The Most Interesting Museum in Geneva

June 20, 2019

Though I’d read the recent headlines that a Patek Philippe pocket watch had sold at auction in Geneva for a record-breaking $24 million, they’d registered with me more as a vertigo-inducing oddity than as something that might stoke my personal curiosity. So in spite of the flawless accuracy of the Swiss-made wristwatch I’ve been wearing for the last 20 years, I almost miss an appointment at what turns out to be one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited.

When it is floated over lunch, this outing strikes me as something my friends are dutifully suggesting as a way of keeping me entertained. But I don’t need to be entertained, and I frankly can’t imagine the interest of visiting a watch museum, which I assume will, doubtless, be dull, a lot of watches tucked away in dimly lit glass cases.

To be perfectly honest, it is my fault, too. I only end up visiting the Patek Philippe Museum after I’ve politely done everything I can think of to avoid it. The idea of going to the museum isn’t mine, you see, but comes from friends I am visiting in Geneva, their hometown.

As it turns out, the name of the venerable watch-maker Patek Philippe’s museum tour—“A Legacy of Genius”—is very much an understatement. The history of watchmaking isn’t just a grand-slam testament to human ingenuity, but also offers a suite of fascinating and often magnificent miniature lessons in the broader currents of Western and Eastern art history, sociology and economic history. Who knew? Not me.

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Fortunately, my friends persist, and so on a sunny Saturday afternoon so clear it is thrillingly easy to see the saw-tooth, snow-capped Alps on the horizon, we head to Geneva’s Quartier des Plainpalais, an old, formerly industrial neighborhood where many of the city’s famous watch companies once had their ateliers. Here on a quiet side street, the Patek Philippe Museum, which the watchmaker opened in 2001 in one of its former ateliers—Ateliers Reunis S.A. produced watch cases, bracelets and chains here for Patek Philippe—occupies a handsome limestone-faced art-deco building with very large windows and an elegant vestibule detailed with lots of polished brass. Together, at first glance it all brings to mind the offices of a private bank rather than a museum.

The museum’s interior—warm but decidedly refined—is the result of a collaboration between Gerdi Stern, the wife of Philippe Stern, president of Patek Philippe, and the Groupement d’Architectes SA. After Stern made the decision to put his family’s collection of over 2,000 timepieces and automats on public display, Madame Stern, who had successfully renovated the Chateau Blanc, where the company now has its workshops, in Geneva’s Plan-Les-Ouates district, was invited to oversee the project. The soft lighting, plush carpeting and rich, custom-made wood display cases that she chose for the museum emphasize the beauty of the objects on display in a setting both welcoming and intimate.

My friends arrange for an English-speaking guide, the charming and very knowledgeable Sylvia Graa, and our visit begins on the ground floor where several traditional watchmakers’ work stations are displayed. What is immediately engaging about looking at the watchmakers’ tools is that it is possible, by visually following the way the hand- milled metal gears, wheels and shafts fit together, to guess at how some of the intricate machinery actually works. “The mission of the museum is to tell the story of portable watches from the 16th through the 20th centuries,” Madame Graa explains. “But the real magic of this story is that all of the pieces contained in Patek Philippe watches are made with the latest technology machines and then hand-finished to offer the greatest precision possible, as they did when the company opened in 1839.”

Among the most impressive of the machines on display is an original 18th-century face-lathe, an invention that completely transformed the history of watchmaking by making it possible to produce hollowed-out watch cases. Previously, watch mechanisms had been mounted between two small metal plates, a difficult operation because it was impossible to check the proper functioning of the wheels behind the top plate as it was being matched to the tiny pillars that supported it on the lower one. So the invention of the hollowed-out metal watch case presaged the invention of the wristwatches that have become the standard time- keeping devices of the modern world.

“As the watchmakers will tell you, every machine has its own character,” Mme. Graa says. “Certain machines are better for certain tasks than others. The performance of the machines varies with the weather and changes of temperature, too. With these handmade machines, every part produced is unique. We may not be able to see it with the naked eye, but the watchmakers in the Patek Philippe atelier can tell who made each dial when they look at it under a loupe, for example.”

The third floor of the museum houses the Patek Philippe archives and its library, which constitutes one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of books and manuscripts devoted to timekeeping and watchmaking—including works by Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens. (The latter invented the hair spring that allowed watches to have second hands.) Our tour begins in earnest on the second floor. When we stop to examine a magnificent gilt and chased German-made drum watch dating to 1530-40, Mme. Graa explains that, since most people at the time lived their daily lives according to the simple rhythms of sunrise and sunset, the earliest portable watches were very rare emblems of prestige and wealth reserved for the nobility and clergy.

London, Paris and several German cities were the centers of the watchmaking trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, and watches were conceived as much as pieces of jewelry as they were timepieces. As conspicuous symbols of affluence, watches were designed to be ostentatious, even provocative, decorative objects. I see watches in the form of the Cross of the Order of the Holy Spirit, a human skull and a dolphin. The creation of watch cases and dials with intricate enamel paintings depicting mythological or religious themes, frequently inspired by the works of the most famous artists of the time, began in the early 17th century, first in France and then elsewhere in Europe. “They were meant to be petits merveilles [little marvels],” Mme. Graa observes as we gaze at a collection of them.

What turned Switzerland into the pre-eminent watchmaking nation it is today was the migration of French Protestant watchmakers to Geneva and the region around Neuchâtel in anticipation of and after the 1685 revocation by French King Louis XIV of the Edict of Nantes, King Henry IV’s 1598 proclamation that guaranteed the rights of French Protestants in Catholic-majority France. Geneva was the somewhat austere bastion of Jean Calvin, the father of Calvinism, who frowned on jewelry and other extravagances, but who made an exception for watches, which were respected for the regularity they could impose upon work hours.

After watchmaker Huygens invented the balance spring in 1675, it was no longer necessary to reset watches several times a day to ensure their accuracy. The balance spring allowed for the addition of second hands to watch faces, and the watch evolved from an object of prestige to an essential tool of daily life for Europe’s rapidly growing bourgeoisie. Simultaneously, the durability of watches allowed them to be incorporated into a variety of other items at the beginning of the 18th century, including a walking stick with a watch in its fob and pendants worn on ladies’ belts and rings.

This trend reached its apogee by the end of the 18th century, and today that period is known as the golden age of fancy timepieces. Watches were fitted into everything from decorative keys, perfume flasks, sewing kits and opera glasses to tobacco jars, candy boxes and knives. As tiny but dazzling expressions of both the metallurgical and horological arts, facetiously droll tromp l’oeil watches were created in the shapes of miniature animals, musical instruments, fruits, flowers, baskets and keys. At this time, too, watches designed as souvenirs of Grand Tour visits to Geneva, Montreux and the Alps made their debut and began to boost Switzerland’s reputation as the world’s nee plus ultra watch producer.

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Deeper into the collections, watches fabricated by Patek Philippe and other producers for specific markets—Turkey and China, for example—reveal 19th-century Western perceptions of those countries. And also that Patek Philippe’s technological acumen has often been matched by the shrewdness of its marketing. It was the 19th century and already the company was designing watches to hit certain cultural aesthetic sweet spots and sell.

Considering the international DNA of the company, which was founded by Polish count Antoine Norbert de Patek in Geneva in 1839 (Frenchman Jean- Adrien Philippe became his business partner after a first meeting in Paris in 1844), this isn’t surprising. But Patek’s true ambitions for the company always spun on an axis of quality and innovation. It was because Philippe had invented the stem-winding system for watches that eliminated the need for a separate key that Patek first became interested in partnering with him.

Dazzled and amused as I am by my time at the Patek Philippe Museum, the main reason I’m so glad of my visit is that, because every one of the watches displayed reflects a different concept of the beauty, utility and urgency of time at a specific moment in history, I am forced to muse on the value I assign to the sweep of a second hand in my own life. And just as I begin contemplating this, a soft-spoken man in a gray flannel suit approaches to say the museum is closing. The one verity about time that transcends the centuries is that you never have enough of it.