Les Trois Rois Hotel, Basel, Switzerland
I arrive at the Trois Rois Hotel on the banks of the River Rhine in Basel, at around a little after two in the afternoon. I’m ushered down a long, stone clad corridor and into an ornate, high ceilinged room which looks out over the river. There is a large oak table and three chairs. On the table sit two large velvet lined wooden trays. The silhouette of several watches sitting beneath a silk cover, giving away the contents somewhat.
Recently, I had the pleasure and privilege to have an hour with Stephen Forsey, one of the two minds behind Greubel Forsey.
When you hear of a watch company that produces watches which are sold on average for near half a million dollars, an image of a diamond encrusted barnacle atop a glistening strap comes to mind. Thankfully, my host does not produce such monstrosities. A watch at that price may seem like a ridiculous novelty. Or at least it would be, were it not a piece from Greubel Forsey.
One of the two large doors swings open, and in steps Stephen Forsey. Watchmakers in my experience tend to be quite small chaps, presumably this helps when hunching over a work desk in a snowed-in Swiss valley somewhere. Stephen however, stands well over six feet and is quite broad. He is dressed in wool trousers, a pinstripe shirt and black braces - we shake hands and he sits down at the table.
Originally from St Albans not far from London, Stephen has spent a large part of his career in Switzerland working for companies such as Audemars Piguet, as Head of production. Now working out of Greubel Forsey’s own headquarters and atelier with co-founder Robert Greubel, part of which is a 17th century farmhouse located in Le Chaux-de-Fonds, surrounded by the Jura mountains.
Stephen has a soft yet powerful voice, his accent rooted in English but which regularly dances with notes of Swiss French.
“You’ve never seen one before I hear… so this will be a rare, but nice occasion for you.”
He puts on a pair of black gloves and lifts the silk cover off one of the watches, leaving the others shrouded.
“I remember my teacher at the time, had come in to the class one day and said ‘you all seem like quite an intelligent bunch, what are you doing here? Everything has been invented, there is nothing left to do’. This stuck in my mind and I thought ‘If it’s all been done then our job as human beings is done because we can never leave things as they are, we always have to improve we always have to push things further.”
Now, something to note about the horological duo, is their approach to building timepieces. They tend to have quite an artistic philosophy to how they create. First, they come up with an idea and then they worry about getting there, or even if it’s actually possible, regularly having to invent and create the technology capable of crafting such a device.
A recurring element within their work is the Tourbillon, which, if you don’t know, is a complication which rotates the movement of a watch, generally at one revolution per minute, to average out the effects of gravity on the escapement and balance wheel. This however, was originally designed for pocket watches by Abraham-louis Breguet, which became almost a bit of a novelty after the advent of the wristwatch. As it was originally invented to combat gravity at the two positions of vertical (in the pocket) and horizontal (when in the hand or on a surface).
A Double Tourbillon cage
“2004 was a good year, although we appeared from nowhere, we had a very good order-book of people who wanted to buy watches. Which was very good considering we had come with an unknown type of tourbillon which had not existed before, at a value point which was almost over 400,000 Swiss Francs… It was the highest value watch that there was for sale at the time.”
In 2004 after 4 years of work Greubel Forsey presented their first piece at Basel World; the Double Tourbillon 30°, “We had this idea to try and do something with the Tourbillon. We felt there was still room to innovate in mechanical watch making.” They placed an angled tourbillon at 30° inside an additional rotating cage to make a double Tourbillon - this gave several additional points where the complication could have an effect (rather than just one or two, in a more traditional pocket watch example). In essence it made the Tourbillon in a wristwatch, relevant again.
“The electronic watch crisis in the 1970’s knocked out all out the cheap watches. But more importantly, what it meant was research and development on mechanical watches stopped. So when Robert and I started there was very little in terms of R&D, so what we wanted to see was, could we go further with modern tools and materials?”.
He wipes the face of the watch with a gloved thumb and passes it across the table. The piece is the 2018 GMT Earth, which developed on from the original GMT launched in 2011. The most immediately striking part of which, is the large three-dimensional globe which sits at 8 o’clock. “By this point we had started to travel long haul, so we started to think about changing your watch with [varying] time zones. Having looked at what was on offer we didn’t really find something that fitted our idea.”
2018 GMT Earth
“The idea was to have something intuitive, easy to use, with plenty of information – if you need it – but to be as accessible as possible. So, this was the result, an oversized globe which rotates in real time. Viewed from the North Pole, the earth turns anti-clockwise.” Surrounding the Globe is a Bezel of sorts which has a 24-hour reading. “So if its set correctly, now in Europe it’s the afternoon, around 14:00, In Asia it’s now evening [into] later evening, and in the Americas, it is still not quite Breakfast time.”
As well as this, the piece has a disc on the back featuring 24 cities detailing the time zones and whether they are in summertime or winter. If this wasn’t enough it also houses a single Tourbillon at 25° with a faster rotation of 24 seconds - again another patented invention of the pair - and of course a second time zone sub dial.
I suppose the important thing to bear in mind when thinking about time pieces such as these is the almost artistic journey which the two men are on, un-phased by the idea that digital and quartz watches keep near immaculate time, they have simply added them to the tool box. I don’t get the impression that they are in competition with the computerised form of timekeeping, but want to see how far they can go with mechanical watchmaking; what’s next? What average is yet to be refined with gears and springs?
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