Since its foundation in 2004, Greubel Forsey has been intent on protecting traditional watchmaking skills, the kind of techniques rendered obsolete by the proliferation of CNC machine manufacturing throughout the watch industry, through a number of projects that are as practical as they are academic.
Why should you care if manual skills are lost to superior automated processes? Forsey notes that collectors will always need watchmakers with such abilities to service, repair or restore their watches.
The latest product of this endeavour is the Hand Made 1, a watch made by hand. Greubel Forsey defines hand-made as using hand-operated electrical machinery, so while there might be an electrical motor present to ease the physical workload, the creation is guided solely by eye and hand.
With Greubel Forsey, their movement house CompliTime and a seemingly non-stop world tour to meet collectors and press to keep them occupied, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey would never be able to spare the time to complete the massive project alone, which would go on to take 6,000 man hours or the equivalent of one watchmaker working for three years. So, they assembled the Hand Made family, a combination of in-house experts and retired watchmakers to take on this startling project.
Being ‘hand-made’ was just one of four central tenets they built into the project; the others required skillsets the company already possessed namely hand-finished decoration and a single-watchmaker assembly. The final condition would require that more than 90% of the watch should be handmade.
It would make no sense for Greubel Forsey to suddenly turn its hand to be manufacture of sapphire crystal watch glass, movement jewels or rubber case gaskets, these are after all disciplines in a completely different field. Forsey believes the resulting Hand Made 1 is 95% handmade.
The length of time lavished on components that might be considered when run off on an automated lathe is staggering. Screws might take eight hours. Wheels might take 600 times as long as even the most high-end industrial wheel. Forsey states that the team could have gone even further and made the springbars to secure the bracelet, but it would have prolonged the project “another few months”.
Along the way to completing the hour, minute and second tourbillon, the Family learnt many valuable lessons. Firstly and most practically, how to make hairsprings from a billet of raw alloy but also that they would have to design the movement to allow for the fallibility of the human operators manufacturing it. Machines can make the most complex components without fear of failure, people not so much.
The finished 43.5mm watch is difficult not to love. The finish is as faultless as you might expect from a Greubel Forsey, after all its decoration has been achieved in the same manner, but knowing that its 272 movement components and 36 case components have been hewn from the raw metal using nothing more than an outmoded jib borer or lathe and extraordinary levels of concentration offers a rare sense of connection.
But Hand Made 1 is not a purely academic, piece unique project. Greubel Forsey, with the purpose-built Family workshop now named Aetlier Tradition, intends to make the watch in a small run, perhaps three pieces a year, making it one of the most rare propositions for collectors of haute horlogerie.
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