Millions of tourists visit Switzerland every year for its famous Alpine ski resorts and five-star spas on pristine lakes, but watch lovers know another Switzerland that combines the thrill of horological discovery with breathtaking scenery. Instead of the resorts and casinos of Lugano or the glamour and excitement of St. Moritz and Gstaad, they are drawn to the hamlets of Fleurier and the charms of Lake Neuchâtel, and instead of Alps, they savor the scenic peaks and valleys of the rugged Jura Mountains. This is the birthplace of watchmaking, a mecca for watch aficionados and the perfect destination for anyone looking for beauty off the beaten track.
The Watch Trail, as it is known, begins in Geneva and runs north, roughly along the French border, for about 300 miles, ending in Basel, where the famous Swiss watch trade fair takes place every year. Along the way are some of the most beautiful and fascinating areas of Switzerland: pristine lakes, scenic hiking trails and wonderful local inns and restaurants, all dotted with the museums and manufactures of the country’s elite watch brands. This is where the Swiss, as well as the world’s watch aficionados, come to be impressed. The region is full of delightful surprises, not only scenically but gastronomically. Even in the most remote villages of the Jura, you can dine on local foods and wines that rival world-class cuisine, all served with local hospitality.
In this guide through Swiss timepiece territory, top watch brands are listed according to location. While some allow public tours on scheduled days, most are only open to the public by appointment, so it’s wise to contact them in advance. Many have on-site museums with opening hours to the public.
BRANDS: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Frederique Constant, Harry Winston, F.P. Journe, Roger Dubuis, Cartier, Franc Vila, Jean Dunand, DeLaneau, Bovet, DeWitt, Antoine Prezuiso, FP Journe.
Geneva is the founding city of luxury watchmaking, and if you stand on the left bank of the bay where Lake Geneva meets the Rhône River, you can see the neon signs of the head offices of the elite brands along the right bank, including Patek Philippe and Rolex. It all started when, in the mid-16th Century, French theologian John Calvin made Geneva the world headquarters of Reformation Protestantism. Deeply conservative, Calvin legislated a ban on the wearing of elaborate clothing and jewelry, but considered watches as practical and therefore respectable. Before long, Protestant watchmakers from France, Italy and Flanders flocked to Geneva, where they plied their trade to a population that craved the only acceptable form of adornment. Today, Geneva is not only the headquarters of high-end watchmaking, it has become one of Europe’s great cities, with some of the world’s top hotels and restaurants.
* Patek Philippe Museum, 7 Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers: This beautiful, art deco building houses what is essentially the private collection of the Stern family, which owns Patek Philippe, the world’s most prestigious watch brand. It is a breathtaking collection, dating from 1839, and includes some of the auction record-setting watches set by the brand, including the world’s most complicated watch. The museum also showcases a large collection of pieces from Genevan, Swiss and other European horological masters, including a large collection of enameled watches, automata and miniatures, some dating from the 16th century.
* Watch and Clock Museum: This museum, located at 15 Rte. de Malagnou, features clocks, ornamental pocket watches, wristwatches, automata, enamels and tools.
* The Malbuisson Clock, in the “Passage Malbuisson” was created by watchmaker Edouard Wirth. The clock presents a daily battle re-enactment of the Escalade, the 1602 Savoy attack on Geneva. Every hour on the hour, the 16 bells of the clock chime, while 42 bronze figurines and 13 chariots make a procession.
* The Cornavin Hotel Clock, 33 Blvd. James-Fazy, is the largest mechanical clock in the world, measuring 30 meters high and two meters wide, with a 26-meter pendulum. It is eight floors high..
* The Flower Clock in the Jardin Anglais on the right bank of the city is a masterpiece of technology and floral art. Built in 1955, it has the largest second hand in the world, and is decorated with over 6,500 plants and flowers of numerous varieties. The city changes the assortment every year.
* Restaurants and hotels: Le Lion D’Or has a world-class menu, exclusive wines and beautiful views of Lake Geneva. For traditional Swiss fondue and raclette, visit Restaurant Les Armures in the Hotel Les Armures in the heart of the old town. Top lakefront hotels include Hotel President Wilson and D’Angleterre.
THE SOUTHERN JURA AND THE VALLÉE DE JOUX: LE BRASSUS, LE SENTIER, L’ABBAYE.
BRANDS: Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet, Blancpain, Vacheron Constantin.
The Vallée de Joux is, along with Neuchâtel, the birthplace of Swiss horology. The farmers in the remote villages of the valley took up watch and clock making to pass the long winter nights, working in their homes by candlelight. Watchmaking became a flourishing cottage industry and still is today. Eventually the assembleurs – who cased all the components into finished watches – built manufactures, factories that use a combination of machines and hand crafting, most of which are still in operation. There are three main municipalities in the Vallée de Joux: Le Sentier, Le Lieu and L’Abbaye, forming the district of La Vallée. All of the villages are accessible by train, but renting a car will allow you to explore the spectacular scenery on the winding roads through the Jura and discover the wonderful local restaurants along the way.
* Hotel des Horlogers (Watchmakers Hotel), Le Brassus. This four-star hotel, about 25 miles north of Geneva, is near local watch manufactures and Lake de Joux, where sailing, water skiing and other water sports are available. It has a traditional chalet-style restaurant, serving fondue, and weekend packages that include visits to local watchmaking museums and boat trips
on the lake. The hotel also organizes a tour that involves visiting a local watchmaker for a lesson in horology at the Watchmaking Initiation Center (see below).
* Watchmaking Initiation Center, Le Sentier. Spend a day with watchmaker Olivier Piguet and learn to disassemble and then reassemble a mechanical watch. Participants keep their watches at the end of the lesson. Piguet receives visitors in a historical workshop, where he shares his theoretical and practical knowledge of the mechanical watch. For reservations, contact www.olivierpiguet.ch
* Sailing Camp on Lac de Joux. The Vallée de Joux Sports Center on Lac de Joux gives individual and group lessons, including weekend sailing camp packages that include accommodations and meals. www.myvalleedejoux.ch/en
* Audemars Piguet Museum. This private collection includes several of the brand’s many world firsts in watchmaking, enriched with exceptional creations from other watchmaking craftsmen from the Vallée de Joux.
* Espace Horloger, Le Sentier: This museum recounts a full history of watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux.
BRANDS: Vaucher, Chopard, Parmigiani Fleurier and Bovet.
A few miles northeast, in the picturesque Val-de-Travers region, is the village of Fleurier, on the Areuse River. The Areuse supplied the hydro-energy needed for the watchmaking industry, which started in the village around 1730. A network of well-maintained footpaths, hiking and mountain-biking trails leads through the tranquil landscape, following the bends of the river.
* The former Benedictine Monastery of Saint-Pierre in the neighboring village of Môtiers produces Mauler, the notable sparkling wine. Guided tours and wine-tasting sessions are available.
* Don’t miss the spectacular view of Fleurier and the Val de Travers from the Chapeau de Napoléon restaurant atop the mountain of the same name (shaped like Napoleon’s hat). The food is fresh, local and superb. Fondue is a specialty.
THE NORTHERN JURA: NEUCHÂTEL, LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, LE LOCLE, VILLERET, ST IMIER
BRANDS: Cartier, Panerai, Bulgari, Omega, Montblanc, Hermes, Chanel, Girard-Perregaux, TAG Heuer, Greubel Forsey, Ebel, Corum, Longines, Ulysse Nardin, Zenith, Minerva, Montblanc.
NEUCHÂTEL: A 900-year old clock tower chimes the time in this city of watchmaking which, along with nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its design as a center of watchmaking as a cottage industry, with residential and semi-industrial buildings mixed together. It was the home of Abraham Louis Breguet, the most famous watchmaker and inventor of many horological mechanisms, including the tourbillon. The city is located on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, with the Jura mountains rising steeply in the background and the Alps visible across the lake.
* Hotel Palafitte: Among the many things the Swiss do very well are two standouts: watchmaking and hospitality. The Hotel Palafitte has 40 rooms designed as individual over-water bungalows built on piles over Lake Neuchâtel, with stunning views from private decks. Originally built for the Swiss National Exhibition more than 10 years ago, the hotel has become a regional landmark and is the only over-water hotel in Europe.
* Also located lakeside (though not right on the lake) is the majestic Beau Rivage, an old-world, elegant, five-star hotel. Among the many services and packages offered is a weekend for two that includes, in addition to two-night’s accommodation and gourmet meals, a trip to a local watchmaker’s workshop where you can build your own mechanical watch.
* The Time Trail: A panoramic funicular railway runs from Neuchâtel to Chaumont, offering superb views of the lakes and the mountains. Descend back to Neuchâtel via the Time Trail, a 4,500-meter path with stations representing the evolution of life on Earth placed along the way. www.neuchateltourisme.ch
LA CHAUX DE FONDS
The city of La Chaux-de-Fonds is one of the focal points of the Swiss watchmaking industry and the home of the country’s famous watchmaking school, WOSTEP. The town was built according to a special “city-factory” urban design, in parallel strips on which residential housing and workshops intermingle – and still do. Some of the charming houses you see in this town are actually watch factories. Watchmaking was a cottage industry at the time, with most of the trades involved – case makers, dial makers – taking place in home workshops.
* International Watchmaking Museum. In addition to constantly changing temporary exhibits, the museum displays a vast permanent collection of historic watches and clocks. It is the broadest and most comprehensive watch and clock museum in the world. The museum includes a prize collection of close to 5,000 items dating from the 16th century to modern times.
* Museum of History: This is located in a villa that preserves a typical artisan watchmaker’s quarters. It tells the story of La Chaux-de-Fonds and how this small village was transformed into a watchmaking center.
* The Longines Museum, St Imier. Located in a wing of the brand’s manufacture, one of the first to be established in the region, the museum traces the history of Longines from 1832, and in so doing, comprises one of the most comprehensive histories of Swiss watchmaking.
* The Horological Museum: Located in the nearby village of Le Locle in a late 18th century manor house, it contains a large historical collection of clocks, watches and automata.
BRANDS: Omega, Breitling, Concord, Swatch Group
This city, like Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds, grew on the strength of the watch industry, which remains its top industry. It is officially bilingual, hence the double name, one in French and one in German. It sits on a lake of the same name, with the foothills of the Jura behind it. The small but beautiful historic center, with its gothic church, impressive guild halls and fountains decorated with flowers, is great for strolling.
* Omega Museum: Includes collections from key-wound pocket watches and ultra-slim quartz models to the official chronograph of NASA and award-winning chronometers. Also, it houses the first photo finish camera designed for timing the Olympic Games.
* Biel is the ideal starting point for cycling tours of the area, with a wide selection of routes to choose from in the Jura foothills or along the waterfront. The lakeside Seeland park includes several kilometers of hiking paths, including the “Vegetable Route,” with information along the way on the more than 60 varieties of vegetables cultivated in the area.
Every April, more than 100,000 buyers collectors and watch lovers travel to Switzerland to ensure they are among the first to discover the latest watch introductions at Baselworld, the world’s largest annual watch and jewelry trade show. The Basel fair is massive: 10 days before it opens, 30,000 building staff construct two- or three-storey closed booths (some with elevators and kitchens), inside a triple-airplane-hangar-sized building. Another 30,000 people staff the booths during the day. The town’s hotels book 800,000 overnight stays for visitors during the week of launch parties and celebrations. Basel is also a beautiful city, with an old town dating to the early 14th century, and beautiful paths and biking trails along the Rhine River.
* Historical Museum. A collection of timepieces made in Western European watchmaking centers, made between the 15th and 19th centuries, including sun dials, carriage clocks, enameled gold watches and timepieces made in Basel.
* Museum of Timepieces and mechanical musical instruments. Mostly pieces from private collections, including clocks, watches, pocket watches and pendant watches.
A new, free iPhone App from SwitzerlandMobility provides information on over 600 national, regional and local hiking and cycling routes in Switzerland. It includes information on over 4,000 points of interest such as overnight accommodation, skating and canoeing sites, sightseeing attractions and a full