Geneva clocks! Exploring the swish Swiss city that’s the world’s capital of time
Municipal Rolex watches and names such as Breitling, Vacheron Constantin and Baume & Mercier adorn the tops of buildings on the Quai des Bergues. From the moment you arrive in Geneva, there is no doubt that you are in the capital of the times.
References to watchmaking are everywhere, from the obvious to the hidden: from the imposing building of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which occupies an island in the center of the city, to the chiming clock with automatons hidden in the Passage Malbuisson.
Even the iconic Jet d’Eau, which rockets from the lake to a height of 140 meters, owes its existence to this ancient art, as water supplied Geneva’s atelier.
Teresa Levonian Cole makes a timely visit to Geneva – the world capital of time (stock 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 surplus – thus Jet was born in 1886.
A walk along a physical timeline begins at the Flower Clock. Composed of 6,500 seasonal plants and with the longest seconds hand in the world (2.5 meters), this classic photo stop is under 24-hour surveillance due to its precious mechanism – a gift to the city in 1955 by the famous watchmaker, Patek Philippe.
After all, thieving villains are not unknown even in this most law-abiding city.
The story goes that a Charles Cusin, having advanced the funds to repair the clock in the Place du Molard, disappeared in 1590 with the money, never to be seen again.
To prevent further skullduggery and ensure quality, the Watchmaker’s Guild of Geneva was founded in 1601 – the first of its kind in the world.
What, I wondered, would Jean Calvin have made of the bejeweled timepieces that lined the Rue du Rhône, Geneva’s most fashionable shopping street? For if the meteoric rise of watchmaking in Geneva could be attributed to any individual, it would be to the stern Protestant reformer.
It was he who invited the first Huguenots (Protestants fleeing Catholic France) to Geneva in 1550. Many were goldsmiths, jewelers and enamellers who had to find new uses for their skills as Calvin’s doctrine forbade frivolous luxury. Since watches were practical, however, they were exempt from the ban.
The iconic Jet d’Eau, which rockets from Lake Geneva to a height of 140 meters
A Patek Philippe watch in Geneva
So the artisans of Geneva turned their hand to watchmaking—a laborious craft performed on the upper floors of buildings to maximize the availability of light. You can still see the windows of these former cabinotiers along the Rue des Étuves.
By the late 18th century, Calvin’s utilitarian ideals were stretched to breaking point. Clocks were hidden in the form of everything mango, from mangoes to mandolins. Fans, lorgnettes and even decorative pistols became frames for clocks.
A pair of pistols (The Sentimental Duel, c. 1805) – decorated with gold, enamel, pearls and precious stones – has a clock in its rounded grip and fires a perfumed enamel flower from the barrel when the trigger is depressed.
This is among the 2,500 astonishing exhibits in the Patek Philippe Museum, whose collection spans astrological timepieces from the 13th century to the present day.
One floor is dedicated to Patek Philippe’s own creations, since 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, Czars Alexander II and Nicholas II were among the recipients of this largesse – most of which happened to meet a sticky, untimely end.
Not so Queen Victoria, who lived to a ripe old age.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 she bought a Patek Philippe key-winding pendant watch with rose-cut diamonds in cornflower blue enamel on gold. Philippe, who had recently invented the stem-wound watch, was so horrified that the monarch had to be saddled with an old-fashioned key mechanism that he presented her with a keyless model with diamonds set in (fitting) royal blue enamel – cutting edge technology at the time. Both can be admired side by side.
Teresa takes a walking tour of Geneva, starting at the stunning Flower Clock (above, pictured in June 2019), which has the longest seconds 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 urology before disassembling and reassembling a mechanical movement under the beady eye of a master.
The barely visible screws, even on a standard size watch, made me wonder about the creator of an 11mm ring watch for Marie Antoinette – which speaks volumes for the science of optics in the 18th century.
After such focused concentration, the open lake and mountain views at my hotel, La Réserve, were balm for the soul. And where more appropriate to relax than in the time machine is their rejuvenating spa.
I emerged ten years younger and ready to retox, with timely cocktails at the bar.