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In Conversation: Stephen Forsey, co-founder Greubel Forsey Part 3

Part 3 of our discussion with Maestro Forsey.
by Peter Chong on July 20, 2016
Interview with Stephen Forsey

Continuing on our tête-à-tête with Stephen Forsey of Greubel Forsey when he was in Singapore recently, here is the concluding episode. In Part 1 of the discussion covered the Naissance d’une Montre and touched on the finer points of the Greubel Forsey finishing style, and can be found in this link. Part 2 continued with the special finishing details which set their finishing apart from the rest. Please read those earlier episodes before you start with this. And in this article, we talk about the Greubel Forsey business and we conclude with Stephen revealing to us his personal watchmaking heroes. 

 

State of the business: Greubel Forsey

 

Stephen Forsey, photographed January 2011 in Geneva.

Stephen Forsey, photographed January 2011 in Geneva.

 

The discussion then went on to the state of the Greubel Forsey and CompliTime business. As this was a no holds barred discussion, we brought up that there reverberations within the Swiss industry that Greubel Forsey is in financial difficulty, and recently retrenched some people. Stephen laughed it off, and pointed that this was indeed a rumour started by some Jura magazine picking up on the news of their re-organistion from 2014. Old news. Two years ago, Greubel Forsey did a restructuring exercise and reduced the layers of management in the company. Some people left, but essentially the total staff strength remained unchanged. Perhaps the high profile departure of Emmanuel Vuille, CEO caused the waves, but Emmanuel left in June 2015. The new structure has been in place since then. Currently 107 people are on the employment list of Greubel Forsey/CompliTime. Indeed not any less than when they embarked on the re-organisation in 2014. He further remarked that though Richemont has a minority stake (20%) in the company, he and Robert have total freedom to run it as they see fit.

He did admit that 2015 was a challenging year. But the Greubel Forsey order books are full. It is worth remembering that their total production is only about 110 pieces a year, so it is easy to see the demand outstripping production capacity.

 

The Greubel-Forsay manufacture in La Chaux-du-Fonds. A combination of an ultramodern glass and steel facility, visible on the photograph on the left, to a 200 year old farm house.

The Greubel-Forsay manufacture in La Chaux-du-Fonds. A combination of an ultramodern glass and steel facility, visible on the photograph on the left, to a 200 year old farm house.

 

But Stephen’s remark is especially true for those in the watchmaking industry who had KPIs which required the CEOs and Sales Directors to push stocks into the market. This is not stock which is sold to end customers, but which reside within the distribution system. And this is the stock which have come back to bite the brands by being floated in the grey market. Usually for substantial discounts over the retail prices. This situation is not good for the industry, as it destroys brand value.

Fortunately for Greubel Forsey, they have not had the luxury of having stocks. The reverse is often true, many of their retail partners are chasing for more inventory to sell. Stephen offered that since they began in 2004, Greubel Forsey have made a total of 1,060 watches, approximately 110 watches per annum.

Current biggest markets are the USA, Europe, Asia and Middle East, in that order, but Stephen cautioned that as their production is very small, and their customers are extremely mobile and travel frequently, this pattern is more dictated by stock allocation than the consumption habits of these territories. He did not comment on which are the countries with the highest ownership of Greubel Forsey watches.

 

Personal watchmaking heros

As we were drawing close to our conclusion, way past the original scheduled end time, we turned to some more personal questions to Stephen. First, the watch on his wrist. As revealed in Part 2, it was the Quantième Perpétuel à Équation. We did a brief exploration of this amazing watch, and a full detailed and analytical review will be on these pages soon.

 

Greubel Forsey Quantième Perpétuel à Équation, on the author's wrist. Magnificent timepiece.

Greubel Forsey Quantième Perpétuel à Équation, on the author’s wrist. Magnificent timepiece.

 

The discussion then turned to Stephen’s personal watchmaking heroes. He mentioned Philippe Dufour, George Daniels, Anthony Randall and Derek Platt. After listing the heroes, Stephen let out a little yelp in excitement, as if he just came to the sudden realisation, “except for Philippe, all are English!”. To which the author added, “And you are a Watchmaking Hero as well, Stephen.”

A quick introduction to the heroes. Philippe Dufour (born 1948) of course needs little introduction. He is our personal hero and great friend to us here at Deployant as well. And as the acknowledged Grand Guru of Watchmaking, his seminal works in the first Grand et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch, his Duality, and his Simplicity are well documented.

 

Philippe Dufour, one of Stephen Forsey's heros. Photographed here in his atelier in Le Soliat on January 2011.

Philippe Dufour, one of Stephen Forsey’s heros. Photographed here in his atelier in Le Soliat on January 2011.

 

George Daniels (1926 – 2011 ) too needs little introduction. His book Watchmaking is a key textbook in the instruction needed to completely make a watch. His craft extended beyond watchmaking and he also mastered case making and its intricate decorations, but also the dials, hands and various parts, including his own new escapement. He incorporated several original ideas, the most famous being the co-axial escapement which requires no oiling of the pallets. This concept was later adopted by Omega for use as the Co-Axial escapement. Perhaps, his top disciple, Roger Smith exemplifies the continuation of his work. Roger still produces exceptional watches in the workshops of Isle of Man, making almost all the components in-house. We reviewed the Roger Smith Series 2 here.

Anthony Randall (born 1938) is another English watchmaker who worked for a short time with George Daniels. Randall was most famous for being the inventor for the double axis tourbillon which he incorporated in his carriage clock in 1978. The clock also features a very unusual design for a remontoire. Based on Randall’s work, another British watchmaker, Richard Good made the first triple-axis tourbillon, a mechanism that captivated all who saw it. As both Anthony’s and Richard’s dual and triple-axis tourbillons were fitted into carriage clocks, they were not subject to sudden changes in position as did classic watches. They are however the foundation for all today’s multiple-axis tourbillons. As we are fully aware, Greubel Forsey watches feature many of the ideas set forth by these early multi-axis tourbillons.

Derek Pratt (1938 – 2009), who worked in the Valley de Joux, was considered unusual – even among his contemporaries. Like other watchmakers, he designed and made his own complete watches, using hand skills and often with tools and equipment which are hundreds of years old. This author had the privilege of meeting with Derek in his workshop and also at his home in Solothurn, and has admired his watches which often featured tourbillons and remontoires. Derek was also instrumental for his works on Urban Jurgensen.

Here is a Christie’s auction of one of his pieces, which was sold at CHF 315,000 / US$ 264,147 in the Christie’s Sale on 17 November 2008 in Geneva. The watch was signed “Urban Jürgensen & Sønner”, and the movement signed “Derek Pratt, Invenit et Fecit”. Perhaps this is where the idea for the second signature of Didier Cretin on the Signature 1 which bears the Greubel Forsey signature on the dial comes from.

Even though we exceeded the scheduled time by a factor of 2, the discussion had to come to an end all too soon. Stephen had to go for his next appointment, and after the customary photo session with him, he departed, promising more interesting discussions in the near future. Stay tuned.

 

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