It's all in the movement Featured

Three museums that illustrate how watchmaking has developed into today's glittering industry

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25 June 2013

It is not surprising that there are at least three museums in Switzerland dedicated to clocks and watches. If you are in Geneva, the Patek Philippe Museum is an absolute must. In a distinctive building, the visit begins from the third floor, where the library, a period office, photos and documents present the character of visionary Polish businessman Antoine-Norbert de Patek, who was joined later by French watchmaker Adrien Philippe. The setting is like a boutique, with light timber panelling, and beautifully-lit glass cabinets. The exhibits are all superbly restored, and range from the earliest period of pocket watches, from 1500, mainly from Geneva, along with other prestige objects of the day. The series of enamel portrait miniatures is superb. The collection of more recent Patek Philippe watches includes the legendary Calibre 89, still considered as one of the most complicated watches in the world, with a mechanism that shows the dates of Easter over a 30-year cycle. The itinerary ends with a fine exhibition of workbenches and tools.

Patek Philippe Museum
Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7
CH-1205 Geneva
Tel. +41 (0)22 8070 910
Admission €10
Open Tues-Fri 2.00 p.m.-6.00 p.m., Sat 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m.

La Chaux-de-Fonds, near Neuchâtel, is listed by Unesco as part of the world heritage for its watchmaking traditions, well illustrated by the Musée International d'Horlogerie. In a modernist concrete setting, you find yourself surrounded by all sorts of ticking objects, from early tower clocks right through to atomic timepieces. It's a very educational museum, with interactive workstations with buttons that you can press to see how the various wheels of a watch mesh together, pendulums that you can swing to test Galileo's intuition that periodicity depends purely on length, and models of different escapements. There is a small shop where you can buy souvenirs including chocolate watches.

Musée international d'horlogerie
Rue des Musées 29
CH-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
Tel. +41 (0)32 9676 861
Admission €15
Open Tues-Sun 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m.

The museum is part of a park that includes the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a small gallery with a fine selection of 19th and 20th-century paintings, above all Swiss landscapes, but with some beautiful works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Soutine, Marquet and Le Corbusier. There is also a section dedicated to the local brand of Art Nouveau, known as Style Sapin, with some pocket watch decorations, as well as paintings, posters and furniture. Save most of your time for the watch museum, but we recommend a quick visit to this museum as well.

Musée des Beaux-Arts La Chaux-de-Fonds
Rue des Musées 33
CH-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
Tel. +41 (0)32 9676 077
Admission €10
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m.

Le Locle is dominated by the largest watch factories: Tissot, Zenith, Ulysse Nardin, Montblanc and others. The Musée d'Horlogerie at Château des Monts is situated in a lovely mansion on the slopes high above the town. Inside the mansion, you immediately feel that you are in a very special place. Not only are you surrounded by the most beautiful antique time-pieces, but a lot of them are actually running, pendulums swinging, wheels moving, with an assortment of ticks that blend to form a sort of warm background hum. At the quarters and the hours, the air comes alive with a variety of bells and gongs. In a small circular room, you find yourself within the workings of a watch: you can see exactly what each part does in the overall functioning of a watch.

The museum also provides an indication of just how dramatic the early 1970s were for Swiss watchmaking. After having enjoyed the post-war years, when the country covered half the world's watch production, the quartz revolution was a disaster. A thousand of the 1,600 fine watch brands in Switzerland went out of business. The museum describes all this, along with the technical aspects of both mechanical and quartz timepieces.

On the top floor, there is a 3D film that provides an introduction to the measurement of time from Ancient Egypt up until recent times. A reconstruction of an ancient workshop shows how the Swiss watchmaking tradition began: farmers built movements as a way of making extra money in winter when there was little to do on their farms, and the evenings were long.

Musée d'Horlogerie, Route des Monts 65, Le Locle
Tel. +41 (0)32 9311 680
www.mhl-monts.ch
Open April-October, Tues-Sun, 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m.; November-March, Tues-Sun, 2.00 p.m.-5.00 p.m. Admission €10. Guided visits available with prior booking.

Altogether, these three museums, and the spectacular Alpine scenery within which they are set, shed light on the extraordinary heritage represented by watches, and on Switzerland's characteristic obsession with measuring infinitesimal moments by means of beautiful timepieces.