In Switzerland, see where the magic of the watch happens

GENEVA — Anyone who loves watches, collects watches, or is simply interested in watches wants only one thing: to visit a place where watches are made and see one in the making.

It’s not always that easy.

“Manufacturing” – as workshops or factories are called in Switzerland, aka watch central – is as busy producing its wares as any workplace. Additionally, in the highly competitive market for luxury watches, there is also a sense of wanting to maintain privacy, to protect how companies do what they do.

While it is not common for a watch company to open its doors to the curious unless they are Very VIP customers, some brands have created experiences such as guided tours and workshops that allow the public to take a look. But this is no Disneyland for watch fans, and some require a long drive from a major city.

For example, Zenith offers tours by reservation only once a week in Le Locle, in the Jura mountains, about 150 kilometers, or 93 miles, northeast of Geneva. In the Vallée de Joux, near the border with France, Jaeger-LeCoultre offers workshops in its Atelier d’Antoine at its headquarters in Le Sentier, as does Audemars Piguet in its Atelier Museum in Le Brassus. Vacheron Constantin and FP Journe also allow tours of their more Geneva-centric operations, but only to people they consider to be the most ardent and earnest customers.

Another brand — Roger Dubuis, known for its high-end watches, often skeletonized and often in collaboration with luxury car brands — recently opened its doors in Meyrin, on the outskirts of Geneva, to a journalist and a photographer who were greeted by what he calls his “manufacturing ambassador”, Francesca Stellino.

His job is to greet visitors recommended by a watch boutique (they run tours in English, French and Italian) and show them how Roger Dubuis does what he does.

She started the tour in a hallway, in front of a poster with the company’s star-shaped logo, and told how watchmaker Roger Dubuis launched the brand in 1995 and championed collaborations with Pirelli tires and Lamborghini cars.

She explained that she was starting the tour there because, she warned, once we went through a series of heavy doors onto the factory floor, we might find it difficult to to hear. And she was right.

The doors opened onto a floor filled with dozens of large, rattling metal machines. They were used to create components, up to 360, which go into making a Roger Dubuis watch. Considering the brand claims to produce up to 3,000 watches a year, that’s a lot of pressing, cutting, milling, filing and polishing. At certain points in the process, the pieces were washed in what Ms. Stellino called, unsurprisingly, the “laundry room.” What happened inside resembled the action behind a fast food counter, with components dropped into wire baskets and dipped in liquids, like baskets of fries lowered in oil .

The next step was in the “honing and tribofinishing” room, where the parts were polished using a luxurious exfoliant – a diamond powder soap. Back on the main floor of the factory, we passed a storage cabinet that looked like a floor-to-ceiling wine rack filled with hundreds of metal rods of varying widths. They were meant to be made into parts like “cogs, screws and wheels,” Ms Stellino said. The three-meter-long (10 feet) metal cylinder that forms them is called the neckline. After the rods are cut, some of the resulting round discs are passed through a different machine that creates tiny cogs around their circumference that will eventually engage the gears of a watch.

Ms Stellino stopped in front of a machine so old that some of the orange paint covering its surface had peeled off. “It’s the mother of micromechanics,” she says, used to cut “some of the crazy components in Roger Dubuis watches, like the hammers that produce the sound of the minute repeater.”

Once the pieces are produced, they go to other quieter workshops and into the hands of craftsmen, men and women, young and adults. More polishing is required, even on the smallest parts, and this is done in several ways, using pastes or the finest sandpapers. Polishers require “a minimum of 10 years of experience,” Stellino explained. “They work with their eyes and ears,” listening for the particular sound that tells them the polishing is correct.

One of the workers is the company’s expert in polishing the tourbillon cages until they shine like a black mirror, the “black polish” or polished black finish which, Ms. Stellino said, “was Mr. Dubuis’ favorite”.

Cameras focused on some of the work the artisans were doing and magnified it on screens around the work rooms so visitors could see exactly what was being done. Next, we headed upstairs where the parts are assembled and made into watches, and also where customers’ complication watches are serviced. But first, we put on white lab coats and covered our shoes with blue plastic slippers that looked like shower caps, the better to keep dirt and dust from tracking us. Once again we opened a series of heavy doors, but this time it was to a sanctuary of quiet concentration.

Here, dozens of watchmakers, many wearing magnifying glasses or glasses, sat at desks overseeing aspects of watch assembly. The work is so meticulous, so precise, so demanding, that a watchmaker, while assembling a minute repeater, likened it to “open-heart surgery”.

A watch in the making here undergoes quality checks throughout its journey around the world. Once he only needs a strap and buckle, he enters a machine labeled “Cyclo 5” which has wheels to test him for an entire week in every position a human wrist can. could do. If, at the end, the time of the watch is off by less than one minute, it obtains the precious Poinçon de Genève or Poinçon de Genève.

“A watch is a work of art,” Ms. Stellino said at the end of the visit, and like a work of art, the latest models were displayed under bells placed on pedestals. Some models had yet to be publicly revealed and provided an additional insider’s view into the world of watches.

Nicola Andreatta, managing director of Roger Dubuis, said visits are “a big part of our customer experience.

“When people come to see what we do, their perception changes,” he continued. “It adds value.”

Normally, visitors should arrange a visit to their local Dubuis watch retailer or boutique. The brand said it welcomes hundreds of people each year, including collectors and members of various clubs, and expects the tally to reach 200 this year.

After spending an average of 1h15 seeing all the watchmakers, all the machines, all the tools, the know-how and the “passion” of making their watches, people understand why they cost tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars, said Mr. Andreatta.

They may never look at the watch on their wrist the same way again.

Luz W. German