When clocks, which were invented in Europe, moved from cathedrals to homes to carriages, growing ever smaller, the farmers' aptitude at small and precise manufacturing set the stage for the birth of the wristwatch, which was very much facilitated by the austeregeography. Families banding together and forming partnerships is what led to the common practice of watch firms with two names, like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, and today, there are third-and fourth-generation watchmakers in the factories of the valley's many famous brands.
The entire process of watchmaking is utterly fascinating, and Switzerland is virtually the only place to see such work being done. A watch trip to Geneva and the Jura is like a wine tour of the Napa Valley - that is, if all the best wines on earth were made in Napa.
Among watch connoisseurs, the term fine watch has a specific meaning, almost always referring to mechanical timepieces (powered by a spring). When wound, the spring oscillates and a series of gears transforms that energy into a smooth rotation of the hands, calibrated to keep accurate time. Every additional function, such as a stopwatch, date display, dual time zones, or an alarm, requires its own complete movement (another series of tiny gears). Each such function is called a complication, for literal reasons,and the most prized watches combine dozens of complications, such as moon-phase indicators and melodic chimes. Most fine watches are handmade, either in part or in whole. To understand the concept behind mechanical watches is interesting; to see it executed in miniature is breathtaking.
Despite the fact that mechanical watches are relatively imprecise and cannot rival even the cheapest quartz or digital watches for accuracy, the last few years have been a boom time for the Swiss, with one record-setting year after another. And while mechanical watches represent only about one percent of all timepieces sold, the sales of Swiss watches total more than eight billion dollars annually. As a result, almost every watch factory in the Jura has expanded, is expanding, or is expanding again.
Interestingly, watchmaking itself, and the technology behind it, is ancient and not far removed from the days when farmers worked by candlelight. The last truly great advance in mechanical watchmaking was the tourbillion movement, which radically improved accuracy -and it was introduced in 1801. Since then, almost all innovation has revolved around scale, with the goal being to shrink watches, and watchmakers compete for respect by making their best watches thinner and smaller.
The place to start a watch tour is Geneva itself, a charming city that is the bastion of French Switzerland and home to the watch museums of two top companies, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
The Patek Philippe Museum, right in downtown, features some 2,000 pieces of timekeeping history spread across three floors and dating as far back as the sixteenth century. There are plenty of examples of the company's work since its inception in 1839, but also a large collection of important historical watches and mechanical devices from other manufacturers, illustrating the evolution of the mechanical-watch movement. While Patek's factory outside the city is not open for public tours, visitors to the museum can observe a watchmaker restoring antique watches in a glass-enclosed workshop. This is a good grounding for a visit to an actual factory. Once a week, guided tours are offered through the museum, and less frequently, the staff leads watch-history walking tours of the city.