Alex Doak visits the German watchmakers Grieb & Benzinger and discovers how the master craftsman keep traditional methods of watchmaking alive - and sought after.
The new golden age of watchmaking
Even in the rarefied world of luxury wristwatches, it's difficult these days to find something truly one-off and unique unless you pay German watchmakers Grieb & Benzinger a visit.
Undulating, verdant countryside. A sleepy, rural town. A chocolate-box chateau housing a hushed atelier and its hunched watchmaker, his only companion the steady tick-tock of an ancient clock. So far, so Swiss, you might think. But instead of the Jura Mountains, we are in fact deep in the heart of Germany's Swabia region in Baden-Württemberg. The town is Grafenau, not Geneva, and the chateau is actually a schloss, or rather Schloss Dätzingen - a one-time residence of Hans von Raumer, secretary of state for trade and industry during the Weimar Republic era.
Where Herr von Raumer's laundry was once done, Schloss Dätzingen's washhouse has now been converted into the headquarters of Grieb & Benzinger and the workshop of Hermann Grieb. Not only is this a decidedly un-Swiss set-up - what Grieb, his partner Jochen Benzinger and their business guru Georg Bartkowiak are doing is something you will struggle to find anywhere south of the border: one-off, made-to-order watches, crafted with techniques and tools that all but died out when quartz technology decimated the traditional Swiss watch industry in the 1980s.
Which isn't to say Grieb & Benzinger is totally independent from Switzerland - far from it. The beating hearts of its watches are all Swiss mechanical movements. However, it's what it does to these movements that sets it apart. For, just 40 kilometres northwest of Grafenau in Germany's "Gold Town" of Pforzheim, Jochen Benzinger is custodian of a second workshop and quite possibly the world's most valuable collection of 19th-century engine-turning machines. It is with these and countless other handheld tools that Benzinger transforms every watch movement into a work of art: Guilloché patterns and ornate engraving on all visible surfaces, followed by open-working or skeletonisation of all the bridges and plates that hold the gearing together. The work involved is painstaking, but the result - once Grieb has reassembled the parts - is dazzling; a delicate, luminescent spider's web of whirring clockwork.
Indeed, what is more valuable than his tools, it could be argued, are the skills and knowledge that Benzinger holds. Traditional engraving ceased to be taught by watchmaking schools in the early Sixties and only a select few self-sufficient Swiss brands operate an apprentice scheme nowadays.
"Jochen started his engraving apprenticeship at Pforzheim firm Kollmar in 1978," explains Bartkowiak, "but by the mid-Eighties the watch as well as the jewellery industry underwent tremendous changes. Modern computer-controlled production became prevalent and as result of this, hand engraving as well as Guilloché was not sought-after anymore. As there was no successor for the workshop, Jochen took over the Kollmar workshop for very little money.
"However," he adds tellingly, "as recent years have shown, historic crafts are becoming sought-after again; our old machines - not least Jochen's skills - represent priceless treasure for Grieb & Benzinger. You'll struggle to find a similar selection of functional Guilloché machines even in Switzerland and their watchmaking museums."
By using hand-skeletonisation, hand-Guilloché and hand engraving, Benzinger is turning back time by literally carving history and long-forgotten traditions into new Swiss movements (the oversized, hand-wound Unitas calibre if you're into that sort of thing). What's more, every one of their Boutique watches, priced around €35,000 (Dh165,000), are made to order with broad leeway for personalisation.
Take the recent example of a watch collector and horse enthusiast from the UAE. Thanks to a fervent passion for his stable of Arabian stallions, the watch needed to have an unostentatious colour scheme to harmonise with his new, totally bespoke set of saddle, riding boots and harness. The result was a near-iridescent honey dial of wavy Guilloché with a restrained glimpse of the movement through two windows, and a chestnut leather strap.
"Years ago we thought we had an idea about the typical G&B customer," admits Bartkowiak, "but years of experience have shown us that all of our customers are as unique as our watches."
But while Jochen Benzinger is imbuing soul and something of the past into the brand-new Boutique watch movements, the watch movements destined for the top-end Platinum collection first land on Hermann Grieb's workbench with as many as 140 years of history and regal provenance. Via closely guarded industry sources, Grieb has accumulated a select stock of highly technical and beautifully crafted vintage complications from grande maisons such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, all dating between 1880 and 1930. "Naked" movements that have lurked in various archives and collections, ripe for refurb, Grieb & Benzinger style.
It is here where Grieb's skills become as crucial as those of Benzinger. A bona fide, old-school master watchmaker, Grieb has always specialised in antique and historical watchmaking. He has restored tower clocks dated from 1650, he is able to repair a clock from 1750 as well as re-construct a missing component from an 1890 chiming 'minute repeater' - all by using classic tools and machinery. And if he lacks the required tool? He makes it himself. Understandably, he has made himself an invaluable consultant to auction houses around the world.
It may sound backwards-facing, but Grieb's specialism is critical when it comes to restoring the Platinum collection's movements prior to decoration, because these movements were handmade in the first place.
"Imagine, about 100 years ago," says Bartkowiak, "master watchmakers were able to produce a minute-repeater movement without the help of any modern CNC machine. The tourbillon mechanism was invented by Breguet over 200 years ago, when electric light was not even invented! And yet these complications are still the benchmark for high-end watchmaking."
"It was the golden age of watchmaking," agrees Grieb, looking up from his workbench and removing his eyepiece. "Watches today aren't better - movements back then were of a much higher quality.
"It's hard to imagine how they even made some of the components," he continues. "The screws are so tiny and delicate, yet they had no wirecutting or computerised machines. It was all cut out and filed by hand. It's astonishing."
No more than 10 Platinum pieces are made by Grieb & Benzinger every year, owing to the tremendous number of man-hours required to restore the movement, incorporate extra functions such as a moonphase or date according to the client's wishes, then disassemble the whole thing and decorate each and every part. For example, their latest magnum opus, Blue Danube, which is based on a minute-repeating, split-seconds chronograph made for Tiffany New York by Patek Philippe in 1890, had 1,000 hours lavished upon it. This goes some way to explaining its pricetag of €650,000 (Dh3.06m) Only when you visit Grafenau or Pforzheim (Bartkowiak actively encourages all interested parties to do so) this figure makes even more sense. Especially when you notice first-hand that the company's pool of talent isn't just limited to Jochan and Hermann. Take master goldsmith Albrecht Bolz for example, who developed Grieb & Benzonger's blue platinum coating for the baseplate found in all Platinum masterpieces. Thanks to his abilities, they're also able to fire Breguet's famous frost finish on to the dials - the only brand worldwide able to do this.
Horologists and puritans will of course baulk at such cavalier treatment of Patek and Vacheron movements, both in light of these brands' escalating value at auction and the antique specimens' inherent rarity. But with the brands themselves unlikely to pick up the pieces without at least a case and a dial surrounding them, compounded by the fact that most watchmakers lack the skills to bring them back to life, we should be grateful that these movements are finally seeing the light of day at the hands of craftsmen who deeply respect their origins.
"Using these old techniques on old movements, we do the clockwork justice," says Benzinger. "We're not making them worse and I think Patek Philippe or Vacheron might even be proud to see how we've altered their watches."