When people think of watchmaking today, they think of a big factory with sophisticated machines, white coats, and (an almost clinical) approach. That is so, according to Stephen Forsey, co-founder of ultra-high-end independent watch brand Greubel Forsey. “And yet, the tradition of watchmaking – the antique tools, the traditional methods – is really important. These are what we need to safeguard,” he adds.
That need to protect and perpetuate time-honoured watchmaking know-how was the driving force behind the project Le Garde Temps – Naissance d’une Montre (which means “The Guardian of Time – Birth of a Watch” in French). Spearheaded by Forsey and his long-time business partner, Robert Greubel, along with revered independent watchmaker Philippe Dufour, the project was launched in 2009.
Mentored by the trio, French watchmaking teacher Michel Boulanger worked for over five years on the first watch to emerge from the programme. The tourbillon timepiece was created without the use of electronic equipment like CNC machines (the only concessions were the use of computer software to create accurate plans of the watch from sketches, and that of certain electric-powered – but still handoperated – tools). Next May, the watch will be auctioned by Christie’s in Hong Kong, and proceeds will be re-invested into the project.
Forsey and Dufour, who were recently in Singapore to spread the word on the project, sat down with The Peak to talk about watchmaking tradition, working with their protege, and the importance of touch in a mechanical age.
Why are traditional watchmaking methods, carried out by hand or hand-operated machines, so important?
SF: Today, you can machine-make a watch completely, you never need to touch it. (On the one hand,) that’s fantastic because you can introduce mechanical watches to a new public who might not have experienced them before. And when they want to discover more, they can go on to a more sophisticated timepiece. It’s like music. You can make digital music, but why do we still have musicians? In watchmaking, this is the difference between a machine-made industrial process, and (the work of the) independent watchmaker, where we add a human value – with traditional handcrafted work, skill and expertise that take many years to perfect.
PD: Many of the brands have lost their hand-finishing know-how. I’ll give you an example. Three years ago, one of the big manufactures decided to create a better finish in their watches, using hand-bevelling. There were 1,300 people in the factory – and nobody was able to do bevelling by hand. They had to hire an old, retired watchmaker from another brand to teach them. That’s what’s happening today.
Why did you choose to work with Boulanger, a watchmaking teacher based in Paris?
SF: (Robert and I) knew Michel from a long time ago, and we kept in contact. While there were many people who were interested, we had to be 200 per cent sure that the person we chose could carry (the weight of) the project.
PD: Michel lives close to Paris, and, every month, he would go to Switzerland, either to the Greubel Forsey workshop, or mine. He is very willing to learn and try. For example, I might explain and show how to polish the face of a pinion with a bow (a length of steel strung with a cord, which drives a metal-shaping lathe). He would take my chair and use the same tool, but when he tried to do it, it didn’t work. I explained to him, “Feel.”
SF: It was also important that Michel is a teacher at a watchmaking school. The whole objective of this project is to spread the information as widely as possible.
As watchmakers whose timepieces are created by hand, what do you think of major luxury watch brands, which use many mechanised processes?
SF: The difficulty with hand-finishing is that it’s unpredictable. For Greubel Forsey, we hand-finish all our pieces, and we have a hand-finishing team of 18 people, working full-time to make a hundred pieces a year. So, if you want to translate that to the brand that makes 10,000 pieces, that would be a problem. The industry offers something we cannot – a democratic, accessible product. We don’t expect to revolutionise the watch industry in this way. But we need to protect the nucleus of people with this know-how. Otherwise – like Philippe says – you cannot dig up somebody who is dead, who took his knowledge to the cemetery. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
The revival of time-honoured decorative arts
It’s not just traditional watchmaking techniques that are at risk of going the way of the sundial. Currently, the luxury watch industry is seeing a shortage of artisans capable of decorating timepieces using specialised techniques such as enamelling and marquetry, a practice that dates back to the 17th century. With the growing consumer desire for unique, hand-finished luxury products, the luxury watch industry has been working to arrest this decline, whether it’s by collaborating on metiers d’art timepieces with independent artisans like renowned enameller Anita Porchet, or beefing up their own decorative-art capabilities. Here, we take a closer look at four outstanding artistic timepieces, and how the companies behind them are preserving – or even rediscovering – these traditional crafts.
Having a close association with travel, it is perhaps no surprise that Hermes looked to Japan for inspiration for some of its latest artistic timepieces. Bringing together French porcelain and the Japanese art of aka-e painting – a first in horology – the Slim d’Hermes Koma Kurabe series sees Japanese master artist Buzan Fukushima creating micro-paintings in shades of red and ochre, which are coated with a fine layer of gold. The decorated porcelain dials have to undergo three firing processes to set the tableaus.
Both aka-e and the scenes depicted by Fukushima share a lengthy history. The former, whose name translates to “red painting”, was popular in the 19th century. Varying details distinguish the 12 different models in this series, which showcase scenes in Koma Kurabe, a traditional Japanese horse race – and here lies a nod to Hermes’ equestrian heritage – held annually in Kyoto and is more than a millennium old.
From using slivers of petals to depict a parrot, to creating a panther head motif with tiny beads of gold, Cartier’s metiers d’art watches befit a house best known for its fabulous jewellery. As an indication of how seriously Cartier is taking its decorative-arts division, it opened its dedicated Maison des Metiers d’Art last year. A restored farmhouse next to its massive watch manufacturing facility houses some 30 artisans, working not only on fine crafts like enamelling and engraving, but also on rediscovering old artistic techniques not previously found on a watch dial. One example: The filigree work on the Ronde Louis Cartier XL Filigree Panthers timepiece, a craft that originated from the Sumerians 5,000 years ago. Here, fine gold or platinum wires are twisted, flattened, shaped and then soldered to form the details of the panthers’ coats.
For Piaget, working with the best artisans in the business is a way to ensure the latter’s “independence and viability”, as the brand’s CEO, Philippe Leopold-Metzger, once said, adding: “They are not solely driven by business, but by the hope that they can pass on their skills to the next generation, and we share that hope.”
This year, the brand partnered embroiderer Sylvie Deschamps and lapidary Herve Obligi, who created exceptional takes on the brand’s signature Yves Piaget rose. Deschamps holds the prestigious title of Maitre d’Art from the French Ministry of Culture, and typically applies her skills to haute couture creations. In making this eight-piece limited edition, she used a micro-pointillist embroidery technique to create tiny knotted stitches. Silk threads in five different shades of pink give the rose a subtle gradient effect, while silver thread – embroidered using a different technique – is used to trace its outline.
The winner of the Artistic Crafts prize at this year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie De Geneve (which is often described as the Oscars of the horological world), the Blancpain Shakudo pieces showcase a trio of techniques: shakudo, engraving and damascening. Shakudo is rarely used in watches, and actually describes a material rather than a technique. The alloy of copper and gold, originating from Japan, was traditionally used to craft swords, jewellery and other ornaments.
What sets this alloy apart is that it takes on a rich blue-black patina when treated with a copper acetate solution known as rokusho. The contrast between the copper hue and the dark patina allows the engravers’ work to stand out without the addition of colour. Featuring designs such as a deeply rooted tree, the Hindu god Ganesh and the mythological griffin, the Villeret Shakudo models also showcase the art of damascening. Depressions are made on the dial surface, and fine gold threads are hammered into place, before being engraved by hand.