Grönefeld – “Ai’j d’r bint dan moei’j d’r wean’n”
“Ai’j d’r bint dan moei’j d’r wean’n” is a local Dutch saying literally meaning that you have to be there when you are there. Its casual interpretation is that you have to do things the best you can. That might well be the synopsis of what drives the two horological brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld to create unique and exclusive timepieces. Watches are made with love, eye-for-detail and great skill. Only the best materials are used.
Where it began…
Imagine 2 brothers growing up in a small town in the eastern part of the Netherlands close to the German border. After school and during weekends they play in what looks like a living room but actually is a boutique full of ticking clocks and watches. The boutique and watch and clock workshop once belonged to their grandfather Johan, a gifted watchmaker and also a painter and bon vivant. Johan also looked after the clock of the nearby St. Plechelmus Basilica – which dates back to the year 1240 – operational. That honour was passed on to the boys’ father – and Johan’s son – Johannes Grönefeld, locally known as ‘Sjef’ after Johan’s death in 1974. When their father walks to the church to look after the church clock, bells and movement, the boys often join him. Together they climb the narrow stairs to the top. Immense wooden pillars support a concrete floating structure that hosts the 53 church bells. Without a floating floor, the vibrations would damage the brick and mortar structure of the church. In the middle of these huge wooden pillars, two enormous weights draw their attention. Further up, the “command center” with the clock movement and the carillon is to be found behind a red door with the sign “smoking forbidden”. Especially one part of the movement fascinates them. Each 30-seconds a thing that looks like a paddle turns 180 degrees. The resulting force is transmitted to a long shaft that is connected to the hands of the clock. As the boys grow older and their fascination for watches grow with them, they learn that this mechanism is called a Remontoire. They dream of building such a mechanism in a watch one day.
That dream became reality in 2016 when the horological brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld – now men instead of boys – launched the prize-winning 1941 Remontoire watch. Note: A clock remontoire differs from the mechanism in a watch. A (church) clock has a constant force because of the use of weights. The purpose of the remontoire is to generate the force required to initiate the jump of the hands. Such a force is necessary during winter time when the jumping mechanism could be frozen. The purpose of the remontoire mechanism in a Grönefeld watch is to ensure a constant force. Adapting the Remontoire complication for a watch movement is a tour-de-force, a sign of their skills and creativity. The complication has been patented.
Obviously turning the idea for a remontoire complication into reality requires imagination, perseverance, and exemplary skills to create the complication and include it in a watch movement. The horological brothers acquired those skills via their genes as well as extensive training and work experience in Switzerland. Bart moved to Switzerland when he was 18 years old to learn the profession at Wostep in Neuchâtel, one of the best schools for watchmaking in the world. Later he work at Renaud et Papi, where his 3-year younger brother Tim joined him. Tim was responsible for the training of other watchmakers as well as the assembly of tourbillons and regulator escapements. Bart worked on minute repeaters, chronographs and grande-sonneries. While they thoroughly enjoyed their time in Switzerland and the inspirational environment at Renaud et Papi, they decided to move back to Oldenzaal to continue the work of grandfather Johan and father Sjef.
Although Bart is 3 years older than Tim, the secret of their success is their bond that goes beyond brotherhood; they also love to work and socialise together. They share the same preferences for leisure (socialising with friends), cars (Shelby cobra), vacations (Asia), and food (Asian). Japan is on their wish-list for a vacation.
Their dream? Building the best watches in the world for generations to come.
Mechanical Watchmaking as a Passion: Quality First Hand-Made
When you buy a Grönefeld watch, you know that you have a Quality-First hand-made watch where Bart and Tim are involved at every step. This is not a company focused on throughput, sales targets and shareholder value. It is a company that aims to deliver top-quality to knowledgeable customers. In their view, cost should not be a limiting factor in pursuing excellence.
Skill, traditional work, high-tech and information technology are used to conceptualise and develop a new watch. The process starts with an idea, followed by a 2D sketch of the dial. After going through multiple iterations, followed by determining the precise measures (case, hands, positioning of wheels, and so on), the sketch is digitised by a 3D designer followed by another iteration of changes.
Case and dial are 3D printed to get a better feeling of the usability of the watch. Changes are made to the design if necessary. Bart and Tim mentioned the shape of the lugs of the 1941 Remontoire as an example. The design looked great but when they saw the 3D version and attached a strap, the lugs were too long and too sharp.
The various parts of the watch are produced by their suppliers based on their specifications, followed by adaptations and finishing in their workshop.
Finally the watch is assembled, dissembled and reassembled and inspected. Each component is meticulously inspected for potential flaws.
The attention to detail is astounding. The respect for traditional watchmaking as well. According to Bart and Tim, heritage and tradition in production methods as well as materials used are important emotional elements related to mechanical watches.The hommage to traditional watchmaking transcends beyond their own company; Bart and Tim also include their suppliers in this philosophy. They’ve chosen their suppliers for hands, dial, cases, and movement parts with great care. It is probably needless to say they demand top quality in screws, hands, dials, and so on. While it was initially difficult to find suppliers who were willing to deliver parts-to-spec, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards surely helped in getting attention and acceptable procurement prices (procurement numbers are much lower than those of the “mainstream” watch manufacturers).
A variety of details reveal the brothers’ passion for quality and uniqueness. For example, look at the shape of the lugs of the 1941 Remontoire; literally every part is curved. Another example is the use of a separate bridge for each wheel (the Parallax Tourbillon being the exception). The bridges resemble the classical Dutch Clocktower-shaped houses. Yet another example of their passion for tradition is the use of steel for bridges rather than materials such as gold or silver. Steel is a traditional material used in pocket watches. Finishing steel parts is much more difficult, time-consuming and consequently costly. Finishing a steel bridge requires additional steps and around 8x more time! It is sometimes tempting to switch to other materials like other manufacturers did to make the watches more affordable and speed-up the development process. The fact that they haven’t done so yet tells something about the passion of Bart and Tim.
Enter the workshops…
When you enter Grönefeld workshops, you won’t find CNC machines. What you find are tools for creating their own tools, tools for polishing and sanding, and so on. The “dirty” work is done on the first floor while the assembly and regulation work is done on the second floor.
It is easy to become infected by the enthusiasm, pride, openness, friendliness and professionalism of the entire team. You feel that they are in this together. While being the faces of the brand and undisputedly belonging to the absolute top watchmakers, Bart and Tim do not feel more important than the others. In fact, their desire to ensure continuity, to give something to future generations and to work on “cool things” drives them to maintain a great team of watchmakers.
To Grow or Not to Grow?
Like Ferrari, Grönefeld watches are limited by production. Only a few people around the world are fortunate to wear one of their watches. Production is usually made-to-order, giving clients the opportunity to get a degree of personalisation. Especially after winning the prestigious prizes at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2014 and 2016 as well as prizes in Mexico and Poland, the number of buyers grow. Inevitably this leads to the question what their view is on the future. Finding skilled watchmakers is difficult. Even then, years of training are required to achieve the mastery levels demanded by the horological brothers. Growth also means expanding production facilities and recruiting sales and support staff. While Bart and Tim do not exclude growth, their first and foremost priority remains with building the best watches and ensuring continuity to their customers.
The passion of the people behind the brand and the quality of their products is impressive. High-end watchmaking is usually associated to Switzerland – and perhaps Glashütte – but the Grönefeld company belong to the very few top brands in the world as well. The Government should applaud them for keeping the company in the Netherlands instead of doing what other successful brand in non-Swiss/German countries do: move to Switzerland.
All photographs taken by Peter Nievaart.