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Greubel Forsey: measuring time without counting time
Beginner's Guide

Greubel Forsey: measuring time without counting time

Tuesday, 11 December 2018
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

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5 min read

Greubel Forsey doesn’t make watches. It crafts timepieces which, one by one, rebuild the expertise that fell by the wayside of the quartz crisis. We visited the brand in Le Crêt-du-Locle.

If a brand had to be put into figures, the numbers for Greubel Forsey are eloquent. Established in 2004, the company has developed 22 complicated movements of which eight are in production. Working in the wings are 115 staff, including 22 for finishing and decoration, for a volume in the region of 100 timepieces per year. The majority of the 1,385 Greubel Forsey watches to have found a home so far have been purchased by collectors, between 500 and 800 of whom get to meet the company’s directors when they tour the markets each year. The image that emerges from this “painting by numbers” certainly isn’t that of a churn-em-out factory. A trip to Le Crêt-du-Locle, a short drive from La Chaux-de-Fonds, to visit the Atelier (Greubel Forsey’s preferred term to Manufacture) is enough to understand the philosophy behind the brand. The sloping building pushes its way out of the ground; an architectural counterpart to the namesake watchmakers’ determination to measure time “differently”.

Precision and reliability

“When we set up Greubel Forsey, people looked at us as though we were from another planet!” says Stephen Forsey with a smile. “Think about it. We were developing complicated watches, knowing full well that we would produce only a limited number of each, out of respect for our customers. By way of example, our first three Invention Pieces, the Double Tourbillon 30°, the Quadruple Tourbillon and the Tourbillon 24 Secondes, have already been archived.” No-one can accuse Greubel Forsey of taking the easy way out, that’s for sure. “The whole point of the company is to rebuild expertise,” says Forsey in earnest. “The quartz crisis, which continued into the early 1980s, just about marked the end of R&D in mechanical watchmaking, but Robert Greubel and myself, together with our teams, weren’t prepared to accept this. We believe there is still room to progress. How can anyone claim that a mechanical calibre will never be as precise as an electronic watch? What proof do they have? Every one of our movements goes further towards answering that question.”

How can anyone claim that a mechanical calibre will never be as precise as an electronic watch?
Stephen Forsey

With precision of -1/+2 seconds per day, when the bar remains the -4/+6 seconds required for COSC chronometer rating, it’s clear that Greubel Forsey has gone beyond a point that few makers are even close to reaching. Let’s not forget that the Double Tourbillon 30° Technique claimed top prize at the 2011 International Chronometry Competition. Of course, at Greubel Forsey, precision is just one half of the tale, the other being remarkable reliability. For its entire production to date, fewer than 3% have been returned for repair. As we tour the Atelier, the lengths to which the brand goes to ensure this reliability become apparent. Starting with… screws. It takes around ten to 15 seconds to machine a standard mass-produced screw. The screws Greubel Forsey makes require between three and four minutes each, with commensurate results. “We have tried to show off the fruit of our labour,” says Stephen Forsey, “but as perfect as they are, our screws don’t catch the light on photos in a way that would really bring them to the fore.”

The ultimate ambassadors

Not that it really matters. Greubel Forsey takes quiet satisfaction from its work, as evidenced by its insistence that every nook and cranny of its movements, even parts that remain hidden from view, be expertly decorated. Along with the design bureau, the decorations workshop is the nerve centre, setting the pace for the brand and seldom open to visitors. Training in the outside world rarely goes beyond the introductory courses offered to workers interested in a career change, hence Greubel Forsey teaches its staff itself – and doesn’t expect them to master the requisite skills in anything less than six years. Based on production volume, this means they will decorate the equivalent of four and a half watches a year!

Greubel Forsey expects to wait six years for its decoration specialists to master the requisite skills.

This same tempo adagiosissimo reigns among the watchmakers in charge of assembly. Once the parts have been decorated, every Greubel Forsey watch is assembled, adjusted and tested a first time, before being completely stripped back and assembled a second time. A Grande Sonnerie with its 935 components requires at least three months of work; six weeks for a Quadruple Tourbillon. The eight Grande Sonnerie produced this year will have kept four watchmakers occupied almost full time. “That each of our watches is assembled twice, always by the same person, is the only way we can be certain to iron out any tiny problems that may occur,” Forsey explains. Understandably, a procedure such as this warrants explanation, all the more so given the rare complexity of each timepiece. For this reason, contact with the customer through the 40 points of sale – “ambassadors” in Greubel Forsey parlance – is a vital part of the brand’s four-pronged sales policy: no consignments, no inventory, no custom work except for one-off pieces, and absolutely no discounts. The rest is about people. Because as Stephen Forsey insists, the brand has ambassadors of its own – but they have to wait to own one of its watches first!

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