“For Robert [Greubel] and myself, it wasn’t about creating watches to create a brand. We wanted to create exceptional mechanisms… to try and unravel the mysteries of mechanical time measurement and see how far we could go;” Stephen Forsey, one-half of the eponymous Greubel Forsey creative partnership, told Signé back in January.
They had recently collected their fourth Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève award – the Mechanical Exception prize – for their horological masterpiece ‘Grande Sonnerie.’ True to their word, the duo has recently unveiled another masterpiece that takes modern haute horology to new and unprecedented artisanal heights while connecting the past with the future.
Hand Made 1, as their new mechanical timepiece is called, is 95 per cent made using only hand-operated tools – from the movement to the case, the dial, the hands and the leather strap – just as they were before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of mass production. The only exceptions being the sapphire crystal, the case gasket, the spring bars, the jewels, and the mainspring. This watch took the creative team to uncharted waters because merely replicating an existing calibre by hand was out of the question. Every component had to be entirely created from scratch while also demanding a total overhaul of the creative process. To achieve the 95 per cent handmade level, it required an astronomical 6,000 hours of work for one single timepiece. That’s equivalent to three years of man-hours. The 6,000 hours only takes into account the actual watchmaking process and not the creation and development time.
Before the advent of mass production, watch components were made one by one using very specific skills and hand-operated machines. Today, this skill set has virtually disappeared and are not even taught in schools. Fortunately, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey have collectively amassed extensive experience in hand craftsmanship throughout their training and careers, either while producing prototypes or replacement parts for restoration.
Robert Greubel is the son of a French watchmaker who honed his skills in his father’s workshop. Englishman Stephen Forsey began his career as a specialist in antique watch restoration. The two men play perfectly complementary roles in the development process at Greubel Forsey. Robert is more concerned with design and creation, while Stephen excels more in the technical areas. Hand Made 1 stems from their “determination to pass on their know-how to future generations.”
The goal was not just to resurrect the ancestral craftsmanship, but also to reinforce it with standards of precision rivalling even modern production equipment.
To achieve micron-scale accuracy using ancestral tools – a level of precision that traditional machines cannot offer, the artisans at Greubel Forsey must rely on “the intelligence of the hand;” that is, continually correcting minute details to achieve the required quality, or to ensure perfect and flawless operation. In this approach to creativity, time is of secondary importance. For these reasons, Greubel and Forsey had to build a team of the most skilled craftsmen in each field, principally from their workshops, and complemented by several external talents.
Each of the 272 movement components and 36 case parts of Hand Made 1 has a tale to tell. Some parts of the movement were redesigned to simplify them, while in other mechanisms such as the tourbillon, the number of components had to be increased to allow each part to be made by hand. The timepiece’s relatively modest dimensions – 43.5 mm in diameter and 13.5 mm thick – added to the challenge.
The 308 total components of the Hand Made 1, required over 800 individual parts to be made. It takes almost 35-times longer to make the complete tourbillon cage than for a standard high-end tourbillon. A single screw, as small as it may be, requires up to 12 individual operations and up to 8 hours to make. In comparison, it takes just a dozen operations on an automatic lathe to yield around 500 screws. One wheel takes 600 times longer to make than that of a high-end industrial wheel.
The balance spring is first fashioned from an alloy, then rolled in a hand-operated rolling mill. By this process – “certainly an endangered know how” – only a few balance springs can be made at a time, whereas in contemporary industrial production, hundreds or thousands are automatically produced at once. The escape wheel has 20 individually-cut teeth, each with four surfaces that are later ground. The escape lever alone requires a month and a half of work.
The tourbillon carriage – with its 69 components weighing a total of 0.521 g – represents another sizeable challenge. As it is not possible to replicate the same geometry of a CNC machine on a traditional jig borer, it required an increase in the number of parts to form this exquisite, almost airborne mechanism. Special attention was also given to its bridges with polished inner and outer vertical flanks, the unique “Gratté” mainplate, and the five-spoke wheel featuring 40 sharp internal angles and hand-polished bevels.
The open dial stands out with its hand-enamelled chapter rings, paired with elegant, finely shaped flame-blued steel hands. The 18k white gold case is manufactured using a pantograph mechanical lathe fitted with turning tools, before being satin-finished on the sides and polished on the upper surfaces. On the dial, at 6 o’clock, is the inscription Hand Made, replacing the usual Swiss Made.
The Hand Made 1 is, according to the brand, “the fruit of a technical and human endeavour of epic proportions, enlisting extraordinary talents and setting the course for the future.” Creating just two or three timepieces a year, the Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 not only unites the past with the future of watchmaking, but it is also destined to become a new watchmaking landmark.
The rarefied fraternity of Haute Horlogerie has taken note of this fledgling venture called Greubel Forsey, founded in 2004, and have bestowed numerous accolades on it for its dedication to pushing the boundaries of mechanical timekeeping. As early as 2007, Greubel Forsey’s ‘Invention Piece 1′ received Revolution magazine’s ‘Grand Complication Watch,’ prize, while the ‘Tourbillon 24 Secondes’ received Montres Passion magazine’s ‘Special Jury Prize – Watch of the Year.’ The following year, Revolution magazine awarded the best ‘Technical Achievement’ prize for the ‘Quadruple Tourbillon.’
In 2009, Greubel Forsey won the Gaïa Prize for its entrepreneurship and the best ‘Complication Watch’ from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie Asia. In 2011, it won the International Chronometry Competition with the ‘Double Tourbillon 30 Technique’, and at the World Watch Awards, the ‘Invention Piece 2′ was selected as the “Limited Edition Watch of the Year.”
Greubel Forsey has already collected four Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards in its short 15-year history. In addition to the 2018 award for Grande Sonnerie, the brand had received the ‘Grand Complication Watch’ prize for the ‘Double Tourbillon 30° Technique’ in 2009. Then in 2010, they received the ‘Grand Prix de l’Aiguille d’Or’ for the ‘Double Tourbillon 30° Édition Historique in 5N red gold.’ In 2012, ‘Invention Piece 2’ collected its second award for the year when it was selected as the ‘Best Complicated Watch.’
If the past is anything to go by, the future of Greubel Forsey, thanks to exceptional timepieces like Hand Made 1, looks quite promising indeed.