Stephen Forsey sits across from me at the Trois Rois hotel, in a meeting room on the second floor, looking over the river towards Basel World. If you consider the idea that these two men run a watch company which produces under 100 watches a year, yes, at a high price. But, that is necessary for a business which will not sacrifice a single sinew of integrity in their strive for perfection.
“We have been approached by people saying, ‘Come on, you need an entry level piece, we can grow the brand like this… We can make some money’, and we said ‘Well yeah, we could... but we don’t want to be a classic, traditional, commercial brand in that way’. Aside from the fact that we couldn’t make an entry level watch with our level of finishing.”
This is not because of the time it takes so much (which is a factor) as there aren’t enough people alive who have the skills on a high enough level to craft pieces such as these. The duo, have without a doubt, resurrected a near-dead art form, which they are rebuilding with their own Time Aeon Foundation.
“The hand-finishing was actually more difficult than we had anticipated, in the sense that it still doesn’t really exist as a profession. So, we had to build that expertise - this limited straight away how many pieces we could make.”
He places the GMT Earth back onto the suede tray and pulls the silk cover off another piece which is noticeably smaller than the others.
“This is the Balancier Contemporain, the new calibre presented in January at SIHH. It is the smallest case size we have ever made…”
The piece is comparatively understated. It carries two sub dials, a 72-hour power reserve along with an exposed balance wheel at six o’clock, and although the sub dials don’t appear to be any smaller than those on the more standard-sized pieces from the pair, they are in no way overwhelming for the smaller case. In fact, you end up with something more unified and dare I say…simplistic.
Of course, to say anything Stephen and Co-Founder, Robert Greubel do is simple is almost blasphemy. There seems to be this almost religious zeal they have in their somewhat stoic practise, even down to the point where they have produced a completely new calibre for the Balancier Contemporain, although it is limited to 33 pieces.
“In terms of creative process, we have that initial idea.” He points to the dial with his middle finger. “This was the layout and the we do a basic layout of the mechanism. And so, we designed a different calibre, if we wanted to do it commercially you would start with a stock standard calibre and add on a little module or sandwich to take the hands where you wanted them to. But for us, it is a blank sheet of paper each time, so it might be completely new gears or elements to satisfy that creative angle.”
“The balance wheel system featured on the Contemporain is made in house. Usually this would cost tens of millions, if you wanted to create these on a large a scale, (and we don’t have tens of millions to throw around!). So, in an artisanal way we are able to make small numbers of balance wheel systems,” like the one featured on the Balancier Contemporain.
Aside from the technological aspect of this level of watchmaking a large part of their practise is hand engraving and artistry. Each piece is completely hand finished on every level, one piece taking at least four months end to end to produce.
“The bottleneck is the hand finishing; we try to make a demonstration of the very best craftsmanship we can do; and we are now pretty close to what could be done in the 19th century… If I am objective as a watchmaker, we are pretty damn close…”
“They had more time I guess,” He chuckles “sometimes we wonder how they did it, but then they didn’t have bills to pay in the same way and all the shit we’ve baggaged ourselves with. We seemed to have cluttered our lives up with all this structure and organisation. But to be able to take that time – which is kind of a luxury- to do this hand finishing, which is invisible [beneath the dial and visible exterior of the watch], only the watch maker who dismantles the watch in the future will see that the hand finishing is done all the way through.”
The piece Stephen then pulls the cover from is a testament to this,
The Art Piece Edition Historique displays some of the most intricate engraving and hand finishing in platinum I have ever seen on a time piece. Aside from the exterior the piece features a double tourbillon at 30°, a fantastically engraved sub-dial, a 72-hour power reserve and a hand wound movement.
“So this is an artistic piece if you like, which celebrates an artistic creative journey. Its limited to a total of 33. We developed a complete movement for just 33 pieces, which is quite a crazy thing but there we are… that’s another story…”
We talk briefly towards the end of our conversation about the feat of making objects such as these and how each part of the process down to each screw (which are all made in house) add up to the final product and the price they come in at.
Stephen smiles from across the table, “These things are very costly to make; I’ve pinched that from Dumas, ‘one day someone came to me and said, Mr Dumas your products from Hermes are very expensive, and he said ‘Indeed, they are very expensive to make.’
There is this sense of wonder which encapsulates Greubel Forsey and everything they are doing, not wanting to use the term innocence, but there is this almost childlike curiosity paired with a complete control and understanding of the mechanics of watch making and physics; And it all leads to one question. What’s next? I have no doubt that Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel are some of the finest watch makers in the world and look forward to the next steps of their journey.