Why Watchmaking Makes Geneva Tick

Why Watchmaking Makes Geneva Tick

Watchmaking is the heart of Geneva, where timepieces aren’t just functional — they’re elegant works of art By: Mark Edward Harris
<p>Several unique timepieces, such as this one manufactured by Patek Philippe &amp; Co., can be found in Geneva’s Patek Museum. // © 2016 Arnaud...

Several unique timepieces, such as this one manufactured by Patek Philippe & Co., can be found in Geneva’s Patek Museum. // © 2016 Arnaud Childeric 

Feature image (above): Timekeeping is a way of life in Geneva, which has long been known as a mecca for watchmakers. // © 2016 iStock

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In Switzerland, clocks and watches are far more than instruments created to tell time; they are objects of art. And they have been recognized as such for more than half a millennia, especially in Geneva, where “secondhand” refers to the appendage used to show minutes on a timepiece rather than something used.

In the mid-16th century, John Calvin, head of the Reformation movement, banned the wearing of jewelry, forcing Geneva’s jewelers and goldsmiths to focus their skills on watchmaking. To this day, timepieces are so respected that the lakeside city has created the Geneva Watch Tour, which features three of its most famous clocks: the Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock), consisting of 6,500 flowers; the multistory mechanical clock at Cornavin Hotel; and the Passage Malbuisson clock, which provides a musical show with its 16 chimes every hour. 

While Geneva’s Musee d’Art et d’Histoire (art and history museum) and Musee Rath often present timepiece-themed exhibitions from their archives, it’s Patek Philippe Museum, with its magnificent permanent collection of watchmaking masterpieces dating from the 16th century to the present day, that is a must-visit for any visitor to the city. 

The four-floor museum was created by Patek, a Geneva-based firm founded in 1839. Its collection extends far beyond the timepieces created by Patek, however, displaying many of the masterworks of early horology, including musical automata and portrait miniatures. History-focused, multilingual audiovisual presentations and an extensive library supplement the installations. 

Research at the museum reveals that timepieces were made possible by the invention of the mainspring, a flexible spiral spring, in the early 15th century. Craftsman made the first “taschenuhr” (clock-watches) to be worn as pendants. These early watches had only an hour hand and were powered by winding a mainspring that turned gears that moved the hand, keeping time with a rotating balance wheel, a weighted wheel that rotates back and forth. A major technical advance to improve accuracy occurred in 1657, with the addition of the balance spring to the balance wheel. 

Styles changed in the 17th century, when men began wearing pocket watches, while the woman's watch remained as a pendant. This fashion shift is credited to the introduction of waistcoats in 1675 in the court of Charles II of England. Prince Albert, the English husband of the U.K.’s Queen Victoria, introduced the “Albert chain” accessory, designed to secure the pocket watch to a man's outer garment by way of a clip. By the mid-19th century, watchmakers were producing a range of wristwatches — often marketed as bracelets — for women.

Vacheron Constantin began its illustrious business in 1755 with the creation of a silver pocket watch by founder Jean-Marc Vacheron, but it was company technical director Georges-Auguste Leschot who was a pioneer in the field of interchangeability in clockmaking by inventing specialized machines such as the pantograph in 1839. Another major tick forward occurred in the 1960s, with the creation of the quartz watch, which runs on electricity and keeps time with a vibrating quartz crystal. 

Today, the best of the best in watchmaking gather at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, an annual international fair of fine watchmaking open to industry professionals. The most prestigious names to grace the face of a timepiece congregate in Geneva for the event, from Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Rolex to Mont Blanc, Tag Heuer and Jaeger-LeCoultre. 

One doesn’t have to leave their hotel for a museum-quality mini-display of classic timepieces, though. At magnificent lodgings including Mandarin Oriental, Geneva; Grand Hotel Kempinski Geneva; and Hotel d'Angleterre Geneva, the who’s who of classic watchmaking have their high-end wares glamorously displayed. 

What would time be without Geneva? The city has the greatest concentration on the planet of mono-brand and multibrand boutiques per square kilometer. Time would still exist, of course — but it would not be nearly as elegant.