If You Have Time in Switzerland, Make Time For These Watchmaking Museums...
From the moment I arrived in Geneva, the Swiss reputation for watchmaking became inescapable. Elegant signs for luxury watches greet the arriving travelers walking from their plane through the corridor to customs and baggage. Shops throughout the city offer temptations to purchase all kinds of watches from an elegant Rolex to a colorful Swatch. Trains arrive precisely on the scheduled minute displayed by the huge Mondaine clocks which hang prominently in all the train stations above the train platforms. And, a sightseeing tour of Geneva would be incomplete without a visit to the famous Horloge Fleurie, the flower clock made from some 6,500 colorful plants covering its 16-foot-wide surface. As this route through the Swiss watchmaking industry continued, I visited two magnificent museum collections.
When I entered the Patek Philippe Museum (www.patekmuseum.com), I immediately felt underdressed for the occasion in my casual jeans and orange fleece jacket. Also, my feeling toward the Seiko watch on my wrist would never be the same. The museum reminded me of the jeweler’s shop where you are seen by appointment only. The jeweler unlocks the door to let you enter and security quietly watches from a discrete distance.
The same feels true at the Museum where it seems like a privilege to enter and security is nearby, but nothing is for sale. The contents housed here are priceless today.
On four elegant floors linked by a grand stairway, the museum displays large collections of Genevan, Swiss, and European horological art, enamels, music boxes, and portrait miniatures dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. Exhibits feature creations from Patek Philippe, one of Geneva’s more venerable watchmaking companies. The collection in the Patek Philippe Museum can only be described as jeweled masterpieces. As, I wandered around, I felt appreciation for the complicated innards of the watches, reverence for the intricate lifelike portrait miniatures, and amazement at the moving parts of the music boxes. Transfixed, I continued to return to one particular watch pendant. I was drawn hypnotically to see the delicate opal casement and enjoy the play of shimmering colors characteristic of my favorite stone, the opal. It was the one priceless piece that I will forever desire as my own. Photos are not permitted in the Museum so I have pictures to post. Let me simply say that this museum is worth seeing; and if you visit, dress a bit nicer than I did.
It is precisely a one-hour and fifty-seven minute train trip from Geneva to La Chaux-de-Fonds (www.chaux-de-fonds.ch), Switzerland’s highest city rising at 1,000 meters in the Jura Mountains. After Geneva and Lausanne, it is the third largest city in the French-speaking part of the country. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, La Chaux-de-Fonds became the center of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Today, this city has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its horological culture and related town planning of intermingled housing and watchmaking workshops. The city is also home to the second museum worth taking time to visit. The International Museum of Watch Making, with a local name the Musée International d’Horlogerie (www.mih.ch ), is a showcase for the history of timekeeping arts. The museum houses over 4,500 exhibits, including 2,700 watches and 700 wall clocks. It is considered to be among the most comprehensive watch and clock museums in the world.
The unusual assortment of clocks impressed me the most about the International Museum of Watch Making. Each design tested the limits of imagination and innovation. Clocks not only give the hour, but tracked astrological positions of stars. A sundial when reaching a certain hour fired miniature cannon. Ornate mantel clocks held cameos and golden sculptures of cranes. Smaller watches of gold and encased with jewels were once a wealthy person’s proud possession of artistic perfection. And, outside the chiming of a 20th century carillon clock made me wonder about the marvelous mechanical innovations to come in Swiss watchmaking. Photography is permitted in this Museum without use of a flash.
Patek Philippe Museum
7 rue des Vieux-Grenadines
Musée International d’Horlogerie
Rue des Musëes 29
La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland