Stephen Forsey, co-founder of Greubel Forsey, takes us behind the scenes of the La Chaux-de-Fonds atelier producing just 100 timepieces each year.
There is a lot of talk about what constitutes luxury lately, as brands move further beyond their core competencies and cater to an ever-increasing range of individuals, at an ever-broadening range of price positions. The words ‘rarity’ and ‘exclusivity’ are used as often as the word ‘luxury’ itself, whether a brand is producing hundreds – or hundreds-of-thousands – of products per year.
It’s not to say the industry has lost its way, it has simply changed and adapted to rampant interest and demand. But what this democratisation of the market has made room for, is a handful of exceptional brands at the top of the pyramid, returning to the core pillars of luxury; a luxury position that is simply a by-product on the quest for excellence.
Greubel Forsey is one such ‘luxury’ brand, which co-founder and watchmaker Stephen Forsey will tell you, isn’t necessarily the intention. “In terms of what Robert and myself set out to do, we didn’t label it as luxury,” he begins.
“ In terms of what Robert and myself set out to do, we didn’t label it as luxury ”
“As watchmakers we had a very good technical background and sound experience of some of the long history of watchmaking. But we also felt there was plenty of room to move forward and explore new ideas.”
“And to do that we needed to have the space and the freedom to make new creations. And pursue our technical ideas and turn them into inventions and things that would surprise the connoisseur of watchmaking." Hence the accidental luxury positioning.
In the quest for innovation and excellence the relatively young Swiss manufacture makes approximately 100 creations per year, with an entry-level price position over 250,000 euros (without tax), often using techniques that are no longer taught in watchmaking schools.
As Greubel Forsey celebrates it’s 10th anniversary at Baselworld 2014, we spoke with Stephen Forsey about the evolution of the brand and what he foresees for the future .
Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30 ° Technique Bi-Color
In an age where people don’t need a watch, how do you compel your clients to spend upwards of €250,000 on one of your pieces?
There – our pricing – is not a deliberate commercial strategy. It sounds a bit cliché, but if you swing back to 1999, the mechanical watch business was just starting to gather speed again after the electronic watch crisis, and within that framework there were a lot of similar products on the market.
Robert and myself really wanted to focus our energy on the very difficult elements of hand finishing, and generally bringing back a level of excellence to each of our creations, which we couldn’t find at the time in other pieces.
So even at the very beginning of Greubel Forsey, there was some fundamental research that took us several years to perfect. And when you construct something with original architecture it means that there are a lot of new techniques. Then we are also trying to rediscover and reawaken traditional techniques and finish everything by hand.
If we look back to our very first piece, Robert and I started working on our first Double Tourbillon 30 degrees in 1999 and we were able to showcase that for the launch of Gruebel Forsey at Baselworld in 2004. So it was four-and-a-half years for that very first creation alone, and some of our creations have taken up to five.
“ The 24 Second Tourbillon requires six or seven months of man-hours to make one piece ”
If we take a look at our entry-level creation in terms of value, the 24 Second Tourbillon requires around six or seven months of manhours to make an individual piece, so we can only make one or two of those timepieces each month from our atelier.
So when we combine all these different elements, we have something that appeals to the collector who is in the position to be able to acquire one of our pieces. Between the design, the craftsmanship, the technology, the innovation, there will be something that captures his attention immediately.
And it can happen that people really can’t put the piece down. They can appreciate the hard work and research and effort and energy that have gone into creating it, and the human element as well. So I think these are things that really help the collector to be convinced.
Greubel Forsey Time Art Gallery, Shanghai
What are some of the biggest challenges that your business has faced?
What Robert and I noticed when we started to work on our project, our first timepiece, we realised that some of the skills and techniques – notably for hand finishing – were no longer practiced. So we were looking already then, ten or fifteen years ago, at the dying art aspect of watchmaking; skills and techniques.
In Switzerland certainly and in other countries, from the advent of the electronic watch in the early 70’s and moving on gradually, watchmaking schools were closed or reduced or merged in many different countries. Governments have gradually lost the focus on watchmaking and so the challenge of guarding the techniques tends to fall to the brands and the industry.
This is something that I suppose is natural because as industry has progressed and developed, the whole idea is to reduce the impact and the dependence on the individual.
So the industry then segments and divides each process into the smallest simplified steps, but what happens is that you lose the know-how and those aspects of the traditional techniques which you can get when one individual carries out the process from A to Z.
So this was something that we found was a big challenge for what we needed to do. We needed to relearn some techniques and then we had to train people to do that, because the industry as a whole doesn’t need this level of skill. This led to our project Naissance d’une Montre to safeguard and preserve these traditional skills.
“ The challenge of guarding techniques tends to fall to the brands & the industry ”
Which has resulted in quite a large team…
Greubel Forsey is a team of 75 people and then we have our sister company. When Robert and myself started to work together we had to develop our first piece before we could launch, so to do that we formed a research and development company, Complitime, which is not well known because it works behind the scenes.
Currently that comprises of about 38 people, so in total we are over 100 people and within that a large proportion of the people are technicians and watchmakers and specialists in hand finishing. The hand finishing team is in fact one quarter of the whole team.
Hand finishing today is a profession that doesn’t really exist, there isn’t a formal qualification as such when it comes to hand finishing with movement components in watchmaking.
But it is something that we have developed in our own particular way, so we have a team of almost twenty people who work full time just hand finishing and applying the different polish and textures to the individual components of each movement.
Watchmaker Michel Boulanger, La Naissance d’une Montre
Where are you finding consumers that respond to your products?
Again it’s not a purely commercial approach. One of the first things that we wanted to do when we launched Greubel Forsey was to reach out to a small number of collectors, in each different region across the world. At that time we could have probably shipped everything to the US for example and not worried about anywhere else.
But we felt sure that there were a small number of collectors in many different countries who would be interested in what we were doing and would be delighted to add one of our pieces to their collection.
So over the first four to five years, we built partnerships with a number of specialist retailers in different countries around the world. And then of course, you had the GFC, which meant the focus had to be adjusted.
But it didn’t actually affect us negatively as we had different entries into regions and we were able to shift the focus from say the US, which suddenly became very quiet, to give a little bit more focus to other regions where we hadn’t been able to supply with more than one or two pieces.
In the last two to three years we have seen a good growth in the Americas, both North and South America, and also a strong performance in Europe. Asia is a little bit quiet in some regions but there we have some new partners who we have been working with more recently.
Because we are not looking at a volume objective and we cannot gear up our production industrially, it’s very much an individual and quite bespoke approach, with a lot of one-to-one contact and a few specialist retailers.
“ We are not looking at a volume objective. We cannot gear up our production industrially ”
How would you describe the ‘typical’ customer for your brand?
I think the typical thing is that the Greubel Forsey customer is quite A-typical. To imagine investing in a timepiece, which requires many months of work to make, is not accessible to very many people. So they are people who have certain resources.
But beyond that they tend to be people with a high level of cultural interest, quite often in art. They are people who are extremely busy, who work very hard, who are often running very large businesses and financing and supporting a lot of people. So it’s a very interesting exchange to be able to meet them and to see that they are from very diverse areas of business all around the world.
Greubel Forsey GMT Platinum
How do your marketing strategies reflect the interests and desires of these consumers?
We certainly don’t have a commercial marketing strategy in the same way that larger brands with more complex portfolios do. If there were 200 people each year that wanted to buy one of our products, we physically cannot produce 200 timepieces per year.
So we are very much focused on each individual creation, on building and constructing a relationship with our partners, but we don’t do very much advertising. I think this is one of the things that differentiates an independent brand, and particularly Greubel Forsey, in that there isn’t a corporate advertising approach.
In some regions some advertising is very important for people to have an assurance in what we do, but in other regions they are more dispersed and people will be in the know following the Internet or actively searching.
I think one of the key elements is also through electronic media, the Internet as an ever-expanding reference library of information and platform to exchange and learn more about any subject. For the independent watchmaker this has been a very important tool to enable us to be known and discovered by a wider audience.
At the end of the day we want more people to learn about the brand and to discover and be interested in what we do, even if today they don’t have the means to be able to acquire a timepiece.
“ In some regions some advertising is very important for people to have an assurance in what we do ”
With such limited production, how do you handle distribution?
We have around 35 retail partners to date, who we work with in about 30 countries. So quite often there is only one representative who is working with Greubel Forsey in a particular country. We do have a space called Time Art Gallery on the Bund in Shanghai, which is a partnership with our local distribution agent for Southeast Asia, but this is not necessarily a store.
We opened in 2011 as a gallery, in the sense that we have temporary exhibitions from contemporary artists, where we want to share with the Chinese collector and the public, some work from artists who interest us.
So it is a place where it is possible to discover perhaps two or three of our pieces but also to have an area of exchange and a gallery space to be able to introduce the future watch collector to what we do.
Could you ever envision a day where you would sell your product online?
I think electronic media and eCommerce has a very important role in everything we do today. From a personal viewpoint I think you can find out a lot of information on the Internet, but if you are looking at buying something on a luxury level, I think at a point you need to see it. I think you need to touch and feel the object and the workmanship and discover it that way.
Inside the Greubel Forsey Atelier
What is the biggest challenge the brand will face in the coming years?
We have many many things that we want to do that we are working on and within these ambitions the challenges come down to expertise, our team – finding the right people to help us complete and do what we need to.
Sometimes we would like to have a bigger team so we could do more things, but I speak from the invention or innovation side of Greubel Forsey. We are not seeking to double our quantities or to grow exponentially, simply because of the challenges of mastering and maintaining what we are doing in terms of quality, hand finishing and the excellence in craftsmanship.
That is something that has to be built and constructed and that takes time, and time is the watchmaker’s worst enemy.
To further investigate independent luxury brands on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows: