Greubel Forsey takes watchmaking to the limits – preserving the old artisanal work to completely make watches completely by hand. Unlike many of the other so called handmade watches, the Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 is almost completely made by hand (a figure of 95% is claimed) but also as importantly, it meets the rigorous standards of any “series” production Greubel Forsey in terms of precision, accuracy and consistency. Here is the Hand Made 1 story, and our hands-on commentary and analysis.
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Review: Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1
Before the advent of machines, robots, computer controlled machines, watches were made almost completely by hand. Greubel Forsey claims some 6000 hours of work has gone to make the prototype we show here. Stephen quips that he hopes with the valuable lessons they have learnt in that process, the next production watches will take less time.
The task is monumental. Many of the skills to hand make each and every component has been lost or obscured due too the convenience of modern manufacturing techniques. To date, this is perhaps the first modern attempt to make the entire watch by hand. Everything, from case, dial, hands, movement plates, wheels, screws, balance spring and balance wheels are made by hand.
It is not only about reviving ancient techniques, forgotten gestures and skills. But to take these skills and know-how to a level never attained before. Furthering them in the same spirit of constant improvement. The goal is to ressurect the ancestral art of hand craftsmanship and reinforce it with standards of workmanship and precision rivalling even modern production equipment.
The “trick” so to speak is to rely on the “intelligence of the hand”, by endlessly correcting minute details to edge ever closer to perfection, and achieve the required quality and ensure perfect and flawless operation. In the process, Stephen Forsey told us that the amount of time spent is of secondary importance.
A project of this scale could not be simply incorporated within existing structures or even to just one or two watchmakers. To complete this epic feat, Greubel Forsey had to build a team of the most skilled craftsmen in each field, principally from its workshops, as well as several external talents. This true “family” worked together in complete harmony.
Greubel Forsey intends to make 2 to 3 watches a year.
Handmade – the definition
Greubel Forsey specifies the following:
- the only machines allowed are the motors to operate hand controlled machine. No CNC, no wire erosion, no robots or automation of any kind.
- the only components which are not handmade are the sapphire crystal, the gaskets, the rubies, the springbars and the mainspring. Even the hairspring is made in-house by hand operated machines. By extension, we suppose that the mainsprings could have been made as well, but for some reason Greubel Forsey stopped there. We also asked Stephen Forsey about the jewels and his reply was for expediency. We do know and have seen that Seiko does produce some of their rubies in-house by growing the crystals in Shiojiri.
In total the 308 components of the Hand Made 1 are made from over 800 individual parts. For example, this process to manufacture a complete tourbillon cage takes almost 35 times longer than a standard high-end tourbillon. As another example, while just a dozen operations on an automatic lathe can effortlessly yield some 500 screws, a single screw, as small as it may be, requires up to 12 individual operations taking up to 8 hours to make just one. To hand make one wheel of the Hand Made 1 takes 600 times longer than that of a high-end industrial wheel.
The case, dial and hands
At first glance, the watch already looks impressive. But a detailed examination will reveal details which are a joy to discover. Indeed, this is what Stephen told us, part of the aim of Greubel Forsey watches are to allow the owner to continuously discover little details each time the watch is examined.
The basic case is a round case, with lugs which extend from the case sides with relatively modest dimensions of 43.5 mm in diameter and 13.5 mm thick. The case is crafted in white gold, and handmade in GF. It features differential finishing with contrasting visuals – a hand brushed case middle, with high polish anglaged edges, and the upper surface which is mirror finished. This gives the case a dimensionality that needs to be experienced to appreciate.
The dial is a small chapter ring, which is sloped and housed at the edge of the watch face. The chapter ring is handmade grand feu enamel and is mounted on a highly polished gold holder which sits atop the exposed front plates of the movement. The plates are finished in the traditional Greubel Forsey “Gratté” style.
The vertical edge of the ring holder is mirror finished, and a reflection of the tourbillon cage can be seen on it at certain angles. In classical GF style, the plates are set at different levels. The plates are hand grained, and feature sharp angles, with highly polished anglage. The subsidiary seconds sub-dial is also in grand feu enamel, held by a gold ring which is highly polished.
The tourbillon bridge, and cage arms are first made from a single piece of steel, machined coaxed into the shape we see on the finished watch. The surfaces are then mirror polished. Note the conical cock holding the upper pivot of the tourbillon. This conical surface is polished to a high shine. Note also the perfectly sharp inner angles made by the surface of the cock which holds the chaton holding the upper jewel of the tourbillon.
The hands are also shaped from steel by hand and blued by hand. The hairspring is also made in-house by hand. This is the result of many years of research and development. GF starts with raw material which is very similar to Elvinar which is rolled in a hand operated rolling mill (without computer assistance), a process requiring an endangered savoir faire. Only a few balance springs can be made each time, whereas in a modern industrial production such as that in Precision Engineering or at Nivarox, hundreds or thousands can be automatically produced. The balance wheel is also entirely made by hand. As is each escape wheel which has 20 individually cut teeth, has all four surfaces which are ground and polished. All by hand. The machining and finishes required on the escape lever alone takes 1.5 months of work.
Much of the movement is visible from the front of the dial. As mentioned the finishing is absolutely top level, with every detail attended to with the sort of attention that one has come to expect from Greubel Forsey.
From the case back the view is equally entraling. The plate is finished by hand in a technique developed to create the beautiful pattern which is visible. The technique is simple. Each patch is made by rubbing a small wooden stick exactly once to roughen the surface. The patchwork pattern is thus built up. Any mistake, however late in the process will mean that the artisan will have to start over, as there is no possibility to cover up any errors in the brushing.
Every haute horlogerie finishing method is executed at the absolute top level. The anglage, the black polished surfaces, the polished wells which hold the gold chatons holding the jewels are as near perfect to our examination as we have ever seen. The finishing pushes the limits of what can be done, even by the most high end, classical haute horlogerie standards.
The movement construction, traditional machining and hand finishing is performed par excellence, on each of the 272 movement components and 36 case parts.
“How can we design this part to be able to make it using traditional tools or machines such a jig borer or lathe? And which shape can we give it so the artisans’ intelligent hands can ensure extraordinary precision and the finest craftsmanship?”Questions Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and the Handmade 1 Team of specialist ask at every stage.
The landscape is extremely tiny. Much like the number of people who have been to the Mariana Trench at 10,000m below sea level, there is the company of one. The Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 may be unique in this universe. But let us consider other possible contenders who have a very high degree of being handmade. The Naissance d’une Montre 1 adventure with Time Æon Foundation is the first approach Greubel Forsey took in the direction to acheive near 100% handmade. This project is not quite at the level of Hand Made 1, but was the first step.
Roger Smith is perhaps the artisan who comes to mind when we speak of handmade watches. A disciple of the great George Daniels, he works with his small team in the Isle of Man to make most of the watch by hand. In his Series 2 watches, he also leaves out the jewels, crystals, springbars, gaskets like the GF Hand Made 1, but he also does not make the hairspring nor the mainspring.
Hajime Asaoka is perhaps a possible candidate from Japan. Being apart from the rest of the Swiss industry will mean that he will have to be creative to get the components he needs. And from our understanding he does this by being as independent as possible. Making almost every component in his atelier in Shibuya. Some of the parts are made by hand, but Asaoka also uses a CNC machine to fashion many other parts. And like Smith, he also sources s some components from industrial suppliers.
Rexhep Rexhepi is getting there, but not quite yet. As of now, the movement plates are outsourced to a CNC contractor who supplies Akrivia with the components at the quality level desired. But in a recent discussion with Rexhep during our visit to his atelier in Geneva(In Conversation article coming up soon), he has expressed an interest and desire to go into the direction of being totally independent and to eventually make everything by hand. The recent partnership with legendary case maker Jean-Pierre Hagmann is one such step in the right direction.
The other usual high end gurus like Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen do not qualify as they make use CNC machines in the manufacture of their watches. For example, Dufour outsources the plates to a CNC supplier, and Kari operates his own CNC facility.
The Greubel Forsey Hand Made 1 is certainly the tour de force, that it is set out to do. The journey to completely make a watch from scratch totally by hand is one which is rather fearsome and awesome at the same time. Six thousand hours of work. Hundred of thousands more in research, in trying and testing. And all would be for nought if the final result was plain. But the work, as presented in the Hand Made 1 is outstanding. Not only does it represent the highest level of a certain aesthetic. One can argue about aesthetics, by the way, we loved it, but one cannot argue with the values espoused and probably the best and highest end finishing ever lavished.
Notwithstanding the huge sum of money CHF 1million represents, this is more watch than the cash one is asked to pony up. The Hand Made 1 is remarkable not only for what is it, but also for what it represents. The spirit of a watchmaking firm to resurrect age old crafts, and hone them to produce the most exquisite of the genre. This spirit alone is sufficient. And although most of us will never be able to afford a watch like this, as horology enthusiasts, this is a spirit which we all must admire as a triumph of watchmaking at the highest level.
Would like there to be a study on the tolerances achieved by producing items such as plates and steel arms/bridges etc and the tolerances they are achieving. Yes I am all for a watch being hand made and in fact that’s what actually got me interested in watchmaking. But the tolerances able to be achieved by hand I find would likely be pretty terrible and outweigh the benefit of being able to claim the watch was handmade. Surely I don’t consider CNC produced parts to be hand made but I’d still quality the likes of guys like Dufour and Voutilainen to be considered pretty high up there or at least damn near close to being hand made watches. Yes producing things like plates via CNC might take 1/6th the time but the tolerances afforded by it would outweigh the designation of being hand made again. I’m not sure I’d consider GFs definition of what hand made means as the end all rule book on which to judge others work in terms of it being hand made. This is a similar idea to people telling you facts about something they didn’t necessarily invent but suddenly appoint themselves as the leading authority in. Overall whatever the case is I feel this maybe more of a philosophical debate more than anything I think this work is gorgeous and in the end it supports this world of watches which is already a small hobby in itself.
For me, the feat to be able to almost totally hand make a watch like they used to two hundred years ago is amazing. More incredible when the result is such a stunning watch.
I do agree that the definition by GF is, of course, fully biased. And one brand’s idea of what is hand made. Others may have other equally valid criteria. And in order for it to make any sense, I have to either build the Competitive Landscape using the GF criteria (which I did), or to create one myself. The latter would be an undertaking requiring monumental academic rigours that I am ill able to afford.
Hi Peter! Interesting article, thank you.
In regards to the competitive landscape, I am pretty sure Roger Smith uses CNC in the manufacture process. He recently got a new big machine to do some of the work. It is shown on his Instagram and stories.
A brand that I think would be the closest competitor when we talk percentage “handmade” is Oscillon (www.oscillon.swiss).
I thought that Rexhep and his team “only” did the design and finishing (top class no doubt) in their workshop and that all the raw components where manufactured/CNC´d outside the shop. Do you know which company makes the parts?
Thanks Peter. I will investigate Oscillon and see if I can visit to do a story.
Very interesting review of Hand Made in watchmaking. Thank you
Thanks Sylvian. Was a great pleasure to handle it.
Really enjoyed your in depth analysis in this article.