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Geneva exhibits its horological treasures
History & Masterpieces

Geneva exhibits its horological treasures

Tuesday, 06 December 2011
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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6 min read

With more than a thousand masterworks of horology, enamel and jewellery spanning the 16th to the 21st centuries, including some being shown in public for the first time, and appearances by today’s foremost manufacturers with their own heritage collections, Watchmaking in Geneva. The Magic of Craftsmanship, Treasures of Gold and Enamel* has all the makings of a unique event.

Since 2002, when the Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Émaillerie de Genève was forced to close after a second burglary, opportunities for the good people of Geneva, and the city’s visitors, to view museum-worthy artefacts have been thin on the ground, with the notable exception of the Patek Philippe Museum which opened in 2001. Granted, a number of themed exhibitions have been staged at the city’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, where the 20,000-strong collections are now held, but nothing on a par with past events. Now the page is about to turn with a major exhibition that will run from December 15th, 2011 until April 29th, 2012. Showing over a thousand masterworks of horology, enamel and jewellery from the 16th to the 21st centuries, including some never previously shown in public, Watchmaking in Geneva. The Magic of Craftsmanship, Treasures of Gold and Enamel is a chance to discover, or re-discover, these splendours from the past.

The exhibition at the Musée Rath in Geneva highlights the role of the workshop as a place of creation, and shows how this Genevan tradition is still very much alive by inviting prestigious firms to temporarily present their own historic collections, and give demonstrations of watchmaking, enamelwork and jewellery-making. Estelle Fallet, curator of the horology, enamel, jewellery and miniatures collections at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, explains.

The collections haven't been seen in public since 2002. Why so long?

In the absence of somewhere permanent to show them, special care has been taken to conserve the collections which, until 2002, were held at the Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Émaillerie. Similarly, staff assigned to the four collections of horology, enamels, jewellery and miniatures have continued to carry out their role of conservation, research and exhibition. The collections haven’t been completely out of public view, as each year since 2005 the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire has staged successive, temporary exhibitions of clocks, watches, jewellery and precious ornaments, and end-of-study pieces from the city’s public collections. Catalogues were also published as records of these events.

How were the pieces in this exhibition chosen?

The theme that runs through this exhibition is the history behind these collections and how they came to be. Collections of clocks, watches and enamels were assembled by the Musée Rath from 1826, by the Musée de l’École d’Horlogerie, the Musée Archéologique and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. In the second half of the twentieth century, these collections were merged and placed with the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. Despite being compiled separately, they complement each other perfectly for their decorative and technical worth. Geneva-made watches, enamels and miniatures form the core of the collections within a wider European context provided by Parisian clocks together with English and German watches. The pieces we are showing draw attention to the nature of Geneva’s public collections, in particular their diversity and wealth.

Who is the exhibition for?

Swiss and Genevans, who since 2002 have been without a publicly-funded venue given over to Genevan watchmaking, will be able to reacquaint with “their” common heritage. Our aim is to make this heritage part of the project to renovate and extend the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève. Of course, Geneva is one of the world’s best-known watchmaking cities and, as such, this subject has always appealed to the city’s international visitors too.

Will the exhibition have international scope?

I’m sure it will, thanks to the people who come to see it, and thanks also to the coverage it will attract in Swiss and international specialist media. We also plan to adapt the exhibition and take it beyond Switzerland, in particular to Asia.

In the light of the exhibition, how would you describe Geneva as a watchmaking city?

The exhibition reveals the point at which Genevan watchmaking entered what today we call the “high end” segment. In the 17th century and up to the last quarter of the 18th century, Genevan watches were stylistically and technically no different from English or French watches. Geneva first distinguished itself for the decoration of its watches with enamel miniatures, an art that reached its apogee in the late 18th century. This reputation was confirmed by technical progress in the 19th century. The artistic crafts which are still prominent within the Manufactures show how this expertise has continued uninterrupted. Parts of the exhibition are set aside for these metiers d’art. They present the tools of the trade, which have become collector’s items in themselves, and also remind visitors that this creative process could not exist without the craftsman’s hand.

How important was it to involve the Genevan Manufactures in such a major exhibition?

Very important. The partnership between the public museum and Genevan and Swiss brands whose own heritage is very much part of the history of watchmaking confirms our complementary roles. Their patronage of the exhibition is an important sign of interest in a national heritage and its renewed importance within the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and, more widely, in museums in Geneva and throughout Switzerland.

What lasting effects are you hoping for?

We hope to demonstrate the need for a permanent venue in which to show the collections that have been assembled in Geneva since the 18th century, in close connection with what has been the city’s foremost artistic and industrial activity for the past five centuries. The measurement of time and the arts that surround it are a part of Genevan and Swiss culture to the point of becoming symbols the world over. That these collections should be absent from the city has puzzled visitors as much as Genevans and Swiss citizens, not to mention collectors, watchmakers and anyone with an interest in the decorative arts.

*Watchmaking in Geneva. The Magic of Craftsmanship, Treasures of Gold and Enamel
Musée Rath, Geneva
December 15th, 2011 – April 29th, 2012

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