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Stephen Forsey: “There’s a risk of a loss of know-how”

INTERVIEW

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January 2020


Stephen Forsey: “There's a risk of a loss of know-how”

Greubel Forsey recently presented its Hand Made 1. As its name suggests, this exceptional watch was made almost entirely (95%) by hand. Europa Star took advantage of the occasion to meet Stephen Forsey, who told us of the constant effort by Greubel Forsey to conserve its know-how. A concern which, paradoxically, is aimed at ensuring them a future.

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uropa Star: We thought that the top end of the market had been spared the turmoil and disruption currently shaking up the Swiss watch industry, forcing it to reconsider the very foundations on which it stands. Is that not the case?

Stephen Forsey: Just because we’re right at the top of the ladder that doesn’t mean we’re proof against changing times. We’re not on a desert island. We’re part of the watch industry, which is a whole.

Yet the advent of smartwatches has no direct influence on you…

I think that it’s just a passing technological phase, that the technology will continue to evolve and that what we today call smart-“watches” – in fact they’re not watches at all, they’re computer terminals – will turn into something else altogether and probably end up migrating from the wrist, which they occupy today to the detriment of traditional watches. Also, society as a whole is evolving towards greater authenticity. We’re moving away from the image society, the marketing society, and it’s a development that is affecting all products. In response to allpervasive connectivity, there’s a growing desire to switch off and get back to reality.

Stephen Forsey
Stephen Forsey

Was it in the name of this “authenticity” that you started to make the Hand Made 1?

Our great advantage is that Robert Greubel and myself aren’t out to make commercial products. We’re motivated by something else. Our passion is creation, trades and crafts, know-how, people. Our prime concern is to conserve our creative freedom and consequently to compromise ourselves as little as possible. Therefore, we don’t work to a prior specification. We launch ourselves into the unknown, without knowing how long a project will take us. We set ourselves challenges and try to resolve them one after the other.

Making a watch entirely by hand is one heck of a challenge today. Why do without CNC tools, for example?

There’s a very worrying risk of a loss of know-how. Today, we train people less, and less well. It’s a real worry and a complex problem. Some watchmaking schools don’t provide any practical training, students are no longer required to produce a “school watch” – a qualifying “master piece”. We train CNC operators, but we don’t know how to use a simple file. The schools are at the beck and call of the industry, and the industry has other needs than qualified watchmakers. It’s understandable that they don’t want to train future job-seekers, but we feel that it’s very important, for the long term, to perpetuate traditional know-how. That said, it’s complicated, it demands a lot of effort and very few of the big brands support this kind of initiative. But to re-acquire that know-how, it’s crucial to come back to manual work.

Hand Made 1
Hand Made 1

"We train CNC operators, but we don’t know how to use a simple file."

Did Hand Made 1 grow out of the Naissance d’une montre (“Birth of a Watch”) project?

Yes, the Naissance d’une montre project, run with the help of the Time Aeon Foundation and Philippe Dufour in particular, provided the impetus for this project. Under it, eleven watches have been made in all kinds of collaborations, including one with a Finnish watchmaking school, and thanks to this initiative we’ve recreated a real watchmaking community. The auction price of CHF1.5M for the first watch, bought by a Chinese collector, showed how strong interest in the initiative is. The watch was 70-75% hand-made. As for us, we wanted to go further, to achieve 95%. Today, only five components out of 308 are not hand-made: the sapphire crystal, the strap lugs, the barrel mainspring, the joints and the stones. Our idea is to make it a reference, a benchmark for hand-made watches. Moreover, we haven’t called it “Swiss Made”, but “Hand Made”!

Industrialisation also often means attaining greater consistency and reliability, doesn’t it?

From the outset, the required goal was to guarantee the same level of reliability as for all our other products, the same precision for the components. That said, it’s a totally different approach to the production of a part. For example, we work with an old, hand-guided “pointeuse 3 axes” and we achieve identical tolerances of around 2 microns. But if we take a week to set up a CNC tool, afterwards it works like clockwork. Whereas in this case, it takes us two whole weeks to make one single base plate, and to make three we start off with a batch of six. Altogether, a completely hand-made watch means 6,000 hours of work, three man-years.

"Today, only five components out of 308 are not hand-made: the sapphire crystal, the strap lugs, the barrel mainspring, the joints and the stones."

It’s excellent work, but it’s not a model that’s going to perpetuate Swiss watchmaking!

Of course not. Manually we’re going to be able to make one or two watches a year. But, like I said, we also want to establish a reference. Above all, we hope it will ensure that the skills continue to be handed down and stay alive. And that, in our view, is a crucial contribution, a vital one even, for the continuation of fine Swiss watchmaking.