Christmas has been in the diary for a while and yet it always takes me by surprise. I do find the few days of enforced leisure very welcome, if slightly guilt inducing. They are usually preceded by a manic few weeks during which I must, absolutely must, get everything done before December 25. People I have not seen for ages but keep meaning 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 this lunacy is my annual disaster trip to Switzerland. It isn’t as if I am not in Switzerland 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 see watches being launched (Dubai, Peru, Argentina, California, the Hamptons, Beijing, inter alia), I usually prefer to go to the factories and see the people who actually put these things together.
Naturally, at the end of the year there are a few watch factories that I deem insufficiently visited throughout the preceding 12 months, and so as Christmas beckons with its mince pies and family 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 the cold, 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 driver who had been dispatched to the airport had gone to the wrong terminal; and even when we found each other, his four-wheel-drive Cadillac could only manage about 60kph as it rumbled and slithered all the way to Geneva. The return was equally traumatic; 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 the plane for two hours.
By those standards, my most recent trip was a roaring success. Granted, I missed my early-morning flight to Geneva on account of a pile-up that turned the M4 into a car park and the next flight was three hours later. Upon landing, I was driven into a blizzard and stuck behind more crashed vehicles on the way up into the mountains. I arrived in La Chaux de Fonds (to watches, what Detroit was to cars when the US had a motor industry) a little late for lunch, but just in time for dinner.
The following day was only marginally better, as I battled through snow and ice to Le Brassus to see Audemars Piguet. After a bit of a rocky start – they had been expecting me to leave so soon after my arrival that it barely seemed worth slowing the car down, let alone getting out – things looked up as I toured the restoration workshops. Next year, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, Audemars Piguet will be unveiling a new grande complication in the Royal Oak Offshore case. If nothing else, this will be an excuse for the showing of 16 grande complication watches (minute repeater, perpetual calendar and split-seconds chronograph) representing each decade of AP’s existence.
I had a fascinating time with the watchmakers, and spent a happy half hour rooting among boxes of components that had remained untouched since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something quite sobering about looking at a collection of tiny-toothed wheels and springs catalogued in copperplate by the hand of a long-dead Swiss watchmaker. Back then, life seemed not so much to meander as inch forward at glacial speed. According to the records, they might work for six or more years on a watch, which makes 21st-century waiting lists seem quite brief.
I am not normally one to say it, but on occasion I am glad that things move a little more rapidly these days. I was 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 soon whipped the back off to take a look at the inside. Happily, it was a simple calibre that had been widely used by makers in the 1960s, among them Audemars Piguet, and he had all the components near at hand. Given that he had been working on a minute repeater from the 1890s when I asked him for this favour, I took it as a great honour that he was deigning to sort out my simple old Cartier. I can only liken it to turning up at your local garage for a test drive and being taken for a spin by Sebastian Vettel.
This, however, adds another task to my end-of-year list. From now on, I will need, absolutely need, to travel to Audemars Piguet every December to get my old watch coaxed back into life.