The timeless joys of Switzerland’s fabled ‘Watch Valley’, from seeing Elvis’s $1m diamond-encrusted Omega to assembling a timepiece under the watchful gaze of a master horologer

  • Adrian Baker embarks on a four-day tour of Switzerland, which is home to some of the greatest watch brands
  • He sees Elvis’s one-off Omega on display at the City of Time, which traces the very history of time
  • He writes: ‘To be in Switzerland, home to the greatest watch brands, is a pilgrimage for any watch-lover’

The streets in Geneva’s old quarter are busy with tourists enjoying some early-autumn sun. On the Grand Rue, one of the most prestigious of these streets, lies the Initium workshop where Fabiano Pericles is about to introduce me to his craft.

The master horologer with an infectious passion for watch-making sets a daunting task. On the brightly lit workbench before me there is a complicated mechanical watch movement – an ETA 6497, to be precise. With only tweezers and a tiny screwdriver, it has to be disassembled.

You need steady hands. Piece by intricate piece, I slowly remove the tiny screws that hold the first bridge in place, the lever, the fragile wheels, the balance spring. Nothing must be touched by hand… and that’s when the nerves start to fray.

Timeless: The historic city of Geneva (pictured) has been at the heart of watch-making for centuries

Adrian Baker with a completed watch movement

If this sounds like the task from hell, it’s time to rewind a little. Since childhood I have been fascinated by watches and curious about the mastery that goes into making them. And as a collector, watches don’t just tell the time, they also mark key moments of my life. So this experience, which comes at the end of a whistle-stop four-day tour of Switzerland, in a city that has been at the heart of the world’s watch-making industry for centuries, is perfect for an enthusiast like me.

Fabiano, who is younger than me but has the demeanour of a no-nonsense teacher as well as a piercing eye for detail, checks my progress. I’ve neatly lined up all the pieces of the movement in a tray, and he seems momentarily pleased. The most difficult part of the course starts now as slowly, with help from the master, the movement takes shape again.

Bringing back to life the beating heart of a mechanical watch is a hugely satisfying process.

I’m on the introductory three-hour Alpha course, the most basic that Initium offers, which costs from £310. The most comprehensive, the Delta, is an eight-hour course where you build the whole watch, assembling the movement, choosing the strap, case, dial and hands. Costing from £2,200, it includes lunch with the watchmaker and you also get to take home the Swiss watch you have constructed (initium.ch).

To be in Switzerland, the land of experts and home to the world’s greatest watch brands, is a pilgrimage for any watch-lover like me.

After flying into Zurich, I headed to Biel/Bienne on the boundary between the French and German-speaking parts of Switzerland.

The town is home to the Cite du Temps – the City of Time – nestled between watchmaker Omega’s historic buildings and the new headquarters of The Swatch Group.

Many credit the funky designs and innovative thinking from Swatch, launched in 1983, with saving the Swiss watch industry when digital watches from China and Japan threatened to make it a relic. Now Swatch owns Omega, along with many other luxury watch brands.

There are two fabulous and very different museums in Cite du Temps: Planet Swatch and the Omega Museum. They complement each other brilliantly.

‘To be in Switzerland, the land of experts and home to the world’s greatest watch brands, is a pilgrimage for any watch-lover like me,’ writes Adrian. Pictured is Geneva’s flower clock 

Fit for the king: Elvis’s $1million diamond-encrusted watch, which is on display in the Omega Museum in Biel/Bienne

Planet Swatch is playful and cheeky, home to 6,000 Swatches with lots of interactive displays.

Go down a floor and Omega offers a different world. A gold spaceman stands outside the entrance to an IMAX-like, 360-degree cinema that opens the exhibition with a film tracing the very history of time.

The doors of the cinema open to reveal Omega land: lanes from a running track (Omega is the official timekeeper of the Olympics); a lunar landscape with a landing module (its Speedmaster Moonwatch was worn by astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969); and housed in a giant bracelet that runs the length of the museum are Omega’s exquisite timepieces from its beginnings in 1848 to the present day.

There’s even a watch fit for the King: the white gold Omega with 44 diamonds given to Elvis Presley by record label RCA in 1960 that is now worth more than a million dollars.

At the end of the tour is a homage to Britain’s most famous secret agent, with posters of James Bond actors Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan wearing Omegas – 007’s timepiece of choice since 1995.

It’s time to continue my journey through the area dubbed Watch Valley to La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. As my train sweeps through Jura, dotted between farm buildings and hills are the factories of the watch world’s biggest brands appear – such as Breitling and Patek Philippe. Their giant rooftop signs make me sit up and marvel at the wealth of expertise in the region.

One of Europe’s highest towns, at 3,200ft, is La Chaux-de-Fonds, which lies at the heart of Swiss watch-making. It was built to serve its craft. Throughout the 19th Century, thousands of buildings were constructed to house the watchmakers’ workbenches. Those buildings sit in lines on the slopes of the valley, facing the sun to allow the maximum amount of light to enter for the masters of the trade – unique architectural values that earned the town a place on Unesco’s World Heritage list. Although many of the major brands are now on the outskirts, its heritage will forever be tied to the golden age that forged its shape and design.

Back in Geneva, and with the minutes ticking down on the trip, a walk by the lake allows me to consider my next watch purchase. It simply has to be Swiss.

I head for the station and synchronise my watch with the famous Swiss clocks found on every platform of the country’s rail network.

Here’s to next time.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Adrian Baker was a guest of the Swiss Tourist Board (myswitzerland.com). Single fares with Swiss International Air Lines from Heathrow start from £76 to Zurich and from £54 to Geneva. At La Chaux-de-Fonds, Adrian stayed at Grand Hotel Les Endroits Plus (lesendroits.ch), at Neuchatel, Best Western Premier Hotel Beaulac (beaulac.ch), and at Geneva, the Hotel D Geneva (hoteld-geneva.ch).

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