Stephen Forsey's heart was pounding moments before unveiling the Double Tourbillon 30° to international press and dealers at the Baselworld watch show in 2004. He and business partner Robert Greubel had invested every penny they had in the ground-breaking timepiece.
"It was double or bust for us," Forsey recalls. "When we first started, it was a nightmare. If we had known what we know today [that there would be so many challenges], we probably would never have started."
Fast-forward 11 years, and Forsey has obviously hit the jackpot. Greubel Forsey is now the crème de la crème of independent watchmakers, boasting 17 in-house calibres and prestigious awards at Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève and Locle International Chronometry Competition.
Despite a relatively brief brand history, the maison's technical innovations and impeccable craftsmanship have turned Greubel Forsey watches into sought-after collectors' pieces. Today, a Greubel Forsey DLC-coating titanium GMT could easily set you back over US$565,000. The brand also owes its success to its ultra-exclusive production - only about 100 pieces are made each year.
Forsey's vision began when he was barely into his teens. Born in St Albans, England - a historic market town on the outskirts of London - Forsey was influenced by the passion for mechanics that his engineer father and grandfather shared. Growing up fascinated by mechanical engineering, Forsey enrolled at a horological school in London to learn about antique watch restoration.
"Turning my hobby into a career is a very lucky thing," Forsey says. He worked his way up after graduation and at a tender age, Forsey had already become head of luxury boutique Asprey's watch restoration department. At this point, Forsey was ready for his next challenge. In 1992, he moved to Switzerland - the heart of traditional watchmaking and also the epicentre of the quartz crisis.
"Electronic watches were so strong 30 years ago, but right now mechanical watches are very much alive," Forsey says.
It was this move to Switzerland, however, that helped him find his lifelong business partner. Forsey landed a job at Renaud & Papi, where he met Greubel. Now called Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi, the manufacture is responsible for some of the most complicated movements in the watchmaking world.
While the industry was still slowly recovering from the quartz crisis in the 1990s, Renaud & Papi brought together the two young watchmakers, who shared a vision to push boundaries and make a difference. The pair worked on the same bench for more than five years before going independent in 1999.
"We've created some fantastic complications, but as the millennium approached, we asked ourselves, 'Has everything already been invented?'", Forsey says. "Surely there will be new things that can be invented if we work sufficiently hard. Who better to attack those new subjects than two watchmakers?"
With determination fuelled by passion and a tad of impetus, the two decided to strike on their own with a clear vision. "What's fundamental for us is to maintain the originality of each Greubel Forsey timepiece," Forsey says. "And our most effective strategy so far is to stay true to our values no matter how the market changes."
Since its first invention in 2004, Greubel Forsey has never been sidetracked from its philosophy by fashion and trends. Original innovations have been at the core of the maison. The manufacturer's groundbreaking inventions include remarkable inclined tourbillon escapements such as the Quadruple Tourbillon and Double Balancier 35° - the maison's first non-tourbillon movement.
Also famous for its unique interpretation of grand complications, Greubel Forsey showcased its take on a perpetual calendar with the Quantième Perpétuel à Équation launched last year, and its interpretation of world-time indication through its iconic GMT series first unveiled in 2011. Its painstaking pursuit in technical excellence and aesthetic elegance has brought the brand to where it stands now. The watchmaking pair actively seek out collaborators who share their beliefs. British microsculptor Willard Wigan, for example, is now working with the pair on the "Art Piece" project, combining haute horlogerie with microscopic artworks that can fit into the eye of a needle.
Perhaps Greubel Forsey's headquarters could better illustrate the maison's philosophy of its perfect balancing act of heritage and innovation. The compound, nestled in the mountains of La Chaux de-Fonds, Switzerland, combines the Farmhouse - a 17th-century building restored by local artisan Gilles Tissot - with an ultracontemporary building designed by architect Pierre Studer. The avant-garde structure, built from wood, metal, concrete and glass, is where 100 or so top Greubel Forsey watchmakers work.
"Our objective is to make as few pieces as possible, but to make them as interesting as possible," Forsey says. "It's really a mixture of embracing technology and also the traditional savoir-faire."
One of the maison's latest novelties - the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision - embodies this very synergy. 3D printing technology was used extensively to ensure the wearer's comfort, as the piece features a crystal dome on the caseback that houses the 24-second tourbillon. The dial, however, uses a near-extinct craft that's extremely time-consuming and hard to achieve. Hour markers are engraved directly onto the dial and then oven-fire enamelled with galvanised palladium plating.
"This is a technique that we haven't seen in watchmaking in nearly 100 years," Forsey says. "But it guarantees a beautiful result - a refined and elegant look."
Preserving and safeguarding traditional watchmaking techniques have always been on Greubel Forsey's agenda. The "Le Garde Temps - Naissance d'une Montre" project, started in 2009 and unveiled in 2012, saw the two founders working alongside legendary independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour to document the knowledge of artisanal craftsmanship.
Michel Boulanger, a teacher at the Paris Watchmaking School, was invited to work on a timepiece completely without the help of computer-controlled machines. The process was documented entirely so the techniques can be preserved and passed on to the younger generation.
"This project is vital," Forsey explains. "At the beginning of my career as a young watchmaker, I was restoring antique pieces, so I understood that the techniques were not the same as how we make watches today. We want to draw attention to the loss of the knowhow, because otherwise true and proper traditional watchmaking will become extinct."
At this year's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, a prototype which took Boulanger more than three years to make was unveiled. While polishing is still underway, the timepiece demonstrated the essence of Greubel Forsey's "Le Garde Temps - Naissance d'une Montre" project.
Forsey hopes the project will also help to pass on the legacy of watchmaking to the younger generation.
"I hope this would encourage the younger generation to want to understand watchmaking," Forsey says. "They might not want to grow up being another accountant or lawyer, but a watchmaker."
Specialises in restoration of antique watches
Moves to Switzerland to join Robert Greubel at Renaud & Papi
Founds CompliTime in partnership with Robert Greubel
Founds Greubel Forsey with Robert Greubel
Richemont group buys a minority stake in Greubel Forsey
Greubel Forsey’s Double Tourbillon 30° Edition Historique wins the Aiguille d’Or from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève for the best watch in all categories
Unveils the “Le Garde Temps – Naissance d’une Montre” project
Presents the Double Balancier 35° – Greubel Forsey’s first non-tourbillon movement
Launches the Quantième Perpetuel à Equation