Feats of great precision.
Existing well outside the mould of the average wristwatch, Greubel Forsey timepieces are unencumbered by market trends, groupthink, or a relentless pursuit of the bottom line. As the uncompromising product of Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey’s passion for design, old-world techniques, and delicate hand finishing, the watches are an expression of a pure fixation spanning form, function, and performance.
Launched at Baselworld in 2004, Greubel Forsey is a young manufacturer, especially by the standards of the Swiss watch industry. Nestled among the Jura Mountains in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, Greubel Forsey has grown into a central presence in the high-end independent manufacture space, and their award-winning watches are the fancy of moneyed collectors the world over. Together, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey share more than 40 years of experience in advanced watchmaking and technical design. Their watches exemplify not only an industry high point for tourbillon execution, but also for advanced fine finishing and movement performance.
More than any other innovation, the tourbillon has become Greubel Forsey’s calling card. Essentially a mechanism added to the escapement of a watch to counter the effects of gravity on the overall accuracy of timekeeping, the fascinating spinning animation provided by a tourbillon has prompted many brands to incorporate the complication not for its potential for improved accuracy, but rather only for its aesthetic value. This is not the case with Greubel Forsey. From their debut, the watchmakers have endeavoured to unlock the true potential of the tourbillon, arriving on the market with their now-famous Double Tourbillon 30°. In 2011, that same mechanism set a record at the International Chronometry Competition, achieving a score that still stands to this day.
“If you look at it purely in a functional way, we don’t really serve a purpose as such,” says Forsey, his English accent carrying a boyish charm. “Except we are perpetuating an art and craft, we are pushing forward in terms of technique, and if you think of the performance, we try to deliver on every level.” The renowned watchmaker was in Vancouver recently, at Montecristo Jewellers, to banquet with collectors.
While their tourbillon execution is a crucial element of Greubel Forsey’s DNA, Forsey further explains their corporate mindset: “If we could bring together a new generation of tourbillon to push the performance of the mechanical watch further, if we could find our own style in terms of creation and design … and then if we could bring with that a level of reliability to a complicated mechanical watch which would be able to stand against any other industrial, machine-made, commercial brand of mechanical watch, then we would have such a strong proposition for our timepiece.”
More than any other innovation, the tourbillon has become Greubel Forsey’s calling card.
Though their production remains very limited, with nearly every component made on site and finished by hand at their Swiss manufacture, Greubel Forsey has indeed found more than enough collectors to keep their lofty passion project alive and thriving. Their continued success speaks volumes about the specialized appeal of their watches. Their market, which comprises collectors lining up to pay a quarter million dollars or more for a watch, may be limited in size but it commands a healthy appetite.
Inspired by the wild and often severe landscape surrounding the Jura Mountains, Greubel Forsey watches exhibit an aesthetic that is both boldly organic and rooted in the historical elements of watchmaking. Robert Greubel’s father was a watchmaker and Robert would eventually work for brands like IWC and Renaud & Papi SA (renamed APRP in 2003, after being bought by Audemars Piguet) before co-founding Greubel Forsey. With an early penchant for restoring antique clocks, Stephen Forsey studied at the WOSTEP watchmaking school in Switzerland and would later join Robert’s team at Renaud & Papi SA.
Warm and affable, Forsey is a quick wit and eager to discuss the finer elements of watchmaking and the industry as a whole. His relaxed demeanour is that of a man very proud of his work, and what Greubel Forsey has accomplished over the past decade.
Greubel Forsey’s designs are often asymmetrical and organic, and exhibit a wild flair for shape, colour, and complication. An eye-catching mix of finishing techniques work to highlight their movement’s varied architecture while fine details accent the industrial elements of their designs. “We don’t necessarily call ourselves a brand because we don’t have a purely commercial objective in terms of volume and industrial approach,” says Forsey. “Yet, the fundamental work to get those details together means that when you see our first 10 years of calibres and creations, they all have these defining little elements.”
With their deep roots in complex traditional watchmaking, both designers were destined to make interesting timepieces. Greubel Forsey’s successes include working with Harry Winston on the Opus 6 project, winning the grand L’Aiguille d’Or prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) in 2010 for the Double Tourbillon 30° Édition Historique, winning the 2011 International Chronometry Competition (anew for the Double Tourbillon 30° Édition Historique), and again claiming watchmaking’s top honour with the grand prize at GPHG 2015 for their Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision.
The Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision exhibits a more classic and understated presence that is not, perhaps, at first glance recognizable as a Greubel Forsey. This departure in design reflects traditional finishing techniques. “What we felt was really to try to revive some of these hand finishing techniques, and, rather than creating just another brand, to really create something that would enable the collector to take their passion and go further. We’re driven by the creation. Really good isn’t enough. Really good is when we start, and then we go that extra kilometre to make it really exceptional.”
Greubel Forsey’s designs are often asymmetrical and organic, and exhibit a wild flair for shape, colour, and complication.
The Greubel Forsey Vision is exceptional. Built around the goal of a thinner case (GF cases often measure 16 mm thick or more), the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision uses a bubbled rear sapphire crystal to allow the space needed for the inclined tourbillon mechanism within the shallow confines of the slimmer case, which is just 13.65 mm thick. The dial is a showcase of minute details, including a frosted galvanized palladium base finish and hour markers that are engraved and then filled with oven-fired enamel. Finally, the hands are rendered in razor-sharp blued steel that is hand polished to a perfect finish. Each piece receives up to 500 hours of hand finishing for the components of its movement, so Greubel Forsey’s production is limited to roughly 90 watches a year.
The prize-winning Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision is just one example within an impressive collection of watches that include a line of charmingly eccentric GMT models, the stunning Quadruple Tourbillon Asymétrique, and 2015’s hugely impressive Quantième Perpétuel à Équation—Greubel Forsey’s first perpetual calendar model. As they expanded from their masterful tourbillon work to include additional complications, their style has remained cohesive, allowing collectors and fans to take part in an organic evolution progressing from one model to the next. Even including aesthetically distinct special models like the Art Piece 1 or the Invention Pieces, all Greubel Forsey watches reflect the brand’s formidable core competencies while pushing the limit of what is possible.
The limit, it would seem, has become a moving target as Greubel Forsey continues to iterate on their form and find new avenues to excite collectors and highlight traditional watchmaking through a modern and avant-garde lens. For a small-scale brand seeking a lasting relationship with a rather niche market, timing is everything for artists like Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey. While competition in the independent scene grows year by year, the strong survive and Greubel Forsey has been able to deliver with an impressive line-up of very rare and special watches, a line-up no doubt bolstered by numerous awards and accolades.
Despite their often eye-watering price tags, in a world of focus-tested, mass produced, and meaningless products that will likely spend more time in a landfill than in our lives there is a purity of intention to a well-made timepiece. While undoubtedly anachronistic, watches, specifically those from within the enthusiast space, exist as tools that fascinate. As products of a past time, their charm is not dependent upon trends; instead they stand on the pillars of legacy, craftsmanship, engineering, and design. Greubel Forsey is perhaps the peak expression of that fascination, retaining the functionality of a watch while exploring the boundaries of form, finishing, and performance. With that in mind, perhaps what is most endearing about Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey is the impression that they are making watches just for themselves, with their enthusiastic customers a welcome bonus.
Photos provided by Greubel Forsey.