” says Forsey.

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