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Greubel Forsey Watches Designed with Microscopes

The first artist to collaborate with watchmaker Greubel Forsey talks about making miniatures so tiny, they come with their own microscope.

From dials crafted from mini mosaic tiles to watches featuring designs made of tiny beads of gold, a good number of art- inspired timepieces impresses with the specialised craft they showcase. Among these, Art Piece 1 by Greubel Forsey is probably the first to come with its own built-in, specially developed microscope.

No mere decorative feature, the optical instrument – which has a magnification of 23 times – is the only way a viewer can see the gold microsculpture made by Willard Wigan displayed within the watch. With dimensions of just several microns, less than the diameter of a strand of human hair, the sculptures – so far, prototypes have featured a golden mask and a golden ship – simply look like a speck of dust to the naked eye. To make these marvels, the British microsculptor slows his breathing and works between heartbeats, using customised tools such as tweezers made from an acupuncture needle and a “paintbrush” that was once the hair of a housefly.

With an estimated price tag of more than $2 million, each Art Piece 1 features Greubel Forsey’s signature 30o double tourbillon and a custom Wigan microsculpture. Six designs have been commissioned to date.

It is a jaw-dropping creation, and one that nearly did not happen, according to Wigan, who was recently in town to give a private talk to Australia and New Zealand Banking Group clients.

A microscope in the watch allows observers to enjoy the finer details of Willard Wigan’s work.
A microscope in the watch allows observers to enjoy the finer details of Willard Wigan’s work.

The 56-year-old Birmingham native recalls: “At first, I didn’t think working with a watch company was something I wanted to do. I could look at a Rolex or a Patek Philippe and go, ‘Well, that’s a nice watch’ – but I didn’t really know about the workings of a watch.”

What eventually won him over was the realisation that he and Greubel Forsey watchmakers Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey “shared the same language”.

For their first meeting, Greubel had brought one of the company’s watches. Wigan says: “I held the watch in my hand and took the magnifying lens to have a look at its workings. When I saw the intricacy and craftsmanship that had gone into their watches, I knew that something was going to happen.”

With a laugh, he adds: “Watches have small components inside – so there’s no language problem there.”

Wigan is certainly well- versed in the language of the infinitesimal, as shown by his pinhead-sized works such as The Last Supper and Alice In Wonderland, rich tableaus which fit into the eye of a needle.

The Last Supper inside the eye of a needle.
The Last Supper inside the eye of a needle.

As the artist has frequently shared in talks and interviews, his childhood and school years were difficult as a result of dyslexia, a condition that was not well-known back then. Cited as an example of failure by his teacher, he found solace in watching ants going about their business – and began making little houses for them.

Drifting in and out of factory jobs as a young adult, he continued making sculptures of various sizes. At the age of 35, his luck started to change. Passing an empty shopfront one day, he sought permission to work on a large piece of wood. Crowds gathered to watch as he carved a large bust of William Shakespeare over the next few weeks. When a reporter showed up, Wigan took the opportunity to show the former some of the small sculptures he had made – and things took off from there.

Today, his works fetch six-figure sums, and his list of clients includes Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Sir Elton John, Sir Philip Green, Mike Tyson and Simon Cowell. The highlight of his career was receiving an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2007, and meeting the two aforementioned members of British royalty.

Last year, he made headlines again for creating the world’s smallest sculpture, a three-micron motorcycle crafted from 12 microscopic specks of gold – inside a hollowed-out bit of his own stubble.

Does he think he can make it even smaller, we ask, not really expecting more than a smile or a vague “we’ll see”. But the answer comes almost immediately: “If I push myself, I could.” How much smaller? He replies, barely missing a beat: “Half.”