ThePuristS visit Greubel Forsey

Greubel Forsey

ThePuristS pay a vist to Greubel Forsey

by Ian Skellern and Curtis D. Thomson
(c) November 2004



       (click on images to view a larger version)

 


Background

Basel 2004 was widely considered to be a vintage year as far as innovations and surprises go. As with preceding years, many of these exciting new products came from AHCI members and candidates.

Two such candidates, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, stunned Basel in 2004 with not one, but two major surprises.

The first was their innovative and very distinctive, three dimensional, double-axle tourbillon. Literally, a tourbillon within a tourbillon.

Named the Double Tourbillon 30 degrees, due to the angle between the two tourbillon carriages, Greubel Forsey have set, or perhaps it is more accurate to say offset, a one minute tourbillon inside a larger four minute tourbillon carriage.

The idea behind the twin off-set tourbillons was to make the tourbillon more relevant to the wrist watch. Invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet over 200 years ago, the original single-axis tourbillon was developed to average out the effects of gravity on the balance of a pocket watch in its normal vertical position.This was of limited benefit at best in a constantly moving wristwatch,where positional variations cause timing errors.Multi-axis tourbillons average out positional errors by addressing the changes of rate from the horizontal and vertical positions,which enables a more stable beat rate.


While the watch itself is very sophisticated,the philosophy behind it was simplicity itself;  simply to make a better timekeeper.

The fundamental research into multi-axis tourbillons was first carried out by British clockmakers,Anthony Randall and Richard Good, around 30 years ago. They both used double, and even triple, tourbillon carriages mounted at 90 degree angles in clocks.

Greubel Forsey found that mounting a one-minute tourbillon within a 30 degree offset tourbillon carriage with a four minute rotation, ensured a better chronometric performance while still maintaining an acceptable depth to the watch.It is practially impossible to hold the watch with the balance in a horizontal position.This configuration also has the benefit of allowing the whole of the Double Tourbillon to be admired.



                  


As intended,Greubel Forsey's invention makes a marked difference in improved time-keeping performance.The above graph, showing results from Greubel Forsey's internal testing, compares the results of the variations in rate of Greubel Forsey's own double-axis tourbillon movement in the different positions, with more conventional balance set-ups.They first tested the balance on its own,with a standard tourbillon and then with their double-axis tourbillon.The theoretical ideal would be represented by a straight vertical line and as shown,the Double Tourbillon 30 degrees gets closest to that ideal.

A watch is much more than 'just' a good movement and it is the complete package that makes this watch much more than the sum of its (many) parts.The architecture of the movement is designed, not only for function,but also to show off the main features of the movement.The solid gold, two-piece dial has four substantial blued security screws;  not only to do they make a strong visual statment,they are vital in keeping the heavy dial in place.Design elements throughout the case,dial and movement,all serve to highlight the myriad intricacies within. It comes as no surprise to learn that the 'look' of the watch was developed in parallel with the movement rather than as an afterthought.


As innovative and inventive as the concept was, what really blew the Basel cognoscenti away was the fact that Greubel and Forsey, in their very first year, were presenting not just a concept, or a (barely) working prototype,but had on display a superbly finished watch already available for delivery.



                  




Recently, Curtis and I were very fortunate to be invited to Greubel Forsey in La Chaux de Fonds to take a closer look at the team behind this remarkable watch.


The Visit

So non-descript was the exterior of the Ancien Manege (old riding-school), that we drove and even walked past it a number of times before venturing inside. However, the drab exterior belies a stunning decorated interior courtyard, which was undergoing a well deserved and very well executed restoration at the time of our visit.




           

                       Left to right,Curtis,Nicole,Stephen.

Our hosts were Stephen Forsey, who tends to the technical side of the business,while Robert Greubel leans towards creation and product strategy and Nicole Segundo, who when not showing wide-eyed PuristS around, is responsible for sales and marketing.

When you realize that the complete Greubel Forsey head-count including the two principles just barely makes double figure, you may understand how fortunate we were to be given so much of their time.

Coming from different backgrounds and of different nationalities, Stephen Forsey (English) and Robert Greubel (French), met up while they were both working for Audemars Piguet/Renaud & Papi. They kept in touch after leaving Renaud & Papi in 1999 and decided to team up and form Complitime – a company dedicated to the development of complicated movements for other haute horology brands.During this time they developed their Double Tourbillon 30 degrees and decided to create their own brand.

The 30 degree Double Tourbillon took four long years to see the light of day.                                                                       Robert Greubel (left) and Stephen Forsey (right)


Our tour started with an overview of the company and while Stephen was talking, our (not so) surreptitious glances at his wrist soon had him removing the watch he was wearing, which was a brass-cased prototype of the double tourbillon. For a prototype this was an extremely well made watch. While it was not finished to anywhere near the levels of the production pieces it has a very special honest charm all of its own. It was hard to give it back !

Stephen's brass-cased prototype.



Stephen then set a closed cardboard box on the table which piqued our curiousity - as he no doubt knew it would. We quickly opened it to reveal a working Meccano model of the double tourbillon concept. This was operated by crank.

Being able to slowly turn the crank and watch the double wheels rotate in a slow dance was a big help in comprehending what went on in reality. This working model coupled with Stephen's prototype gave us a good understanding of the early development of the tourbillon and the movement and case.




We then moved to the CAD desk where movements and parts are extensively designed and even virtually tested before the first prototypes are made. Sophisticated 3D programs take a lot of the guess work out of movement design, and they certainly speed the development process up, however, there is still a big gap between a model working on screen and in reality. Once the movement is working on screen, prototypes have to be made to test that the concept and design is valid in the real world.

          

Computer stress testing of parts.                                                           CAD movement design.




Our next stop was the very well equipped micro-engineering workshop, where the parts for these prototypes are made. While the machine shop is fairly small considering the incredible work that comes out of it,with a 5-axis CNC machine,a couple of precision lathes and a jig borer, they certainly have the all tools and equipement necessary.

It should be noted that while some production parts are manufactured by outside partners to Greubel Forsey's exacting standards, all prototyping is done in-house. Suppliers are only asked to make what the company has already done themselves. Greubel Forsey also share with their partners the techniques and methods that they have developed so as to make sure that the high quality that they demand is met.Many pieces are also manufactured in-house.

 

                  Jean-François in the micro-engineering workshop.                              Flavio setting up the 5-axis CNC machine.


After seeing how the myriad of tiny parts were made, we then had a look at how they were finished. The two men responsible, Rosario and Philippe had the onerous task of turning the raw metal pieces into miniscule works of art. Detailed plans are drawn up of each part with every type of finish and where it is to be applied precisely specified.

        

Finishing room and drawing detailing the many levels and types of finish on all the surfaces of one tiny part.

Stephen and Robert had decided very early on in the project that their watches were not only going to be technical masterpieces, they would also be finished to the high level they thought that their watch deserved. Indeed, even highly respected watchmakers known for their fine finishing have commented on the superb level of finishing that Greubel Forsey have attained.

        

Many,many hours spent working at close quarters enables parts like this to shine.

The tourbillon bridge alone needs eight hours of work which includes;deburring,hand filing and cleaning of corners and angles,hand-finished and polished bevel,hand-finished and polished conical barrelled sections,hand-finished straight grained flanks,straight graining by hand on the underside,polished and beveled screw countersinks and hand executed flat black polish to the upper side - and that is just one part! That bridge is only one of 128 parts that make up to two tourbillon carriages - that's more pieces in the tourbillon carriages alone than many complicated watches have in total. The complete movement in total has just over 300 finely crafted components.
While the majority of the finishing is done by Rosario and Philippe,it is the watchmakers who are responsible for the mirror like, black polish finish of key parts, which they do just before the final assembly

It is not enough to just make the parts or have them made and then polish them up. All components are rigorously controlled and have to pass both the testing laboratory and quality control before being passed as perfect before use. Parts undergo exhaustive and demanding checks to ensure that they confirm to the exacting requirements Greubel Forsey expect.All pieces are tested to make sure they are 'physically' up to the job in hand and checked over in every minute detail to ensure they conform exactly to the specifications demanded.


                While there is no shortage of high-tech machines for testing quality... there is always room for low-tech as well.
                The swinging hammer is for drop testing.



And last, but certainly not least, the two watch-makers; Frederic and Merja, who are responsible for assembling over 300 (nearly) finished parts. It is also their job to apply the final black polish -the hardest and highest level of finish - where called for as this needs to be applied just before the piece is assembled to avoid the slightest microscopic mark or scratch.

        


Frederic is a local from La Chaux de Fonds and started off his career restoring old clocks and watches.He then spent three years with Renaud and Papi before joining Greubel Forsey.

Merja who is Finnish,studied at the respected Kelloseppäkoulu (Watchmakers School) just outside Helsinki and was also at Renaud and Papi.She then worked elsewhere before finding Greubel Forsey's Double Tourbillon 30 degree more to her tastes.

        



Each watch takes a minimum of a month of meticulous work assembling the movement and fitting it to its case - and the result is well worth it. There has been no expense spared in the design, construction or execution of Greubel Forsey's first efforts ... and it shows!


While many small new brands start with a big splash before going on to develop a simpler, more accessible 'bread and butter' model, I cannot see Greubel and Forsey resting on their laurels in a similar fashion. It is hard to imagine that the cutting-edge machinery and talent in their atelier will not continue to be used on cutting-edge watches.


2004 was a superb year for Greubel Forsey; I predict 2005 be even better. Bring on Basel 2005!


Ian Skellern - November 2004



We welcome comments, suggestions, and corrections to this article.

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Copyright November 2004 - Ian Skellern & ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved


Our thanks to Stephen and Nicole for their time and patience and to the rest of the team at Greubel Forsey for enabling us to share in their work.

*I would like to offer a special thank you to Suitbert Walter,who's assistance and patience enabled me to learn enough HTML to be able to format this article.