Geneva Watch Tour, to discove a unique relationship, which, like a secret passion, is but rarely revealed, discover this romance within which the past and the future of Watchmaking meet and mingle. Geneva ticks away the history of its time in a manner that can be truly surprising. In addition to the 100 watch boutiques grouped together over just a few square kilometers, dozens of examples illustrate the multi-centenary influence of the 12th Art on the city of Calvin. Discover the link between the beating heart of a watch and the power of the Jet d’Eau.
Intrinsically linked to watchmaking since the world’s first watchmakers’ corporation wasborn in 1601 under the name “Maîtrise des horlogers de Genève”, Geneva has become home to the greatest concentration on the planet of mono-brand and multi-brand boutiques per square kilometer, quite apart from the cultural institutions that give visibility to the art of measuring time. A pedestrian route now provides an opportunity to admire them all by visiting the most iconic areas in the city, following in the footsteps of Swiss watchmaking history.
By including some 50 mono-brand boutiques and as many multi-brand retailers, the Watch Tour provides an overview of the Swiss watchmaking panorama, while visiting Geneva’s most symbolic districts – such as the station and the tourist office for a start, followed by the shopping quarter in the centre, the old town with its art and decoration galleries, the banking and cultural institution district, as well as the modern art district which is home to the Patek Philippe Museum.
Everything started in the mid-16th century, when the head of the reformation, Jean Calvin, promulgated an interdict on showing outward signs of wealth in Geneva, forcing the jewellers and goldsmiths to direct their skill towards watchmaking creation. Two centuries later, Geneva was exporting around 60,000 watches, and because there were too many watchmakers in the city at the end of the lake, they moved to the Jura. In 1909, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, which coincided with the 350th anniversary of the foundation of the Geneva Academy, the authorities erected the five-meter high Mur des Réformateurs (Reformers’ Wall) in the Parc des Bastions, opposite the Grand Théâtre. Statues of the movement’s four great figures stand against part of the old wall that surrounded the city up until the 19th century.
Even Geneva’s emblem par excellence, the Jet d’eau, has its origins in the city’s watchmaking foundations. Geneva’s watchmaking vocation, combined with the organization of labor division (known as établissage, attributed to goldsmith Daniel JeanRichard) from the 18th century onward, led some 4,000 watchmaking craftsmen to settle around the Rhône in order to use the available hydraulic energy, notably that emanating from the Bâtiment de la Machine as of 1872, and that of the Coulouvrenière waterworks from 1886.
This pressurized water enabled a large number of operations involved in the manufacture of movements and watch cases, such as milling, to be mechanized. In their “cabinets” or workshops, the men who became known as the “cabinotiers” (master watchmakers) closed the indispensable water tap at virtually the same moment at the end of their day’s work, giving rise to over-pressure which the machinists in the Coulouvrenière then had to urgently compensate by stopping the pumps. One of them had the bright idea of installing a safety valve allowing the over-pressurized water to escape skywards up to about 30 meters high. This became such a ritual display for riverside inhabitants that the Jet d’eau was eventually moved and made an institutionalized tourist attraction in 1891 by Geneva’s town council.
What happened to the “cabinotiers”? Aside from a heritage that has earned Geneva its international reputation, their activity also made its mark on the architecture of the St Gervais district (between the station and the Rhône), where the precious pressurized water facilitated the work of the craftsmen. Oriented towards the light from the north, their “cabinets” were mostly set up in their homes or on upper floors with big bay windows. Running on from the Pont de la Machine, Rue Rousseau (7 and 9) still has many such windows, as does the Rue Chantepoulet (25) below the railway station. In an eloquent tribute to the spirit of the “Cabinotiers” that gave rise to the House of Vacheron Constantin in 1755, the oldest watch brand in uninterrupted activity has completely renovated its historical headquarters on the Quai de l’Île that it has occupied since 1875, designed by the architect of Geneva’s Grand Théâtre.
Open to the public and for guided tours on request, Geneva’s biggest watchmaking museum is none other than the Patek Philippe Museum, whose four floors exhibit important watchmaking and enamel collections from Geneva, Switzerland and Europe, from the 16th to the 20th century.
An earlier part of the Geneva Watch Tour features two clocks that are radically different but equally spectacular. The Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock) in the Jardin Anglais (English Garden), the most photographed monument in Geneva after its Jet d’eau, consists of 6,500 flowers divided into eight concentric circles that change with the seasons and has the longest seconds hand in the world at 2.50 meters. The Passage Malbuisson clock, between the Rue du Rhône and the Rue de la Confédération, provides a musical show for passers-by every hour. Designed by Edward Wirth, its 16 bell chimes emit a melody inspired by a song from the Escalade (a big popular Geneva festival commemorating the defence of the city in 1602 in the face of an attack by soldiers from Savoy).
A temporal bridge
The Pont de la Machine hosts the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship. Renamed “Arcade des Arts”, this historic building located in the heart of Geneva is a real hub of watchmaking and artisan culture.
A stone’s throw from the Mont-Blanc bridge you can sunbathe with precision! A beautiful sundial gives you the exact time and a luminous point projected through a hole in the center of the style indicates the height of the sun, allowing the date to be read. General-Guisan quay
The Water Jet
Amazing 500 liters per second! Geneva’s famous Jet d’Eau is almost a coincidence. In 1886, the hydraulic plant that distributed the driving force of the Rhône to Geneva artisans and watchmakers was forced to create an open-air outlet for overpressure water, when the workshops closed in the evening: the Jet d’eau was born..
In Geneva, we even say the time with flowers! There are more than 6,500 to compose the dial of the famous flower clock at the entrance to the English Garden. The seconds hand (over 2.5 meters) is the largest in the world. One of the most essential souvenir photos of your tour! General-Guisan Quay, English Garden
Between the lake and the Old Town, the windows of the rue du Rhône sparkle with a thousand lights. The biggest names in world fine watchmaking, jewelry and fashion exhibit their latest creations there. Get ready for a little madness, you won’t be able to resist it.
At the passage Malbuisson, an astonishing curiosity brings together automatons and watchmaking! Every hour, the 16 bells of the carillon begin to play a traditional Geneva tune. It is then that, under the dial, a door opens on each side to let pass an entertaining parade of 42 bronze figurines and 13 horses. Be sure to look up at 40 rue du Rhône, above the Breguet window, to admire a magnificent clock with complications whose tourbillon is visible.
In the heart of the Parc des Bastions, take the time to contemplate the four monumental statues of the Wall of the Reformers, including that of Jean Calvin who left an unexpected legacy in Geneva: when he promulgated in 1541 the ban on displaying external signs wealth, jewelers and goldsmiths had to retrain. It is thus, thanks to their know-how and exceptional creativity, that Geneva has become in a few years, the capital of luxury watchmaking.
Patek Philippe Museum
The Patek Philippe Museum exhibits five centuries of watch history through important collections of watchmaking and enamelling of Geneva, Swiss and European origins, including prestigious creations from the Geneva manufacture. Open: Tuesday to Friday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7.
Tour of l’Ile
The Tour de cadran survived a fire in a fortified castle in 1670. Before the unique hour in Europe, its clock had three dials for the hours of Paris, Bern and Geneva. This is also where the first Vacheron Constantin factory was located, a great Geneva watchmaking brand created in 1755. Today, this Maison offers exhibitions of pieces from its heritage and retracing the riches of its history.
Rue des étuves
Between the Tour de l’Ile and the end of the circuit, you will pass the rue des Étuves. Looking up, you will be able to discover the small windows of the “cabinets” located on the top floor of the buildings where the watchmakers, then called cabinotiers, worked in order to benefit from as much light as possible.
The Millennium Hourglass
Installed at the Domaine de Penthes, Millénium is the largest hourglass in Europe at 5.7m high; it makes a U-turn every 36 seconds under the spotlight. Representing the transition to the year 2000, this work is to be discovered in the heart of Geneva’s international district.