Stephen Forsey, founder Greubel Forsey was in India recently. Mitrajt Bhattacharya caught up with him for a detailed interview, where he talked about the brand’s philosophy of focussing on the collector, the path-breaking technology behind the GMT Earth and the Différentiel d’Égalité, and his passion for classic cars. Here are the excerpts.
Let’s begin with the GMT Earth. It’s breathtakingly beautiful apart from being technically very sound. Take us through the making of the watch.
The GMT Earth is not a new version to replace the GMT. It adds to the GMT family because we realised it was with the GMT itself for the very first time we had an oversized globe with a realistic map inside. Beyond the striking aesthetics of the GMT and the GMT Earth, it’s very easy to use intuitive functionality which is really important for us. GMT Earth is interesting because the GMT has a stronger asymmetry in the case and in the GMT Earth we have softened that a bit deliberately to enhance the visibility of the globe. It has a 3-dimensional access with this sapphire crystal bezel; in fact, the metal bezel of the case is no more there. Instead, we have a highly domed sapphire bezel–a very instantly recognizable element of the new GMT Earth. It means we could have engraved text here. In order to achieve this, we had to redesign, reconstruct the movement.
Was it done to highlight the Earth a bit more?
Yes, we also added the Southern Hemisphere. Although at Greubel Forsey we have been working for more than 10 years with a complex sapphire material in our timepieces, in this case, we were able to add not only this sapphire crystal bezel but on the movement side with a dome enabling us to encapsulate and get the whole globe inside.
How many will you make of this- 11?
In the GMT Earth, we introduced a new calibre with 33 additional pieces in white gold and will take more than three years to produce all of them. Maybe we will be able to deliver 8 to 10 in a year. We have had a very good response but are unable to keep up with the demand. Its price will be around CHF 610,000 approximately.
Now, let’s talk about the other famous piece of the year- the Différentiel d’Égalité.
In the Différentiel d’Égalité, we have our fifth invention which was to study and try and improve the power source- the energy supplied to the escapement. The very first prototype of Différentiel d’Égalité was a concept back in 2008 when we were still in Baselworld. Différentiel d’Égalité seeks to take the energy from the mainspring barrel which drops off over time and to completely smooth that out.
Well, it belongs more to the Remontoir family. The constant force works more on the escapement. In a traditional Remontoir, you need to use the escapement to unlock and rewind the secondary spring. So, you are taking energy from what you are trying to supply smooth energy to. Hence, the escapement has to physically release the Remontoir system to rewind. We wanted to overcome this challenging area of the impact of unlocking, rewinding etc. So, we came up with a system, Différentiel system that allows the energy to come from the mainspring to the Différentiel splitting the energy. While the one side feeds from the spring a very even energy to the escapement, the other side of the Différentiel goes around and observes the advancement of the escapement. So, it’s not taking any energy from the escapement to make the release. But, it’s enabling the periodic rewinding.
So, if I get you right you have got one interesting splitting device which is the Différentiel which actually is doing the work and not the escapement.
That’s right. We can see that in the deadbeat second- an indication of rewinding of the escapement each second. You see two seconds’ indication in this timepiece. There is a running second for the escapement to receive smooth power supply. And then, there is the rewinding system. As we had a one-second rewind, we realised we could display the deadbeat seconds. But, the idea wasn’t deadbeat seconds and then the Remontoir. We just put the hand to add to the display. And then, we thought well when we were setting it the idea was to have a precision mechanism. So, when you pull the crown you stop the balance but you also reset to zero. In short, we have integrated quite a lot of mechanisms inside to make a very interesting timepiece.
Do you have any patent pending on this?
The patent is delivered on the Différentiel d’Égalité system.
Have you done any watch on fusee chain mechanism?
No, you see the fusee chain was historically relevant because the mainspring source was very poor. At Greubel Forsey, we use multiple barrels so we have a very smooth power up already. So, we have already a configuration which is not perfect but it’s very good. The challenge is if you want to put fusee and chain you are limited by the number of turns of the spring. So, you have to go back into a more historical configuration and you take a lot of space for that mechanism. It’s a very beautiful display and there are some historic brands and, of course, for them, it makes sense to revisit history.
The Différentiel d’Égalité how much is it priced and how many pieces?
It is CHF285,000 in white gold and with 33-piece edition.
I would like to dwell on the broader aspect of watchmaking. What is the legacy which you want to leave behind as Greubel Forsey- the brand?
I think that we are not necessarily driven by wanting to create a legacy but unconsciously our approach is with EWT, Experimental Watch Technology which led to this invention creating a very different way of working with a traditional watch brand construction. So, you cannot apply a standard management and brand development framework to Greubel Forsey. It doesn’t fit. As you know, we have the Foundation, Time Eon over 10 years back and this is part of the legacy. Five of us originally were the founders but only now Robert and I are active, Philippe Dufour and Vianney Halter, whenever they can. We have Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei too.
Do you think the traditional fine watchmaking industry is doing the right innovations at this moment?
When we say industry we are often thinking it to be product-oriented. These are motives which can be anti-economic with the whole emotional side of watchmaking. What we at Greubel Forsey are doing is very different as our focus is on the collectors.
So the collector is at the centre.
Totally. We live because of the collector. Our vision and objective are different. We are like a tiny boat on a big ocean. Sometimes the ocean is rough and sometimes it’s smooth but we continue, you know.
Anything you have liked in the past 5 years in terms of innovations done by other brands which made you think: I wish I could have done that.
Well, actually it’s going to sound kind of surprising but in an odd way, one of the innovations which struck out was TAG Heuer Connected watch. Because in terms of the marketing idea it was very clever because the idea was you buy the connected watch but then you have a foothold, an option in a few years’ time to upgrade to mechanical. I think this sort of hybrid approach was very clever. Today we do have a younger generation who are not inclined to wear a watch. So, it’s an opportunity for the watch industry get hold of a new clientele.
What’s Stephen Forsey’s take on smart or connected watches?
I think if you look and you analyse, it’s not really a watch for me. It’s a gadget, it’s a connected technology and why do I say this because for me the smartphone is a fantastic development and evolution because it’s a tool, and just a tool. I think where the challenge is with the smart technology is if you have that on your wrist it’s even closer to your body than the phone. I think it’s a stepping stone. It’s not the whole story.
What do you think about quartz watches, about the technology?
Well, the electronic watch of the 70s almost killed the watch industry but on the other side, it freed the watch industry from being just a utility item. This is the kind of the Eureka moment. Of course, there were a lot of dramatic impacts which were very, very sad. There was a complete loss of R&D in mechanical watchmaking for 10-15 years.
Switzerland lost a generation of watchmakers.
Not only a generation of watchmakers but an enormous amount of expertise was lost, sacrificed. The human cost was terrible but it freed the mechanical watch from being a utility item where the driving force had been bigger quantity, lower price and there came a point where it started to impact the quality of what you do.
Now, some personal questions. How do you unwind?
Well, I am still very passionate about antiques, culture, historic cars. My grandfather was an apprentice with Bentley when it was the original company. Through him and my father, I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to drive the historic 3-litre Bentley of the 1920s when the weather was good.
Today we talk about driver-less technology but there for me, it’s the man with the machine. As humans, we mustn’t forget that we are tactile. We have our senses of touch and vision. Reading a book is not the same as reading a newspaper on the PC or a tablet. So, our interaction with our environment of course with technology is very exciting. It can bring us a lot of things but often we get caught up and we forget the essence of what we are doing. For me, a classic car is interesting because you are very much in contact with the machine.
And what would be your favourite automobile brand?
If you think of Ferrari, how Enzo Ferrari started- he started with a racing team and then to finance his racing team he built road cars but he didn’t really like that because he found the customers were annoying. But I think in a strange way one which I admired it’s different today, it’s Bugatti because Ettore Bugatti was a designer. His element of design was very interesting, very innovative. He did some really crazy, really avant-garde things. And, if you look at the sort of 40 or 50 years of when it existed pretty much under his leadership some really interesting innovative stuff was done.
Any watchmaker you admire?
I mean historically there were some really interesting ones but of the modern ones today, I like Philippe Dufour. He stands out.He is also a mentor and an inspiration to me. Unfortunately, George Daniels passed away. He was a very unique guy. He mastered not only the artistry, mechanics in a time staring at the electronic watch crisis to really hand make the complete watch including the case, the dial, everything else. He also was a commercial genius.He managed to find people to buy such a watch. George Daniels found collectors to buy his pocket watches. For some watchmakers, though skilled in terms of talent, like Andreas Strehler, are commercially not very successful.
What’s the trend in collecting watches today? What are the collectors saying?
It’s a very good question. The demographic of collectors is younger than when we started. Our youngest Greubel Forsey collectors are in their 20s which is very interesting. Among collectors, there is a big push for vintage. But, in modern watchmaking we see people again looking to go back more to creativity, to the credibility. They are looking for authenticity. They want to know not only what the brand name, which is just the starting point to get them interested. They want to see what’s the value? Who is making? How is it made? The whole story of Greubel Forsey stands on these pillars. It’s something which comes around in our favour in a way because what we have been doing this since the very start with a very, very focused attention.
How many countries are you available today and what’s the future? Are you going to increase your footprint?
The motto is the creativity and development of new pieces. We are today working in something like 35 countries which is very big for about 100-110 watches a year.
So, each country you are talking about two or three pieces.
Between two and four.In some big countries, it could be six or seven.The others may be very quiet for a year but we keep the connection with the ambassador, the local partner because we want to make sure the collector has excellent service in the future not just when he buys the watch. In-house we are trying to build our team a little bit to be able to make a few more pieces each year but this is a very difficult equation to solve.
What’s your most valued timepiece today in the market?
It’s the Grande Sonnerie Tourbillion Minute Repeater which took 11 years to develop and why? We could have just remade a traditional one but we wanted to bring a new level of comfort, intuitive operation to the piece and the level of security because striking watches are often very delicate. We have built and designed and engineered a Grande Sonnerie that you can give to anybody that cannot create a malfunction. Everything is secured and yet it’s very, very easy to operate. It has an excellent sound quality, and a good intensity of sound.
This is your second visit to India what do you feel about India as a market?
Well, India has a long heritage and passion for watch collecting and culture throughout forms and so on. We are very pleased to be able to return to India. This year it is the first time but we try to return to meet with collectors and with the media. We see a development, interest, and passion for watchmaking is expanding in India which is very nice to see and working in partnership with the local specialists, watch enthusiasts and watch stores enables us to be able to meet collectors and continue to build a very positive relationship of trust.