It was the talk of SIHH 2016. Greubel Forsey, the watchmakers known for the art of invention of making the super complex look beautiful and approachable were making a time-only simple watch, and doing so at a price point that was looked terrestrial, instead of at the usual stratospheric level (admittedly in a relative sense). Although there were claims that this was a reaction by Greubel Forsey to a slowing in the market, such nay-sayers were missing a number of factors that on closer inspection show that this is a watch that has been in development for some time. In fact, the watch had been in development for approximately six years by the time it was shown at the Salon.
In keeping with Robert and Stephen’s philosophy of excellence in execution and chronometric performance, the watch had simply taken time to reach the market. Seeing the Signature 1 as a merely a simple watch, is missing the nuances of a timepiece that has taken considerable resources to perfect. In fact, that quest for perfection went on even after the watch was debuted at SIHH, and a different finish is present on the production watch.
In reviewing the watch I had both the opportunity to not only wear a Greubel Forsey watch which is always something to look forward to but also, in returning the watch to their atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds, I was able to view the watch in production. Hence, this is something of a different in-depth review from the usual, as it includes an inside look into a simple watch that beneath the minimalist design, has the same obsessive attention to detail and engineering that are the characteristics of watchmaking at Greubel Forsey.
Given the idea for the watch (and the series for that matter), there were a number of initial problems to overcome. First was the design of the balance wheel and balance spring. These components, for the Signature 1 are proprietary Greubel Forsey designs. Although, as Stephen admitted, they are hardly going to trouble Nivarox as a supplier, this is a departure for the firm. Before, in other tourbillon watches, they have used the balance wheel and spring as supplied. The emphasis was on the tourbillon element: the design of the cage and angle of rotation.
Look at all other Greubel Forsey watches apart from this one, and you will notice that all the balance wheels look the same. The reason is that Greubel Forsey were concentrating on just the tourbillon design. The philosophy for the EWT (Experimental Watch Technology), where all mechanisms are developed, is a scientific approach: all other factors are held constant so that it is possible to test just the one factor being changed. When testing for different tourbillon cage designs, therefore, all other elements including the balance and balance spring remain the same. In the case of the Signature 1, a new balance wheel was developed: it is the main element changed in the movement in this instance.
Once the decision had been taken to develop a new series Signature, and with it a new balance wheel (for Signature 1 at least) the actual development process takes time. The Signature series is to be a collaborative series of watches between Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey, and a senior watchmaker. The senior watchmaker for Signature 1 was Didier Cretin, who has been at Greubel Forsey since its foundation. In reviewing the Signature 1 it is worth taking a look at the elements that make this watch different both from other Greubel Forsey watches, and from other simple highly finished time-only watches on the market.
First the design of a proprietary balance wheel. To some the design looks similar to the Naissance d’une Montres; but not so. I actually asked Stephen that very question, and he said that while he could see that observation might be made, the Naissance and Signature were developed independently. Yes, watchmakers will compare and discuss, but was one balance wheel a derivative of the other? No. They are completely separate processes in terms of development. To prove the point, Stephen put the balance wheels for the Signature and the Naissance next to each other and sure enough, the differences were obvious. The Signature balance wheel was developed separately.
If there is no connection between the two, then the next question is obviously, why was the balance wheel designed in that way? Stephen replied that the design was decided upon between the three of them: Robert, Stephen, and Didier. After years of working with watches, years of research and learning, the combined man-years knowledge of the three watchmakers was that the balance wheel should look this way. The symmetrical design allows for reliably even oscillations and the balance is an adjustable mass type, with a balance spring using a Breguet overcoil.
The watch is a pared down version (only in the sense of complexity, not quality) of the more complex Greubel Forsey watches. Stephen commented that it was actually difficult to create a simpler watch, but keep all of the Greubel Forsey aesthetic codes and finishing. The Signature is actually deceptively simple. When visiting the Atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds I was fortunate enough to see the watch in parts. The reason was that the prototype was being examined to see, before starting production, if there were any last changes to be made; this afforded an opportunity to see what details lie below the minimalist bridges and plates.
On the mainspring barrel, the decision was made to black polish the three-prong bridge on the reverse side of the watch. Not only does it add to the look and complexity of finishes on the watch, it also adds to the time taken, and the cost incurred, in producing each watch a decision reached despite the fact that the price had been agreed on before this latest finishing decision, which is not a surprise for Greubel Forsey.
The reduction in complexity lets Greubel Forsey showcase the movement to the greatest extent. You can follow the gear train from the winding barrel through the escapement, and to the hour, minute, and second hands; all are visible through both the front and back of the watch.
The design brings to the fore all the finishing that Greubel Forsey sees as standard. Finishing, at this level is not only for the longevity of the movement parts (less friction on moving surfaces and all that) but also to allow the construction of the watch to be exact. This is not ornate finishing for the sake of mere decoration. This is finishing for artisanship: to show how a handmade watch is different from purely machine made. Dr. George Daniels is famous for having said that a truly high level hand finished watch, if done to the highest level, would look machine made. But in this case, the perfection of finish is shown elements that can only be achieved by hand, such as the horizontal brushed finishing seen on the inside of the case. Slowly, with a buff abrasive stick, the lines are drawn across the metal surface. Trying to create the same finish with an electric tool results in a slightly wavy pattern, as it’s difficult to hold the electric tool steady while completing the finish.
The finishing on the Signature is exemplary. The chamfering, corners, and black polishing are without fault. The angled parts of the plate reflect light, as well as other parts of the watch. The step-wise pattern on the plates on the front of the watch, lead the eye to the the balance wheel and (perfectly black polished) balance bridge, whose edges and corners that are perfectly executed. Inside the movement parts, the perlage is by hand; the placement of each and every circle is exact. Finishing at this level is obsessive, and the question becomes when to stop; when do you know that are at the optimum? And finding that optimum is what the finishing department at Greubel Forsey do better than anyone else right now.
What I truly love about all Greubel Forsey watches is the attention to detail, which for the Signature 1 is every bit on the level of every other Greubel Forsey timepiece. The hands on this watch have been finished in the same fashion as Greubel Forsey’s other watches; the counter centers and polished tips are finished to the same standard as the most carefully finished movement elements. The finish on the wolf’s teeth on the ratchet wheel are equally exact.
Details such as the design of the bridge for the balance wheel (which is very reminiscent of the balance bridge from Invention Piece 1) illustrate the precision and skill in the finisher’s art, in the exactness of the squared cornered ends, and the perfect flat mirror finish for the complete length of the bridge.
With a case diameter of 41.3mm and a height of 11.3mm, the watch is also a first for Greubel Forsey in terms of size. I have to confess that, as someone who prefers vintage style and sized watches, this change from the usual Greubel Forsey dimensions is a welcome one. Being more fitted to the size of an average wrist, also has advantages in that the Signature 1 fits neatly below the shirt cuff; it’s a watch that is more wearable for the everyday use in general. Technically, the Signature 1 offers something new as well. While tourbillons have certain chronometric advantages, they are also a more complicated, and therefore more inefficient, way of regulating the mechanics of the watch. Although Greubel Forsey have probably gone further than anyone else in understanding the chronometry/efficiency trade-off, the simple uncomplicated movement for the Signature 1 will also bring other benefits in terms of less maintenance, and less wear and tear on moving surfaces.
The movement is very non-standard in terms of design and construction. The three-tiered step element to the front bridges is something of an illusion, as the plates are not built up one on the other; rather, the modules are inter-linked to create that impression. Unlike some of the other independents, who borrow the basic design and layout of a movement from the past vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre and Peseux 260 movements come to mind the Signature 1 movement has been designed from scratch.
Some of the premium price tag represents the cost of development and testing for the new movement, the new balance wheel, and the layout. This is not taking a movement off the shelf and fitting it to something else; or a movement design from the past. This is starting with a blank sheet of paper. True, the mechanics of the time-only watch are well known. However, I have also known Greubel Forsey to change an element in a watch during prototyping for aesthetic reasons, and there is no difference here. There are prototypes of the Signature 1, some still in existence, some dismantled, that have different configurations.
Back at SIHH 2016 Ben Clymer’s immediate reaction to the watch that it just might be the ultimate time-only watch was right, I think. While others have compared the Signature 1 to other time only watches offered by independents, the other reviews have not considered how the Greubel Forsey watch may differ in design and construction. There is no imitation at Greubel Forsey: designs are proprietary, and styled and finished in their own way. The Signature 1 might be a simple time-only watch but it does have a far greater degree of complexity about it, in both construction details and finish, that puts it in a class very much apart from other time-only watches.
The Greubel Forsey Signature 1: in steel,$170,000; in red or white gold,$185,000. For a look at the more complicated side of watchmaking at Greubel Forsey, check out what it’s like to do A Week On The Wrist with the Greubel Forsey GMT.Visit Greubel Forsey online, right here.
Dr. Andrew Hildreth has written for a variety of publications on watches, including Watch Journal, QP, The Hour, Calibre, and others, in addition to having been a moderator at PuristsPro.com. He is a Liveryman at the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and a Freeman of the City of London, which permits him the pretty cool title of “Citizen and Clockmaker of London.” When not writing about watches, he has a day job as an economic consultant. Check out his look at Patek ref. 2526 enamel dials, right here.