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Interview with Stephen Forsey of Greubel Forsey

by Jerome Pineau
3 February, 2011
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This is a text version of Jerome Pineau’s radio interview with star guest Stephen Forsey.

Listen to the Stephen Forsey interview here.

Stephen Forsey grew up in St. Albans, England. His father’s passion for mechanics and engineering inspired Stephen’s love of horology and from 1987 to1992 Stephen specialised in antique clock restoration and after-sales service.

He became head of the prestigious Watch Restoration department at Asprey’s in London in 1988 and left in 1990 to attend the WOSTEP School in Neuchatel. In 1992 he joined Robert Greubel’s team at Renaud & Papi, working on extremely complicated movements.
Stephen left in 1999 and in 2001, co-founded Complitime with Robert Greubel, to develop and craft complicated movements for prestigious brands.

In 2004 he co-founded ‘Greubel Forsey’ with Robert Greubel.

Interview with Stephen Forsey

Jerome: Our guest today is a giant in the industry, he was born in England, and ended up moving to Switzerland and worked for Renaud and Pape which I believe now is a Audemars Piguet subsidiary. He met a gentleman called Robert there, then went out on his own and became a consultant and built the company called Complitime, and eventually in 2004 started Greubel Forsey, which is one of the most amazing companies out there. They are known for incredible amazing tourbillon complications and absolutely spectacular finishes on their watches. And these watches range in price from 300,000 to 750,000 dollars, we are talking high end art work here.

Collectors look at these pieces and weep with joy. Stephen Forsey, you are one of the major successes in the horology world, and one of its most respected players. Thanks for coming on the show today. How are you?

Stephen Forsey: Thanks Jerome. It is good to be talking to you today. Everything is good here in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and it is great to be talk to your readers and listeners and tell them what we do.

Jerome: Greubel Forsey. Am I pronouncing it right in English?

Stephen Forsey: Greubel Forsey (pronounced correctly)

How Stephen Forsey started in the watch world

Jerome: How did you start out with watches? Did you have mechanical inclinations, design inclinations. Is it a family thing? How did you get started in the horology world?

Stephen Forsey: OK, well, from my side as you mentioned I am originally England, and I am a first generation watch maker in my family. So no watchmakers in my parenthood. But, however a strong interest in mechanics, my grandfather was in the auto-mobile and aviation industry, and his son in law my father, was an industrial chemist and passionate about vintage cars. I grew up at a very young age with the latest spanners, restoring cars and things. I had a strong desire and appreciation for mechanics. It all started from there.

Mentors in the watch world

Jerome: You decided to go into watch and movements? Did you have a mentor?

Stephen Forsey: A few years ago now, looking thirty years when I was at school and thinking about which direction I would take, my grandfather assumed naturally I would go into engineering. But after doing a weeks work experience in a precision engineering company, and I realised that this whole side of engineering was going through a huge mutation. New technology coming through, the whole place of it was changing.

Then by chance a meeting with a friend of the family, a vintage car enthusiast, contemporary of my fathers, who had an antique clock repair shop. In the back of his shop he had machines, lathe, milling machines .. etc, to make al the different parts to restore clocks with. There I saw a for me it was a natural link between mechanics, and the more artistic side, which just fitted from there on it was just really. I was smitten by the bug for horology.

Toubillons

Jerome: Is it fair to say that Greubel Forsey pretty much focused, and you put the T in tourbillon didn’t you? Your the guys for that am. Am I off on that?

Complications

Stephen Forsey: Well we hopefully we put back the complication of the tourbillon, and put it in a new place back up there with the best of the best of mechanical wrist watch complications. So for Robert and myself, Robert is also a watchmaker, on Roberts side his father had a watch repair workshop. So Robert followed in the family footsteps. But the both of us as watch makers the tourbillon was a very significant and fantastic, and a really captivating mechanism to look at and study. So from our research and experiences we felt that this was so good that it merited some close attention.

Greubel Forsey watch production

Jerome: Absolutely. Can you take us thorough what it takes to build one of your pieces from scratch? How long does it take? How many people are involved? What kind of machinery?

I think I read somewhere that you guys produce 70 percent of all parts including the screws? Am I right on that? Can you take us through the process there?

Greubel Forsey perfection

Stephen Forsey: Yes. We have a facility where everybody is under one roof for about the last 18 months, since the fall of 2009. And in house we able to really take an initial concept, or idea from paper, or a gem of an idea from our hear with Robert and our team, and then take that initial idea to define the concepts and elaborate the concepts, using the very latest computer aided design technology, in three dimensions. So we are able to advance that to a certain stage, but at some point you have to go and actually make a physical prototype. So as you mentioned we have a certain capacity in house.

We don’t pretend to we make absolutely everything, because as watch makers we understand the whole process to make a complete watch. There are many, many different skills and professions and disciplines. You are looking about 30 different skills, and professions that is related to complete the watch. It is about skill sets. From the very beginning designing, technician, engineer, working on the computer to design to the very finest perfection the mechanism. Refine that, simulate as much as you can virtual prototype, before making a life size physical prototype.

So when you start to that, you have technicians on the machines. Micro mechanics, people who make different components, place the screws, machine the plates, cut the wheels, the pinions and then the whole of the finishing processes.

Functional finishing, the pivots, the bearings each individual spindle. Once you have a whole of kit of components, you are looking one of our time pieces that have between 280 and 690 components in a movement. It’s a lot of parts to bring together, and when you have them all together then you can start assemble with the watch maker, and the technician who will build the movements up. And when you building the movements at the prototype stage he has to analysis what he is doing, is it looking good?

Does he have the right function and components? So there all these phases of quality control coming in, very important. When he has the prototype assembled, if it works great, if it is wrong., you have to go back a step, it takes time.

From our very first invention the double tourbillon 30 degree, the two caged, angled cage 30 degrees inside a second cage system. It took four and a half years to go through the whole prototype stage to really refine the system, until we were happy with the performance, and then we get the to the first finished time piece.

There is a lot of work there. It can be done quickly, but you make the mechanism in six months or a year, but you don’t have time to test it. With a mechanical watch you need to have the time to test it, because a watch that works 24 hours a day a seven days a week, and means that you cannot accelerate the tool process. You just have to wait and be patient.

Financial investment

Jerome: It must be a huge financial investment in each piece right? We are not playing with small time here this is some serious investments and small mistakes are probably even remotely possible?

Stephen Forsey: There is a lot of time, it takes several years to bring an idea through concept and prototype to finished time piece. There is a lot of investment to develop each new mechanism. As these mechanisms are not available off the shelf, everything has to be designed, 98 percent of our components in the movements, literally hundreds of parts, have to be designed in house. Of course then we have make them, and do the hand-finishing which represents many hundreds of hours of work for each movement.

So this whole process represents the important investment, and is necessary in any business, you make the least mistakes as possible. By pooling our approach with our teams of professionals, which are very complimentary, and pooling our strong points and through our own R and D platform, which is experimental watch technology, we take the concepts and spending the time to refine and test and evaluate. We are also able to maximise our efficiency on the way and avoid costly errors.

Jerome: Are you going to stay focused on tourbillon complications for the foreseeable future? Or do you guys have something up your sleeve for the future away from the tourbillon?

Stephen Forsey: It is difficult to talk to early about specific projects. But what we can say is we have already shown a dimension throughout experimental watch technology platform,first three inventions were the tourbillon. These are already validated and available as finished time pieces with different variations, but beyond that, already in 2007, we have already showcased a prototype movement that had a very special oscillator, the heart of the watch. The balance wheel and the spring system, we have been looking at this is from a different angle.

So that’s work in progress, and this is still in progress, so four years we are still working on this whole idea outside of tourbillon.

In 2008, we had a Différentiel d’Egalité systems which is in the gear change movement and helps to smooth power and supply, again another example.

We do have other subjects we are looking at, I think the important to thing to get across to your listeners is that global forces are bringing a new fresh look at watch making complications.

It can be outside tourbillon, and to be able to offer something different. To improve precision or performance or usability for the collector, of each specific complication.

Jerome: It is a great insight, and inventions are definitely part of your DNA. On the business side you and Robert, how do you divide responsibilities in running the company? Who manages what team? How do you work this out?

Robert Greubel

Stephen Forsey: Well, we have a little bit unusual because as Robert and myself are both watchmakers by training, thanks to our complimentary professional career paths that we had, we were able to pull together a lot of wider skill sets and so from very early on, when Robert and I started to work together in 1999, it was a the pool, the very beginning of the idea …from then on we decided that there were really two watchmakers working together and we were happy to share our knowledge and experience to build a small team. We relish the idea of sharing the know how, and from there between Robert and myself we clearly defined each one us responsibilities.

Robert supervises and oversees the commercial side, the creation side, and the designs of the pieces, and the strategy, as well as the administration and the website. I oversee all the technical parts behind the scenes. Or along the whole way, from the design of movements and the prototyping and even for decoration making of components. This is how very early on we shared responsibility. We have been able to stick to very clearly to each halves, that has been a strength of what we are doing

So by the time we got to beginning with Complitime and Greubel Forsey,we launched in 2004. By 2008 we had a good amount of success and our team was growing strongly at the end of 2008. We were very happy to reinforce our management with a new CEO, and he has already long experience of the watch industry, more of a financial background.

As joining us as a CEO, that has allowed Robert and myself to free some energy and some time to be able to concentrate on future creations and ideas, and you can imagine with building a team and when you get to a certain size…. you are the whole time with the operation.

Jerome: You have over hundred people now?

Stephen Forsey: Yes with both Complitime and Greubel Forsey it is over a hundred now. It is a small medium sized concern, which has to be run with all of the challenges, and advantages, and pleasures that come with that.

The buyer of a Greubel Forsey timepiece

Jerome: Your time pieces range from 300000 to 75000 dollars right? I am curious who buys these things? I would imagine collectors obviously? Your customers must surely be somebody that understands horology deeply, and technically and product wise. Can you give me an insight into who your typical buyer might be?

The watch for low-profile entreprenuers

Stephen Forsey: When you are looking at time pieces as this level. You are not looking, as your listeners will be aware. They are not gem set time pieces, so they have precious metal cases, but they are really technical innovations and hand-finishing, and showcasing the very best of hand-finishing with many hundreds of hours. We can only make a small amount of time pieces a year. Just over a hundred time pieces were made in the whole world in 2010, it is a very, very small number.

But in relation to our end client, we are looking at a lot of professional entrepreneur level people, they usually very low profile people, they are not looking often at high profile people. They usually have a strong interest in watch making. That is an interesting point.

They use their time pieces, this is fantastic that they get to enjoy the time piece and use it.

Jerome: They better use it everyday.

Stephen Forsey: Yes, we have collectors who really wear that time pieces regularly, these are people who for the most past who are very well versed, We really have very interesting conversations from time to time with clients, what they like? What they would like in the future?This is a very interesting exchange.

Greubel Forsey in Asia

Jerome: How are things going in the Asian market? China specifically any bites there?There must be some very interesting buyers fro that confident continent?

Stephen Forsey: You know that Greubel Forsey is not a very well known name yet today. Were known amongst small networks of Chinese collectors, but news spreads about the world. We are strong in Asia we have a group and a good spread worldwide that is pretty even. We are not flooding particular markets with pieces. It is more a question of gradually slowly building the network.

We are looking at a just a few time pieces in each country, each year. It is something which is quite a special occasion and our clients appreciate the rarity and the special nature of each individual time piece that they decide to add to their collection.

Global interest

Jerome: What about the US?

Stephen Forsey: Yes, it really is an even spread. We have strong representations in the U.S, and across the whole of the Americas as well. South American clients with strong interests, Europe also performs well. Well Asia is a developing market, there is a big potential there, I think there are also many collectors out there, who don’t yet know very much about about or have ever seen Greubel Forsey. Because you wont see much advertising on a large scale for our time pieces. We don’t have the production costs ability to be able to make a larger. So we remain a very small selective object.

Jerome: It is a different scale. I want to to talk to you about make SIHH, I know you guys were there big time. You were showing inventions piece two there. I think that was the 750,000 dollar watch?

Stephen Forsey: Yes.

Jerome: I was very lucky to score a day pass for it. But I didn’t get a chance to come and see you guys. I regret. Give us an insight into how the piece was received? How was SIHH for you guys this year. I know you are not going to Basel, tell me about SIHH.

Basel and SIHH

Stephen Forsey: As you mentioned Basel. Well Basel was where we launched Greubel Forsey in 2004, we were very keen to go there until last year. So we able to exhibit at SIHH was a fantastic possibility. Last year we were a new comer and novelty, but this year also, not everybody had seen us last year. It is a good place to get close to our clients. It is a mostly for us a very strong element is to spread awareness about Greubel Forsey. We can get a much large media coverage with SIHH, then we could in Baselworld, in relation to what we do.

We are not seeking to produce commercials in larger quantities for our time pieces. But to remain very focused on what we do and what we enjoy doing. Which is the invention, the creation and the finishing. At SIHH really allowed us to show that very well. We were delighted to be back this year, as you mentioned the invention piece we shown, it was a great moment to share this time piece. Perhaps your listeners know, that in relation to our first invention in 2007, and then in 2009 there was a jump we had our 3rd invention. And everybody has been asking when will the invention piece two going to come with the quadruple. It takes time.

The quadruple was validated as a time piece, after the of the 24 second. The quadruple came out as a time piece in 2008, so it has taken time. Over two years work. Even for the quadruple as invention piece two to remake the whole construction of the movement. To showcase the invention and show this very distinctive and special time piece…and we feel it is a beautiful piece.

Jerome: I want to visit your factory. Can you invite me to your factory? We are basically neighbours. The first time I heard about company was through an employee of yours. And I have been following you ever since with eyes wide open. I am new to the world of horology. And you guys pretty much wrote one of the books.

Stephen Forsey: A chapter.

Jerome: More than a chapter. Here are a bunch questions I ask all my guests. If you were not in the watch business what would you be doing?

Stephen Forsey: I would have probably gone into the aviation industry.

Jerome: The person you admire the most in the watch world?

Stephen Forsey: I think from my stand point I was very fortunate to meet George Daniels, when I was studying matchmaking in London, twenty five years ago now, And that was certainly a moment of inspiration, a great figure in horology.

Jerome: Who is the most important person in your life?

Stephen Forsey: My wife or my children I cannot choose.

Jerome: Great answer. What is your favourite time of day?

Stephen Forsey: Morning. I love the morning.

Jerome: A great time for inventions, yes?

Stephen Forsey: Oh yes

Jerome: Thanks so much Stephen for taking the time and enlightening us about the company. And the amazing products you have given us through the years.

Stephen Forsey: Feel free to website for more in formation, we are also on Facebook and Twitter, and we do have other forums, and good following there. For a group of collectors please feel free to follow our work and the adventures of the Greubel Forsey, and take a look at our mountains. It is an interesting area.

Jerome: Thank you Stephen very much.

Jerome Pineau | Website

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