Watch shopping in Geneva: time is of the essence

Watching brief: Downtown Geneva where watch and clock shops line many streets.
Watching brief: Downtown Geneva where watch and clock shops line many streets. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Johnston clocks into Geneva, birthplace of the world's luxury watch industry.

My train is due in Geneva at 9.43am and, as it slides to a halt, the bright-red second hand on Swiss railways' distinctive clock moves upright. Not that I'm surprised in a country renowned for immaculate timetabling and ordered precision. The Swiss are obsessed with time.

Along the Rue du Mont Blanc, which links the train station with the lake, souvenir shops tick with Swatches and paint-daubed cuckoo clocks. Across the bridge, even the city's iconic floral clock has a second hand.

A Patek Philippe pocket watch.
A Patek Philippe pocket watch. 

The floral clock is really about colourful plantings of 6500 blooms in seasonally changing patterns. Why does it need to display time to the second?

Chinese tourists seem in no hurry, loitering among the petunias for photos. I glance nervously at my watch, anxious that my tour of watchmaking Geneva hasn't been properly planned.

Swiss watchmaking got its start in 16th-century Geneva under dour religious reformer Jean Calvin, who banned frivolous accessorising, prompting dismayed jewellers to turn to clock-making instead. Today, luxury watch brands are still manufactured here. I want to stickybeak in some of its famous watch shops in the downtown shopping district.

Place Longemalle is only a block away. Luxe shopfronts gleam in this otherwise dreary grey square: Vacheron Constantin, founded in Geneva in 1755, and chic parvenu De Bethune, established only in 2002. Its titanium Dream Watch is more art object than timepiece, and other models look like science-fiction gadgets.

A security guard buzzes me into FP Journe. The floor gleams with waxed parquet, and spindly-legged gilt chairs await. The Geneva manufacturer produces only 800-odd handmade watches a year. Forget browsing: watches are laid out in front of me with white-gloved solemnity. I admire the $872,000 signature piece. "It's incredibly difficult to make, with big and small chimes that sound 36,000 times a year and have to last a lifetime," explains the salesman. "We make just three a year."

There are plenty such specialist watchmakers in town, with names known only to Swiss bankers and Russian billionaires. Along adjacent Rue du Rhone, however, more widely recognised brands Chopard, Audemars Piguet and Bucherer nestle among the fashion boutiques.

I head to the second floor at Piaget, where an exhibition space is free to the public. It's displaying delightfully retro 1960s models with faces made of jade and lapis lazuli, and featuring Piaget's famed ultra-thin mechanisms.

Further along the street is the outlet of Breguet, one of the world's oldest watchmakers and, in 1810, the first to produce a wristwatch. I prefer its classically simple watches, which are beginning to seem a bargain at $10,000 even if way above my price bracket.

Behind the opera house, I find Patek Philippe Museum, home to a grand collection of European timepieces, music boxes and miniatures.

The second floor is devoted to pre-Patek pieces. There are pocket watches from the 1630s winking with jewels and an 1830s watch created for the Chinese market which depicts an enamelled mandarin in a sky-blue gown against a background of pagodas.

Back down to the river there are little bridge-linked islands which are home to Vacheron Constantin's first workshop and the rather fun Cite du Temps. It houses the world's only permanent Swatch collection with a range of models dating back to the company's founding in 1983, from the Cardinal Puff with its angora-fur lining to the glittery 1990 Hollywood Dream.

True, Swatches aren't on a par with FP Journe or Patek Philippe but after a day of dreaming and shop-window ogling, at least I've seen something I can afford.

The writer travelled courtesy of Etihad and Geneva Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi with onward connections to Geneva. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Les Armures provides boutique charm in Geneva's old town. See hotel-les-armures.ch.

MORE INFORMATION

geneve-tourisme.ch.

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