Striving for Sophistication

Stephen Forsey, co-founder of Greubel Forsey discusses tourbillons, upholding tradition and competing as one of the smaller watchmakers.

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So what is the benefit of more than one tourbillon in a watch?
One tourbillon was designed for the pocket watch, so the idea is like if you are driving in your car and you got a wheel out of balance you feel the steering wheel shaking. In a mechanical watch in the tourbillon system, the balance wheel is a little bit like the wheel of a car. It is very difficult to get the absolute perfect balance, so there is always a tiny bit out of balance. There’s a system that feeds the balance wheel, and by using gravity it helps us iron out the tiny errors and small losses of time each day.

So how much does it correct that loss of time?
We are talking about small increments. In each day we have 86,400 seconds and what we are looking for is the precision in the last few seconds in a day. Clocks three-hundred years ago had a loss of around fifteen minutes per day. Today, for a certified chronometer produced in the Swiss industry, we are down to ten seconds a day. For Robert Greubel and myself, we wanted to try and add to that and go further. We are looking to be twice as good as the certified chronometer and we are depending on the complexity of our tourbillon system to be even one second better. The double tourbillon system gives us four seconds; if we add another double tourbillon, we are looking to reduce it to three seconds. It also explains to the collector the difficulties and challenges we encounter to reduce another second each time. In terms of the small number of timepieces in our collection, and more specifically the double tourbillon system, we have used a timepiece that we make called the ‘technique’. We entered the double tourbillon technique in a precision timing contest in 2011 in Switzerland, which was open to any watch company. There were three chronometer testing stages to measure a watch’s resistance to shocks, magnetic fields, temperature differences. Over a total testing period of forty-five days our double tourbillon took the highest score. Hence we have been able to say that with our groundbreaking innovation of the tourbillon system and with the double tourbillon thirty degrees, we can achieve a new level of precision. To succeed, it was like a guy building a car in his garage and going on to win the LeMans twenty-four-hour race.

With that amount of mechanical work, do you find that people actually wear your watches regularly?
They do and it is fantastic. In my father’s generation you would have one timepiece when you were twenty-one, and would probably keep that your whole life. Watch collectors today have evolved over the last fifteen years and want to enjoy their timepieces not only in their safe or collection at home but also on their wrist. We have a few pieces coming back for servicing after eight years, and we see timepieces that look really beaten up. This is actually very satisfying because we know that the watch has been used and enjoyed as well as being appreciated. That’s a fantastic compliment for what we do.

How many of the parts in your watches are made by other companies?
In our double tourbillon we have the balance wheel system, which is specially made by an outside company. The escapement wheel is also specially made for us because you need specialised equipment for that. The rest of the pieces are all designed by us and sixty to seventy percent of each timepiece is manufactured in-house so that everything is made to our own design. In a double tourbillon technique we have 385 components in the movement. Everything, except those two parts I mentioned, is drawn and built by us. We don’t pretend that we make everything. For example, the sapphire crystal for the glass of the timepiece needs specialised equipment and a whole team of around ten people. For a hundred timepieces a year that is not economically viable.

Is it important to have moved towards controlling your own means of production and not be forced to rely on Swatch and other big companies?
Initially [co-founder]Robert Greubel and I thought we would be able to make everything. However, we quickly realised that with such a high level of complexity, and wanting to push the envelope further, we shouldn’t design everything in-house. We had technicians who came to us and said “I want to push further in my field”, and then we have reinvested in a small workshop department for them. Hence we make a good number of our components in-house; we have a mechanic team consisting of around ten or twelve people making raw components. The hand finishing is ninety five  percent in-house, with eighteen people working on hand finishing to make our hundred yearly timepieces. We have twelve watchmakers to build those hundred timepieces a year. Our design team, laboratory and prototyping performs our in-house testing such as shock tests, as all of our timepieces are shock tested before we deliver. In this high-end complication a typical thing that can happen is a hand can fall off when the watch is nearly new. This is very upsetting for the customer and extremely embarrassing for us.

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With making as few as a hundred a year, is there a point where you think it’s becoming hard to break even? How many do you have to sell to break even — thirty? Forty?
It is more like ninety-eight, because we have a lot of projects. We have around ten projects at one time because we want to introduce two or three new models each year. To be able to do that, our cycle of development is between two-and-a-half to ten years for a project. That is why we need to have a number of projects going at any one time, because we don’t say “this piece has to be finished by January.” We instead work aiming for “this piece must be excellent and must absolutely fulfill our criteria.” Once it fulfills our criteria then we will release it.

Where is the industry going now with things such as mechanical works — are you at a point where there is not much more you can do here or are there new directions that are opening up as we go along?
With the tourbillon, there were seventeen different variations that we could have explored and made. From those we chose three key inventions, but there are many complications. The biggest shortage we have is time — as I said earlier about the time taken to develop a new timepiece, such as the GMT timepiece, which took three years. In terms of the creation, we wanted to achieve a piece that is super impressive so that when you pick it up you will not want to put it down. It is this sort of creative search and path that we are pursuing that motivates us and keeps us going.

For Esquire magazine – click here for original pdf

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