Grieb and Benzinger have quite literally hand carved a niche of their own in their approach to watchmaking, and interestingly it does not involve the current trend of racing to develop costly in-house mechanical ‘manufacture’ movements. Instead, their speciality is in taking honourable vintage and antique movements and breathing completely new life into them, before housing them behind hand made dials and cases of spectacular beauty and colour. For once, they decided to remove every notes of colours to create a full black watch, the Grieb & Benzinger Pharos Centurion Imperial in Palladium with Black Diamonds.
It should be noted that Grieb and Benzinger are not restorers of old watches, but a company whose owners share a simpatico with the movements they work with. Stripping them right back to their component form before painstakingly reworking each piece, cutting by hand replacement wheels and new plates, adding decoration, heating, plating, bevelling, engraving and skeletonising to a minute level of detail and leaving them in essentially new condition, scarcely recognisable as their former selves.
The newest piece of horologic art to emerge from their castle lair in the converted washrooms of the Schloß Daetzingen is the Grieb and Benzinger Pharos Centurion Imperial. It is based on the Pharos al Arab Imperial, a luxuriously appointed piece with diamonds and colourful dial, which was originally commissioned by an Arabian collector, and uses the decentralised hours and minutes with small seconds format which features in many Grieb & Benzinger models.
Cast in palladium, a member of the platinum group of metals, it is less dense and therefore lighter, but no less lustrous than platinum. So what do they do with it? In a masterclass of understatement the exotic precious metal has been hidden away forever beneath a sleek black DLC coating. Complete with the sixty-six Princess cut black diamonds which decorate the bezel, the astonishingly accomplished hand guilloché black dial, a real black beauty of a watch it is indeed.
Beneath the sapphire crystal Jochen Benzinger’s dialwork is mesmerising. Despite being almost completely black, a theme which can dilute the effect of the workmanship, the detail is vivid and captivating. A series of deep ripples emanates from the small seconds dial at the 6 o’clock position and fan out across the dial to serve as the backdrop to the raised primary dial which carries Arabian script numerals, and the small seconds with paper-thin hand which overlaps it, like an upside-down 8.
The satin silver colour of the Breguet style hands together with the numerals and minute dots around the edge bring contrast to the dial and, unlike some watches which have been given the total black-over – including the hands, mean that it is relatively usable in all but pitch black conditions.
Inside, the manual winding movement has its origins in a 1960s development Unitas base, but here is where Hermann Grieb gets to play. The movement is stripped down and reduced to its component form, before his own screw balance and hairspring and other hand made elements such as the wheels and screws are introduced to the original. The signature ¾ plate is manufactured in-house, and like all metal parts within, has been under the engraver’s blade until virtually every surface is consumed by minutely detailed carving. Then, prior to assembly, each piece is blackened and a sapphire glass caseback exposes the pulsating black heart inside.
The fluted ‘onion’ style crown is large and therefore easy to wind the movement, but it is nicely scaled to the size of the case. The sixty-six Princess cut black diamonds form a pave of little black squares beaded around the side of the bezel and bounce away the sunlight with that distinctive glint only a diamond can possess.
The lugs protrude away from the case, stopping the alligator leather strap just shy of touching its edges.
Grieb & Benzinger by the labour-intensive and methodical nature of their approach only produce a small number of pieces each year, and so the price at €82,000 reflects the man-hours and the skills involved to create each one. And the palladium too, but shrouded in that black DLC coat, that’s a secret only the few will know.
A special thank you to Georg Bartkoviak, the unsung ‘driving force’ behind Grieb & Benzinger for his assistance to me when writing this piece.