With my white lab coat, sterile white gloves, and disposable dust covers over my shoes, I feel like a brain surgeon in training as I bend over the microscope. But I'm not in a hospital, and the man explaining what I'm looking at is not a doctor. He's a Swissmaster watchmaker, I'm in the Patek Philippe watch factory in Geneva, and, as far as I can tell, the only things watchmaking and brain surgery have in common are that they are both extremely technical and involve parts too small to see with the naked eye.
I'm looking at a single gear that's so small on the watchmaker's white-gloved fingertip, it looks like a black speck. Under magnification, though, it's apparent that it is in fact a gear, with more than 30 teeth around it. Since mechanical watches (those without batteries or electronics) are powered by springs, wheels, and gears, friction is an adversary, and in the very finest watches, every possible part is polished for smooth functioning. To my amazement, this includes the space between every single minuscule tooth, and as I look on, the most patient woman in the world uses a tiny file to methodically polish a tiny gear, held with tiny tweezers, under a microscope. In the tray on her desk, there are hundreds of impossibly small gears awaiting their turn, and on either side of her, dozens of other workers polish more gears, along with miniature wheels, metal plates, arms, and screws. Once every little part is meticulously polished and rigorously examined for flaws, they move on to a watchmaker for assembly.
Patek, which is among the most collectible watch brands on earth, produces about 7,000 different types of components for their watches' movements (including gears and 400 different types of wheels), and as I watch these perfectionists at work, it suddenly becomes very reasonable to me that the company's watches start around $7,700 and can reach a staggering three-quarters of a million dollars. For that princely sum, and after spending some time on the waiting list, you can purchase a watch from the Grand Complications Collection, which takes a single master watchmaker more than six months of full-time effort to assemble. No wonder they say time is money.
Swiss watches are justifiably famous, and the vast majority of them are made in one place - the Jura region, which starts in Geneva and sweeps northeast in a series of valleys that stretch for about two hours when driven by car. Known as the cradle of watchmaking, it was in the Jura region that wristwatches were born, and to this day, most of the fine watch firms in the world, from Rolex to Breguet to Vacheron Constantin to Omega, reside here.
In a very real sense, Swiss watchmaking is a product of the land and the people of the Jura. Despite the region's close proximity to the city, the valleys are rugged and rural and guarded by steep passes that used to be impassable during winter and which today even are still difficult. The hardy settlers of the Joux Valley, closest to Geneva and the towns to its north, lived off the land as farmers, but in winter, when the region was blanketed with snow and cut off from the outside world, there was no farming to be done. So the settlers developed other productive skills, and in their farmhouses, by candlelight, they became masterful builders of the then-popular music boxes, which required painstaking construction.