Switzerland is very strongly identified with the watchmaking industry, otherwise known as horology. Clustered around Geneva and the Jura Mountains regions, the modern Swiss watch industry makes probably the most comprehensive range of watches of any country in the world. Products range from simple sealed-in Swatches to the complicated movements of Franck Muller. Appearances can range from the austere stainless steel of Rolex diver’s watches to the dainty jeweled face of Patek Phillippe watches.
A legacy of watch-making in Geneva
Geneva grew to be the main watchmaking region in Switzerland. Tradition has it that this came about because the religious leader Calvin preached that his followers should lead an austere lifestyle, and had to do without jewellery. Faced with a crisis, the jewelers adapted by becoming watchmakers. Watches were initially made as a cottage industry, in small farmhouse workshops.
The watch legacy can be felt in Geneva, with its famous flower clock in the English Garden. Set up in 1955, this is one of the most visible reminders of the Swiss watch industry in town. There are numerous museums in Geneva itself dedicated to watchmaking. The main Museum of the Watch and Clock Industry is currently closed due to damage from a burglary in November 2002.
The Patek Phillippe Museum is housed in a building which has housed companies related to watchmaking in the past. Built in 1919, it was previously home to gemcutters and jewelers, before settling as a home to a supplier of watch cases and bracelets which was a supplier to Patek Phillipe. The museum was opened after extensive renovation and restoration.
The visit opens on the lower level with an exhibit of the watchmaking tools of the past, with a master watchmaker as part of the scenery, working in a replica of a traditional workshop. The tour then moves on to the third floor, where visitors can inspect the archives of books and documents related to the horological arts and sciences. Or, if you prefer a briefer lesson, there are interactive multimedia displays allowing access to the horological literature.
The Swiss Watch-shop
The second level features antique watches and clocks from around the world. It features European watches from the 16th to 18th century. This was a golden era of horology, when dandies and Kings demanded gadgets to entertain and impress, and the master watchmakers of the day met the challenge. This was the era when Louis Breguet introduced innovations which were to define the modern watch and which still run on many of the watches of today. Other featured exhibits are the miniature paintings which were used for watch cases, and watches made for the Turkish and Chinese markets. The tour ends with an exhibit of Patek Phillipe’s own watches, since 1839, on the 1st Floor.
The modern watchmaking industry has since relocated outside of Geneva, with major centres in Bienne and Valee de Joux. There is a watchmaking exhibit in Valle de Joux at the Espace Horloger, with a collection that mixes art and antique watches.
Over at Bienne, you can visit the Omega Museum which has a collection of watches and other materials related to the Omega brand. Advertising over the years have highlighted Omega in sports, being the first maker of water resistant watches as well as the glamour and style of being associated with James Bond and supermodels like Cindy Crawford. Omega is a brand closely identified with the American Space Program, and it is commemorated with a display of the space suits worn in the Apollo programme from 1969 — 1972, and a command desk used in the main control room at the Houston Space Center.
No trip to Switzerland would be complete without a trip to the watch shop, and no name comes to mind as readily as Bucherer when it comes to shopping for watches. With its main shop in Lucerne, Bucherer has stores in all of the major towns of Switzerland. They sell not only major watch brands but also jewellery and the Swiss Army knife, a product almost as synonymous with Switzerland as the Swiss watch itself.
The Patek Phillippe Museum is open 2 pm — 5 pm Tuesday to Friday, and 10 am — 5 pm Saturdays. The Omega Museum is open on weekdays. Telephone appointment required (tel: +41 032 343 9211).