Until the Grand Sonnerie came out, one of the most complicated watches Greubel Forsey had in its portfolio was the GMT – a notably pithy name which is in stark contrast to the size, general visual impact, and complexity of the watch itself. It’s very seldom that you get a chance to actually see a Greubel Forsey watch in the metal, although over the years I’ve been lucky enough to see more than my fair share. In 2006, one year after the Double Tourbillon 30° launched, I got to sit next to Stephen Forsey at a dinner in New York and talk for a couple of hours about the tourbillon in general, the theoretical background of the tourbillon, and the technical considerations that gave Forsey and his partner, Robert Greubel, the inspiration for that watch.
It was an extremely memorable night because I took away from it a much better understanding of the pros and cons of tourbillons in general, as well as a pretty striking quote. Towards the end of the night we were talking about the challenges in squeezing a few fractions of a second better performance out of increasingly complex mechanisms, and I asked Stephen Forsey if he felt the game was really worth the candle. He laughed and said, "Well, you know, it’s always a struggle to gain more than you lose."
That could be something of a motto for Greubel Forsey in general, whose whole production might be seen as a reaction against the notion that there is such a thing as "good enough" performance or finish. The designs Greubel Forsey produces can be very polarizing but in general, whether or not they fit your taste ultimately ends up being less interesting than how well each watch succeeds in being what it set out to be.
The Greubel Forsey GMT is one of the most complicated watches from Greubel Forsey (the only two which top it being the Quantième Perpétuel à Équation and the new Grande Sonnerie) and the name, while concise, somewhat undersells the actual complexity of the watch. Visually, it’s a showstopper, as most Greubel Forsey watches are. Up front, you have a 24 second inclined tourbillon, tilted at 25°. The hours and minutes are shown in a large sub-dial, and a second time zone is shown to the left. The biggest fireworks are from a titanium globe, which rotates once every 24 hours and shows the Earth as seen from a position above the North Pole. The globe shows about 3/4 of the Earth’s surface, with the pivot at the South Pole. The part of the Earth in daylight is shown by the white background side of the 24-hour ring, and an aperture in the side of the case lets light in to shine on the daylight side as well.
That the watch undersells itself technically (at least as far as the name goes) becomes apparent when you turn it over. On the back, there is a 24-city, full world-time disk, which, like the globe, rotates once per day, and which shows the correct time in 24 different time zones. The cities in time zones that observe summer time/DST are shown in white, and you can read the correct local time in those cities during the time of year you know DST is in effect, by reading the time off the inner, rather than the outer, 24 hour track. The position of the Sun relative to the Earth is shown on the back of the watch as well; the Sun is represented by a stylized engraving on the wheel affixed to the underside of the globe.
Setting up the GMT is a fairly simple procedure. First, you pull out the crown (there’s only one setting position). Next, you set the city disk to the nearest correct hour for your home city (or you can also just set any given city to the nearest correct hour for its time zone). You don’t need to take DST into account. The crown can be rotated in either direction. Next, with the crown left out, you press and hold the GMT pusher. This engages the crown with the hour and minute hands, and disengages it from the globe and city disk. You then set the hands to the nearest full hour for your local time position. Finally, you release the GMT pusher, and set the hands to the correct local hour and minute. This advances the globe and city disk as well.
The GMT hand can be set in one hour increments via the pusher. Once you’re done setting up the watch, the hour and minute hands, GMT hand, globe, and city disk are all synchronized. When changing time zones, you can use the GMT hand as a local time indicator, by adjusting it to local time as needed; this takes care of any time zone with a full, one hour offset from GMT. There’s a sort of power user option as well, however. If you recall, the GMT pusher decouples the crown from the GMT indications, allowing you to just set the hour and minute hands. If you hold the pusher down and re-set the hour and minute hands to local time in your new time zone, you can use the GMT indication as a home time indication, and you can also set the local time to any offset from GMT you need – including non-full hour offsets. This would be the option I’d choose; it’s much more natural to read local time off the larger display, and the globe lets you know approximately what o’clock it is anywhere in the world in any case.
Now, reading about this sort of thing and understanding the watch technically is one thing, but wearing it is another, and for all the technical sophistication, this is not, I think, ultimately an exercising in primarily technical prowess. Greubel Forsey’s watches never really are; they’re generally all about an extension of a kind of experimental perfectionism into pretty much every aspect of watchmaking. You could almost think of it as a kid of horological reductio ad absurdum: what happens if you simply push every aspect of traditional horology – not just finish, but also the pursuit of better chronometry with a traditional approach to improved isochronism – as far as it can go? The aesthetics of Greubel Forsey watches have always seemed to me to have been almost stumbled on by accident and although there’s a lot that’s deliberate about the aesthetics per se, they’re so informed by the obsessive pursuit of perfectionism in every aspect of the watch that they become both less, and more, than conventional aesthetics – a very strange, but to me very charming, combination of deadpan earnestness, and utter whimsical lunacy.
The funny thing about wearing the GMT is that you think before you put it on that it’s going to be like winning a date with a $20 million-per-picture film star or getting the keys to a Ferrari F12 for the weekend – you’re going to be wowed as much by inhabiting an heretofore uninhabitable demographic as by the actual experience. But somehow that’s not the case. You look down at your wrist and while, yes, you do see an extraordinarily expensive and generally unattainable watch, you also see something else.
The Earth is 12,742 kilometers in diameter, and if you turn the watch to face you and look at the time, you’re looking at that titanium globe from about 10 times its diameter away. That means you’re seeing the Earth from above the North Pole as it would look from a distance of about 153,000 kilometers, which is a bit shy of halfway to the moon. At such a distance, the Earth is both close enough to tug at your heartstrings – it’s home, after all – and distant enough to seem an abstraction. The combination is a poignant one, and in combination with the tourbillon, and the hour and minute hands, you have dramatically different scales of spatial experience as well as three very different time scales, all in one place on your wrist.
I wore the Greubel Forsey GMT during Baselworld and it was, as you might expect, a show-stopper (and it provoked some goodnatured – I think – ribbing that maybe HODINKEE overpays its staff). But what I took away from the experience wasn’t a sense of having lucked out in some horological lottery – it was an experience of almost philosophical tranquility; a feeling that, when I looked at the time, I wasn’t so much seeing the time, as I was seeing a broader and more balanced perspective on how we perceive it.
Travel broadens, they say, and while there are any number of much more affordable multi-time zone watches out there, there are few that take you outside yourself quite like the Greubel Forsey GMT. Everything has to work together for something like this to really sit up and sing, but the level of attention to technical detail in the GMT is, paradoxically (or maybe necessarily?) what makes it work as a launchpad for fantasy and philosophical rumination as well.
The Greubel Forsey GMT, as shown: Movement, 36.40mm x 9.80 mm; 72-hour power reserve, running in 50 jewels. Two coaxial mainspring barrels, running in series, fast rotating (one turn/3.2 hours) one with slipping bridle. Free sprung 10mm balance with timing screws; Phillips terminal curve; 21,600 vph. German/nickel silver/maillechort mainplates. Hours, minutes, GMT and world time indications. Case, 43.50 mm x 16.14mm in 950 platinum; water resistance 30 meters. $630,000. Read more about it at GreubelForsey.com.