arly November 2023 and it’s all systems go at Greubel Forsey. Abutting a seventeenth-century farmhouse, the distinctive sloping building – which rises out of the valley between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle – is preparing to more than double in size from 2,500 to 5,460 square metres. The investment, some CHF 20 million, is entirely self-financed.
And to think that in 2019 the brand, positioned at the very high end of the market, found itself in a delicate situation. A staff of almost 100 were producing 95 watches a year at an average price in the region of CHF 500,000. By end 2023 production will have more than doubled to 230 watches, retailing at an average CHF 250,000. The workforce has grown to 140, including 22 people employed in research & development and 20 in hand-decoration.
- The planned expansion of the Greubel Forsey Atelier. Work is scheduled to commence in spring, after the harsh Jura winter.
The brand is making inroads in its plan to reach 300 watches by 2024, with the ultimate goal of a maximum 500 watches a year, produced to the same exacting standard of quality and inventiveness for which Greubel Forsey is known. Revenue has tripled in three years and the order books are full for the next three years. It’s a huge shift, but where has it come from?
It all began when Robert Greubel and Antonio Calce met. An unshakeable trust was born between the two men, which led to the arrival at the helm of Antonio Calce as chief executive, executive board member and shareholder of Greubel Forsey. Right off the bat, he assures us that “this is the same watchmaking to the same exceptional standard of quality, but we have considerably increased desirability and reviewed the entire value chain with the end customer in mind. From a brand focused first and foremost on collectors, we are throwing open the doors of Greubel Forsey to all those who recognise and appreciate excellence in watchmaking.”
This has meant a stronger focus on wearability, design and the watches’ architectural appeal, although it would be wrong to imagine this as a purely cosmetic approach. Mechanical innovation and superlative hand-finishing remain at the heart of production.
One of the reasons for this success has to be the chemistry between Antonio Calce and Robert Greubel. A “unique relationship dedicated to the pursuit of excellence” has formed between these two very different personalities, the exuberant manager and the discreet watchmaker. “Intense exchanges and a great sense of complicity enabled us to work together and get to the essence of what Greubel Forsey is all about. We brought together all the floating particles by asking the right questions together and reconsidering the product: what exactly do we want to do, how far do we want to go, what is our longer-term strategic vision, how can we reach a greater critical mass, who are we targeting, what will our distribution policy be? From the very first sketch of a future watch, we also must be thinking about the end customer and their reasons for wanting to own that watch.”
The ambition behind these questions is, in short, to “transform an innovative atelier into a lasting brand.”
Going forward, each new watch will encompass five principles (which Calce likens to “the five fingers of the hand”). They are invention and innovation; handcrafting and hand-finishing; precision and reliability; architecture – no traditional dials – and design; rarity and exclusivity (all new movements will be retired from production after five years).
The recently released Balancier 3 exemplifies this approach. Entirely new, more robust and more “affordable” (CHF 160,000), it has a distinct identity in a conventional 41,5 mm diameter, and of course fits requirements for excellence in chronometric performance and hand-finishing on every surface of each component that are the signature of a Greubel Forsey watch.
- Balancier 3, in titanium, stands out for its distinctive style and for its architecture, dominated by three curved bridges for the barrel, the large balance and the cross-bridge, attached to the seconds counter, which carries the hour and minute hands. This architecture is housed in a slim Convexe case, curved front and back for a perfectly ergonomic shape. The sharp, clean structure shows off the finishing applied to each and every component of the movement, whose twin barrels provide three days of chronometric power reserve. The balance (“balancier” in French, hence the name) measures a majestic 12.6mm in diameter. Small seconds at 8 o’clock are displayed by a fixed hand above a rotating disc with a satin-brushed hand finish. Finishing is superlative throughout and applied to every surface, including the complex geometry of the openworked, three-dimensional central bridge whose numerous inner angles have been painstakingly polished.
The different parties involved in the project came together in an organic process, focused on the end product and its desirability. Engineering and design teams were in constant consultation, advancing side by side. Production was launched only after the finishing of the movement components and external parts had been reviewed in detail.
A new pillar – the Chronograph – and new Fundamental Inventions
Over the next three years, the product development plan will see Greubel Forsey venture into entirely new terrain: the chronograph. This too will be an opportunity for the brand to show that, alongside hand-executed finishing, movement architecture and design, invention remains at the heart of what it does.
Scheduled for release in 2024 for the 20th anniversary of the Atelier, the Chronographe Flyback Monopoussoir column-wheel chronograph will incorporate nano technologies. It will be the brand’s 9th Fundamental Invention. Energy efficiency has been a particular challenge, given the extremely small size of certain components, including a tiny nano foudroyant seconds on the rotating tourbillon cage. Case size, a modest 37.5 mm diameter, is also a first for the brand.
Following this, in 2025, will be the 10th Fundamental Invention: a constant-force chronograph with two balance springs, one of which is dedicated solely to the equal differential chronograph function, which compensates for the loss of amplitude when the watch is triggered. Finally, in 2027, there will be the Quadruple Split Chronograph (EWT), a grand complication chronograph with triple split function (hour, minute, second) and double nano foudroyante, including one with start/stop/reset, for a total of 14 hands.
- In its pursuit of chronometric precision, the Tourbillon Cardan combines the tourbillon’s rapid, 16-second revolution and 30-degree incline with a system of gimbals, in addition to a very large (12.6mm) balance with high inertia. Four stacked barrels with a slipping mainspring deliver 80 hours of chronometric power reserve. In a totally unprecedented architecture, the tourbillon is held in place by the two arched rings.
Nor are these the only developments planned. Far from it.
In 2024 the brand will unveil its Qualité Musée standard of excellence, which will highlight the individual skills required to hand-finish and decorate a watch.
Additionally, the brand has just released its 8th Fundamental Invention, the Tourbillon Cardan (CHF 470,000). The tourbillon makes one revolution in 16 seconds and is mounted on two arched rings or gimbals (“cardan” in French) which, by tilting backwards and forwards over the course of 48 seconds, maintain the tourbillon in its ideal 30-degree incline in all positions.
Already, the Atelier is preparing for building work to begin – in April 2024 and with no incidence on production. Certain workshops are being moved, temporarily or permanently; others will be transformed or extended. Behind the sloping glass walls, there is an air of anticipation.
One of the workshops, on the ground floor at the bow of the building, seems to exist slightly apart from the rest. This is the Atelier Hand Made, from where the Hand Made 1, a Tourbillon, emerged in 2019 and where the Hand Made 2, a Balancier, is in progress, for release in 2024. Hand Made 3, a Chronograph, will follow in 2026. Each one is made entirely by hand, using only traditional hand-operated machines and tools. Antonio Calce doesn’t even try to conceal his excitement. “This is the first time anyone has ever made a chronograph completely by hand. If you can do that, you can do anything!”
- Hand Made 1 is a distinctly contemporary watch that was entirely made and decorated by hand.
There’s a reason no-one has attempted this before. One of the Atelier’s watchmakers describes the sheer scale of work involved: more than 6,000 hours for a single watch, including 400 to 500 hours for the decoration alone and 200 hours for assembly, retouching and adjustments. Everything, absolutely everything, is done here, in this workshop: a living repository of traditional expertise, for sure, but one that is anything but conservative, as the watches coming out of here show.
The sloping building is rising
Not far from this haven of tranquillity, the machining shop is taking delivery of the latest Willemin-Macodel CNC machines, to add to its already well-stocked fleet. Some of these machines, in a separate area, are reserved for R&D. This is where all prototypes are machined and where current innovations and inventions are put through their paces and refined.
Of course there is more. The laboratory is well worth a visit (and probably an article) in itself, as is the vast workshop where some twenty highly skilled artisans hand-decorate components. The entire top floor is occupied by the watchmakers, each of whom assembles a movement from A to Z, adjusts it, takes it apart, assembles it again, cases it and performs final checks.
“We are proud we have created the conditions for staff to become more autonomous. We can only succeed if everyone feels fulfilled. This is also how you build something that will last. Staff become a creative force. We each become the guarantee of the Greubel Forsey signature,” says Antonio Calce.
“The numbers more than confirm that this is the right direction. We are making strides towards greater autonomy. We have bought back the 20% of shares that were owned by Richemont. We have reconfigured distribution, from 60 points of sale to 24 today. Circumstances and our own standards dictate that each year we produce a relatively small number of exclusive watches. Given our ambition to establish the name as a benchmark brand in high-end watchmaking, having 60 retailers with just one watch to sell no longer made sense.”