Swellboy on… Geneva at Christmas

Weather permitting, our man’s end-of-year Swiss watch tour rarely goes without incident

Image: Brijesh Patel

Christmas has been in the diary fora while and yet it always takes me by surprise. I do find the few days ofenforced leisure very welcome, if slightly guilt inducing. They are usuallypreceded by a manic few weeks during which I must, absolutely must, geteverything done before December 25. People I have not seen for ages but keepmeaning to, work that is outstanding, exhibitions that need to be seen,leftover New Year’s resolutions that have remained unfulfilled since January – all these deficiencies must be corrected.

One much-cherished aspect of thislunacy is my annual disaster trip to Switzerland. It isn’t as if I am not inSwitzerland enough to look at watches. But it is something I enjoy and, although I am asked to all manner of fancy locations around the world to seewatches being launched (Dubai, Peru, Argentina, California, the Hamptons,Beijing, inter alia), I usually prefer to go to the factories and see the peoplewho actually put these things together.

Naturally, at the end of the yearthere are a few watch factories that I deem insufficiently visited throughoutthe preceding 12 months, and so as Christmas beckons with its mince pies andfamily squabbles, I head to Geneva, where I will inevitably become snowbound.One year, I was due to go out to the city but Europe was shut on account of thecold, with the exception of Lyon. Thing was, no one had told the border-control police that the airport was open, so there was a good wait; the driverwho had been dispatched to the airport had gone to the wrong terminal; and evenwhen we found each other, his four-wheel-drive Cadillac could only manage about60kph as it rumbled and slithered all the way to Geneva. The return was equallytraumatic; while I was airborne, most British airports decided to close.Finally, even when we did find a patch to touch down on, we were kept on theplane for two hours.

By those standards, my most recenttrip was a roaring success. Granted, I missed my early-morning flight to Genevaon account of a pile-up that turned the M4 into a car park and the next flightwas three hours later. Upon landing, I was driven into a blizzard and stuckbehind more crashed vehicles on the way up into the mountains. I arrived in LaChaux de Fonds (to watches, what Detroit was to cars when the US had amotor industry) a little late for lunch, but just in time for dinner.

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The following day was onlymarginally better, as I battled through snow and ice to Le Brassus to seeAudemars Piguet. After a bit of a rocky start – they had been expecting me toleave so soon after my arrival that it barely seemed worth slowing the cardown, let alone getting out – things looked up as I toured the restorationworkshops. Next year, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie,Audemars Piguet will be unveiling a new grande complication in the Royal OakOffshore case. If nothing else, this will be an excuse for the showing of 16grande complication watches (minute repeater, perpetual calendar andsplit-seconds chronograph) representing each decade of AP’s existence.

I had a fascinating time with thewatchmakers, and spent a happy half hour rooting among boxes of components thathad remained untouched since the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. There is something quite sobering about looking at a collection oftiny-toothed wheels and springs catalogued in copperplate by the hand of a long-deadSwiss watchmaker. Back then, life seemed not so much to meander as inch forwardat glacial speed. According to the records, they might work for six or moreyears on a watch, which makes 21st-century waiting lists seem quitebrief.

I am not normally one to say it,but on occasion I am glad that things move a little more rapidly these days. Iwas wearing an old Cartier from the 1960s that had started to play up(doubtless all the snow and cold) and I asked if the chef d’atelier would cast his eye over it. He acquiesced rather graciously and had soonwhipped the back off to take a look at the inside. Happily, it was asimple calibre that had been widely used by makers in the 1960s, amongthem Audemars Piguet, and he had all the components near at hand. Given that hehad been working on a minute repeater from the 1890s when I asked him for thisfavour, I took it as a great honour that he was deigning to sort out my simpleold Cartier. I can only liken it to turning up at your local garage for a testdrive and being taken for a spin by Sebastian Vettel.

This, however, adds another task tomy end-of-year list. From now on, I will need, absolutely need, to travel toAudemars Piguet every December to get my old watch coaxed back into life.

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