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