The Next Big Thing: Greubel ForseyBy Wei Koh
It was around this time last year that I wrote a story called “The Next Big Thing.” It was about one of my favorite independent watchmaking brands named De Bethune. The brand had been flying under the radar for the past two decades, but I felt it was on the verge of — to paraphrase Jim Morrison — breaking through to the other side and directly into the public’s consciousness. Because, to me, no other brand had enacted more innovation focused around real horological advancement. From the creation of its proprietary balance wheel, to an in-house hairspring with a unique terminal curve, to the world’s lightest tourbillon cage which rotated at double the normal speed and boasted a blistering fast 5 hertz oscillator, year after year, De Bethune’s Denis Flageollet was like Jay-Z in the ’90s and early 2000s, laying down 11 Billboard Number 1 albums in succession. He was just unstoppable in his brilliance.
On top of that, Flageollet’s quest for a more perfect form of watchmaking also yielded a totally unique, exquisitely sculptural aesthetic language that was unlike anything the world had ever seen — a palette crafted from high polished grade 5 titanium, heat-treated blue elements, three-dimensional moonphase indicators and spring-loaded floating lugs. But a year later, even I couldn’t have imagined De Bethune’s utterly transformative success in the space of 12 months. From their collaboration with Swizz Beatz on the devastatingly cool Dream Watch 5 to appearing on Michael Strahan’s wrist when he went to space, De Bethune had suddenly shapeshifted to a searingly hot contemporary brand. So high was the demand that De Bethunes were sold out everywhere, and some retailers like The Hour Glass in Singapore even began making them only available to customers through an application process. Accordingly, the secondary prices of De Bethunes have risen stratospherically and with missile-like velocity. Any DB28 is commanding a significant premium while the brand’s iconic Kind of Blue watches, regardless of complication, are going for double their original price.
So, when it came to announcing my pick for 2022’s Next Big Thing, I wasn’t sure if there was a similarly obvious candidate. That was until I spent two days with a particular brand at their stunning manufacture, built adjoining a transformed farmhouse in La Chaux-de-Fonds. There, I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with their industry-leading mastery in high finishing and true chronometric achievement. During one of the evenings, thanks to the brand’s new CEO, Antonio Calce, I got to preview the entire collection of watches that will be launched this year — and I was utterly blown away. Because not only are they some of the best watches the brand has ever made, in terms of their exquisite combination of thrilling, heart-stirring design and incredible wrist-borne visual content, backed by a real technical authenticity and what can only be described as finish so extraordinary it belongs in a class of its own, I believe they are the best horological offerings I’ve seen from a single brand in the last decade. In fact, what you will see at Watches and Wonders is but the first of their transcendent salvos for the year. By now, you realize that I am, of course, talking about Greubel Forsey. By the time the smoke clears at the end of 2022, you will realize that Calce has enacted what will be the most important year of all time in Greubel Forsey’s history — that’s just how crazily good the watches are.
Greubel Forsey’s New Direction
Why am I so excited and what exactly has Calce enacted that has me so damn impressed? OK, let me just be honest with you. Since the brand’s creation in 2004, I have never had anything but the greatest respect and reverence for Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey. What they have achieved in terms of real watchmaking innovation — in terms of true advancement of chronometric performance, and not the creation of visually entertaining but horological vacuous frivolity like many others — is simply staggering. Eighteen years later, they have already assured their places in the halls of watchmaking’s Valhalla, along with Abraham-Louis Breguet, Ferdinand Berthoud, Antide Janvier, John Harrison and George Daniels. That is irrefutable. And each year, when I went to visit them first in Basel, then at Geneva’s SIHH, I was always impressed with their ambitiousness and creativity. But the truth is, for all its incredible legitimacy, I could never see myself wearing a Greubel Forsey.
Let’s set aside their staggering cost for a minute; they just didn’t give me any emotion. So, it was a real gamechanger for me when I set eyes on Greubel Forsey’s Balancier Convexe S² last year at Dubai Watch Week. Through that watch, I started to understand Calce’s vision for the brand: the creation of a design language that was scorchingly sexy and hyper relevant while not just retaining, but actually amplifying Greubel Forsey’s amazing horological richness. And that was no mean feat.
Says Calce, “Before joining, I really wanted to research opinions on Greubel Forsey by myself. Then, we sat together with Robert Greubel and we realized that there was nothing but the greatest respect for the brand — for our technical innovation, for the Double Tourbillon 30°, for the Tourbillon 24 Secondes, for the Quadruple Tourbillon. There was even more massive respect for our level of finishing, which even the most discerning collectors loved to take pictures of under magnification. But at the same time, we would hear words like, ‘too big,’ or ‘too heavy.’ And it became clear to us what the mission was: to keep all of our content, but to create watches that were so visually striking, so viscerally exciting that you would stop dead in your tracks, whether you are a watch expert [or someone who] knew nothing about watches. It was important to define a vision in terms of product”.
“Of course, there is a small circle of expert collectors, but beyond them is an ever-widening sphere of what I call connoisseurs — people that love all the best things in life, travel, parties, cars, yachts, motorcycles and, yes, watches, but not in an overly analytical way. For them, they judge with their emotions first, and we wanted our watches to be so instinctively appealing that the moment they set eyes on one, they couldn’t stop thinking about it. After this, if they want to know our history, our seven signature inventions, our 25-person team dedicated solely to hand finishing, our Experimental Watch Technology, they would realize we have more true substance than anything else out there. But first, the watch had to catch their eye and be unforgettable.”
2021 Balancier Convexe S²
With the Balancier Convexe S², Greubel Forsey has achieved precisely this. Design, technique, horological innovation, stunning finish — it all comes together perfectly in what Calce refers to as the brand’s new flagship model. First, its ovoid case is a combination of an oval and a tonneau but curved to an extreme to be as ergonomic as possible. The bezel actually extends beyond the case slightly to allow for maximal view into the stunning amphitheater within. In the new Greubel Forsey, there is no longer a dial. Instead, the bridges of the movement serve this purpose. Like the 46.5mm case, the movement is crafted from grade 5 titanium, which creates a truly featherweight timepiece. At the same time, grade 5 titanium is notoriously one of the hardest materials to finish beautifully. But Greubel Forsey has, of course, spent the better part of the last 20 years perfecting the art form of hand finishing. The upper part of the diagonally oriented bridge has a hand applied frosted finish, which is one of the most painstaking and challenging processes in all horology. This bridge abruptly ends in a line stretching from nine to five o’clock, where it intersects with a titanium plane angled sharply at 30 degrees. On this, you’ll find the watch’s small seconds indicator and its beating heart, the massive 12.6mm in-house designed and made balance wheel, which is held in place by a stunningly architectural balance cock finished to a level of artistry that induces breathlessness. Visible also just beneath the free sprung balance’s oscillator and Breguet overcoil spiral are a mirror-polished escapement wheel and anchor, also similarly inclined at 30 degrees.
From across a table, you can make out the pulsations of this huge balance wheel, that are just barely cleared by the hour and minute hands when they pass over it, in what almost feels like a thrill-seeking game of chicken. The second thing you see is the extraordinary lithe V-shaped bridge that flows from either side of the four o’clock index to arch imperiously over the hand finished bridge below. This element, which first appeared in the 2019 GMT Sport, has become one of the key visual signatures for Greubel Forsey and it is, to me, a brilliant decision. The bridge, which retains the gear train powering the large curved titanium hands, is simply a masterpiece of hand finishing. Its base has a laterally brushed finish, and the artisans at Greubel Forsey have given the top surface a mirrored black polish.
Says Calce, “This is one of the hardest techniques to achieve, and, as the hand finishing team has explained to me, it is a process that cannot be rushed. They talk about the metal willing itself to be polished with patience.” Want more examples? Look at the mirror-polished countersinks for the pinions of the wheels. Or, for that matter, the wheels themselves, which have mirror-polished internal bevels. Or the stunning high polished gold chaton that retains the hour and minute hands.
These two elements, the 30-degree inclined balance wheel and cock, and the stunning V-shaped bridge charged with a Constantin Brâncuși-like sense of dynamic energy, are precisely what makes the Balancier Convexe S² so damn visually striking and totally unlike any other watch in the world. This is Calce laying down the fundamentals of Greubel Forsey’s new design language. He explains, “Every one of these elements comes from a part of our history — the V-bridge and the ovoid case from the GMT Sport launched in 2019, the balance wheel from the Signature 1, then the Balancier Contemporain, and then the Balancier S. The integrated titanium bracelet from the GMT Sport 2021. The idea was to select which ones would create the new visual identity of Greubel Forsey. Then, we also wanted to streamline and make the design language more elemental.
“For example, when developing this new watch, Robert and I were thinking about what we could change, and it came that the laser-engraved words from our ‘motto’ could be removed in order to make the design more pure in order for it to become our icon for the future. We made an effort to improve contrasts between surfaces to make the design of the watch really stand out. With the frosted baseplate, the V-bridge becomes super visible, so does the barrel cover which you can see turning when you wind the crown. At the same time, we made the power reserve indicator more subtle so you see just a red hand inside of a window between two and three o’clock. The bridges are polished on the top surfaces, then brushed on the sides to similarly create a powerful sense of architectural contrast. If I had to use one word to describe what we’re creating, it’s architecture. We are building the future architecture of our brand through an evolution of its existing design, and so far, people have responded very well.”
What Calce, of course, didn’t know was that between Dubai Watch Week last year and my visit to Greubel Forsey this year, I had been traveling extensively. And everywhere I went, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and London, people were starting to get excited about Greubel Forsey’s new identity, in particular as it was expressed by two models, the Balancier Convexe S² and the GMT Sport. But where did this design language and new identity come from? Says Calce, “We have been evolving towards this slowly over the last past years.”
Activating The Past To Define The Future
One of the things that first impressed me during last year’s Geneva Watch Days, when I saw Antonio Calce for the first time since he had taken the reins of Greubel Forsey, was what an astute student of the brand he had become. He explains, “I wanted my vision for the brand’s future to come from a place of real substance, a real appreciation for the values that had been established by Robert and Stephen over these last 18 years, even while understanding the need to push the story forward.”
The second thing I noticed was he was decidedly self-effacing despite the tremendous work he had done. While he was at other brands, I’ve seen him take a more forward-facing role as CEO. At Greubel Forsey, he has decided to go a different way. He shares, “The culture and authenticity of what we do at Greubel Forsey is so extraordinary that, for me, the brand has to be the star. Now that we have a new offering, we can really sense the momentum behind us.”
Calce is right. When I went to the manufacture a few months later, I could sense the palpable excitement in every department with where the brand is headed.
2019 GMT Sport
In 2019, Greubel Forsey created two watches that would serve to inspire Calce and his team’s design philosophy today and have a direct role in the creation of the Balancier Convexe S². The first is the incredible GMT Sport. Says Calce, “This watch represents a milestone for us, because it was the first truly ergonomic titanium high complications sports watch we made.” Significantly, it marks the introduction of the ovoid multi-part titanium case with its signature trilobe proprietary screws. It is also the first watch to introduce the incredible V-bridge for the hands and gear train that hovers over the dial and brings an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional architectural depth to the timepiece. Previous versions of the GMT showed the time on a small subdial that occupied the space on the upper right of the watch. The GMT Sport does away with the dial altogether and ushered in the era of fully transparent movement and time telling integration.
In this watch, you also have the first use of a full grade titanium movement, so that even with its massive three-dimensional globe representing earth, its second time zone indicator and its 24-second inclined tourbillon, the entire watch weighs only 115 grams — the equivalent of a Richard Mille RM 011, also with a full titanium case and titanium movement. This watch already showed Greubel Forsey’s serious tenth dan black belt ability with finishing in titanium. Check out how the lugs have a recessed area that is hand frosted.
Says Calce, “There were several elements that we considered to be iconic in this watch. The first is the V-shaped bridge that retains the stunning hand curved oversized luminous hands. This amazingly architectural innovation allows us to combine a totally openworked movement with large central hands without creating a cannon pinion in the center.”
2019 Balancier Contemporain
The second Greubel Forsey watch to emerge in 2019 that played an important role in the creation of the Balancier S2 is the Balancier Contemporain. This watch has the honor of being the brand’s smallest watch to date at 39.6mm in diameter and 12.6mm in height, as well as its first time-only watch made in series. At the heart of the Balancier Contemporain is, as its name implies, the extensive research that went into creating one of the world’s most efficient and visually stunning balance wheels. This element actually has its roots in a watch named Signature 1.
Says Calce, “This watch is significant because after all our research into high complications such as multiple-axis tourbillons, Robert wanted to create a timepiece that was elemental but still expressed all the codes of the brand. The layout of the balance wheel, small seconds, power reserve and time would set the stage for a powerful and exciting watch released the following year named the Balancier S.”
2020 Balancier S
Adds Calce, “Robert and I saw how sports watches had become one of the most dominant categories of timepieces, especially for new connoisseurs that were coming into the hobby. I had previously described this audience as fun, well-traveled, spontaneous with a love for cars, boats and sports. So it makes sense that they would naturally want to wear something with a rubber strap at the pool or beach or while skiing. The watch, while not as costly as the GMT Sport, could still have incredible visual presence on the wrist. The Balancier S was our way of creating a watch that fit the needs of this audience but with total integrity. Even if we are developing this new offering, it is important to highlight that we will continue to produce our signature timepieces that are part of our “Birth” pillar that encapsulates the ultra hi-end complicated timepieces with a predefined number of pieces created each year, for example the Grande Sonnerie, Hand Made 1, or the QP à Équation.”
Launched two years ago, the Balancier S represented the next logical step in the direction created the year before by the stunning GMT Sport, but in a very special time-only execution. The massive balance wheel from the Balancier Contemporain was now fitted at a 30-degree incline attached to the stunningly architectural balance cock. The V-bridge from the GMT Sport created a second thrilling architectural element, like the bridge of a starship projecting over the hand frosted baseplate of the movement below. Interestingly, the Balancier S used a similar format to the Balancier Contemporain in terms of small seconds, power reserve and time, but the effect was altogether different. While the watch launched the previous year was a perfectly finished and beautifully executed classic timepiece, the Balancier S was something altogether different. Clad in the extraordinary ergonomic ovoid case of the GMT Sport, and made entirely from titanium including its movement, the Balancier S was a Greubel Forsey for the future.
One new element was the barrel cover, laser-engraved, that turned when you wound the crown. Perhaps one signature Greubel Forsey design element was the bezel, which featured a laser engraving of the brand’s motto with key inspirational words like “savoir faire.” On the wrist at just over 100 grams, it was effortless to wear. In my opinion, because of the bridge that this watch represents between the brand’s past and the future, it will be highly collectible. If the opportunity arises to acquire one of the 18 pieces made, I wouldn’t hesitate.
2021 GMT Sport Integrated Bracelet
This brings us to 2021 and Geneva Watch Days, where I had the opportunity, after two years of the COVID pandemic, to finally meet Antonio Calce in the flesh. While I appreciated the efficiency of electronic communication, when it came to watches like Greubel Forsey’s where the internal surfaces of every gear wheel are masterfully finished, it is impossible to fully appreciate them from a distance. Similarly, Calce ,who has always been one of the warmest and most effusive CEOs in the business, needs to be experienced in reality, such is his dynamic energy that was fully on point, because he knew that he had enacted the perfect vision to bring Greubel Forsey into a thrilling and limitless future.
The first watch that I set eyes on and tried was the stunning GMT Sport, now with an integrated bracelet in titanium. While 40 thousand dollars seems like a significant amount of money for a bracelet, I had also never seen one that had received so much slavish hand finishing. Calce explains, “It is clear that integrated bracelet watches are the category of timepiece that is most popular and, of course, we had to react but in a way that was still very much Greubel Forsey. So if you look at the recesses in this element, you will see that the frosting which is executed on grade 5 titanium is done by hand.”
What was amazing about the addition of the bracelet to the signature ovoid 45mm case of the GMT Sport is that the watch instantly felt more balanced and, in some ways, more complete. It was tremendously comfortable and effortless to wear as well and wonderfully light, thanks to titanium being used for the movement, the case and the bracelet. Its presence on the wrist was absolutely staggering. It’s funny to me, but in deference to contemporary culture, it was clearly intended to be a kind of endgame timepiece that was about being the ultimate flex in the room. It’s the watch that, if you’re wearing it, everyone’s eyes will instantly be riveted to your wrist. But at the same time, because it’s a Greubel Forsey, it is also a masterpiece of technical innovation and ultra fine nuanced details in finish. It was basically the equivalent of a six-foot tall supermodel with a PHD from MIT who is also a Juilliard trained cellist. And this dichotomy makes the watch so singular and extraordinary.
The Future Awaits
Which brings us back full circle to the Balancier Convexe S². Full disclosure: Calce and his amazing team consisting of Head of Marketing Michel Nydegger and PR officer Mathilde Degen-Enz (together one of the best and nicest communications teams in the business) lent me the prototype of the Balancier Convexe S² for a month. The first thing I have to say is that I was blown away by how comfortable it is to wear on the rubber strap and even more so on the integrated bracelet, which comes with a fine adjuster in the clasp. This element is hugely important for Singapore where your wrist swells in the heat and then contracts in the cold of the air conditioning all day long. The second thing I have to report is, don’t buy this watch if you don’t want every person in your vicinity asking for a closer look, such is the power of its wrist presence. Singapore is, in some ways, the perfect Greubel Forsey market because its entire population is — if not watch collectors — watch enthusiasts. People laugh when they come here because it’s like entering an alternate reality where everyone, from the guy driving your Uber (it’s called Grab here) to the sushi chef, is rocking some piece of badass horological finery. Everywhere I went, people want to know more about the Balancier S2. Then, as I explain about the massive 12.6mm balance wheel and how it’s positioned at 30 degrees for better chronometric performance, they will reply, “Dude, that’s cool as hell.”
So here comes the elephant in the room. Everyone knows that Singapore is Richard Mille land. To be fair, Singapore is probably one of the few countries in the world where you can rock any Richard Mille you like and not get robbed. Seriously, in Singapore, you can take your Richard Mille off and use it as a place holder for your table at Starbucks — that’s how safe it is here. I’m not joking. So when I was wearing the Balancier Convexe S², of course, conversations and comparisons to Richard Mille soon emerged. As everyone knows, I have a very personal connection to Richard Mille. I love the man. I love his teams. I love the watches. And I love the brand. However, I will say that, for the first time, I’ve seen a brand in the same price category with an equally impactful, stunning and visually arresting sense of presence on the wrist backed by some truly amazing authenticity.
I would prefer not to compare the two brands or respond to the question, “Is Greubel Forsey poised to be a true Richard Mille competitor?” Honestly, what Richard has done to create the phenomenon that he has is probably inimitable. I will, however, go on record saying that Greubel Forsey is about to be huge. And I mean frickin’ huge. Meaning that even its older pieces will soon start rising in value, so strong will the demand for its modern watches be.
Very shortly, it will only be a question of getting access to the watches — that’s how good the new ones are.
By the time you read this, the Double Balancier Convexe — with its two 30-degree inclined balance wheels whose rates are averaged through a differential — will have been launched in the same ovoid titanium case and offered with an integrated bracelet. That is a watch so devastatingly stunning that I’ll go so far as to say that my life will not be complete until I own one. I had the pleasure to wear this extraordinary timepiece for the better part of an evening earlier this year, and it is seared indelibly into my mind. I close my eyes and see visions of it. I love it. And that is only the first of three watches that will launch this year, each more mind-blowingly cool than the previous. This is very much down to a man that’s just become one of the most dynamic and important leaders in the watch industry, my friend Antonio Calce.