Municipal Rolex watches and names like Breitling, Vacheron Constantin, and Baume & Mercier adorn the tops of buildings on the Quai des Bergues. From the moment you arrive in Geneva, you will be in no doubt that you are in the time capital of the world.
References to watchmaking are everywhere, from the obvious to the hidden: from the imposing building of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie that occupies an island in the center of the city, to the chiming clock with automatons hidden within the Passage Malbuisson.
Even the iconic Jet d’Eau, which shoots out of the lake at a height of 140 meters, owes its existence to this ancient art, when the water supplied the Geneva workshops.
Teresa Levonian Cole makes a timely visit to Geneva, the world capital of time (file image)
When the craft and watchmaking workshops closed, the hydraulic factory that had supplied them with water from the Rhône had to install a safety valve to release the excess; thus, in 1886, the Jet was born.
A walking tour along a physical timeline begins at the Flower Clock. Made up of 6,500 seasonal plants, and with the longest second hand in the world (2.5 meters), this classic photo-stop is guarded 24 hours a day thanks to its precious mechanism, a gift to the city in 1955 from the illustrious watchmaker Patek Philippe . .
Scoundrel thieves, after all, are not unheard of even in this very law-abiding city.
The story goes that in 1590, a certain Charles Cusin, having received the funds to repair the clock in the Place du Molard, absconded with the cash and was never seen again.
To prevent further trickery and ensure quality, the Geneva Watchmakers’ Guild was founded in 1601, the first of its kind in the world.
I wondered what Jean Calvin would have made of the jeweled watches strolling down the Rue du Rhône, Geneva’s most elegant shopping street. For if anyone could be credited with the meteoric rise of watchmaking in Geneva, it would be that austere Protestant reformer.
It was he who invited the first Huguenots (Protestants fleeing Catholic France) to Geneva in 1550. Many were goldsmiths, jewelers, and enamelers who had to find a new use for their skills, since Calvin’s doctrine forbade frivolous luxury. . Watches, however, being practical, were exempt from the ban.
The iconic Jet d’Eau, which shoots up from Lake Geneva to a height of 140 meters
A Patek Philippe watch in Geneva
So the craftsmen of Geneva turned to watchmaking, a complicated craft that is performed on the upper floors of buildings to maximize the availability of light. The windows of these old cabinets can still be seen, along the Rue des Étuves.
In the late eighteenth century, Calvin’s utilitarian ideals were stretched to breaking point. Clocks were hidden in the form of bijou, from mangoes to mandolins. Fans, lorgnettes, and even ornamental pistols became frames for clocks.
A pair of pistols (The Sentimental Duel, circa 1805), decorated with gold, enamel, pearls, and precious stones, incorporates a clock in its rounded grip and shoots a scented enamel flower from the barrel when the trigger is pulled.
This is one of 2,500 mind-blowing exhibits at the Patek Philippe museum, whose collection spans astrological clocks from the 13th century to the present.
One floor is dedicated to Patek Philippe’s own creations, dating back to 1839, and includes watches gifted to royalty by Patek. Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, Empress Sissi of Austria, Umberto I of Italy, Alexander I of Serbia, Tsars Alexander II, and Nicholas II were among the recipients of this largesse, most of whom, coincidentally, met a messy and unexpected end. inopportune.
Not so Queen Victoria, who lived to a ripe old age.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851, he bought a Patek Philippe wind-up pendant watch set with rose-cut diamonds in cornflower blue enamel on gold. Philippe, who had recently invented the wind-up watch, was so dismayed that the monarch had to be saddled with an antiquated key mechanism, that he presented her with a keyless wind-up model, set with diamonds in (appropriately) royal blue enamel: Technology peak at the time. Both can be admired side by side.
Teresa takes a walking tour of Geneva that begins at the incredible Flower Clock (above, pictured in June 2019), which has the longest second hand in the world.
A watchmaking course, at Initium, left me in no doubt about the complexity of even an ‘uncomplicated’ watch. I studied the history and theory of watchmaking before disassembling and reassembling a mechanical movement under the watchful eye of a master.
The barely visible screws, even on a standard size watch, amazed me at the maker of an 11mm ring watch for Marie Antoinette, which speaks volumes for the science of optics in the 18th century.
After so much concentration, the open lake and mountain views of my hotel, La Réserve, were a balm for the soul. And what better way to unwind than in the time machine that is your rejuvenating spa.
I walked out ten years younger and ready to retox, with well-timed cocktails at the bar.