For a brand barely into its second decade of existence, ultra haut-de-gamme specialist Greubel Forsey has mastered an immense span of disciplines. From aesthetic innovation to mechanical refinement to project collaborations, the collection wrought by Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey has proven to be as eclectic as it is exclusive.
On the occasion of the launch of Greubel Forsey’s newest offering, the Double Tourbillon 30° Technique limited edition of eight pieces, iWmagazine.com engaged Forsey in a broad-ranging discussion of his latest debut, the growth of his brand, and the industry at large.
iWmagazine.com: Greubel Forsey has been avant garde in many respects, both aesthetic and mechanical, but the sapphire case phenomenon is a direction that was pioneered by others. Why this material, why now, and what did your brand do to make this material its own?
Stephen Forsey: Working with sapphire has been of interest to us for years, we were part of the early move towards the use of sapphire in the watch. Our GMT employed unique sapphire forms for the kind of movement visibility that we’ve expanded in the new Technique, and we employed internal sapphire as a three-dimensional bridge for example in the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain. Now we move to the next level with a full sapphire case to expand visibility of our movement, which remains the centerpiece of the watch.
A big part of the inspiration comes from Steven [Rostovsky, Greubel Forsey’s North American distributor]. Steven’s enthusiasm and desire as a collector drove the development of the Technique, and he’s a very nuanced and well-seasoned collector. By that, I mean that he’s past the point of surveying the scene, and he’s able to define very specifically what he likes. The Double Tourbillon 30° Technique is the result.
iWmagazine.com: Did you make a choice in electing a three-piece sapphire case rather than a two-piece construction or monobloc? Was there an underlying logic beyond production constraints that drove this choice?
Stephen Forsey: When we first mentioned the concept of a full-sapphire case to our usual suppliers, they thought we were crazy. But it was important to “keep the brief” and stay true to the concept. Sapphire by itself wasn’t the goal; ultimate visibility of the movement was. To that end, we found that a three-piece case offered both the uncompromised visual access to the movement and the sensuous lug design that we considered mutually essential to the Technique’s design vision.
The complex geometry of the lugs adds as much character to the watch as the transparency. Also, we needed to have a certain amount of bezel and caseback overlap beyond the flanks of the case in order to create the character lines originally envisioned in the design brief.
iWmagazine.com: For a manufacture of such small scale, Greubel Forsey seems to undertake a large number of collaborations including the Art Pieces with micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, the Signature 1 with watchmaker Didier Cretin, the Naissance d’une Montre project with Philippe Dufour and Michel Boulanger, and now the Double Tourbillon 30° Technique with Steven Rostovsky. How do these collaborations start, and what kind of criteria does Greubel Forsey use when choosing a partner?
Stephen Forsey: We meet different people, we talk, and we search for a meeting point and common ground within Greubel Forsey. It usually happens organically. We don’t select partners for commercial, celebrity, or publicity’s sake, and shared values tend to be the driving force. The common thread is that our partners tend to be people with strong creative vision and passion for their work.
iWmagazine.com: Greubel Forsey’s Double Tourbillon 30° Technique arrives at a technological turning point for the watch industry; synthetic materials such as man-made sapphire, ceramic, carbon fiber, resin composites, and silicon are finding their way into the cases, dials and even movements of luxury watches.
Some manufacturers as small as F.P. Journe and as large as Jaeger-LeCoultre have gone on record as skeptical about the role of these materials – especially as they pertain to movement components. What is Greubel Forsey’s stance on the use of non-metallic synthetics in an heirloom-grade luxury watch?
Stephen Forsey: Well I think what’s interesting about the Technique is that the movement and its traditional materials are placed in a position of prominence thanks to the use of new materials in the case. So, we continue to use materials to innovate in the packaging and portrayal of our movements.
But in technical areas such as movements themselves, it’s more sensitive. Greubel Forsey has a strong sense of obligation to be sure; Robert and I want to ensure that we can repair or replace the components of the movements we build, so parts need to be serviceable and that can limit the scope for synthetics.
iWmagazine.com: Pricing for the new Double Tourbillon 30° Technique approaches $1,100,000 U.S.; at the other end of the spectrum, the 2016 novelty, “Signature 1,” starts at $170,000 U.S – an unprecedented low price point for Greubel Forsey. It appears that your company is aligning its collection along a price spectrum. How do you balance the growth of your range against the need to retain an aura of exclusivity and premium brand equity?
Stephen Forsey: We don’t; we’re driven only by creation. We don’t go out in the market and say, “oh, there’s a crisis coming, make something steel/green/brown/etc.” The Signature 1 may appear priced to suit leaner times, but that notion vanishes when you realize that the watch was in development for six years, not six months. It couldn’t have been envisioned for a time or market-sensitive launch. The only interest was to offer our customary level of quality in a watch under $200,000. We made the choice to offer a relatively simple watch because collectors have matured and evolved; they now understand value and art beyond the obvious cues like grand complications, multiple tourbillons, or size.
Maybe four tourbillons were required to call attention to a premier watch in the past decade; today, the 2016 Double Balancier [À Différential Constant] has exceeded expectations. When we envisioned that watch, we thought it was destined to be a niche product. After all, there were no tourbillon, no obvious secondary functions or complications, and the principle of a balance differential with coupled escapements was quite cerebral compared to our past work. But the response has been overwhelming for a relatively simple watch, and it’s sold out for 2016.
iWmagazine: Which contemporary independent or mass-market watch brand has impressed you most in the last year?
Stephen Forsey: There’s one thing that has impressed me from a marketing approach, and that was the TAG-Heuer Connected. There were so many alarmist questions when the smart watches started to arrive. People were asking, “is it the Quartz Crisis all over again?”
But with [Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE Watch Division President] Jean-Claude Biver, TAG grasped the potential to bring people back into the mechanical watch world by first drawing them into boutiques and then offering a special-rate trade for a mechanical watch when the “smart watch’s” warranty expires. At the time of the exchange, the Connected becomes a gateway back to the world of traditional watchmaking. And at that point, it’s just up to us in the industry to educate, enthuse, and cultivate the passion of this new potential audience for our mechanical watches.
If we can go back more than a year, then I’d have to say the Swatch Sistem51 deserves special mention. It’s true mastery of the machine when you can task a machine to execute every aspect of another machine: each component, regulation, and final assembly. To do this without a single human intervention and with only one screw, that’s deeply impressive.
More broadly, and again, beyond the scope of the past year, I have to say that the Tudor brand really has impressed. That team had the energy and vision to rebuild an historic brand and to do it with a perfect balance of nostalgia, innovation, and value. It’s equally attractive to new and veteran collectors.