Watchonista One-On-One: Talking Long-Term Goals with Greubel Forsey’s CEO Antonio Calce
We sat down (via Zoom) with the independent brand’s CEO to discuss how regaining its independence will preserve its future.
We don’t often discuss how the business of running a luxury watch brand requires just as much creativity as decorating a case or constructing a calibre. But ever since Greubel Forsey bought back its independence from its outside shareholders, which included Richemont, we’ve noticed a new vitality in the maison’s offerings.
Most recently, we were won over by the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Architecture – a stunning complication wrapped up in a transparent, convex case.
The brand’s press materials described it as a “city on the wrist.” But after speaking with Greubel Forsey’s CEO, Antonio Calce, we realized that the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Architecture is also an apt metaphor for this new era in Greubel Forsey’s history.
Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey founded their atelier in 2004. Already noted watchmakers in their own right; over the next decade, the duo established the brand as a benchmark for ultra-luxe and avant-garde engineering.
But it wasn’t always enough to push the boundaries of art and innovation. In the last two years, Greubel Forsey brought in the former chief executive officer of Corum Antonio Calce to lead the brand and bought back all externally held shares in the company, including the 20% stake Richemont acquired in 2006. And today, the brand is truly independent, with ownership split between Greubel (the majority stockholder), Forsey, and Calce.
So, when we spoke to Antonio Calce, he was enjoying a much-deserved vacation after the launch of the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Architecture on the Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea. And though it had been nearly twenty days after its release, he was still riding high from all the well-deserved buzz the Architecture generated.
“It is a new chapter for the brand, and I’m excited about what we are doing,” said the affable Calce. “Greubel Forsey is one of the biggest independent brands. It was started by two friends but employs over 100 people. It’s a big organization, and it was time to take a new approach.”
Independence has meant that the board can now make and move on decisions quickly. And while both partners are still very invested in their namesake company, with Forsey remaining as technical director, they are also stepping back from day-to-day operations.
Thus, Calce’s first step in setting out a sustainable business plan was to invest in tradition and new talent.
“When I first met Robert Greubel, the brain behind the brand, the most important thing for him was securing the brand’s future,” Calce continued. “The strategy was to bring in a management team with new skills to support the watchmakers.”
Why? Because its leaders believe that part of Greubel Forsey’s responsibility to future watchmakers is preserving the brand’s history. “It is important to keep the codes even if our history is not so long,” said Calce.
We also talked at length about the importance of patrimony and preserving that which is inherited from our ancestors. And this concept resonates with Calce. Long-term goals require an investment in the people who create the watches.
For Greubel Forsey, that’s where being independent is important. “It’s not just about shareholders,” explained Calce. “It’s about respecting the skills of the watchmakers and passing them on to the next generation.”
Then he added, “At the end of the day, we are here for just 10 to 15 years, but the watch will live on into the future.”
Calce was born in the small Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, where he started as a machinist. “I speak the same language as the people,” he told me. But the employees are not the only people Greubel Forsey wants to honor.
If we were to go back to using the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Architecture as a metaphor, the transparency of the case underlines Greubel Forsey’s dedication to communicating with collectors and connoisseurs.
But after two decades, Calce felt it was time to re-educate people about what Greubel Forsey’s collections were all about. “We have to be humble,” he told me during our chat. “The reality is that there are fewer than 100 dedicated Greubel Forsey collectors in the world.”
Of course, the founders recognized that if the company was to last into the next century, they had to connect with a broader audience without tearing down everything they had achieved. Calce explained: “When I first met with Robert, we had two choices: to continue to do specific watches and produce fewer than 100 a year or reset.”
In the end, the brand chose to reset. So, its existing collections were rationalized, and while still in the six figures, the brand lowered the price point on its entry-level pieces to entice younger, curious connoisseurs. And the maison endeavored to ramp up production in a sustainable way.
“I don’t like the word change,” added Calce. “It’s a more natural evolution. The watches are still handmade inventions, but they also appeal to younger connoisseurs who still respect the traditions.”
Since Calce started at Greubel Forsey, the brand has also injected more modernity into the design. While each invention builds out from the mechanism, rethinking the design is just one sign of respect for collectors and connoisseurs.
“We now have 26 people in product development and design,” he continued. “It’s the biggest department because it’s our signature, and we need to create real emotion.”
The second example of Greubel Forsey’s dedication to its audience is the way it is marketing its unique timepieces.
With enthusiasts registering frustration with waiting lists and supply chain issues, Calce and the team are dedicated to providing full transparency with their rollouts: “We’re aiming to produce 500 pieces per year. It’s a big number for us, but we would never compromise quality.”
And to make all of these shifts to Greubel Forsey’s culture feel more organic, the brand bought the land around the atelier near La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, so they could double production by manufacturing their hairsprings and hiring more watchmakers.
Calce recognizes that being an independent brand affords them the ability to quickly adapt to the ever-changing marketplace, but keeping sight of the wants and needs of the watchmakers and watch buyers is a guide that can only help everyone in the industry.
Greubel Forsey is also aiming to streamline distribution, scaling back the number of authorized dealers and instead building a network of flagship boutiques with outside partners.
“The goal is to do something rare and exclusive. We need a lot of creativity to make things easier to produce,” Calce said before he signed off to enjoy his vacation. “We also have to care about the consumer with every new invention. It is a challenge, but it is our signature.”
For more information about the brand’s models, visit the Greubel Forsey website.
(Images © Greubel Forsey)