Officially launched at the SIHH 2012, Le Garde Temps, Naissance d'une Montre is a project designed to safeguard traditional watchmaking skills and techniques and to ensure that they are passed down to future generations. One year on, the theory is giving way to the practicalities of making a watch entirely by hand.
Some years ago, three of the greatest names in contemporary watchmaking - Stephen Forsey, Robert Greubel (who between them make up Greubel Forsey) and Philippe Dufour - came together, united by a common aim. As Forsey explains: "We all realised that the practice and knowledge of many traditional watchmaking techniques, and hand craftsmanship in general, was sinking into oblivion and being replaced by industrial production."
Forsey, Boulanger and Dufour get to grips with traditional tools.
The three share a belief in the spirit of openness - something that has not always been exhibited in their profession - and a desire to share the skills and knowledge they have accumulated. And it is for this reason that Le Garde Temps, Naissance d'une Montre (The Guardian of Time, Birth of a Watch) was born - a project aimed at preserving, perpetuating and sharing traditional watchmaking expertise for future generations. "We are taking direct action," continues Forsey, "by initiating a project involving the creation of a wristwatch - from the first sketches to the final timepiece, using only traditional and ancestral techniques."
Grateful for the fact that they were given access to a wealth of experience from masters of the past, both Forsey and Greubel decided that it was their "responsibility" to share the combined knowledge that they have accumulated. Philippe Dufour, a friend and colleague since meeting Forsey and Greubel while creating Time aeon (an alliance of independent watchmakers established with the express purpose of safeguarding traditional horological skills and knowledge) was also keen to be associated with Le Garde Temps and says of his involvement in the project: "All three of us consider watchmaking as an art in itself and we all strive for excellence in our own way.
Stephen Forsey, Robert Greubel and Philippe Dufour.
"[We] learnt our craft from three different masters and we believe that we have a moral duty to pass on what we have learnt. Imagine the melting pot of horological knowledge you get from three different watchmakers from three different backgrounds and cultures: a Frenchman from Alsace, an Englishman from north London and a Swiss from La Vallée de Joux."
Reiterating the purpose of the project, Greubel adds: "Our goal is to go ever further in safeguarding traditional watchmaking skills and techniques and everything we have done to date is with that goal in mind. The three of us have the strong desire to save and share tradition and this is what brought us together to channel our efforts to save as much knowledge as we can."
Man versus machine
And while our three protagonists understand that the industry needs proficient operators, as well as fully fledged watchmakers, they also have the vision to see that without something like Le Garde Temps, the loss and eventual extinction of traditional skills will continue unabated. Forsey takes up the story: "Progress has shown us that many machine-made operations are not capable of achieving the result reflected through hand-finishing. For example, when you have to polish internal and external sharp angles, machines are unable to do this; you need the human skill and dexterity. A wristwatch with the highest standard of decoration, from the inside to the outside, is not only a pleasure for the eyes, but a really extraordinary achievement."
Michel Boulanger practices his art.
According to Dufour the erosion of watchmaking skills is nothing unusual, making comparison to the losses in many other traditional professions like carpentry, locksmithing and plumbing. But, he argues, just as a piano virtuoso always runs through the scales before a concert, a watchmaking apprentice who has sweated while machining his own pinion will remember that feeling each time he handles a balance and will treat components with the respect they deserve.
Forsey laments that a watchmaker's training used to include all the different aspects of making components and finishing them. And, adds Greubel, whereas it may not be necessary for everything to be taught in watchmaking schools today, more books and accessible information on basic skills such as using a file and machining components by hand would certainly be advantageous. "We might consider treating handmade, traditional watchmaking as a specialisation as the restoration of antique clocks and watches is taught now," he suggests. The important thing for Greubel et al, however, is that there is at least someone out there who still understands the processes and is able to pass on this knowledge to interested apprentices.
The chosen one
And that is where these three great watchmakers came in. Keen to pass on their skills, the only job left was to find the right student - a guardian with the passion and talent to learn and pass the craft on. The perfect candidate came in the form of watchmaker, restorer and teacher, Michel Boulanger. Already pre-disposed to help transmit the knowledge more widely thanks to his position at the Paris Watchmaking School, his three mentors also had to be sure that he has what it takes to complete the project - intellectually, physically and mentally.
Sketch of the watch it is hoped Boulanger will create showing concentric dials and large tourbillon at 6 o'clock.
For his part Boulanger says: "When men like Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey proposed the idea I was immediately assured of the project's credibility. And when a watchmaker of the calibre of Philippe Dufour was added to the team, it became a very big adventure that was impossible to refuse.
"I did know about some (but not all) of the skills and tools needed, as there are wonderful books around that explain in detail. However, you cannot gain everything from a book - you need to learn the practicalities of how to use the tools correctly. I am getting to meet people with intimate knowledge of these old machines because they have used them extensively in the past - and in some cases are still using them today. This knowledge is absolutely vital and should not be lost."
The project will last three to four years in total, during which time Boulanger will take time out of teaching to learn step-by-step how to create a completely handcrafted wristwatch. The process will cover everything from pencil sketches, how to use and set up traditional tools in order to obtain the best results and quality, how to calculate the position of the gear train and so on. In full he will master 500-year old techniques accross 30 disciplines, all of which are required to make a complete watch.
Dufour is keen to stress that this process is not a finite one and that a watchmaker never stops learning. Boulanger is highly motivated, passionate and responsive - all of which bode well for a lifetime of learning.To which Greubel adds: "We will be available for Michel if needed, well after the project has finished."
The balance wheel and Swiss lever escapement.
And so to the outcome of the project - one watch (made in a limited series) featuring a mechanical hand-wound movement. The timepiece will first and foremost bear testimony to the successful acquisition of traditional knowledge by Boulanger. It will offer the classical purity of a three-handed watch combined with the complexity of a tourbillon and will be a testament to the acquired skills.
Boulanger expands: "The timepiece will indicate hours, minutes and seconds on concentric dials with much of the movement visible from the dial side. The movement will feature a large diameter tourbillon and a free escapement beating at a traditional 18,000 vph/2.5Hz. The whole timepiece must be irreproachable. All components down to the smallest screws and pinions will be given equal importance and will be treated with the utmost respect in reference to traditional fine watchmaking."
But will three years be long enough to soak up all the required knowledge? "You will have to ask me that question again after 31 August 2014, as I do not have enough perspective on the whole adventure as yet to be able to respond. Currently the theoretical part of the project is nearly finished. We are now at the manufacturing of components stage. For the moment my energy is focused on the project and mastering what I am learning. However, when this adventure is finished I will return to my job as a watchmaking teacher and hopefully pass on what I have learnt."
The barrel with its cover.
Forsey, too, is clear about the long-term goal of the project. "Rather than just complaining about how horological culture is disappearing, our desire is to preserve and perpetuate over 500-years of watchmaking tradition, which will be the basis of the innovations of tomorrow. We believe that our duty is to transmit what we have learned from our elders and Michel is the perfect 'student' to absorb this. His mission will be to transmit his passion for this art and the skills acquired to new and future watchmakers. The process should have no secrets and I hope that others will understand our initiative."
"We are already thinking after Michel," adds Greubel. "It is too soon to decide if, or how, we might renew this adventure but whatever we decide, after this project finishes, Michel will transmit what he has learnt in the process of creating a watch by hand to the next generation of watchmakers."
For those keen to follow the mission, it is being carefully documented by a specially chosen 'virtual blogger' known as Nicholas Maillechort. Maillechort, who is documenting all the steps of the process, is not a watchmaker as the team wanted people to discover the project from a distance. As well as a film of the whole procedure and 3D video specific to certain methods or tools that are used, the blog allows those interested to follow - in real time - all the stages. "Communication is critically important to us to both raise awareness and transmit knowledge," says Greubel. "Sharing this amazing adventure with the public by means of the blog helps transmit our passion and may even awaken the idea of watchmaking as a vocation in some."
Whether due to the blog or not, it would seem that the passion has already been transmitted to a certain core group. Although a non-commercial project, the team has had strong interest from collectors who have been following the initiative from the outset and are eager to get their hands on one of the few pieces set to be made. We can only hope that one is kept back and stored for future posterity in the same way as the project hopes to preserve the traditions of the past.
Further information: www.legardetemps-nm.org