The 21st Century is seeing a generation of master watchmakers grapple with their legacies, and for Greubel Forsey 2022 may mark the beginning of a new era. This is a year that fans and collectors of Greubel Forsey may want to understand and remain cognizant of well into the future.
The Winding-Down Of A Watchmaking Generation
It’s 2022, and a whole generation of high-end watchmakers are preparing themselves for the third trimester of life – a time perhaps not of retirement, but of winding down, if you will. As a career begins to wind down, good things often happen. A steady confidence takes command. Deeper self-knowledge fortifies foundational ideas. Long-range strategies emerge.
Consider George Daniels (1926-2011) who sold his Co-Axial Escapement to Omega in 1999, thus extending his legacy (and I presume his family’s financial well-being). A good result. Daniels was from an earlier generation than we’re considering here, however.
When I speak of this current generation of watchmakers, I’m thinking of independent eponymous companies like Phlippe Dufour (founded in 1992), Felix Baumgartner/Urwerk (c.1997), F.P. Journe (c.1999), Richard Mille (c.1999), and Kari Voutilainen (c. 2002), and of course Greubel Forsey (c.2004). Each of these master watchmakers came to prominence as supporters of other brands’ horological projects during the mechanical watch revival of the 1980s and 90s – a time when gaps in mechanical know-how borne of the 1970s Quartz Crisis provided major opportunities for these masters of mechanics. Eventually, each of these watchmakers set out to form an independent company in order to realize their unique horological vision. Here in the 2020s, as all face the inevitable winding down of their prolific and storied careers, each is developing some strategy to sustain their brand beyond their tenure. The classic founder’s dilemma.
In my meeting with Greubel Forsey’s team at The Horological Society in Manhattan in June of 2022, one of the first things I heard before being handed the Double Balancier Convexe was that Mr. Greubel and Mr. Forsey “are obviously not going to be quite as highly engaged as they grow older, so they’ve developed new strategies.” The founding duo has brought on a new CEO, Antonio Calce, and together they have decided to offer lower-priced models in higher quantities with the aim of sustaining the company indefinitely. This moment also marks the end of Richemont ownership and a return to fiscal independence for Greubel Forsey. 2022 is certainly a year of change for the firm.
Returning to financial independence will only improve brand credibility, but engaging in lower pricing and higher production numbers is a potentially dodgy enterprise for a company like Greubel Forsey, which has built its reputation over the past two decades by offering very limited quantities at sky-high prices to elite collectors. But let’s keep in mind that for Greubel Forsey an increase in production means that the company will for the first time crest above 200 watches per year in 2022, and that these less-expensive models will cost around $300,000 US. This is far from unbridled expansion or unchecked inclusivity. The finger is still in the dyke, and intentionally so.
And yet these changes may impact the psychology of some elite collectors – even if the quality of the watches remains identical (all components will remain 100% hand-polished, for example). It’s arguable that this slight paradigm shift will create a line dividing two eras of Greubel Forsey – one before and one after Antonio Calce came on as CEO in 2022. This new era is inevitable for any brand with plans to carry on after the founders have departed, and clients almost always look to the products themselves to judge whether the transition was a successful.
And so we see that the winding down is, in practice, more of a winding up. Calce has written that “Our aim is not, then, to take a different direction, but rather to go further still. We’re working on changes to our offering, as well as on a new overarching strategy, ensuring that Greubel Forsey puts down roots that will endure the test of time.”
Calce is pointing to a new paradigm which is encapsulated in the release of the Double Balancier Convexe, a new entry-level Greubel Forsey model.
To Distill An Horological Ethos Into An Entry-Level Watch
How does a high-end brand create a more accessible product without jeopardizing its established reputation? This is a problem – rather a set of problems – that any haute house must face when presenting a less expensive, entry-level product for the first time.
The problems to solve are: How do we distinguish the entry-level offering from the other offerings? How do we make sure it doesn’t dilute our brand? How do we reduce price? How do we justify the more expensive stuff in the face of inexpensive options? How do we not alienate our existing clientele? Solving all of these problems with a single product is not easy, and that first entry-level release can set the tone for years to come.
Greubel Forsey’s solution is the Double Balancier Convexe. I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, and in my estimation the Double Balancier Convexe manages to solve all the problems of an entry-level release. I’m rather impressed, frankly, at how well they’ve pulled this off, and it has me wondering if the Double Balancier Convexe might become significant – even collectible – precisely because it is the watch that marks this transition between eras for the firm.
How to distinguish the entry-level product from the other offerings?
Simple answer: smaller size and lower price.
At 43.5mm this watch is considerably smaller than most Greuble Forsey models housing their Double Balancier mechanism. The curved smaller case makes the watch infinitely more wearable, which is going to be appealing to those clients who may not be studious collectors looking to lock it up in a safe, but who want to wear it out and about. An everyday wearable Greubel Forsey? – that alone constitutes a paradigm shift.
Both I and my horological cohort John Drenning were blown away by how comfortable the Double Balancier Convexe was on our wrists. The curved lightweight titanium case is a big factor, of course. I suspect that the bracelet links are hollow, as well, but we’ve yet to get confirmation on that detail.
To give a sense of the fit, think of a large-ish dive watch, and you’re more or less there. The Double Balancier Is 43.5mm across by just 13.75mm high – the latter a remarkable figure when you consider the movement inside (more on this below).
As for price, we’re looking at the most affordable Greubel Forsey at around $300,000 as of this writing. In a sense this was Ferrari’s approach – none are inexpensive, but there are still obvious entry-level models at considerably lower prices. The solution worked for Ferrari, garnering the brand wider financial footing while maintaining elite exclusivity.
How to avoid diluting the brand?
Simple answer: put the focus on a signature technology.
The Double Balancier mechanism itself was patented in 2007 and first executed as a dual tourbillon with the balances inclined at 20°. In 2012 Greubel Forsey introduced a non-tourbillon version called the Double Balancier 35°, obviously with more steeply inclined balances at 35°. In 2016, the two escapements were inclined at 30°, placed at great distance from each other within the movement, and coupled via a spherical differential that averages the timing of the two. That is the basic architecture on view within the Double Balancier Convexe.
This double balance mechanism is, I think, a representative distillation of the mechanical ideas behind a great many of Greubel Forsey’s watches over the past two decades. There has been an emphasis on improved isochronism when the watch is stationary, which is best handled by a tourbillon, but the inclined balances also contribute by assuring that gravity is never pulling at right angles whether the watch is sitting flat, on its side, or even on its face – the most common resting positions for a wrist watch.
How to reduce price?
Simple answer: non-precious metals and non-tourbillon balances.
Titanium is becoming the focal point of Greubel Forsey, which is moving away from precious metals and animal leathers – presumably with an eye toward sustainability, another mark of Swiss watchmaking in the 2020s.
Building out the standard balance technologies when compared to dual tourbillons is an obvious way to save money – largely by shortening the labor hours required to produce tourbillons.
How to justify the more expensive stuff once the entry-level model is out?
Sometimes the entry-level product is just so good that it becomes the most desirable thing. Car companies have been subject to this odd phenomenon: Higher-end products lose cache as “those in the know” show off the entry-level product as the smarter purchase. Analysts started calling this The New Luxury sometime during the 2010s.
I don’t think Gruebel Forsey is at any risk of that happening here with the Double Balancier Convexe, partly because their tourbillon-equipped timepieces will remain closer to the true core of the brand’s ethos, and partly because of the higher production numbers of the Double Balancier Convexe. In the end, relative rarity has always been important in the value of watches, and I can’t see that changing.
Greuble Forsey will produce only 66 of the Double Balancier Convexe, with 22 produced each year between 2022 and 2024.
How to not alienate existing clientele?
Simple answer: never insult them.
This is the only question to which I don’t have a solid answer, and only a fortune teller could.
However, when watch companies produce such limited numbers, the brand tends to nurture a lasting direct relationship with its small cast of clients. That relationship can be immeasurably valuable to these clients, and I’d wager that no single watch release could tarnish it. But even a subtle change could. I know people who turned away from Patek Philippe when new leadership enlarged the logo on the dials – a seemingly insignificant thing, and yet palpable to those who were intimately attached to a certain idea of Patek.
Whether Greubel Forsey’s clientele for the Double Balancier Convexe will be new folks wanting a more wearable watch and unconcerned with owning a less rare timepiece remains to be seen, but the possibility is certainly there now. My cohort David Flett suggested that the Double Balancier Convexe would likely sell to existing collectors who simply want a more wearable watch.
However, rather than play fortune teller, I simply offer up 2022 as a moment for any Greubel Forsey collector to understand as one in which slight tectonic shifts were afoot, and that these shifts may ultimately impact collectability far into the future.