Quadruple Tourbillon: An Accomplishment For An Ancient Art

Imagine a wristwatch that costs $815,000. Imagine a wristwatch that costs $815,000 and contains no diamonds or precious jewels. Imagine a wristwatch that costs $815,000, contains no diamonds, but in some alternate universe of watch geekery may even be considered, yes, a bargain.

The watch is question is the Greubel Forsey Quadruple Tourbillon, of which there are four models.

The Quadruple Tourbillon is not only the signature watch of Greubel Forsey, one of the world’s most exclusive watchmakers, based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, it is also one of the rarest current-production timepieces. The tiny company, founded in 2004, produces only five or six Quadruple Tourbillons a year.

Even so, how does a single watch command the price of about 100 Rolex Submariners, or maybe 10,000 Casio G-Shocks (not to mention a five-bedroom house in certain New Jersey suburbs).

I recently spoke to the company co-founder Stephen Forsey to find out why the watch costs so much. The answer begins with its engineering.

To translate, a tourbillon is a tiny rotating mechanical cage, available in only the finest mechanical timepieces, that helps the watch combat the effects of gravity and deliver better time.

Putting four (or, technically, two sets of two) into a single watch to smooth out even the tiniest fluctuations is unprecedented, Mr. Forsey said.

The result is a performance gain that may seem infinitesimal to an outsider (the watch’s accuracy is designed to vary by less than 2.5 seconds over the course of a day), but is a landmark achievement in the world of mechanical watches. Compare the Quadruple Tourbillon to many Swiss chronometers, which vary by a maximum of 10 seconds over the course of a day.

From a technical standpoint, the Quadruple Tourbillon is about “refusing to accept that everything had been achieved in terms of the mechanical watch,” Mr. Forsey said.

But the engineering is just part of the story.

The Quadruple Tourbillon comprises 534 components, which range in size from the 43.5-millimeter case to a microscopic screw with a thread that measures just 0.35 of a millimeter. And unlike many Swiss watches, even at the high end, many of the components are finished by hand to achieve subtle improvements in shape and texture.

This is the primary reason that each watch takes nearly one year’s worth of man-hours to produce, Mr. Forsey said.

“If you look at the piece one foot away, without any magnifying glass, then you would not be able to discern the level of hand finish versus a machine-made watch,” said Mr. Forsey, 48. “Even a specialist would have difficulty.”

“But as soon as you’re closer than that, then the whole thing changes,” he added. “You can imagine a fine oil painting, some of the best realism paintings there are. Initially you might think it’s a photograph, but as you get closer you will see the texture, the skill of the expert.”

Even a seemingly pedestrian part like the barrel bridge (a half-moon-shaped component that is visible through the Quadruple Tourbillon’s clear sapphire caseback) requires 15 hours of hand-beveling with a wooden wedge-shaped boxwood polishing stick a fraction of the diameter of a pencil, tipped with diamond paste, to give the surface the desired polish.

The value, in other words, goes well beyond the gold (several ounces) in the case or the black alligator strap with the hand-engraved gold clasp, Mr. Forsey said.

And this, in the end, may be the most compelling explanation for the extraordinary cost of the Quadruple Tourbillon: scarcity — not just of the watches themselves, but of the human capital required to make them.

Of the 100 or so people Mr. Forsey and his partner, Robert Greubel, employ to produce a total of about 100 watches a year in various models, 18 are not technically watchmakers at all, but specialists in hand-finishing.

“It’s taken us 11 years to build a team of 18 people,” Mr. Forsey said. “At the beginning, we had to start with people that we could find. There were just two or three in Switzerland who could do some of the parts.”

Another way of looking at it: To invest in a Quadruple Tourbillon is, at least for the watch aficionado with very deep pockets, a Medici-like act of patronage to support an art that is largely lost.

“If we wanted to double our production, we’d need another 18 people to do the hand-finishing, which is impossible,” Mr. Forsey said. “They do not exist.”

Via The New York Times: “Why Does This Watch Cost $815,000?”

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