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Geneva: The Ultimate Watch City

By Donato Andrioli
Geneva Watch Guide-2-1

After its successful 2020 launch as one of the first major live watch events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Geneva Watch Days will return this year in hybrid physical-digital form. From August 30th to September 3rd, major watch brands like Breitling and Bvlgari will put their newest trends on display. But why will all this happen in Geneva, and what made this Swiss city the center of the watch world? Read the article to find out!

When we think of Swiss luxury watches, Geneva is typically the first place that comes to mind. This is no surprise, as numerous prominent watch brands, such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, were founded in the city. Or, as in the case of Rolex, their headquarters are located in this watch capital. What’s more, we can find “Genève” proudly emblazoned on the dials of quite a few luxury timepieces. Consciously or unconsciously, this name has become shorthand for the highest levels of watchmaking and has long since engraved itself onto our minds as a marker of quality. But how did Geneva become the watch city we know and love today? Why does it represent the highest quality craftsmanship? Just in time for this year’s Geneva Watch Days, we are taking a closer look at the watch capital. We might even discover one or two other sights along the way that watch lovers can visit during the upcoming event.

Geneva and the Watchmakers: How It All Began

The history of Geneva is closely linked to watchmaking. In 1536, during the Reformation, the city converted to Protestantism and, since 1540, became an important refuge for Italian and French Protestants fleeing religious persecution. Settling into their new home, talented craftsmen – including those in the jewelry and watchmaking trades – greatly enriched the society and economy of the city of Geneva as well as the surrounding region. When reformer John Calvin introduced strict church discipline in 1541, which banned people from ostentatiously displaying jewelry and other luxury goods, the Genevan watchmakers’ hour had come. The restriction not only brought the craft of watchmaking increasingly to the fore, but it also compelled more and more jewelry makers to apply their talents to watches. Unlike jewelry, watches were seen as essential objects of daily use and, thus, were excluded from the ban. Skilled artisans perfected the art of watchmaking, thereby giving way to the birth of an entire industry. Geneva quickly developed into a capital of watches and became synonymous with the very best in watch craftsmanship.

Patek Philippe is just one of countless luxury watchmakers based in Geneva.

What Does “Genève” Represent?

But why does the name “Genève” have such a high standing in the watch world? The list of watch manufacturers based in Geneva is long, and the names it includes – such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin – are among the world’s most famous luxury watch brands. This fact alone has played a large part in launching Geneva’s reputation in the watch industry. If Swiss timepieces already represent the epitome of high-quality luxury watches, then the name “Genève” marks the crème de la crème among its class (though, needless to say, brands from other Swiss regions are nothing to sniff at!).

It’s not without good reason that many other well-known luxury watch brands have opened new locations in the watch metropolis just so they can engrave the name “Genève” on their dials. It’s comparable to the name “Glashütte,” which has a similar effect for German watches: It suggests a certain standard of know-how. But the Genevan watch industry has done much more than build up an excellent image over the past centuries. Along with the name, the city’s watchmakers have also established industry standards that represent superb quality and exemplify tremendous dedication and skill. One of these standards is the so-called “Geneva Stripes.” This pattern comes from a particular finishing technique. The broad, straight stripes are one of the most widely used and famous forms of decoration for watch movements. Another sign of quality is the “Geneva Seal.” Introduced in 1886, this seal is awarded to watches produced exclusively in Geneva and of exceptionally high quality. The conditions for earning the seal tightened in 1957 and, as of 2012, apply to the entire watch instead of just the movement. Evaluation criteria for the Geneva Seal include precision, power reserve, and water resistance, among other things.

The “Geneva Stripes” is a widely used, special technique of movement finishing.

Should watch enthusiasts travel to Geneva?

While the multifaceted city of Geneva has much to offer to any visitor, it is a true El Dorado for watch lovers. The city is a perennial favorite for large watch events, such as the annual “Watches & Wonders” (known as “SIHH” before 2020), which has essentially replaced Baselworld as the must-attend watch fair. At “Geneva Watch Days,” exhibitors like Breitling or Ulysse Nardin set up showrooms throughout the city to display their current collections. Additionally, the Geneva auction houses Christie’s and Antiquorum regularly hold auctions, where collectors can bid on some of the most coveted timepieces.

One of the most famous watch auctions is probably the Geneva Watch Auction, hosted annually by the famous auction house Phillips. At this very event last year, some pieces from Jean-Claude Biver’s collection went under the hammer. For most watch enthusiasts, simply standing in front of the headquarters of Rolex or Patek Philippe and taking a selfie would be enough of a thrill to justify a trip to Geneva. But if I were traveling to the city, my personal preference would be to visit the Patek Philippe Museum. This collection holds countless treasures for watch lovers, not to mention fascinating stories on the origins and background of this time-honored brand. Afterward, I would head over to the city’s landmark, the Jet d’Eau. Funnily enough, even this famous fountain in the middle of Lake Geneva has a connection to watchmaking. Originally, the fountain was only a couple dozen meters high and served as a pressure relief valve for the machines of watchmakers and jewelers. Later in 1891, it was moved to the lake basin and outfitted with greater water pressure. Since then, it has become a popular tourist attraction and world-famous landmark.

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About the Author

Donato Andrioli

With the purchase of my Tudor Black Bay 41, I discovered a passion for mechanical watches. I am particularly drawn to iconic watches with long and exciting histories.

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