Swiss Time in Watch Valley

Moto Time Traveling

As a watch lover, the idea of combining two of my passions—watches and motorcycles—was one I contemplated for several years. I decided to ride the roads of Switzerland while at the same time visiting the finest watch companies in the cradle of the industry, the Jura valley—known as Watch Valley—to find the perfect watch. I believed it was out there, and if I had to ride every back road in Switzerland to find it, I was prepared to do just that.

In many ways, watches and motorcycles are quite similar. Both run by “engines,” and as the price goes up, the attention to detail climbs exponentially as well. The Watch Valley and the entire western edge of the country (from Geneva in the south to Basel in the north) is the birthplace of Swiss watchmaking and is the center of timepiece manufacturing for the entire world. It is here that the greatest timepieces in the history of watches are made by the most skilled artisans in the industry. (Click images to enlarge)

How did the watch industry end up here? Well, it started with the Huguenots, who moved to Geneva to escape religious persecution in France. They spread out from Geneva into the valleys to farm. When winters came, there was no farming to be done, so they needed to develop a skill to make money and keep themselves occupied.

Watchmaking filled that void for the Huguenots, and the Swiss watch industry was born. In the ’70s, the quartz watch was introduced and the industry almost died. As a  result of hard work by the watch companies and a worldwide rebirth of interest in fine, mechanical timepieces, the Swiss are back and stronger than ever.

Nowhere else in the world and in no other industry can you go to such a small area and visit as many companies and museums as you can here, all within two hours or less from each other. For example, in La Chaux-de-Fonds (the only town designed to facilitate watchmaking, with broad avenues to provide natural light for the workshops of master designers) Girard-Perregaux is just two blocks from Ebel, and TAG Heuer has its offices on the other side of town. Corum is up on the hill, and on the other side of the main street is the International Watchmaking Museum. To top it off, this part of Switzerland is off the tourist track, so the roads are pretty much traffic-free. (Click image to enlarge)

This time, I decided to rent a bike from my friends at Suzuki Center Basel. I chose a Suzuki V-Strom 650 which is considered the Swiss Army knife of motorcycles, able to do just about anything—canyon carving, touring, urban commuting, a little dirt tracking and much more. It turned out to be a perfect choice for riding in Switzerland. I rode with several other riders throughout my time in Switzerland, and where they were struggling and scraping hard parts on the Alpine corners, I was gliding easily, the perfectly tuned 650 never even breathing hard.

The Swiss motorcyclists are unfailingly friendly, highly skilled, and very well equipped—full riding leathers, boots and full face helmets. Riders wave to each other like here in the United States, but they have added a twist: If you pass another motorcyclist, hanging your right foot slightly behind the peg is the equivalent of the wave—very European and certainly safer than trying to wave during an overtake. (Click image to enlarge)
One of the best parts of motorcycling in Switzerland is the plethora of free parking in every city, right in the center of the towns. Parking for cars is always a challenge and involves prepaying and getting a voucher, putting it on your dashboard and then worrying about running overtime. With motorcycles, there are designated places everywhere, and they are always free. (Click image to enlarge)

Though many people think of Rolex first when asked to name a fine watch, those in the know are aware of many other companies. I decided to start with the crème de la crème of the crop, Patek Philippe. A large company with an impeccable reputation, Patek automates the processes that make sense and does things the traditional way when that is best. For example, during my tour I watched a master craftsman file the closure of the back cover of a watch by hand until it had just the right feel and sound. The Patek Philippe factory is located in the suburbs of Geneva, so the ride there was an interesting mix of back-country roads and highway. The factory combines gleaming high-tech and traditional handiwork. Most of the important pieces are finished by hand, just like it was done two centuries ago. This attention to detail is one of the things that set Patek apart as one of the finest watch brands in the world. (Click image to enlarge)

Next up was Audemars Piguet in the beautiful small town of Le Brassus. Famous for its Royal Oak line, this company has a beautiful museum in the building where it started, as well as a workshop on the top floor dedicated to handmade complications. In this workshop, one of the watchmakers handed me a dish with what looked like specks of pepper in it. It turns out they were screws for a tourbillion cage—so small they’re only recognizable under a microscope. Audemars Piguet is solidly behind the idea of the Watch Valley tour, and the company was by far the most prepared to take people through its museum and factory. It was an impressive tour, making it easy to appreciate how the company accomplishes the highest standard of quality. (Click image to enlarge)

Afterward, I rode through the Jura Mountains into France for a little bit, and then ascended a pass back into Switzerland. The next day, I made the trek to La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is up into the mountains from Neuchâtel, to see Girard-Perregaux (G-P). The snows of winter often make it impossible to even reach the village, something the watchmakers feel masochistically good about. (Click image to enlarge)

After touring the recently renovated factory I had lunch with the head of G-P, Luigi “Gino” Macaluso, and was impressed with the capabilities and excellence of one of the last true independent manufacturers in Switzerland. G-P movements are so prized by the watch industry that many companies buy them to put in their own watches.

When I rolled up to the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory in Le Sentier, after a great winding ride past belled cows and up into the clouds, there was a reserved parking place waiting for me, my name emblazoned on a placard. It was a unique and welcome touch. In addition, a photographer from the local newspaper was there to record the breaking news: “American journalist visits local watch company by motorcycle.” Front page stuff, for sure. (Click image to enlarge)

Luxurious in every sense of the word, Jaeger-LeCoultre, located on the bank of Lake Jura, always impresses with the quality and breadth of its product line. Visiting the diamond-setting workshop was awe-inspiring, where every jewel is set in place by hand like an expensive jigsaw puzzle.

The next day featured a fantastic ride through the Jura valley, with the road running next to an Alpine stream, to Fleurier. Chopard is in this small village, and it is here that some of the most beautiful and complicated watches in the world are made. Chopard designs and manufactures several of its own movements, including the LUC tourbillion.

Located in the same town is the factory and workshop of Parmigiani Fleurier, where I toured the factory and then had the opportunity to sit down with the president of the company, Michel Parmigiani. Recently, he entered into an agreement with Bugatti to manufacture a watch commemorating their new car. It is a stunningly beautiful watch that defies all conventions, working as a watch as well as a piece of cutting-edge art. Parmigiani is behind a new quality standard, the Fleurier Quality Foundation Seal, which specifies details that must be present in a high-quality watch to receive it. (Click image to enlarge)

On my last full day in Switzerland I took the long way around to Basel, not bothering to map out the route and trusting my instincts to get me there. I treasured that final ride, relished each curve and every sensation—the crisp mountain air, the rushing streams next to the road, the climbs and the descents, the switchbacks and the straight-aways. (Click image to enlarge)

After more than 3,000 kilometers and two weeks in the most beautiful country on the face of the Earth, I have learned two things: First, Switzerland is heaven on Earth for motorcycles, and second, there is no “one perfect watch.” There are so many great companies and so many fantastic watches on the market today that it really boils down to personal taste. For men, the watch is the ultimate accessory; your choice depends on your personality and where you will wear it. No single watch will be perfect for everyone. (Click image to enlarge)

Watchmaking 101
Mechanical timepieces are watches without batteries that require the skill of a watchmaker to breathe life into them. Wearing a watch with a mechanical movement is like having a little engine on your wrist, going back to a time when mechanical products were the norm and handmade items were the order of the day.

Companies that design and manufacture their own movements are few and far between, but they are the pinnacle of the watchmaking art, what is known as high horology. Designing and manufacturing movements is very respected in the watch industry and valued by watch lovers the world over. (Click image to enlarge)