Watchmaking in Geneva, the magic of craftsmanship, treasures of gold and enamel is a shining example of how an exhibition can seize the very substance of horology past and present. Held at the Musée Rath in Geneva during the first months of the year, it benefited from the support of Chopard, a company which realised early on the importance of Manufacture status. It is a journey into the intricacies of the métiers d’art and savoir-faire of centuries past which, in comparison, could almost label later practitioners, however worthy, mere amateurs on more than one count.
The modern era has, in all fairness, contributed its share of technical and technological genius, as illustrated by the giant strides Chopard has taken in mechanical watchmaking, and still our ancestors’ deftness leaves us in awe. The visit is all the more fascinating knowing that most of the twenty thousand objects in the Geneva collections are stashed away, with no adequate venue in which to display them after two burglaries at the Musée d’Horlogerie de Genève in the early 2000s forced the museum to close. A sad state of affairs for a city reputed one of the cradles of Swiss watchmaking!
A journey into the infinitely small
Impossible to take in each of the 1,500 objects on show, thus Estelle Fallet, curator of the horology, enamel, jewellery and miniatures collections of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de la Ville de Genève, repository of these publicly-owned treasures, proposed a visit on the theme of the infinitely small. “Each subject is rendered with extraordinary finesse, expressing skills which are constantly enriched and improved as they are handed down from generation to generation, and which represent the height of both technique and artistry,” she explained in her introduction. “The meticulous care devoted to each square millimetre is a quality shared by timepieces, jewels, enamelwork and miniature painting. The weeks, months, sometimes years required to create each of these masterpieces are fraught with danger, whether a slip of the hand or a disastrous last firing. These are treasures of patience and devotion, and in many cases their completion is nothing short of a miracle.”
For proof, one only need contemplate a work by the dial painter Pierre Reymond, produced in Geneva between 1873 and 1874, comprising a portrait of Christ framed by an atlas of eight detailed maps. Despite the tiny supports, each country is depicted with its main towns, rivers and elevations labelled. Imagine, then, the visitor’s surprise when invited to view the portrait of Christ in greater detail, with the aid of a magnifier. What appeared to be black lines marking the contours of the face are in fact sentences relating his life, painstakingly traced in microscopic letters. A work so astonishing that experts have yet to fully fathom the techniques Reymond employed to produce such a marvel. Equally astounding is a working pistol in 22 parts, entirely handmade by Adolphe Audemars between 1845 and 1850 for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. A pistol that measures five and a half millimetres! Elsewhere, the delicate markers that circle a clock dial reveal themselves to be letters just half a millimetre tall which spell out the Lord’s Prayer.
Roots firmly planted in Geneva
“The past leads to the future, hence why we have so much to gain from contemplating these treasures, which are the living memory of savoir-faire,” Estelle Fallet continued. An opinion seconded by Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard. “Without history, there can be no future,” he declared when presenting the gallery space set aside for the Manufacture, and which it had reserved for the L.U.C calibres developed by Chopard. Over fifteen years, at the Manufacture established in Fleurier in 1996, Chopard has pulled off the extraordinary feat of producing from scratch no fewer than nine calibres. They serve as the base for more than 50 movements, a quarter of which are hallmarked Poinçon de Genève. Production is in the region of 4,500 pieces a year. This attachment to fine watchmaking, which hasn’t prevented Scheufele from producing mechanical calibres on an industrial base at Fleurier Ebauches, is equalled only by his love of historic timepieces, underpinned by a commitment to Genevan watchmaking.
It comes as no surprise to see Chopard take its place at the Musée Rath, knowing that the company, under Karl-Friedrich Scheufele’s stewardship, has set up its own museum, the L.U.CEUM, within Chopard Manufacture. It assembles masterpieces of horology from sundials to marine chronometers, from pocket watches to timepieces destined for the Chinese market. As well as acknowledging the past, Chopard recognises Geneva’s foremost role in watchmaking with actions to promote the city’s horological culture. Says the firm: “Chopard has lent its support to a variety of projects such as the development, in partnership with the Geneva School of Watchmaking, of a pocket-watch calibre which students use as the basis for their end-of-studies piece. More recently, Chopard was involved in revising the criteria for the Poinçon de Genève, one of the most prestigious distinctions to which Chopard is profoundly attached. Each year, the company is also patron to numerous philanthropic events in Geneva.” Watchmaking in Geneva, the magic of craftsmanship, treasures of gold and enamel is a perfect illustration.