The idea of trends in watchmaking can be a funny one. Development cycles being what they are, and corporate secrecy being what it is, brands will deny to the hilt that any new swiss mens watch they produce was made with any awareness of what anyone else was doing.
But nevertheless, trends do happen. Similar watches emerge at similar times, whether its because the market is demanding something particular (smaller case sizes, for example), or perhaps because of a certain development or breakthrough in manufacturing.
Since the early 2000s, a number of brands had begun to experiment with sapphire components within movements, and non-standard crystals on the watch face. The idea of casing a watch entirely in solid sapphire crystal first saw the light of day in 2012, when Richard Mille released the RM 056. For nearly four years it looked like Richard Mille would be the only ones to repeat the trick, with the RM 56-01 and RM 56-02. Then in 2015 we began to see a few more. H. Moser & Cie made a piece unique in sapphire that was on show at Baselworld, and over the next 12 months others started to surface, including watches by MB&F, Rebellion and Bell & Ross.
The real “moment” for sapphire watchmaking came in January 2016 when Hublot revealed it would be making a Big Bang Unico Sapphire, and retailing it at £43,600 – about a 30th of the price of a RM 56-01. Sapphire was here to stay.
At this point, you would still view the story as quite predictable. Avant-garde brands doing avant-garde things. And then we happened to hear that Greubel Forsey – Greubel Forsey? Protectors of the most traditional horological skills? Architects of some of the most faithfully purist watchmaking anywhere in the world? – were stepping into this arena.
The results of casing a watch in solid sapphire don’t necessarily appeal to everybody. For example, while we were talking with Stephen Forsey about the extreme difficulty of making complex shapes at the ridiculously fine tolerances demanded by sapphire, the owner of the boutique we happened to be in (who has a warm and long-standing relationship with Greubel Forsey) popped in and said “Ah! The plastic watch!”
But one thing is for certain: if it’s good enough for Greubel Forsey Watches, then it’s good enough for us. So let’s hear what Stephen had to say about it.
QP: “First things first – why sapphire?”
Stephen Forsey: “Well, this is something collectors have wanted. The US team had been asking for a special piece for a while now, so we made this for them. But it goes further than that; in many ways the piece is the culmination of the original idea [behind the DT30 “Technical” collection] – that of making a highly visible movement. The sapphire case shows more than we’ve ever been able to before.
It’s also not as new to us as you might think: the quad tourbillon in 2008 had two sapphire bridges – and people don’t realise that they were a lot more 3D than they appeared. They were shaped like hats with their tops cut off, if you like.”
QP: “Sapphire behaves very differently from any other case material. Were you forced to make compromises on its construction?”
SF: “We could have simplified the case, but we didn’t. We wanted to keep those kickback lugs and all the details of the original case shape. Normally the case design calls for detachable lugs, but here it’s a monobloc construction. We could have done it in separate pieces, and it might have been easier too, but we wanted as few joins as possible.
The technical side of the case design does need a re-think though; The wall thickness has to get thicker, and there are some things you just can’t do in sapphire. The bezel can’t be threaded, for instance, so it has bolts rather than screws, sandwiching it together. On the other hand, there are things you can do differently – the top crystal is incorporated into the bezel, and the display caseback is one piece as well.
I feel sorry for the watchmaker who has to assemble it, because there’s no flexibility to it whatsoever. Metal always has a tiny bit of give to it, but with sapphire there’s none. It has to spot on down to an infinitesimal level.”
QP: “At 49.5mm across, it’s not a small watch. Was that an unavoidable effect of working with sapphire?”
SF: “Yes – the watch has become 2mm wider as a result of the tweaks. I was concerned it would be too big, it’s true – but we made a composite case as a dummy to see how the size felt, and the fortunate thing is that as it’s transparent, it doesn’t look as big as it is. The bezel is about 44mm across, and that feels like the real diameter.”
QP: “What else has changed, beyond the obvious?”
SF: “There are other changes to the watch that follow on from the change to sapphire – things that aren’t immediately obvious. Winding the watch is more supple, smoother than before. The reason for that is that with the redesigned sapphire crown, you need less purchase, less torque.
Elsewhere, we’ve introduced a couple of other new details – the lacquered red number 12, for instance. And because we’ve changed the case to sapphire, we’ve made quite a unique strap, with our philosophy written on the inside [normally found engraved on the caseband of the Double Tourbillon 30].”
QP: “Let’s talk about availability. What would we have to do to get hold of one?”
SF: “For now there will be eight pieces for the US, and then we’ll see about doing more around the world. In terms of price, currency variations mean I don’t want to quote an exact figure, but it’s in the low seven figures in dollars – a little over $1m.”