Last week, we caught up with the globe trotting co-founder of Greubel Forsey: Stephen Forsey during his short stint in Singapore. We had fun chatting with him on various issues in what turned out to be a two hour session, when we had scheduled an hour. We covered the exceptional results of the Naissance d’une Montre prototype sale by Christie’s and the art of fine finishing in Part 1. In Part 2 here, we continue with further discussions on fine finishing. And in Part 3 to be published later this week, we head over to his views on the state of his business and finally we end with Stephen revealing who his heros are.
Fine finishing a la Chez Greubel Forsey (part deux)
The discourse turned to the Côtes de Genève on the Signature 1. This was one of the aspects that Didier Cretin, the watchmaker responsible for the Signature 1, and whose name is engraved on the movement of the watch, was trying to explain to the hordes at SIHH 2016. The author was also had an audience with Didier, and despite the fact that he had the trusted translation by none other than Philippe Dufour, the finer points that Didier was trying to highlight escaped him. Until now. The discussion by Stephen made it all clear.
First a short primer on the Côtes de Genève. The patterns are made by placing the movement bridges/plates under a lathe with a spinning disc and going over the bridge making rules, each overlapping the other slightly, and making small slopes (côtes is French for slopes). The spinning tool head is made of wood or sandpaper, and spins on its own axis. The head is slightly tilted to one side, and the result is a ruled striped with a brushed semi-circular motif. These are strictly systematically controlled scratches, and catches the light at various angles. The original purpose was to get rid of the traces from the machining process where the bridges/plates were made. But also serves to catch dust in traditional open pocket watches so that the particles do not fall into the wheels and jewels. But these days, it serves mainly as a magnificently beautiful decorative finish to the plates.
In mass produced environment, the Côtes de Genève are actually stamped on the movements. This is the lowest grade.
One level up, they are applied by a computer controlled lathe, making the stripes quickly and efficiently. As the motion and pressure applied to the bridges/plates are controlled by the computer, they are all exactly the same, and carry zero variations. In the Six Sigma world of quality, they are perfect.
Shown below is the stripes being prepared for the plates of the Hajime Asaoka watch. The process shown below is by a CNC computer controlled lathe used by Asaoka, and is completely automatic.
However, this is not what we love in a hand made timepiece. So if the production numbers of the atelier were somewhat smaller, say thousands of pieces a year, the Côtes de Genève, are applied by hand. Typically, in series production, this is done by a department specializing in this. And the spinning head is a diamond infused paper. This cuts easily, and is efficient. For some maisons, the amount of pressure applied to the bridges/plates are controlled by an artisan’s hand, while others by the tension of a spring. The Glashütte Ribbing, the German version of the Côtes de Genève, found in Lange watches are done using this method the operator judging the force applied to create the waves.
However, in the Signature 1, the Côtes de Genève are applied by hand (of course!). It is probably the first Greubel Forsey watch to use the Côtes de Genève decoration, the others use plates which are frosted. The spinning head is made of a wood found in the region. The wood is much softer, and takes off microns from the base material (the bridges/plates), while the spinning diamond infused paper takes off hundreds of millimeters. The result is the stripes are merely markings on the bridges/plates. But because the bridges and plates are also prepared by hand before the striping, they are already almost flawless. The Côtes de Genève are used as a decoration, and its utility to remove the imperfections on the plates is diminished.
Examining the stripes made by Didier on the Signature 1 (indicated in the photograph below by the yellow arrow), we see the stripes are clean and clear, but the slopes are barely visible, very shallow, almost imperceptible. This hand made Côtes de Genève have a visually soft aesthetic, compared to the hard, defined finish of their more industrially produced cousins.
The Signature 1’s bridges/plates are made from maillechort which are treated with nickle-palladium. The nickle-palladium plating is somewhat softer than the harder, brighter and more common rhodium plating used by many manufacturers. Philippe Dufour and the Micro Artist Studio of Seiko among those who use rhodium plating on their maillechort plates. Incidentally, Lange use untreated maillechort plates, which patina over time into a warm hue.
Also of note in the photograph above, is the sharp angle (indicated by the red arrow) made at the meeting points of the anglages of the plate. The thinner anglage is curved around the dial meets the massive anglage at the edge of the plate, and makes a very sharp outward angle. This is a mark of virtuosity. Note also the sub-dials themselves are anglaged, including the small seconds hands, and the chamfers highly polished to catch the glint of light.
The photograph also affords us the opportunity to highlight the hands on the Signature 1. These are hand made by Didier in Le Locle, and made in steel. Hand making is a highly specialized craft, and most manufactures, including Dufour and Lange do no make their own hands. Greubel Forsey make their own hands for some of the models, and the Signature 1 is one of those. Another notable maison who make their hands in-house is Moritz Grossmann.
The minute hand and the hour hand are made in one piece and begins life as a wedge shape, thicker at the attachment to the arbour than at the ends. The hands are then flame blued by hand to achieve the precise colour that he desires. As the hand is a single piece execution, Didier is then able to make the bowl shape seen in the centre, indicated by the green arrow, by machining it from the thick side of the wedge. The machining removes the blue and shows the base steel hue. This is a very complex shape to machine, as the bowl needs to trace a perfect sphere. Any departure from the spherical formula can be easily detected as distortions in the reflection off the mirror polished surface. The arbour attachment is friction fitted on the other side to its pinion, also needs to be machined precisely. The fitting is seen as a button in the center of the bowl, rising from the spherical sides, and is also finished with a mirror polish. The final effect is one where the bowl reflects light onto this button, and the entire ensemble glows against the beautifully blued hands. Quite magnificent, and an unbelievably high amount of very skilled work just for the three hands on the Signature 1.
We continue later this week with Part 3, where we get personal with Stephen, and talk about his business, rumours about the business, and his personal watchmaking heros.