For any fully signed-up watch aficionado, a visit to a watch factory in Switzerland really is a golden-ticket moment — especially when you’re donning a cleansuit and elasticated shoe mitts bearing the logos of such distinguished brands as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet.
But, writes the respected international watch writer Alex Doak, until your tour ventures into the hallowed ateliers proper, where the world’s finest watchmakers tweezer-together flawlessly hand-polished components, the chances are you’ll start in a room resembling the bowels of an ocean liner. It’s in these machining rooms that rank upon rank of hulking, computer-controlled milling machines steadily churn out stacks of identical, ‘rough’ components, day and night. What separates the brands, to a greater or lesser degree, is how much finish is applied downstream and how many components are wrestled into each watch.
Click to play: La naissance d’une montre: An introduction to the project, and a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process
It has been increasingly the case since the late 19th century, when American industrial methods first crept over the Pond and into the Jura mountains. And now, with greater automation, the ability to programme a five-axis CNC machine has become more valuable than making a wheel with nothing but a hand-operated lathe.
Thankfully, the gradual erosion to the point of near-extinction of the crafts that underpin the Swiss industry’s heritage has not gone unnoticed and six years ago ‘the grandmaster of finish’ Philippe Dufour, and multi-axis-tourbillon maestros Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel decided to take things into their own hands.
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Offered in the Important Watches sale in Hong Kong on 30 May
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This year, their collaborative teaching project, named Le Garde Temps — Naissance d’une Montre has finally born fruit, and Christie’s has the honour of auctioning its very first watch — with proceeds from the sale contributing to the further development and progression of the Naissance d'une Montre project.
This watch is as much about the future as it is about the past. It exemplifies the beauty of traditional handmade workmanship combined with the technical know-how that has been learned from generations of watchmaking.
Alex Doak caught up with the principal players to find out more.
Michel Boulanger, a French watchmaking teacher at the Diderot vocational training college in Paris, was chosen by Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey and Philippe Dufour, all members of the Time Aeon Foundation, to put the techniques learned into practice by creating a timepiece by hand using traditional tools, such as the uprighting tool, the hand-mandrel lathe and the topping tool
What was the ‘critical mass’ that led you to to initiate Le Garde Temps?
Stephen Forsey: Robert and I are really the last generation of watchmakers who received proper training, before mechanisation took over nearly all of the manufacturing processes.
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Read about Le Garde Temps on Hodinkee
I remember a particular moment in class at Hackney, where the UK’s old watchmaking school was. It was the Eighties, when quartz and digital technology had (temporarily) ruined the traditional Swiss industry, and a teacher asked us the question, with his dry humour: ‘Now, you seem like an intelligent bunch of young men. Why on earth would you want to do an outmoded thing like watchmaking?’
Robert found it in France too, and Philippe the same in Switzerland. Philippe has been a staunch defender of hand-finish for 30 years, but really struggled to find the skills when he tried to build a team.
Robert Greubel: We realised that due to the widespread use of industrial methods, an entire heritage of knowledge and techniques would disappear. So we decided to join forces and transmit our expertise to a young watchmaker by creating a complicated mechanical timepiece.
What made Michel the perfect student for this project was that he was really interested in learning the traditional techniques and knowledge
Were there many candidates, and how did you find your man?
Stephen Forsey: There are a lot of young people out there with the ‘fire’ burning inside them, and there were a lot who were interested in the Le Garde Temps — Naissance d’une Montre project, but we soon realised most of them just wanted to become independent watchmakers. We wanted it to develop into a school, rather than a business, to spread the learning to a wider audience.
Robert Greubel: I first met our successful candidate, Michel Boulanger, in the Eighties when he was studying at L’école d’horlogerie d’Anet. His father had an atelier where I used to go to work on my own projects. Michel had been teaching watchmaking in Paris since 1997, when I called him up in the summer of 2010 with our proposal.
What marked out Michel as the ideal student?
Robert Greubel: What made Michel the perfect student for this project was that he was really interested in learning the traditional techniques and knowledge. Furthermore, Michel is a teacher, so would have the opportunity within his job to pass on what he learned to his students.
Stephen Forsey: Michel had the right qualities and baggage. The ideal candidate needed not only the basic skills on paper, but we had to be sure he would finish the project. Sure enough, he took a full sabbatical from his job.
Thanks to the regular round-trips between Switzerland and his workshop in the Beauce region to the south-west of Paris, and working within the framework of a six-year project, Boulanger embarked upon the creation of an exceptional timepiece
How did the three of you divide up the teaching responsibilities?
Robert Greubel: Every month Michel came to La Chaux-de-Fonds for a week to expand his knowledge from Stephen and me, as well as the other watchmakers practising at Greubel Forsey. Philippe Dufour helped with the mechanism and the balance spring.
Stephen Forsey: Robert would give Michel that little bit of a boost when necessary, too. Because we’d committed time and budget to this project, mostly to the cost of Greubel Forsey, he needed to see it the whole thing through. It’s been a fantastic adventure
What was the hardest part of the watch to perfect?
Robert Greubel: Without any doubt the micron tolerance. The micron is just one thousandth of a millimetre and is extremely difficult to master while making and polishing the smallest parts.
What has been the biggest challenge of the tutoring process?
Stephen Forsey: Michel also had ‘his own ideas’ at the start, which made things complicated! But to learn properly, you sometimes just need to make mistakes yourself.
Michel Boulanger: There were no major challenges in the tutoring process; the main challenge was the technical and aesthetical design, the parts manufacturing, the decoration and assembly and the final adjustments. The challenge is to start with the raw material such as brass, nickel silver, steel and then create complex parts using a traditional hand-operated lathe, jig borer, face lathe, pivot polishing tool.
This watch has a very avant-garde, architectural design, like a Greubel Forsey, but are the underlying principles traditional?
Robert Greubel: Yes. The timepiece is a circular wristwatch of pure design, driven by a manually wound movement with a three-handed display, and with a large tourbillon mechanism following the great traditions of 19th century watchmakers — in particular, Jacques-Frédéric Houriet and Abraham-Louis Breguet.
Greubel Forsey, Philippe Dufour and Michel Boulanger. An exceptional, extremely rare and very fine 18k white gold semi-skeletonised tourbillon prototype wristwatch Unadorned Pièce-école. Handcrafted timepiece with three hands and tourbillon. Diameter of timepiece: 45 mm. Total height of timepiece: 15.1 mm. Frequency: 2.5 Hz (18,000 vibrations per hour). Blued steel hands. Case in white gold. Hand-sewn strap. Tang buckle. Estimate: On request. This watch is offered in the Important Watches sale on 30 May at Christie's Hong Kong
Now the prototype is complete, how will Michel pass the skills and knowledge further downstream?
Robert Greubel: Since we initiated the project six years ago, Michel has been a teacher-turned pupil. He’s been a teacher in France and the idea is that he’ll now transmit his new skills and knowledge to his pupils, and secure them for future generations of watchmakers.
Stephen Forsey: Beyond the teacher-student relation, we’ve also invested in an online platform to explain and spread the word. We’ve also filmed hours and hours of footage depicting the techniques and processes, all freely available to students and watchmakers on YouTube. This has been a big part of the project — to create an archive. Compare that to when I was at school in Hackney; I had just two textbooks — George Daniels’ Watchmaking and F.J. Britten’s Watch and Clockmakers’ Handbook — and the last one dates from 1880!
Michel has obviously learned a lot since 2012, but what about you, Robert and Stephen?
Robert Greubel: We learn something every day as watchmakers; there are so many forgotten and lost techniques to revive and re-discover. It has really reinforced our commitment to safeguard these traditions. Thanks to the project, the rest of the watch community is now much more sensitive to the loss of traditional skills too.
Stephen Forsey: We’ve also learned a lot about how difficult it is to gain leverage! However, a good number of the 11 pieces have been firmly committed to, which is brilliant. Hopefully, Michel will remain active and pass on his skills, but it’s fragile — there’s so much resting on his shoulders. It has been a fantastic adventure to exchange with him, however, and also to work more closely with Philippe.
This isn’t just about hand-finishing parts, it’s about making those parts entirely by hand
Michel, how are you taking this ‘adventure’ onwards?
Michel Boulanger: Now that the prototype is almost finished, I need to reinforce these skills by re-doing all of the different steps. This will happen naturally because there will be 11 properly decorated timepieces to make!
Stephen Forsey: It should be known that without our sponsors and partners, we really couldn't have come this far, let alone finally presented a finished ‘decorated’ watch this year. We're especially grateful to Christie's for their support and agreeing to auction the School Watch on 30 May in Hong Kong. Finally getting this recognition has been such an important step forward.
The first working prototype of ‘La naissance d’une montre’
Why do you think the project has suddenly gained this (clearly well deserved!) support?
Stephen Forsey: Well, we hoped for more partners quicker. But right from the start, we experienced difficulty in getting people to understand what this was all about. It is only recently have they realised this isn’t just about hand-finishing parts, it’s about making those parts entirely by hand in the first place. Fortunately, we remain better watchmakers than communicators!
The Naissance d’une Montre School Watch will be auctioned at Christie’s Hong Kong on 30 May. Estimate: $450,000-650,000. The other 11 ‘Decorated’ watches will also retail for SFr.450,000. For more information: legardetemps-nm.org
Main image at top: The challenge was to start with the raw material such as brass, nickel silver, steel and then create complex parts using a traditional hand-operated lathe, jig borer, face lathe and pivot polishing tool
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