You may have noticed it, I was absent from the horological web in 2014, as I was writing chronicles about the NM adventure: http://www.legardetemps-nm.org/
Le Garde-temps, la Naissance d’une Montre is aiming to safeguard and transmit traditional know how.
It has started a few years back, almost by accident, in a discussion between Robert Greubel, Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen & Vianney Halter. As they were exchanging views, they realised the full extent of the erosion of know how…
The main reasons for this lie in the different crises of watchmaking industry, especially that “of quartz” and the progressive robotization of industry by means of numerical controls. The leavings, the deaths and the race for profits were the primary vehicles.
Aware of that problem, and facing the industry’s relative indifference, Robert Greubel decided to take the bull by the horns, initiating a preservation of know how project, on the modest scale of Greubel Forsey. The best way to tranfer knowledge is to have some teaching skills, and it’s even better to actually be a teacher.
So, in July 2010, Robert contacted a long-time friend: Michel Boulanger. The latter, motivated by learning, moved back to his workshop in Chartres, France, to teach in Paris. They had been considering collaboration for a long time, and this was a godsend for Michel. In order to stimulate his creativity, Robert asked him to think about a project that would reflect his vision of transmission.
Robert suggested Michel create a watch from start to finish, using traditional tehniques called “conventional” that would allow him to become a learner again.
Cover picture, Robert & Michel @ the SIHH
That also meant that Michel couldn’t use any numerical control machine. the whole production had to be either done by hand with the appropriate tool, or with a lathe or a milling machine. However, the design stage had to be run on a computer.
The intellectual maturation phase of the project had been quite long before the selection of the tool was made. During this phase, Michel presented some ambitious projects, perhaps too much, as he wasn’t yet aware of the inherent constraints.
Indeed, La Naissance d’une Montre is one of the rare pieces produced on the basis of a brand new designing, which means that the mechanism was born from the imagination of Michel and developed by the NM team rather than being the copy of an existing calibre.
During that phase, Robert decided on two major aspects: le Garde-temps has to be a simple watch (HMS) with a traditional tourbillon, and Philippe Dufour must be one of Michel’s teachers.
Now that the stage is set, and before Michel tells you about the first years of the adventure, here’s a brief overview of the main players:
Robert Greubel : although relatively unknown to the general public, he’s the conductor of Greubel Forsey. In the middle of the 90’s, he founded CompliTime with Stephen. Then they commercialized their first invention, le Double Tourbillon 30°, in their own names as no brand wanted it… The verdict of the collectors spoke: in only ten years, GF got tremendously succesful and the brand positioned itself at the pinnacle of modern watchmaking…
Robert is the project manager of NM, he allows the members of the adventure to push back their personal limits.
Robert examining le Garde-temps at the SIHH
Stephen Forsey : he’s Robert’s partner and also the ambassador of GF and NM. During the long conception phases, he intervened to validate the main technical orientations. He started watchmaking early on, in the family workshop. Using pieces of meccano, he validated the technical concept of the Double Tourbillon 30°.
Stephen & Robert at Philippe Dufour’s birthday
Philippe Dufour : the master Yoda of watchmaking. In Japan, “ “a living national treasure”. He is so cult down there that he’s even portrayed in a school manual in the form of a manga.
His knowledge is as vast as his hand is sure, and even excellent watchmakers such as Didier Cretin can hardly keep up. This is the failure of Philippe, he hasn’t been flexible enough with his apprentices to transfer them all of his expertise. As Master Yoda, Philippe isn’t a whiz at teaching, but everything has changed with his Padawan Obi-Wan Boulanger.
Philippe in the swirling pipe smoke
Didier Cretin : a few years back, prior to working for GF, I have had the opportunity to meet Didier. We had spent over an hour talking about watchmaking. Didier is an enthusiast who have worked for the most prestigious watchmaking houses, Breguet, Audemars Piguet, Philippe Dufour (he produced 18 Simplicities) and above all Greubel Forsey. He’s a designer at GF, and he’s also, as part of NM, the main acolyte of Michel, who validates the plans of the Garde-temps…
Didier (right) & Michel, at the SIHH
Sévérine Vitali : Those who know well Greubel Forsey have already met her. She undertook a classical watch training at the French border. She also worked for Renaud & Papi, prior to joining Greubel Forsey at the beginning of the adventure, in 2004 (remember,I talked about it in the interview of Nathalie Jean-Louis LINK). Since then, she has substantially honed her craft and she’s currently responsible for the finishing workshop at Greubel Forsey. Notably, she teaches the sand-blasting techniques to Michel.
Jean-François Erard : though not yet a household name, he’s an elite precision mechanic, who has worked a lot for the greatest manufactories. In particular, he designs gongs for striking watches. He changed the supply picture by developing monobloc gongs at Renaud & Papi in the 90’s. Jean François is about to retire, and the NM project is an opportunity to share his know how with Michel. He assists Michel with the design of the production procedures of the garde-temps’ components, in particular with Schaublin 70 & 102 lathes and the milling machine.
JF (right), Didier & Michel at the Greubel Forsey permises
Michel Boulanger : he’s “the hero of the adventure”. At 46, the six-foot-tall watchmaker is litterally the tallest of his generation. Michel fell into watchmaking as a child, as his father owned a clock restoration workshop in the south of Chartres. After obtaining watchmaking qualifications, he had a taste of Swiss industry, working at Renaud & Papi, where he met again Robert and was introduced to Jean François.
But Michel was interested in teaching, so he passed the competitive examination of the French National Education, and he’s been teaching watchmaking for many years now at the technical college Diderot, Paris 19th.
Michel and his coat « La Naissance d’une Montre »
The Schaublin 70 lathe : any self-respecting hero has his super-tool: car, sword or gun in all good movies, novels or series. From Arthur and Excalibur to the dirty Harry’s 44.Automag, or the Michael Knight’s Pontiac Trans Am K2000.
The point is Michel’s 70 lathe is a lot more customisable than the latter, which however have caused scores of wet dreams among tuning fans. The 70 lathe is crucial in NM, as it’s Michel’s main tool, the one he uses two-thirds of the time ( and 90% of the “tool” time).
The 70 lathe was presented in 1925. It was requested by the watchmaking industry, with a will to standardise the equipment, with a versatile lathe allowing to work on micro-scale. It’s 600mm long*120mm high for a tare weight of 13,5kg. It is particular in that it is still produced nowadays, and thus endowed with a plethora of accessories specially designed for a watchmaking-scale use. Any young watchmaker can purchase a second-hand 70 for 3000€, and fit it with accessories as it goes along.
But the story of Michel’s 70 lathe is way more excinting. This lathe belonged to Robert, and he gave it to Michel in the beginning of the 2000’s, just when the GF adventure started. Within the context of NM, this handover is hugely symbolical.
Le Garde-temps : this piece is something of a Holy Grail, as it is more of a pretext for an initiation quest through the lost paths of traditional know how rather than an end in itself. Intellectually, while a car or a pair of shoes have practical purposes,a watch is a pure abstraction, an artistic creation. This one will be the vehicle of the perpetuation of old contemporary watchmaking master’s expertise.
The production target is modest, 11 finalised Garde-temps. It actually means that Michel should probably produce triple, if account is taken of the rejected pieces and components retained to ensure the future after-sales service.
The Garde-temps will be round and will have a dimension of 45mmx32mm, for an approximate weight of 220 grams, with a frequency of 18000bph for a minimum of 36h of PwR, in the spirit of vintage pocket watches. It will be a simple piece with no stricto sensus complication, but however equipped with a large one-minute tourbillon of 18-mm diameter.
For the real watch enthusiats out there, it will also be fitted with the following devices:
In order to narrate to you the first years of the adventure, in the second part of this topic, I interviewed Michel.
See you soon.