Rising from the ground like a giant wedge of transparent Swiss cheese slanting into the grass, Greubel Forsey’s manufacture is by far the most unusual of its kind in Switzerland’s La-Chaux-de-Fonds, a UNESCO World Heritage site that for centuries has been known for creating timepieces.
The cornerstone of the avant-garde atelier is a run-down 17th-century farmhouse nestled atop a grassy knoll, which was deteriorating from lack of use and the passage of time when Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey purchased the building in 2007 as a step toward establishing their eponymous business. Their own history dates back 27 years, to when they both worked on complicated movements for Renaud & Papi, a renowned watch supplier founded by two former Audemars Piguet employees in the 1980s. Next year marks two decades since they began working together as partners. In 2001, they founded CompliTime SA, specializing in complicated movements for high-end brands. But it would be the farmhouse that would fully launch their careers, simultaneously taking them back to the roots of watch-making itself while establishing Greubel Forsey as one of the industry’s most respected modern firms.
“We thought it just didn’t fit us to go into a factory building,” says Forsey. “And this is where watchmaking started. In a farmhouse like this, families would have been working here in the winter, in one heated room. They would gather around the fire and one person would cut out the raw plates and they would have a sort of jig or a guide to make them a certain size.” For that reason, Greubel and Forsey took special care to ensure that many of the features, from the original fireplace to an old cowshed and even a weathered stone sundial, remained intact. But the building, acquired from a local fondue restaurant they often frequented, was in need of a serious overhaul, so they brought in a local artisan, Gilles Tissot, to have it painstakingly repaired.
“The most delicate part of the restoration was installing the stones below the tuyé [the area for smoking meats],” says Tissot. “They were brought from another farm originally built around the same time. That farm, called the Maltournée because of the unusual inclination of its roof, had burned down 20 years earlier, but its remains had been stored all this time. However, the site was a mess and there were no plans to the building, so figuring out how the stones should interlock was like putting together a big puzzle.”
The vaulted arches of the ceiling, also from Maltournée and one of the building’s most dramatic features, were an additional challenge because of their size. The old cowshed now serves as a canteen for employees, while a space for arriving visitors sits just above the stone remnants of a wine cellar. What looks like a former, humble dining room is where Greubel and Forsey take meetings. In the corner of that room, an original ceramic-tiled masonry stove still depicts scenes of local farm life, from a rabbit running through the fields to a woman smoking a pipe on her chair and a man with his backpack setting off to sell his wares. “More than a choice of restoration, I would say that this was an opportunity for conservation and renewal,” says Tissot. It’s a fitting home for Forsey, who, in his early years, cut his teeth by servicing and restoring historic timepieces. (So many of watchmaking’s modern masters began their careers in restoration, including Philippe Dufour, Michel Parmigiani, François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter and Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk, to name a few.)
It’s a passion that has become central to the company’s ethos. Greubel and Forsey are concerned with not just preserving the past but passing on the knowledge of their watchmaking ancestors. With the advanced technology of modern machines, much of the expertise once acquired by candlelight centuries ago is being threatened with extinction. Imagine if your 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud could no longer be serviced because there was no one left with the know-how to repair it. That’s why Greubel Forsey, along with Dufour, Halter and others, founded the Time Æon Foundation in 2008, an organization dedicated to preserving the type of expertise that only a handful of people possess today.
“In 2005 in Basel, towards the end of the show, we were talking with Philippe Dufour and Vianney Halter, and we were talking about how difficult it was to find people with these skills,” says Forsey. “The reason is because the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking came quite quickly together with a rush of new technology, so the industry no longer needed someone who could machine one part on a traditional tool. The length of time taken to train people also had to be reduced to be more efficient and focused on what the industry needs— what’s cut out is all of those basic skills.”
As an example, the first watch Greubel and Forsey created, the Double Tourbillon 30°, had components they made themselves by hand, in a traditional way on traditional machines, because they were not able to find specialized mechanics or watchmakers who could make them. “We knew we had to do something,” says Forsey. “In the future who’s going to restore and repair our watches and maintain the 500 years of mechanical watchmaking before us?” The idea was to have a core minimum of artisans who could be trained in these skills and pass them on.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t so simple. Greubel and Forsey discovered it was tougher than they’d anticipated to get the support of the industry, so financing a school to teach this expertise was not possible. Even Dufour admits that when he began creating watches in the traditional method, no one understood the complexity of his work. “Looking back I realize that I had been doing the same job for years, and all the while nobody really knew what I was doing,” says Dufour. “Today, I say ‘we won’ because the value of what we do is being appreciated.”
For the AEon Foundation Greubel ultimately called upon a watchmaking teacher from Paris, Michel Boulanger, whom he convinced to take a sabbatical to inventory and practice these venerable skills so that he could pass them on to a younger generation in hopes that they will one day become the guardians of traditional horological history and craftsmanship.
“Robert Greubel contacted me in the summer of 2010 to tell me he had a project,” says Boulanger. “Knowing him, I already knew that it was going to be something important. As a teacher, when you are offered the chance to be trained by an outstanding team on a project to transmit ancestral watchmaking knowledge, it is impossible to refuse. The only condition for me was that I could resume my teaching position at the end of this adventure. The teacher-student-teacher experience has been unique and rewarding for all the actors, but especially for me.”
As it turned out, he would spend the next four years at Time Æon working on the project, called Naissance d’une Montre (Birth of a Watch), designing and building a watch, by hand, using a traditional style of pre-Industrial Revolution techniques. Boulanger says one of his biggest challenges was becoming a student again, but today there are more than 40 trainees learning the skills he acquired. The project was financed by Greubel Forsey, and Dufour lent his expertise. “As independent watchmakers, we perpetuate traditional techniques, which in turn put the human element back into the equation, thus adding immense value,” says Dufour. “We are talking about the importance of the emotion of a watch or movement. A watch is an instrument that shows the time, but it is also a work of art. Without the human element, the watch will be missing its soul, and this is where our job is important.” The piece created by Boulanger was auctioned at Christie’s in 2016 and sold for $1,461,507. The prototype for Naissance d’une Montre II will be unveiled later this year.
While that project looked to the past, modern watchmaking is equally at home here, in this 21,000-square-foot glass structure. It was designed by Neuchâtel-based architect Pierre Studer and is attached to the farmhouse through a hallway, which connects a structure inherent to watchmaking’s past to one creating its future, like a physical embodiment of the passage of time. Its façade is constructed from double-skin glass that acts as a thermal buffer, producing natural air-conditioning and ensuring a constant temperature year-round. Even the positioning of the various workshops throughout the atelier has been carefully considered. (And, yes, most watchmaking houses are known as manufactures, but Greubel Forsey feels that “atelier” is more indicative of its highly specialized workplace.)
The brand is known for its superior, almost masochistic level of hand-finishing and employs an incredible 22 people specifically for this work on the 100 watches the company produces a year. That’s why their workshop is placed on the north end of the atelier, with its high ceiling. “We want to provide the perfect environment, because as watchmakers ourselves, we’re sensitive to light right from the beginning,” says Forsey. “You want to avoid direct sunlight as much as possible and have a fairly constant natural light because it’s best for this kind of work.”
The grass-lined roof of the modern atelier, rather than the farmhouse, now serves as the main attraction for the occasional rogue farm animal, which peeps down at the artisans through the skylights. Not that anyone notices: Hand-finishing a Greubel Forsey timepiece takes laser-focus. The difference between an industrial machined part and one done by hand in this atelier can be many hours of work—for a part that may not even be seen by the naked eye—while a tourbillon cage can take 20 hours to several days.
But to even reach the hand-finishing workshop or the rest of the atelier you exit the farmhouse into the long hallway, which is three stories high and has, at the far end, an elevator with a black façade decorated in white chalk renderings of the firm’s famous movements. You could mistake the building for a Silicon Valley start-up, and you half expect to see a bunch of tech gurus playing ping-pong and solving algorithms. And that’s not far off. The bright minds inside are, in fact, busy solving complex mechanics and new ways of telling time, except they are using knowledge based on the traditions of centuries-old techniques. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t using new technology and new ideas.
“Because we’re not a traditional company with an archive and a way of doing things for hundreds of years, we’ve been able to make it more modern,” says Forsey. “So we do have modern machines. We just use them in a particular way.” There are 3-D designs executed on computers, simulation tools that help reduce errors in prototyping phases, and data feedback that allows them to develop better models. And while many watch companies build their calibers in-house, very few make all the components: In Greubel Forsey’s case, every part of the movement, save for barrel mainsprings and jewels, can be made in-house and then constructed into a movement on the third floor of the atelier. “If you’re going to ask somebody to invest half a million dollars or more in one watch, then it’s really got to work for us,” says Forsey.
To date, Greubel Forsey has made 25 different calibers in the span of 15 years. That’s a major feat for a watchmaker producing such small quantities. Not to mention the cost—approximately $3 million to develop a single movement. Greubel Forsey’s timepieces start at $160,000, but for collectors it’s not about the money. You could easily spend just as much at a historic brand, and while you might get a certain provenance and recognition, some of those dollars just fund larger marketing and advertising budgets. At Greubel Forsey, collectors invest in a work of art backed by an enormous amount of research and development, as well as superior levels of craftsmanship and guaranteed rarity. And, of course, you’re contributing to watchmaking’s future, ensuring it will continue to exist for generations to come, thanks to what is being developed in Greubel Forsey’s 17th-century-farmhouse-cum-21st-century-atelier.