You’d be hard-pressed to find a Swiss watch brand unrepresented in Geneva. Most, if not all, of the important Swiss brands have presence in this “cradle of watchmaking” city, be it in boutiques, company headquarters, or actual manufactures. Geneva’s history, after all, has been steeped in watchmaking since the sixteenth century, when escaping French Protestants flocked to the Swiss city to escape prosecution from the largely Catholic France. French-speaking Geneva was then the stronghold of John Calvin, who was the main proponent of the eponymous Christian reformation theology; Calvinism.
Call it serendipity or, perhaps more aptly, an act of God, but the majority of the Huguenots— the French Protestants—were craftsmen and artisans, many of them master watchmakers. Now Calvinism was known for its simple, stringent lifestyle and Geneva’s famed resident goldsmiths and jewelers were undoubtedly in a quandary because wearing jewelry was banned. So, when the watchmakers came in, it was salvation, as said goldsmiths turned to a new career.
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Geneva soon became the hub of fine watchmaking, once even having 600 watchmakers in a population of 20,000. Eventually, watchmakers moved out of the oversaturated city and into surrounding cantons, along the Jura Mountains all the way to Basel (this is known as the watch trail, stretching around 300 kilometers south to north). Still, Geneva remains the center of haute horlogerie. The prestigious Poinçon de Genève or Geneva Seal requires, among at least 11 other things, that the watch be assembled in the canton of Geneva. Also, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) has been holding its exclusive watch exhibition in the city for the past 23 years.
Armed with a good pair of walking shoes, you can imbibe this rich watch culture just by walking around the Geneva town center. Start at the hard-to-miss Genovese landmark: the Jet d'Eau, the water fountain that sprays water 140 meters in the air. It once regulated the hydraulic power used by the city's craftsmen, but now is largely a tourist attraction. Then you can take a leisurely walk, circumnavigating Geneva Lake (or Lac Leman, as the other cantons that surround it prefer the lake to be called) on the Promenade du Lac, enjoying the view of the buildings with watch brands' signage on the roofs on the opposite bank. Don't be surprised to encounter joggers, bikers, and scooter riders making their way down your path; ped power is one of the best ways to get around the city. Also, don't be surprised by the swans, ducks, and assortment of birds using their own footwork to swim in the lake.
If you go left of the Jet D'Eau, you'll encounter another landmark, the Flower Clock ET—with its record-setting seconds hand, which is 2.5 meters long—right by the entrance of the Jardin Anglais. The clock is covered by 6,500 flowers and these are changed seasonally. A few more meters down, just past the Pont du Mont-Blanc, the largest bridge connecting the left and right banks of the Lac Leman, is an old-school timekeeper, a large sundial on the Quai du General-Guisan. On a sunny day, you not only will be able to tell the time, but the date as well. The road behind the dock is the famous Rue du Rhone, a long street lined with high-end luxury brand boutiques, from Chanel to Louis Vuitton and, yes, Audemars Piguet to Van Cleef & Arpels. And even if you're not in shopping mode, a visit to Rue du Rhone is in order if only to see the Piaget Time Gallery, which showcases timepieces from their 130 years of history. The Breguet boutique, on the other hand, has a small manufacture area with watchmakers, engravers, and guillocheurs—and you can watch them at work.
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Onwards, on the Pont de la Machine, is the Cite du Temps, an old pumping station that the Swatch Group converted into a restaurant-museum-event area. There is a permanent tribute to Swatch on the top floor of the building (which is only apt, given that Swatch resuscitated the Swiss watch industry in the 80s), but the rest of the museum space is given to transient exhibits. The restaurant Au Phil du Temps is run by Philippe Chevrier Le Traiteur, caterer to most of the luxury companies and major events in the city, and including some of the brands at SIHH. They also serve local wines (which are superb) and beers.
Beyond the Pont d la Machine is the Quai de I’lle, where you can find the tower clock with three faces—all that remains of a twelfth century fortress that burnt down in 1670. Before the advent of standard time, the clock showed the times in Geneva, Paris, and Berne. This is also the historic site where Vacheron Constantin opened their very first workshop—a fact that they paid tribute to with the launch of the Quai de l’ile collection (these watches can be personalized to a degree, just like the watches they used to make in the workshop). In fact, despite having manufactures in Plan-les-Ouates and Le Brassus, Vallée de Joux, Vacheron Constantin still has its headquarters and manufacture in the very same place.
The Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva is considered one of the world's foremost horology museums. Patek Philippe honorary president Philippe Stern explains how the fantastic collection spanning more than 2000 exhibits originated. It includes portable mechanical timepieces from the 16th century until 1839, Patek Philippe timepieces from 1839 until today, as well as automata and enamel miniatures that promoted Geneva's reputation around the world. The museum also has a library with over 8000 publications on time and time measurement. @patekphilippe #patekphilippe #lovemyjob
One place that you must make time for is the Patek Philippe Museum. It’s on rue des Vieux-Grenadiers; a distance from most of the sites from the lake, but definitely worth the extra walk. You’d need half a day to fully appreciate the museum or at least two hours. It not only shows the highlights from Patek Philippe’s illustrious 175-year history, but also presents a timeline of watchmaking history starting from the sixteenth century and a wonderful collection of antique timepieces. There are guided tours available, even for children as young as six (pre-booking is required, though). Of course, there are a myriad of sights and experiences to be had in Geneva, and most can be enjoyed on foot (heads up, though: almost everything, save the restos and bars, close early). So, take the time to see time and take in the other sites as well.
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 12 No 2 2014.
Photographs by Rheea Hermoso-Prudente and David Celdran