Haute horlogerie is generally associated with Switzerland, and many successful non-Swiss watchmakers have moved to the country where component supplies are readily available to set up shop. However, brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld have chosen to be based in their native town of Oldenzaal in the Netherlands – a nation with little watchmaking culture.
This hasn’t stopped them from making a mark on the global watch industry, though. They are known for creating timepieces with strong movement DNA and high-level meticulous hand-finishing, developing interesting complications from A to Z while never compromising on quality and originality, and are involved in every step of the process, from design, development and production to communication and personal delivery of their watches to their knowledgeable clients.
“A disadvantage of not being Swiss made is that we have to prove ourselves even harder that we are good to those who only want Swiss made. But it takes many years to gain the trust of customers.”
Bart explains how their manufacturing processes are unique as independent players located in an environment foreign to high-end watchmaking: “We are still in very close contact with our Swiss friends and we do after-sales service for Swiss companies. Switzerland feels like our second home. While living here, we were always hanging out with other watchmakers, so we were talking watchmaking not only at work but also on the weekends and evenings. Now we work with suppliers by email, but sometimes I wish I could jump in my car, drive half an hour and talk to them face-to-face. That makes communication much easier, much more personal.”
He adds, “Another disadvantage of not being Swiss made is that we have to prove ourselves even harder that we are good to those who only want Swiss made. But it takes many years to gain the trust of customers. I think we are now really winning their trust. I can see that by the number of orders. Usually, we make between 25 and 40 watches a year. Last year, we made 75 watches. That’s huge for us.”
The two brothers attended the same technical school in Oldenzaal before further training as watch technicians. Thereafter, they moved to Switzerland, studied at WOSTEP (one of the world’s best watchmaking schools), worked for complicated movement specialist Renaud & Papi, and eventually made their way back to where it all started, to be near their family and friends. In fact, watchmaking runs in their blood.
Their grandfather Johan Grönefeld was born in Oldenzaal and started his career as a watchmaker in 1912, taught by his uncle. He established his workshop-boutique adjacent to St Plechelmus, a 13th century basilica and tower, and was tasked with looking after its clock mechanism. His son Sjef, also born in Oldenzaal, worked in the watch and jewellery sector and tended to the church clock when Johan passed away. As children, Bart and Tim played in their grandfather’s atelier and accompanied their father on his trips to maintain the church clock, and today, they follow in their footsteps.
“Oldenzaal is more than 1,000 years old and at the centre is the church tower. Everyone calls it the ‘old grey one’. This cold grey thing can be found in our movements, which are beautiful yet cold. The stainless steel gives them a very strong, masculine feel, so in that way we are very much defined by our town,” says Bart about his timepieces’ aesthetics. Finishing steel parts is actually more difficult, time-consuming and consequently more costly than traditional brass or nickel silver, so why does Grönefeld do it?
A good watchmaker sometimes can never take that scratch away because it is in plated metal, so we wanted to have a pure metal that could be refinished and repolished without plating or special machines.
Bart replies, “We all know how movements look like in Swiss, English and German watchmaking, but not Dutch watchmaking. Wristwatches were actually never produced in the Netherlands. We were one of the first to develop our own movements, so we had to find original features. Things we don’t like – as I have seen from my after-sales service experience – are that some old movements have been touched by unqualified watchmakers and have scratches. A good watchmaker sometimes can never take that scratch away because it is in plated metal, so we wanted to have a pure metal that could be refinished and repolished without plating or special machines. Our stainless steel is the bare metal. Another advantage of steel is that there’s no plating afterwards. Plating is a huge risk that can damage many hours of work. For example, it can take up to one day just to bevel one bridge. If it’s damaged during plating, it’s a big loss. So we use pure metal; it’s meant to last for hundreds of years.”
Having started working in Switzerland on high-complication movements such as minute repeaters, grand sonneries, perpetual calendars, chronographs and tourbillons from the age of 22, the Grönefelds naturally decided to launch their brand with the GTM-06 Tourbillon Minute Repeater in 2008. Now their latest and fourth watch is the 1941 Remontoire in a stainless steel case matching hand-decorated stainless steel bridges that echo the façades of Dutch houses (termed “bell gables”), after previous red and white gold versions.
In a limited edition with optional bespoke engine-turned and enamel dials made in collaboration with Finnish watchmaking icon Kari Voutilainen and enamelling specialist Inès Hamaguchi, it showcases an eight-second constant force remontoire mechanism ensuring that the power for the balance wheel does not wane, so that amplitude and rate remain consistent, leading to superior precision. Having drawn inspiration from the Oldenzaal tower clock’s own remontoire and adapted it for a watch movement, the Grönefelds have displayed their creativity and savoir-faire in this best-selling timepiece that was voted Best Men’s Watch at the 2016 Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix (watchmaking’s Oscars).
Grönefeld sources approximately 99 per cent of components from the best Swiss suppliers, while finishing, assembly and testing are performed in-house in Oldenzaal. Everything is manufactured in Switzerland except for the leather straps. As the brand only uses the best-quality parts, it can’t find Dutch firms able to produce high-precision watch components and it is such a small company that it can’t buy machines for production because it wouldn’t have enough work to keep them busy. Bart notes, “I’ve spoken to many people and they say we have more Swiss parts in our watches than some Swiss brands, except we cannot write ‘Swiss made’ on them because we aren’t based in Switzerland.”
“Developing new movements is very time-consuming. But to stand out, we must continue to surprise the crowd. This can only be done with original products.
He goes on to describe the main difficulties facing independent watchmakers, “Developing new movements is very time-consuming. But to stand out, we must continue to surprise the crowd. This can only be done with original products. It means very high financial investments in precious metals and unique movement parts. We are quite happy that we are a self-contained family business. Usually big brands launch many different models each year; they can afford if one or two models don’t sell so well. Grönefeld launches just one new model every two years, so failure is not an option. Sure, it has been a financial and emotional rollercoaster, but every year, it is getting smoother and smoother.”