Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers
Angus Davies recently visited the incredible workshops of Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers. The workshop in Oldenzaal in the Netherlands, located near the German border, is home to watchmaking masterpieces worthy of the term ‘art’. Indeed, Angus Davies ponders whether he has witnessed, first hand, the renaissance of the Dutch Golden Age.
This feature about Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers includes details of the company’s workshops, its exalted craftsmanship and the various models it makes.
Tim Grönefeld, Angus Davies and Bart Grönefeld
The Netherlands has a rich tradition of producing wonderful works of art. The late 1620s to 1672 saw a proliferation of fine paintings created by the ‘Dutch Masters’. Pieter Claesz, Frans Hals, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Jan Steen, Pieter De Hooch and Johannes Vermeer are all names familiar in the world of art. Sadly, the French invasion of 1672, ‘the disaster year’, spelt the death knell for such creativity but not before a huge body of work had been created, often referred to as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’.
During this period, the country was a world leader in commerce, science and art. Dutch Calvanism influenced the subjects depicted with few examples of religious painting. Indeed, religious subjects were excluded from churches and only tolerated within private homes.
A hierarchy of genres
A ‘hierarchy of genres’ evolved. The ultimate examples of artistic expression were ‘history paintings’. However, these proved the most challenging to sell and some artists would choose other subjects which were more commercial. Typically an artist would focus upon one genre of painting. A wonderful example of ‘history painting’ was ‘Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver’ by Rembrandt (circa 1629).
Grönefeld Parallax timepieces in various case materials including a gem-set piece
Other subjects included peasant life, landscapes, townscapes, maritime scenes and still life. A common trait of all the pictures was the sense of realism. These works of art, whilst clearly influenced by Italian artists e.g. Caravaggio, eschewed some of the flamboyance of the baroque period. Moreover, today, they are widely considered some of the highest forms of western painting, exampling a unique character all of their own.
Master and apprentice
The ‘Masters’ would offer apprenticeships, typically lasting four to six years. Trainees worked in the Dutch workshops learning the intricacies of their craft from their mentors, including mixing specific palettes to achieve a magnificent sense of realism.
Witnessing a renaissance of the ‘Dutch Golden Age’
It was whilst visiting Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers from Oldenzaal, that I was reminded of the artistic prowess of the Netherlands in the 17th century and pondered whether I was now witnessing a renaissance of the ‘Dutch Golden Age’.
Bart Grönefeld (seated), Tim Grönefeld and Sjef Grönefeld
Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers effervesce with life. The two Dutch Master Watchmakers make me feel rather diminutive, a rare occurrence I might add, such is the magnitude of their larger than life personalities and significant physical stature. The Dutch duo exhibit a wonderful sense of fun but, make no mistake, they remain very serious when it comes to watchmaking.
Both brothers commenced trained in their native country, but spent much of their early working lives in Switzerland, progressing through the ranks of watchmaking.
Both Tim and Bart spent time studying at WOSTEP in Neuchâtel and went on to work at Renaud et Papi in Le Locle (now Audemars Piguet Renaud and Papi). It is whilst working in this environment that they honed their craft, learnt from the best and flourished alongside the likes of Stephen Forsey, Kari Voutilainen, Stepan Sarpaneva and the charming Peter Speake-Marin, to name but a few.
‘Home is where the heart is’
However, Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers are proud of their Dutch ancestry and it was inevitable that they would one day return to their home city, Oldenzaal. This locale is an intrinsic facet to their lives. It is where their grandfather, Johan Grönefeld, established his watchmaking workshop in 1912.
The church in Oldenzaal near the Grönefeld workshops. Sjef Grönefeld continues to maintain the clock within the church tower.
Indeed, watchmaking is very DNA of Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers. Johan’s son, and the brother’s father, Sjef, also became a watchmaker and the two young boys would spend much time playing to the metronomic beat of a Swiss lever escapement. To this day, Sjef Grönefeld continues to maintain the clock within the tower of the local church.
Despite having spent many happy and prosperous years in Switzerland, Tim and Bart are not trying to replicate Swiss watchmaking. They are Dutch and imbue their watches with a distinctly Dutch character. This is no slight on their part and they owe much of their knowledge to the land-locked nation famed for cheese, chocolate and banking. However, like all creative geniuses, they do not seek to emulate others, but rather tread their own unique path.
While I am mindful of not using French vocabulary when discussing the overtly Dutch Grönefeld timepieces, it is the ‘terroir’ of this locale, the brother’s relationship with this place and its people, which heavily influences the products they make. Unlike some Dutch art of the 17th century which was clearly influenced by Italian art, Grönefeld watches have a unique character all of their own.
Grönefeld One Hertz
The Grönefeld ‘One Hertz’ is well-known to the most discerning of watch collectors and brims with modernity without eschewing traditional craftsmanship. The ‘Parallax’, a flying tourbillon with its own distinct mien, won the GPHG Tourbillon Watch Prize in 2014, beating competition from some of Switzerland’s watchmaking establishment.
It was whilst I recently toured the workshop of Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers, only a few yards from Johan’s original workshop, and in the same street where the boys once played, that I truly came to understand what makes these horological masterpieces tick.
Tim and Bart have assembled a small, dedicated team of skilled artisans who suffuse each watch with a notable degree of hand craftsmanship. There is a distinct lack of automation. Instead, deft use of hand is employed to impart life to the parts which lay in front of the watchmakers. Indeed, it is here that gleaming parts patiently wait to be assembled and subsequently pulse into life, conferring several generations of service.
Grönefeld Minute Repeater
The ubiquitous Côtes de Genève motif, de rigueur with Swiss watches, has been set aside in favour for the brother’s own neoteric micro-blasted stainless steel bridge decoration. The only exception to this being a minute repeater, marked with Bart’s name.
The brothers play to their respective strengths, Bart is said to be ‘best for minute repeaters and finissage’, whereas Tim is ‘the master of the tourbillon’ and can often be seen working with surgeon-like precision, adjusting the screws on the rim of a balance wheel.
Bart Grönefeld filing a bridge
Part of the Grönefeld paradigm is the elevated finishing. Indeed, such is the vertiginous level of finishing within the workshop in Oldenzaal that I expected the air to be too thin, necessitating the watchmakers to wear oxygen masks. I can think of no other atelier that usurps the standards of finissage practised.
Tim Grönefeld working on a tourbillon
These are rare watches. It is unlikely that you will attend the same social function and bump into another guest wearing the same horological ensemble and, if you did, you would probably spend the rest of the evening chatting to them, as they would inevitably be a kindred spirit with a shared discriminating temperament.
However, the protracted nature of a creating a Grönefeld precludes the mass serial production of watches. The very essence of each subtle stroke of a file, each application of diamantine and each turn of a regulating screw is the outcome of time-served expertise few others can match.
I would argue that Grönefeld timepieces go beyond the notion of haute horologerie, these are post-dated Dutch Masters which deserve to be considered in the same breath as Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer.
The hierarchy of genres selected by Grönefeld, the Horological Brothers is very much at the high-end of complications, such is their rare blend of qualities that they have proved commercially very successful.
Thankfully, unlike Johannes Vermeer, whose talents were not recognised until after his death, the watchmaking prowess of Grönefeld, is recognised today. They have not only been awarded the highly respected GPHG (Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) but receive adoration from the cognoscenti who patiently wait for their masterpieces to be made at a small workshop in Oldenzaal where two Dutch Masters continue to create their remarkable art for future generations to enjoy.