Last week, while London was shrouded in fog, I found myself up in the clean air and bright sunshine of the Swiss Jura – the mountainous home of Swiss watchmaking. Trace an arc upwards from Geneva, as the Jura mountains curve their way along the French border towards Biel Bienne 100 miles north east, and you have what’s known as Watch Valley – the cradle of Switzerland’s great industry.
In fact it’s a series of highland valleys, lakes and villages, where two centuries ago the farming communities turned to watchmaking to keep themselves in pocket through the snowy winter months.
It’s still here that the great watch houses are nearly all assembled. You have the grand dames of Geneva – Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget – and the big hitters of the Valleé de Joux, a picture postcard lakeside area that’s home to Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Blancpain. Further along, Zenith, Corum, Tissot, Cartier, TAG Heuer and others are clustered in the towns above Lake Neuchatel, before you come to Longines and Omega in the Biel Bienne region.
Great manufactories have grown out of the tiny farmyard ateliers of old, but visiting these places you still get the wonderful sense of the proud heritage that’s tied up with fine watchmaking, that most anachronistic of luxuries in today’s high tech world. I spent time last week in the workshops of Minerva, a venerated maker of high-end chronographs that’s now owned by Montblanc, and in the haute horlogerie studios of Audemars Piguet. In both places, craftspeople still use old-fashioned techniques to create some of the most beautiful watches around – look at Alex Doak’s piece on watch decoration on page 27 to gaze at the beautiful workings of one of Minerva’s sensational movements for Montblanc’s Villeret operation. It produces just 250 watches a year.
Yes, watchmaking in the most part is a far more mechanised affair than it was, and rightfully so. But in a fine watch you’re still buying into the skill, knowledge and technical mastery not just of an industry, but a region and a way of life. That really is something special.
Timothy Barber is the editor of London Time and 0024 WatchWorld magazine