Ultimate Cars, Watches & Hi Fi S02 ep2 : Stephen & Greubel Forsey, Forsey Watches, [France & England]
Interview with Stephen & Greubel Forsey
With the launching of their first Invention the Double Tourbillon 30° in 2004, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, French and English Inventor Watchmakers marvelled knowledgeable watch devotees with a new Tourbillon mechanism adapted specifically for the wristwatch. Only a handful of timepieces leave the atelier each month due to the sophisticated movement and exquisite finishing. The Inventor Watchmakers are committed to pure technical innovation and are dedicated to inventing new movements that have never existed in watchmaking history.
SF: Greubel-Forsey very simply is two watchmakers, Robert Greubel who is French and myself
Stephen Forsey I’m from England.
SF: I met Robert a little over 15 years ago now in 1992 when I first came to Switzerland. I had
been working in antique watch restoration in London and Robert was working at M___ in L___
and I got a job there to build complicated mechanical wristwatches, minute repeaters and so on.
SF: At that time, early 90’s, there was already a shortage of watchmakers who understood
mechanisms such as a minute repeater. From the mid 70’s through the 80’s to the late 80’s a lot of
parents who lost their jobs in the watch industry did not want their children to go into the same
business. So obviously there was a shortage of Swiss qualified watchmakers and so you had an
influx already then of watchmakers from abroad.
SF: Even before I went to watchmaking school in London, I had been sort of dabbling and bathing
in mechanical things from a young age. My grandfather was an engineer, he worked in the
automobile industry in the aviation industry in his working life. My father, his son-in-law was
passionate about vintage cars, although his profession is an industrial chemist, and so I had this sort
of technical background, mixed with a bit of science, my mother is an art teacher, and so you mix
all that together and perhaps you end up with me.
SF: I have a mechanical conception three dimensional sort of view of things in my mind so I was
able to visualise by looking at a mechanism and just operating a couple of times oh well, okay, so
that’s how it works, and you dissect the sort of the cinematic of how a mechanism works.
SF: I’d got a job at Esprit in London who had a fantastic collection of antique watches and John
Esprit was a watchmaker. He would come and see us in the workshop regularly and so I had the
chance to work on some very, very interesting and diverse timepieces over my time in Esprit and
during that I came to W___ in Switzerland and was able to see a bit of the industry and it was there
I think I realised that there was you know, there was some good potential there.
SF: My grandfather suggested to my parents that I go to university and do an Engineering Degree.
I did a week’s work experience in an engineering, a precision engineering workshop in 1980 or ’81
when the whole industry in England was in freefall and the company I went to visit were on 30,000
square feet of surface area and in 12 months later when I went to do the work experience, they
were on 3,000 square feet.
SF: Through a chance meeting with a friend of my father’s through vintage cars, he had been
studying antique clock restoration and he had an antique clock shop with a lathe and a milling
machine and a drill out the back, and so he could make replacement parts, and I thought that looks
interesting, you know it’s a mixture of practical work and a bit of intellectual and then I had an
idea, I thought well perhaps you could mix it with a sort of the, sort of new side and I could make
one off clocks, you know so this became a sort of a serious idea. So that was when I decided, rather
than going to university, that I wanted to go to watchmaking school. The careers teacher in my
school thought I had completely lost it, my parents insisted and eventually they came up with an
address. There was a watchmaking school in London, I went there, and so that gave me a good sort
of basis to build on.
SF: Even today, with everything we have, all of the technology, power, the calculation
possibilities, the precision machining that we have, I still think it’s remarkable what was done two
centuries ago, or even three centuries ago, three and a half centuries ago, a pocket watch from
1650, which has no balance spring, time keeping is all over the place, and to actually make the
thing when you think that they had no steel, where do you get your brass from, even your cutting
tools, they were, you know you had to really more or less make everything by hand.
SF: The advantage of having many different types of timepiece from different makers from
different periods to look at was that one was able to see how a particular technical problem had
been approached by one maker, how another maker had approached it a different way and to be
able to sort of do a critical analysis of that.
SF: In our press info we’ve got a graph which shows the test where we took a double Tourbillion
30 degrees cage structure and once it had been set up and was running, we took out the inside one
minute Tourbillion cage which is the three arm cage, which is very much a classic cage on its own,
we mounted it fixed on a slave movement so it ran like a hand wound fixed escapement watch. We
did a six position timing test, as you would do on any watch, and then we were able to see that in a
given example we had 10 seconds maximum difference between the flat position perhaps and the
most extreme vertical position. So that was the biggest difference. Without retouching this cage at
all, we then made it rotate in one axis as Breguet had in his pocket watch concept and there we
started to see that horizontally, as is logical, there is no effect from gravity on the balance wheel
system because it’s turning flat, but when you go vertically, then you have the whole averaging out
effect and so we were able to see that in this given example which gave 10 seconds as a fixed
escapement, in one axis the error or the difference was reduced to 7 seconds by the averaging out.
We then took that same cage again without modifying it again, and remounted it into the double
Tourbillion 30 degree cage structure and there the maximum difference went down from 7 seconds
a day to 3-3½ seconds a day, and that’s the secret of it which a lot of people have missed, is that
Breguet was brought to this, not simply because of lubrication problems but because of materials,
because of the mechanical precision he could obtain, the lubrication and the technology of his day.
But what was remarkable was that he was able to work out, without GPS, without an atomic clock,
that there was a difference when the watch fell to one side or to another side in the pocket.
SF: Actually there was nothing done with the wristwatch Tourbillion until we started to look at it
really because if you look at it, Breguet came up with the single axis Tourbillion in 1801 he
patented it, in 1875 we found out after we came out with our double Tourbillion 30 degrees there
had been an American watchmaker Potter had made one piece with an inclined balance wheel but
an enormous sort of incumbent cage, there was Walter Prendal in 1928 I think around the late 20’s
in Germany made a 6 minute Tourbillion pocket watch, which has three angles of inclination
within the cage, 15, 23½ and 30 degrees inside the cage so that’s very, very difficult to master of
course. And then you jump forward nearly 60 years or something, 50 years Anthony Randall,
English watchmaker, who came up with the two axe Tourbillion with 90 degrees system, but he
put it in to a demonstration carriage clock because for him, I spoke to him, and he said that the
possibility, you know the idea of miniaturising that into a wristwatch was ludicrous because you’d
have to make the balance wheel far too small. So there had been these things which we were able
to study and analyse and from that we made our own specification and started to look and see if
there were new concepts we could find.
SF: The end result is that some of the parts and it’s all about the detail, you know there’s the detail,
there’s the detail and there’s the detail and once you’ve got all the detail together, then you’ve got
a whole thing which is an object which has hopefully the passion, it has some of know-how in it,
and a whole message and I think that somebody who buys a Greubel-Forsey timepiece, there’s not
going to be thousands of people but you know but with a few people each year were able to acquire
one, even if at the beginning they are perhaps drawn by the 25 second incline, the speed of rotation
of the cage and the asymmetrical form of the case, which is a little bit out of the ordinary, all of
the detail is there.
SF: One of the things that marks was the double Tourbillion 30 degrees, we’ve used a very, very
sober frosted finish on the barrel bridge of the movement and when we first presented this in
Ba___ in 2004, it’s only five, it’s only our fifth Ba___ fair today, 2008, but in 2004 when we first
presented this timepiece, and we had several people going, it’s a nice looking watch but perhaps
not very much watch connoisseurs, but they certainly were people who would have the means to
purchase such a watch, and yet they said but the movement is not very decorated, can’t you do me
some nice engraving on the bridge, and we were horrified you know, not to upset them because it
was the very beginning we said well, come and visit us in our workshops in L___ and we’ll talk
about it and we’ll do you some proposals or whatever and the person came across and we visited
the design office and then the micro-mechanic workshop where we make the raw components and
then the decoration department where a person will spend easily eight hours on one component to
achieve the level of detail of hand finish, which cannot be done by machine and that’s part of our
signature. And so, after he’d seen all this stuff we went back and we sat down and said so, you
know we’ve done a couple of sort of sketch designs for the decoration of your bridge, and he said
no, forget it all, you know, now I understand he said, the whole idea is to draw the eye towards the
mechanism and so the bridge is sober, it has its own finish and it’s deliberate, you’ve done it like
that because that’s how it should be. I don’t want to change it at all, it’s just perfect as it is.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Stephen & Greubel Forsey, Forsey Watches, France or England