Greubel Forsey timepieces are more than just exceptional timepieces. The brand raises watchmaking at the level of art. Their watches arouse emotions beyond the conscious intellect. I invite you to read an essay about the art of watchmaking sent by the Greubel Forsey team.
“And beauty? It exists, without its existence seeming, at first glance, the least bit necessary. It is there in an omnipresent way, insistent, penetrating, all the while giving the impression of being superfluous. That is its mystery: there it is, before our eyes, the greatest mystery.” – François Cheng, The Way of Beauty, Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation.
To understand the philosophy behind Greubel Forsey timepiece, it is imperative to have first glimpsed the beauty of the tiny components that become invisible once the movement is assembled, to have observed the care with which they have been crafted, polished and enhanced. The creation of a Greubel Forsey timepiece – ‘creation’ being the operative word rather than ‘production’, even though it takes place in a watchmaking workshop – is a kind of alchemist’s process of which each stage involves evolution and transformation. The initial idea takes shape on paper, with the original sketch consistently done by hand. At Greubel Forsey, everything revolves around the hand, at each creative stage. Passed from hand to hand, from a manually operated machine to a polishing tool, each component is ‘elevated’ as the hand progressively enhances its inherent characteristics.
At the heart of the Atelier beats a spirit akin to the Neoplatonism of the Medici era: a reflection on beauty regarded as the result of the human touch, itself induced by thought. Within this process lies the very essence of Greubel Forsey hand craftsmanship. A hand-made approach does not preclude mechanical aspects, as the machine is an extension of the human hand at Greubel Forsey. One of its workshops houses a set of venerable hand-operated machines, some of them more than a century old. Take the jig borer, for example, a top-flight precision machine and a champion in its category that caught the attention of the Greubel Forsey workshop artisans. Out of a thousand different machines, one of them stands out from the rest, and such is precisely the case with this jig borer made by the SIP (Société d’Instruments de Physique). Fortunately, there are passionately dedicated individuals prepared to spend time restoring them. These quintessentially traditional machine tools are used to create a maximum of ten timepieces per year.
What truly counts is not the age of these pieces of equipment, nor their exceptional capabilities, but above all how they are handled. Everything lies in this handling: if no artisan knows how to operate these complex machines, they sit idle and unable to express their qualities. It takes between ten and 15 years of practice to really know how to operate them, and using these tools to make a part can take 50 to a 100 times longer than on a CNC machine. But time is an ally rather an enemy at Greubel Forsey, and what really counts is safeguarding skills rather than worrying about time ticking away. In an age of robotics, the Atelier is committed to perpetuating these 19th century horological traditions at all costs, as a means of preserving the very soul of watchmaking.
As Stephen Forsey points out: “While technology is fantastic and affords us countless possibilities, it is only a tool in the same way as a pencil, a graver or a screwdriver. It can become a prison from which one must escape in order to return to hand workmanship. Traditional watchmaking lasted until around 1870, when mechanical production methods came on the scene in order to make watches more widely accessible. However, this approach tended to obliterate craftsmanship. The electronic watch freed the mechanical watch from its utilitarian role and enabled the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking as an expression of creativity. While we have been able to implement some of the modern tools available, we are fortunate enough today to still find a few artisans who wish to make parts by hand. This is a new phenomenon. We now have the possibility of creating a hand-crafted timepiece with a degree of precision that would have been unthinkable 150 years ago.”
It takes desire and impetus to drive excellence in all fields. Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey work towards perfecting that which remains unseen, above all for the sake of their art. What would otherwise be the point of pushing a concern for craftsmanship to such dizzy heights? Nobody, apart from their team and themselves, knows the enigmatic splendour of the invisible components concealed at the heart of their movements. Not even the owner of the timepiece. Perhaps he or she should indeed visit the Atelier in order to gain a clearer idea of the miniature miracle that has found its place on their wrist. Each technical draughtsman, specialised artisan, watchmaker and hand finisher works with the same almost sacred fervour, all engaged in the quest for ultimate beauty. Is this sheer madness, or a form of wisdom?
Dialogue is a watchword at Greubel Forsey, whether between movement designers and constructors or between the hand finisher and the different workshops. Each element must be studied in the minutest detail so as to achieve absolute – or almost absolute – perfection, if one modestly considers that the latter is not of this world.
This is a quest that is ongoing, endless and involves a path of humility, a mindset found in every workshop. It is perhaps this blend of passion, pride and the quest for perfection that makes the Atelier so unique. The Greubel Forsey artisans ply their craft in a spirit of profound respect for what comes before and after their intervention. The workshops are pervaded by a uniquely keen awareness that each task performed can influence the past and future of the component. When it comes to assembly, each watchmaker must handle the parts without deforming or scratching them, tightening screws without damaging them, all in order to avoid destroying the work of the previous artisan, while elevating each component to the pinnacle of excellence. Assembling such a timepiece takes 10 to 20 times longer for Greubel Forsey watchmakers than for any other. Regardless of the time and expense involved in achieving the desired result, Greubel Forsey deliberately treads the path of virtue leading to exceptional results, with each stage marking a milestone in its own right.
Take the example of movement decoration: at Greubel Forsey, almost all parts of each mechanism are made in the Atelier. Before reaching the hand finisher, each undergoes multiple operations designed to ensure they reach the decoration workshop unblemished. From smallest to largest, each component carries a high emotional charge. Some parts are also decorated in the assembly workshop, for the finishing touches. This requires absolute precision at all stages. Every component – all the way down to the smallest screw, and whether visible or not – is painstakingly corrected by hand. A skilled decorator will ’fashion the part to make it even more beautiful. The angles might be less regular, than when done by machine, but it will be slightly profiled at one end so as to create the illusion of perfection of the proportions. All of this stems from interactions between the brain, eye and hand. Just as in the universe at large, it is asymmetry that creates beauty. At Greubel Forsey, the quest for perfection thus also takes the path of imperfection.
One of the signature Greubel Forsey finishes is mirror polishing (also called black polishing). Historically, watchmakers used mirror polishing to avoid corrosion: the more polished a surface, the less likely it is to rust. Today, this technique is a token of extreme quality. At Greubel Forsey, the polishing of the angles is finished with a gentian stem which has an especially soft core. Mirror polishing is about playing with light. The surface of the part is polished until the reflection itself turns black. It sometimes takes up to four hours of polishing to achieve this result. The artisan must be capable of stopping just in time to avoid scratching the part, which is a matter of expertise and experience. All the senses are alert, since even a tiny noise is enough to signal whether one has gone too far or reached the goal. “It’s a matter of excellence guided by the intelligence of the hand”, says Robert Greubel. “We are motivated by the fact that we simply cannot make a timepiece any other way, given the level of excellence for which we consistently aim. We strive to endow our creations with a face that represents us.”
When Robert Greubel evokes “a face that represents us”, he is referring to the very origins of the two watchmakers’ training, for therein lies the source of this quest. “When Stephen and I were at watchmaking school, we made components by hand: baseplates, bridges and wheel trains. And when one is accustomed to manually crafting components, it’s as if one were wielding a brush with our own palette of colours: it becomes part of our very being. Hand craftsmanship is where our story began. When we first created our Atelier, there was no team as there now is and it was just the two of us, which meant we had to do everything ourselves. When other artisans joined us, we were able to show them what we wanted to achieve with the visual support of actual parts. The first timepiece presented at Baselworld in 2004, the Double Tourbillon 30°, was not a prototype: it was entirely finished, ready for sale and complete with its presentation box. What the Atelier Greubel Forsey now is, and will become, mirrors what Stephen and I truly are. The logical evolution would be to take hand craftsmanship even further, to its ultimate conclusion. But that’s another story…”
Choosing a Greubel Forsey timepiece means encouraging a determined concern for perfection at all stages of development and betting on human genius. It implies knowing that the timepiece on your wrist is unique, because the hand never performs the exact same move twice. It also involves accepting that some truths are bound to remain hidden.
“The Beautiful is the symbol of moral good.” Immanuel Kant – Critique of Judgement
A big thank you to the Greubel Forsey team for this wonderful essay and for the lovely pictures.