Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey
Angus Davies chats to Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey. His interview with the famous watchmaker reveals an innate need to invent, perfectly conveyed by Greubel Forsey’s strapline, “Art of invention”.
This interview with Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey includes details of his background, tourbillons, finissage and much more.
Recently, I received an invitation from Marcus Watches, Bond Street, London to meet Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey. The high-end watch retailer enjoys a strong relationship with the brand which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary.
After arriving at Marcus Watches, I walked a short distance to a nearby restaurant and sat down next to Stephen Forsey at an outside table. I strained to hear the softly spoken Englishman, as the city’s manic traffic impacted on our conversation. Indeed, the first thing that struck me about Stephen Forsey was his gentle, humble demeanour which belies his technical and commercial achievements.
Stephen Forsey is one half of the watchmaking duo Greubel Forsey whose compounded surnames grace some of the finest wristwatches in existence. Stephen studied at Hackney College alongside Peter Speake-Marin, as well as spending time at WOSTEP, Neuchatel.
Stephen also spent five years working for the prestigious retailer, Aspreys, restoring watches. I still marvel at the skills necessary to restore a valuable vintage watch. At no stage can the restorer impose their own character on the timepiece and the consequences of breaking a part, with no obvious replacement readily available, makes the task very risky.
In 1992, after leaving Aspreys, Stephen Forsey joined Renaud and Papi, a centre of excellence for the creation of high-end movements. This is now referred to as Audemars Piguet Renaud and Papi. It was here that he first met Robert Greubel during an interview. The two would go on to work together at the prestigious atelier in Le Locle, working on various projects which included complicated watches such as tourbillons, minute repeaters and perpetual calendars.
Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey explained to me that, on several occasions, he has been told that there is nothing left to invent in watchmaking. Indeed, this is a remark I have heard many times myself. During the time Robert and Stephen worked together, they would often discuss whether this notion was indeed true. With a common desire to invent, the two individuals pooled tools and resources, forming the company CompliTime SA in 2001. This new business went on to attract the patronage of larger watch brands and utilised the skills of the creative duo on various watch projects. The company continues to operate to this day.
Three years later, in 2004, a second company was formed, Greubel Forsey. It is this brand which provides the vehicle for the creation of elevated timepieces which bears the names of the dynamic duo.
One complication which appears to have been an obsession for Stephen and Robert is the tourbillon.
The tourbillon, originally patented by Abraham Louis Breguet in 1801, was invented to counter the negative effects of gravity influencing the escapement. However, whilst this invention proved beneficial within a pocket watch, typically held in a vertical position, its relevance to wristwatches is negligible.
A wristwatch will be held in a myriad of positions in normal use. However, the creative pair of watchmakers conceived the idea of a Double Tourbillon 30° and patented it in 2001.
Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 1 – featuring a Double Tourbillon 30°
With a double tourbillon timepiece, one tourbillon cage sits within another, each rotating at different angles and different speeds. The outcome is a tourbillon movement relevant to a modern-day wristwatch conferring tangible benefits in terms of accuracy. Greubel Forsey released the first watch equipped with this know-how in 2004, the Greubel Double Tourbillon 30°.
Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 2 – featuring a Quadruple Tourbillon
With the need to invent very much at the heart of the Greubel Forsey paradigm, it is not surprising that the brand later launched the Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24 seconds, followed by a Quadruple Tourbillon, each time exploring the limits of the horological performance envelope. The resultant outcome with these timepieces is a degree of accuracy typically found on quartz watches and significantly superior to the majority of mechanical watches generally found on the market.
In 2011, the brand revealed its first model equipped with a GMT function. Of course, being Greubel Forsey, the rule book was effectively torn up. The watch imparts the prevailing hour in a second time zone employing a three dimensional depiction of the earth.
This brings me to a second aspect of the Greubel Forsey DNA. The dials are composed of numerous elements, intriguingly exploiting differing depths and, in so doing, delivering a spectacular three dimensional horological vista which entices the eyes to explore each element from every available angle.
The Quantième Perpétual à Équation
Earlier in 2014, Greubel Forsey released its first perpetual calendar, but without the customary push pieces on the case band. With a common desire to make their watches practical and simple to use, Robert and Stephen have simply utilised the crown to make adjustments to the various displays.
By adopting an innovative approach to design, the display proves user-friendly to decipher with the day, large date and month presented in a linear form at 4 o’clock.
It took Robert and Stephen 10 years to conceive the Quantième Perpétual à Équation, but the result is a technical tour de force. The mechanical computer, a coding device, is programmed for 100 years, an equation of time is integrated into the perpetual calendar and the watch is equipped with six new inventions.
During our lunchtime meeting, Stephen often mentioned “our level of finishing” when describing his watches. The finissage of his timepieces is beyond comparison with anything else I have seen. A team of 18 people within the finishing department work on just 100 pieces per annum.
Greubel Forsey Atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds
Each aspect of the movement construction, case and dial creation is to a standard free of compromise.
I am always fascinated to meet remarkable artisans and Stephen Forsey ranks as one of the most exceptional talents I have ever met. I confess that, at times, I was bamboozled by his technical explanations. Indeed, the very composition of his watches proves incredibly challenging even for the most ardent fan of horology.
However, I was left with several thoughts at the end of my lunch with Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey. Firstly, whilst the entry point to Greubel Forsey ownership is circa £300K, I never felt the pricing was a matter of badge snobbery. Indeed, it is more a reflection of the colossal amount of time spent both conceiving and then realising each no-compromise haute horlogerie creation.
Secondly, the finishing and complexity of each watch seems to reflect a desire on one hand to create the impossible, but on the other hand produce watches which prove practical and user-friendly.
Stephen Forsey, Greubel Forsey is clearly a man who has a need to invent, but refuses to reveal much of his future plans, cleverly excusing his reluctance to divulge information with a cheeky smile. However, I suspect Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel are currently burning the midnight oil, busily planning further models which will stupefy observers with their mind-blowing creation.