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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Grönefeld’s growing pains

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Bart Gronefeld.

Bart and Tim Grönefeld, known in collectors’ circles as the horological brothers or Dutch masters, moved into a building last year that used to be their home town kindergarten in Oldenzaal, the Netherlands. The move into larger premises was almost derailed when the pandemic struck in 2020, but the covid curse has actually accelerated growth to the point where the business has been forced to close its order book as Rob Corder discovered in conversation with Bart.

WATCHPRO: We are speaking at a time when covid restrictions appear to be easing across Europe. How have you managed through the pandemic?

Bart Grönefeld: This covid situation has been quite a roller coaster for us. We thought we were going bankrupt in March 2020. I thought it was the end of the world. We even canceled buying our new building, which was a long way towards completion. Then, two or three months later we felt confidence coming back again so we decided to proceed.

WATCHPRO: Put these last 18 months in a bit of context for you and your brother Tim. How did you come to create Grönefeld as a business, and how has it developed?

BART GRÖNEFELD: It is a long story. We launched the Grönefeld brand in 2008, but the company is much older. It was founded by our Grandfather in 1912 and it grew from its beginning as watchmaker to become more of a jeweler. The intention when we were younger was for me and Tim to take over that jeweler, so we needed to go into a profession related to jewelry and watches.

Because Tim and I were more technically-minded, we were much more drawn towards watchmaking than any of the other jewellers’ trades such as goldsmithing. We like to be more precise so mechanics was where we wanted to be.

Bart and Tim Gronefeld with watchmakers in their new headquarters and workshop.

We went to a Dutch technical school and then watchmaking school and, by the age of 19, I had completed my education in the Netherlands.

I got a place at the WOSTEP School of Watchmaking in Switzerland, which was a game changer for me. First, the school was excellent. It was very much dedicated to work at the bench rather than theory you don’t really need to know. My lecturer and director of the school, Mr Simonin, was a watch collector who brought pieces from his beautiful collection to show us.

When I was looking at those watches, my mind was blown to see how much time people must have spent on finishing and decorating watch parts to turn practical items into works of art. This decoration doesn’t necessarily make a watch better, it just makes it nicer and more exclusive.

WATCHPRO: It is interesting that you turned away from skills like goldsmithing because you wanted to study something more mechanical, but it is the art and craftsmanship in watchmaking that seemed to win you over.

BART GRÖNEFELD: You do see that in our watchmaking today, but my experience at WOSTEP convinced me that I wanted to pursue a career with watches rather than jewelry.

From WOSTEP I got a job offer from Renaud et Papi [now owned by Audemars Piguet], which at the time made movements for many brands such as Cartier, AP, Richard Mille and others.

I was one of the first watchmakers to come in and set up a department to assemble complicated watches. I became responsible for that workshop, even though I didn’t speak a word of French, and to train other watchmakers. My brother, Tim, who is three years younger than me, also joined the team at Renaud et Papi.

WATCHPRO: That period at Renaud et Papi has become the stuff of legends for watch aficionados because so many great watchmakers, who have gone on to create their own brands, came together at the same time.

BART GRÖNEFELD: While I was there, I called up Stephen Forsey, who was working at Asprey at the time and asked him why the f*** he was still working there?

I asked him to come and join our team in Le Locle. Stephen Forsey then called up Peter Speake-Marin, and he came over. There was Anthony de Haas [director of product development at A. Lange & Söhne] and others.

We were mostly expats all partying and working together. The only things we spoke about were alcohol and watches.

WATCHPRO: I am picturing you like a group of French impressionists drinking absinthe in a Left Bank dive bar in Paris.

BART GRÖNEFELD: I don’t want to put it like that myself, but it was pretty much like that [laughs]. That was the start of our voyage into the world of complicated watchmaking.

Tim and I enjoyed our time there and, if it were not for wanting to be back among our friends in the Netherlands, we would still be in Switzerland doing the same job. The work was beautiful, but we were missing our friends and family so we decided to head home and start our own business.

We were not aiming to start our own watch brand immediately, but we were prepared to do whatever we needed to do to make a living at watchmaking. We launched a business doing after sales service for Breitling and IWC.

For Breitling we handled the whole of the Netherlands, about 5,000 watches per year, and for IWC we were working directly with Schaffhausen and we did some other top secret exciting stuff that I still can’t talk about. That amount of work meant our team had to grow quite quickly to 14 people.

Business was good when we were working on very nice pieces, but we did not get much credit for what we did, and also the amount of ETA movements going into Breitling got a little boring. We really wanted to get back into high end watchmaking, but could not work for another brand so we started our own.

We started with a tourbillon minute repeater [GTM-06] in 2008. It was really expensive but it showcased the specialties we had developed in Switzerland. For me, that was the minute repeater, and for Tim it was the tourbillon.

By the time we launched it, the financial crisis was starting but there was still one guy who had some cash and he bought that first watch straight away for €255,000. Tim and I thought to ourselves, if things carry on like this, we will be in heaven.

Gronefeld GTM-06 minute repeater tourbillon.

Unfortunately, after that first watch sold, it was more than two years before we sold another one and we were questioning whether our brand was dead, or whether we could continue.

The world changed a lot during the financial crisis. Customers became a lot more aware. They needed a lot more originality for their money. This led us to believe we should give our brand a second chance.

The watch that we created at this point, the One Hertz, is really the one we consider the launch of Grönefeld as a brand.

We worked with Renaud et Papi, but we established our own style of bridges, in a gable shape that you see on traditional Dutch houses, in stainless steel and without Geneva stripes because we wanted to be different from the Swiss.

Gronefeld One Hertz.

We were trying to invent something that collectors would like to have in their collections and we came up with the world’s first wristwatch with independent jumping seconds on an independent gear train.

A site called Timezone.com noticed the One Hertz and it was voted best watch of the year in 2011. That gave us a lot of world-wide exposure and we started selling something like five the first year, 10 the next year. The most we produced in one year was 25.

WATCHPRO: And did you continue with GTM-06 at the same time?

BART GRÖNEFELD: Because of the publicity we received for the One Hertz, we managed to sell a couple more of them in around 2012/13.

The One Hertz was expensive to develop and we sold it relatively cheaply, just to get our money back and allow us to keep developing. We were still in survival mode at the time.

WATCHPRO: You must have kept your heads above water because you were able to deliver the One Hertz watches while working on your next innovation, the Parallax Tourbillon.

BART GRÖNEFELD: We had enough confidence from the One Hertz, so we started working again with Renaud et Papi on what became the Parallax Tourbillon, which had a special stopping mechanism for the cage so the time could be set precisely. It had another technical innovation that prevented play in the gears.

Gronefeld Parallax Tourbillon.

We competed in the GPHG with that watch and were shocked to win the tourbillon category in 2014.

That got us even more recognition and we sold quite a few of those Parallax Tourbillons in different configurations.

WATCHPRO: Was all this recognition beginning to turn into commercial success, or at least stability at this point?

BART GRÖNEFELD: We were still in survival mode, but we kept moving forward and thought we should develop something a little less complicated, which is when we came out with the Remontoire in 2016.

Gronefeld Remontoire in red gold.

As we were developing the Remontoire, we thought we would initially make 50 pieces, which was going to be a big step up from the 10-25 watches we were more used to making in a year.

At that time, we thought about how successful Philippe Dufour had been with his Simplicity watch, which he limited to 200 pieces, and we thought our watch was just as nice and would sell to the same type of people, so why not make more than 50?

That led us to deciding that we would make the Remontoire a limited edition of 188 pieces.

The way things worked out, it would have been fine if we had only sold 50 of that watch, but now it has sold out and we could have sold at least double or triple the number. We are still building the last few of them, but by the end of this year [2021] they will all be completed.

WATCHPRO: You quickly went from not knowing whether there would be any demand for your watches to a situation where demand was far exceeding supply.

BART GRÖNEFELD: Last year we made only 50 watches, a year before we did 70 across all our references. This year we hope to do 70 watches again and next year hopefully 100 or more. Our watches take a huge amount of time to finish and assemble so we cannot step up production easily.

WATCHPRO: How much of the movement are you responsible for and what does Renaud et Papi do for you?

BART GRÖNEFELD: Renaud et Papi produce all the parts for us, to our specification. We are too small to buy our own machines. The problem for us being in the Netherlands is finding the right people to work on CNC machines that make the parts. We are happy to keep working this way for now.

Maybe in the future we will start to make our own parts, but it is not a priority. Our main problem now is finding enough watchmakers to assemble our watches. Getting the parts is not an issue.

WATCHPRO: We will fast forward the next few years, when you developed the Principia and Decennium Tourbillon and the business was growing solidly to the start of 2020 when, as you said, you though the world was coming to an end with the explosion of covid.

Gronefeld Principia Automatic.
Gronefeld Decennium Tourbillon.

BART GRÖNEFELD: We were due to exhibit at SIHH and Baselworld in 2020. At the time we were already sold out on many of our watches and waiting lists were getting ridiculously long, so it was not bad news for us when they cancelled.

Even though suppliers in Switzerland were closing, we were able to continue working and we had enough parts in stock so that we could keep producing and shipping watches.

Our customers, and I mean retail partners and end consumers, still wanted our watches. At first I thought we would get a lot of phone calls cancelling orders, but it turned out that nobody called to cancel. The only effect was that we did not get any new orders for two months, which was worrying.

The situation of having a full order book and waiting lists before the pandemic meant we were not too badly affected.

Indie watchmaker Grönefeld stops taking orders as demand overwhelms supply

WATCHPRO: You mentioned that you cancelled buying your new building, but then went ahead with it.

BART GRÖNEFELD: Yes, by the summer of last year we were getting more orders again and we felt confident enough to move forward with the building. People being locked down, unable to go to offices, restaurants or on holidays meant they had a lot of time to spend on the internet looking into their hobbies. They discovered our brand and read good things about it and started ordering big time.

WATCHPRO: I have spoken to a number of your retail partners, particularly in the United States, and they are all saying the last 18 months have seen the independent scene transformed as people have expanded their knowledge beyond the usual Rolex, AP and Patek watches.

BART GRÖNEFELD: We will never beat Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe, but it is nice that more and more people are confident to buy from independents. They feel much more connected to companies like ours. We are still a young company and people can feel they are part of history in the making.

WATCHPRO: Most brands pray for demand to be so strong that it creates waiting lists, but I know your retail partners would love to have a few more watches to sell.

BART GRÖNEFELD: It does become stressful. All we want to do is satisfy people, and now we are starting off with disappointment because of waiting lists. It is getting a little bit ridiculous. I heard that Roger Smith has stopped taking orders.

WATCHPRO: You mentioned that you hope to make 70 watches per year. Will your new building allow you to increase production?

BART GRÖNEFELD: We do want to increase to around 100 or even 130, but not more than that.

WATCHPRO: Do you not see a path to the sort of production levels of, say, F. P. Journe at around 800 watches per year?

BART GRÖNEFELD: No. We are building the brand ourselves. We are not in Switzerland where you can find watchmakers all around you. It is much more difficult to find the right people, but our new building has helped us to find watchmakers. They want to come and work for us. We would like more of them to be from the Netherlands, but for now we have only two locals, the rest are from other countries, so we hope they will stay.

WATCHPRO: We haven’t seen a new reference from Grönefeld since 2019. Are we likely to see something fresh in 2022?

BART GRÖNEFELD: We are just finishing making the Remontoire run, and we want to create that same level of success with the next timepiece. I cannot tell you much but we are going to create something really nice. Again it will be limited to 188 pieces, which again we think is a ridiculous number but we will go for it.

WATCHPRO: So much of your success appears to have come from the United States, but you have no retailers in the UK. Is it too late to expect that too change now that you have demand running so far ahead of supply?

BART GRÖNEFELD: Europe has always been difficult for us, even in our own country. We have a few collectors here, but not enough. Dutch collectors seem to think that anything good has to come from far away.

We went a number of times to Salon QP, but did not have much success there. There is now a huge retailer interested in our brand in the UK, but we have told them we are sorry, but we would not be able to deliver the quantities they need.

We have a similar situation in Dubai, where a big retailer wants to stock us, the same in Canada and Mexico.

We have to tell retailers we do not have the capacity to expand beyond the six to eight retailers we currently have. We would like to spread our risk by distributing to other parts of the world, but it is not possible for now.

WATCHPRO: Do you still need retail partners?

BART GRÖNEFELD: We will never forget where we came from and we will continue to supply retailers that have been with us since the beginning. For countries where we do not have retailers, customers can contact us directly.

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