It’s been more than 10 years since I first met Stephen Forsey, one half of the horological duo known as Greubel Forsey (Robert Greubel being the other half, of course). Our first long talk â which come to think of it was also our first talk, period â was at a dinner in Manhattan, and I remember it very vividly for several reasons. For one thing, it was the first time I’d had a chance to see one of the brand’s exotic and much-talked about tourbillons in person. That’s not something one easily forgets.Â
Probably the most memorable part of the night, however, was being able to ask Stephen a lot of questions, and to get a better idea what had inspired him and his partner to create their very beautifully made, very technically challenging multi-axis tourbillons.
The whole idea behind most of the research that GF has done over the years since the company was launched in 2004, and even prior to that when both founders began working independently in 1999, was to combine the very highest level of very traditional, very labor-intensive manufacturing, adjusting, and finishing techniques. Let’s talk a little about the theoretical side.Â
First of all we have to talk about the tourbillon. The tourbillon was invented, and patented, by Breguet, possibly with some input from one or more of his contemporaries (although I know of no actual evidence that this is the case, other than whatever unverifiable conclusions you might draw from the fact that what is either the first or second of his tourbillons is in a watch dedicated to John Arnold, and for that matter, in a movement originally made by John Arnold). But, whatever its origin, the tourbillon was made to solve a specific problem.
That problem is this: for several reasons, a watch will run slightly faster or slower depending on the position in which you hold it. The six positions in which you usually time a watch are four vertical (crown up, down, right, and left) and two horizontal (dial up and dial down). If the rate does not vary, no matter the position the watch is in, you should theoretically have a perfectly accurate watch (leaving aside other considerations, like the effect of age on oil, disturbing effects of shocks, and so on).
The parts of the watch negatively affected by gravity are the parts responsible for keeping a regular rate: the balance, balance spring, lever, and escape wheel. Breguet’s idea was to mount those parts inside a rotating cage and in doing so, produce a single average rate for all the vertical positions put together, rather than having to deal with several different ones. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, you then can adjust the horizontal positions to match this single average vertical rate, and you should have a watch that keeps the same time irrespective of position.
The problem with this system is that it works best in a pocket watch and its benefits are less clear for a wristwatch. In fact, some people have gone so far as to say Breguet was barking up the wrong tree completely, and that it doesn’t work in a pocket watch either â Prof. Jean-Claude Nicolet, writing for the trade publicationÂ Europastar, opined that, “The tourbillon is in fact an additional mechanism that consumes energy without producing anything except misinformation. It is a parasitical mechanism.” Whatever your views, the fact remains that tourbillons for much of their history were very difficult to make, extremely challenging to miniaturize, and a huge challenge to adjust; you can understand why, therefore, wristwatch tourbillons for most of the history of the wristwatch were very rare.Â
If you do accept the notion that the tourbillon is based on sound theory, that still doesn’t mean they make sense in a wristwatch. Unlike pocket watches, which are generally either vertical in a pocket, or flat on a table or nightstand, wristwatches assume a range of positions when worn. The argument goes that a watch on the wrist is moved through a tourbillon-like range of positions during the day anyway, so why bother to make a tourbillon wristwatch?
Greubel Forsey’s thought was this: by inclining the tourbillon, you create a situation where for most of the positions in which the watch finds itself, the regulating components inside the cage will never be in the positions where rate variation is most extreme (perfectly flat, or perfectly vertical). The notion of an inclined balance in a tourbillon is not a new one â A. W. Potter made one famous example, completed around 1860 (and he was an American, ahem) but his watch has a cage that rotates on a plane parallel to the plate, per the normal configuration of a tourbillon. The Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain, on the other hand, sets the entire cage on a rotational axis at an angle to the vertical.
So that’s the theory behind the design â an interesting historical note, by the way, is that the axis of the tourbillon carriage in the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain is tilted 25 degrees off the vertical axis, which is the same angle Potter used in his inclined balance tourbillon of 1860. The watch uses an overcoil balance spring and turns at a fairly fast speed of rotation â 24 seconds, which again, is intended to minimalize the amount of time spent in or near any of the positions where the rate error due to gravity is at its worst.Â
The theoretical side of Greubel Forsey’s watches is pretty fascinating, but what gets a lot of people jazzed about their watches at first is probably less the theoretical nuts and bolts, than the aesthetics. These are very particular to GF; their watches are pretty instantly recognizable as Greubel Forsey watches. The overall design is determined on the one hand by the constraints of practical mechanics (you’re not going to create an inclined axis, fast tourbillon watch with a 72 hour power reserve, large balance, and overcoil balance spring and have it be an ultra thin watch) and partly by the fact that in general, GF watches are, as well as being experimental high precision timekeepers, also museums of high-level hand executed watch finishing. Purely as experimental timekeeping machines, they could be simpler looking, but they have a really high wow-factor not just thanks to their intellectual depth, but also to their artistic depth (quite literally, the effect of depth in the movement design has a lot to do with the overall impact of their watches).
The finishing techniques and overall movement design are an interesting combination of traditionally Swiss-French and English elements. The mainplate for the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain is titanium, and the cocks and bridges are in German silver (maillechort) and as is typical for GF both are decorated not with Geneva stripes, but with the frosted finish typical of handmade English pocket watches.Â
The general sense of solidity and even massiveness is also a characteristic of English pocket watches; as George Daniels wrote, in Watchmaking, “the best Swiss makers continue to apply a jewel-like finish to their watches … the English makers also worked to a very high standard but did not make any attempt to intrigue the customer with a display of polished wheels and sparkling components. There wold be no point … English hand-finished watches were expensive and bought only by gentlemen. They, on the whole, were not interested in wheels or polish which were merely manifestations of trade, something which no gentleman would want to be thought to recognize.”Â
On the movement side of its watches, Greubel Forsey tends very much to adhere to a design philosophy that’s always seemed more English than Swiss-French to me, although the French influence is there in the use of movement bridges (which were a French innovation) rather than the full plate or 3/4 plate design used by English makers. For this reason they can seem plain or even severe if you don’t know the background, but the longer you look the more you start to notice just how immaculate all the details are.Â
Once you get past the initial surprise of not seeing Geneva stripes, you start to notice things like the beautifully polished, well, everything; countersinks, screw heads and slots, the razor sharp inner corners, circular brushing and beveling on the spokes of the wheels, and so on, are all given the same scrupulous care. The absence of the usual more eye-catching flourishes typical of much modern high end watchmaking means there’s nothing to hide behind; everything has to be on point, and it is.
On the dial side the level of attention to detail is just as unflagging, and the quality of craft is just as high (naturally; after all this is the side you’re going to be looking at most) but it’s here that the depth and three dimensionality of the design is cranked up to 10. One signature element is the three-legged steel post that supports the hour and minute hands, which provides a much-needed visual counterpoint to the large tourbillon cage and balance (that post is found in a lot of Greubel Forsey timepieces).Â
Aesthetics on the dial side are just as out of the ordinary as on the movement side but a little more operatic. Extra or ultra thin watchmaking undoubtedly has its pleasures but the relative massiveness of the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain actually works in its own, very different way, thanks partly to the sheer lavishness of the finishing. One of the pleasures of mechanical watchmaking is that there is something about a mechanism you can physically identify with â when people say quartz is “soul-less” I often think what they really mean is that solid state electronics just seem too abstract to have that sense of something alive you get from a mechanical watch.Â
Although you could be forgiven for mistaking this for a flying tourbillon, there is actually an upper bridge, in sapphire, which provides mechanical support for the large carriage while at the same time, letting light into the lower half of the dial side of the watch, and providing an additional layer of shifting reflectivity. Somehow the whole thing manages to seem rich in detail without collapsing under its own weight, which is something of a miracle, considering how much is going on. The relative austerity of the movement side helps a lot to bring balance to the overall experience but the dial side doesn’t necessarily need it to work on its own; it’s balanced and beautiful enough to be judged favorably on its own merits.
I think the nicest thing about this watch, and about Greubel Forsey in general, is that as both a technical outing and in terms of aesthetics, it’s the kind of watch you appreciate more, the more you learn about what went into it in, and about watchmaking in general. You can, if you want, enjoy it purely on the strength of its aesthetics, or on the degree of craft that went into it (despite what a lot of bigger brands would have us think, this degree of real hand work is rare as hen’s teeth) or as a kind of obsessive experiment in technical watchmaking, or for how it references watchmaking history, or any combination of the above.Â
The worst thing that can happen to a watch owner is to find out at some point, as his or her knowledge improves, that they’ve been had â that the watch becomes a source of disappointment. You run a lot of risks nowadays in collecting both vintage and modern watches, but if you’re a client for Greubel Forsey, finding out you have something lesser than what you thought when you bought it, isn’t one of them.
The Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain in white gold, as shown, $470,000. Movement, caliber GF01c, 24 second tourbillon inclined to 25 degrees from the vertical. 36.40mm x 10.85mm; 10mm balance, free sprung, with inertial timing weights; Phillips overcoil balance spring with Geneva-style stud. Weight of the cage, 0.38 grams; titanium with Avional (duralumin) pillars; poised with gold counterweight. Titanium mainplate with German silver bridges. Indications: power reserve (72 hours) time, running seconds. Case: white gold, 44.50mm x 15.20mm, water resistance 100 ft. See the entire collection at Greubelforsey.com.