Two fish have taken up temporary residence on my wrist: one is covered in yellow sapphires, the other with rubies, and they're both swimming around under the crystal of a watch I am trying on at the Chopard shop on Geneva's Rue du Rhône. This watch is called a Happy Sport—at least it says HAPPY SPORT on the strap, a pink affair I assume is rubber but that the saleswoman refers to as plastique—and though I'm not at all sporty I'm certainly happy, having come to Geneva on an intensive watch-shopping jaunt.
My anticipation has been growing since I got off the plane and saw placards advertising Omega and Rolex above the luggage carousel; I got even more excited when I looked out my hotel window and noticed, along with the Alps, a plethora of neon signs trumpeting Bédat and Piaget. Whatever its considerable charms—more than 40 museums, a medieval old town, UN headquarters—for me, Geneva is the destination of choice for one simple reason: I love peering into the back of a watch. (It's sad, I know.)
Though my hotel is on the right bank, Geneva's main shopping street, the Rue du Rhône, is on the left. So I cross the lake, which might as well be a giant blue watch crystal, so focused am I on my mission. Chopard is my first stop, but I could have just as easily popped into any of a hundred other watch stores strung along the street, which is one short block from that famous hallmark of Geneva, the flower clock in the Jardin Anglais. I'm pleasantly surprised by the clock—it's not sweet and cuckoo-ish at all; instead, it's got postmodern floating orbs and, like everything else in this city, it keeps perfect time. Which is more than you can say for the watch I brought with me, just one member of the beloved if infuriating collection of pre-World War II timepieces I've amassed, despite their propensity for dropping dead without warning. For the trip, I'm wearing a circa-1925 Tiffany number on a ribbon strap, chiefly because it's working, sort of.
If ever there were someone in need of a dependable watch, I would be that person, and a Chopard Happy Sport is nothing if not reliable. It costs $3,275 (unless you want your fish to swim inside a rim of diamonds, in which case the price rises to $8,450), and the Chopard saleswoman shocks me by saying a thing I've heard many times in Italy, and even New York, but never in Switzerland: "If you pay cash, we can make perhaps a little more discount." I'm intrigued, but I've only started looking.
Unfortunately, no one is offering any discounts at my next stop, the Cartier boutique, where I ask to see a watch I have been ogling since it was introduced earlier this year: the Tank Divan, an oblong-shaped model with distorted numerals. "It's something new and very chic," the vendeuse tells me, then quotes a price of $2,390—which isabout $210 less than it costs at Cartier on Fifth Avenue. Then you get another 7 percent off with the tax refund (around $170), but of course you have to pay duty on it, which brings the cost back up. Oh well. Who can put a price on the romance of buying a watch in Geneva?
Cartier sells a number of tanks with alluring names—the Américaine, the Française—and I am a student of them all. Though these watches have eminent provenances (Cartier claims to have invented the first wristwatch, made for World War I aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who couldn't reach for a pocket watch while he was flying a plane), their insides are ultramodern. You don't wind them like the vintage Tiffany I'm wearing: they have quartz movements, as do most women's watches made since the 1970's, when the great quartz revolution threw the staid industry into a tailspin.
The saleswoman at my next stop, the illustrious Patek Philippe, alludes to those dark days when she gives me a thumbnail sketch of the house's storied history: "We started in 1839 and, unlike other companies, we never stopped, even when the industry was very bad in the seventies." Still, those were scary times, when it seemed that the ascendance of the $10 disposable watch might vanquish the handcrafted luxury timepiece forever.
It didn't turn out that way. Instead, the introduction of throwaway quartzes gave rise to a cult of purists who became serious vintage collectors; this vibrant market spurred the houses to dust off their archived designs, which is why you see all those Deco faces and old-fashioned mechanical movements with fancy features, like perpetual calendars.
At Patek Philippe, quartz models and traditional mechanicals are presented to potential customers with equal ceremony, laid out on an ostrich-leather blotter. All of Geneva's watch emporiums are hushed and ritzy; Patek is among the most rarefied, with velvet settees and blond-wood vitrines and fantastically deep carpets. The customer at the ostrich blotter just before me, a woman of a certain age with an Hermès Kelly bag, conducts her business briskly. One has the distinct feeling this is not her only Patek, nor her only Kelly. I giggle when I recognize the melody playing softly in the background—it's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"—but no one else bats an eye. Some things are lost in translation.
When it's my turn at the blotter, I'm shown the Twenty-4, Patek's most popular watch for women, a subtly stunning rectangular design discreetly decorated with diamonds and a linked metal band in either steel or gold. The Twenty-4 features a quartz movement, but Patek is famous for other models that perform plenty of tricks—one offers a rendering of the sky over Geneva, with the sun, moon, and stars moving as the month goes by.
As I'm leaving, the saleswoman tells me about the Patek Philippe Museum, where 500 years of watchmaking are on display. I'm excited at the prospect of seeing some pre-war gems, so I walk to the museum, a half-hour stroll through Geneva's old town, and am rewarded with four floors of history: Victor Emmanuel III's pocket watch, Queen Victoria's brooch watch, and my favorites, Art Deco and Nouveau designs from the first few decades of the 20th century.
Unlike every other clock and watch in town, these museum specimens are not for sale. So I head back to the Rue du Rhône and dip into Bucherer, a watch department store selling all the big brands and an extensive collection of Swatches on the third floor. There's a Swatch with a goofy, cartoonish elegance that has a small black face and a black suede, rhinestone-studded strap meant to wrap around your wrist several times. (For $50, you can bet it has a plastic quartz movement.)
By now my arms are just about caving under the weight of catalogues—each shop gives you a lush full-color book to peruse as soon as you express a fleeting interest in their wares—so I trudge back to my hotel. Even as I lie in bed watching Jerry Springer with French subtitles, the bright blue Franck Muller sign beckons through my window.
So early the next morning I visit the Muller store. I have a particular affinity for these timepieces, with their curvex cases and loopy numbers, since they pay such loving homage to the great days of pre-war watchmaking. The shop is located in the Noga Hilton, the lobby of which doubles as a veritable watch mall. At Franck Muller, I am shown a women's watch with a mechanical movement. It's an adorable black-faced white-gold timepiece in what is known as a tonneau (barrel) shape, with diamonds around the bezel and a little window in the back through which you can actually see the movement chugging along—and it's $21,600. For $5,510, there's a far larger tonneau called the Casablanca, which has a sandy beige face and pale green numerals like palms in an oasis. Then I see something truly delightful: a jaunty rectangle with arched numbers that looks as if it could have belonged to Salvador Dalí. "It's our new model!" the saleswoman tells me, pride in her voice. "It's called the Long Island." The Long Island?Oh, the irony: that island I have spent my adult life trying to get away from. The watch even says LONG ISLAND on the face, a reminder that Thomas Wolfe was wrong: not only can you go home again but you can also be reminded of it whenever you check the time.
I think about this—time passing and the strange feeling of seeing one's past show up on a watch face in Geneva—as I stroll the lobby of the Noga Hilton. Though by now I feel as if I've seen every permutation on the market, I am struck by a shop called Moussaieff. There is an extraordinary timepiece in the window: deeply encrusted with brown and white gems and sporting fully three faces laid out like flower petals, so you can know the time simultaneously in, say, Geneva, Casablanca, and Long Island. The watch has the vibe of a novelty item, but the clerk tells me that the glittery bits are in fact brown and white diamonds, that it's made by Kutchinsky, and that it'll set me back $29,000. "Still wish to see it?" she says, her eyes sweeping over me for signs that I am a $29,000 type. "Sure, why not?" I say. As she takes it out of the window and places it in my hand, I notice that its trio of faces is so heavily pavéed in diamonds that it is impossible to tell the time.
Wandering back to the Rue du Rhône, I spot what I've come to Geneva to forget—Masis, a big antique-jewelry store with knockout watches from the 1920's winking at me through the window. Don't do this! I tell myself.Don't even go in! But my feet aren't listening. They enter the store, and I hear myself asking the salesman about the round diamond timepiece in the window, the one with the four sapphires and the ribbon band with the diamond clasp, the only ribbon band I've seen—save the one on my wrist—since I came to Geneva. He goes to the window and returns with it. Suddenly the Chopard fish swim away, the Cartier goes back to fighting the First World War, the Franck Muller stays with Bogey in Casablanca, and I am once again a person with a beating heart, fondling an 80-year-old watch and thinking, like someone set to embark on yet another love affair: Could this be the one that will keep on ticking?
LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for T+L and a senior editor at the Village Voice.
TIPS ON BUYING A WATCH
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of timepieces in Geneva. How to plow through the seemingly thousands of styles available?Some suggestions:
• Have a clear sense of how much you want to spend; if your favorite watch is too expensive, remember that many high-end watchmakers offer the exact same styles in a variety of metals, with diamonds and without.
• If you are buying for practical rather than purely aesthetic purposes, make sure you can read the time. A surprising number of watches have distorted numerals that are almost impossible to make out, and many have no numbers at all.
• Decide whether you'd like a quartz or a mechanical movement. Though most women's watches feature quartz—preferred for its convenience and practicality—over time, winding mechanical movements prove more valuable.
Though there are timepieces for sale virtually everywhere in Geneva—from the corner tabac to the grandest boutiques—here are some of the finest addresses in the city.
Bucherer 45 RUE DU RHONE; 41-22/319-6266
Cartier 35 RUE DU RHONE; 41-22/818-5454
Chopard 27 RUE DU RHONE; 41-22/310-7050
Franck Muller 19 QUAI DE MONT-BLANC; 41-22/901-0036
Joaillerie Moussaieff 19 QUAI DE MONT-BLANC; 41-22/731-0822
Masis 12 PASSAGE MALBUISSON; 41-22/311-2220
Montblanc 3 RUE CÉARD; 41-22/312-2770
Patek Philippe Museum 7 RUE DES VIEUX-GRENADIERS; 41-22/807-0910
Piaget Boutique 40 RUE DU RHONE; 41-22/817-0200
Rolex Chrono-Time 3 RUE DE LA FONTAINE; 41-22/311-0855
Salon Patek Philippe 41 RUE DU RHONE; 41-22/781-2448
Vacheron Constantin 1 RUE DES MOULINS; 41-22/316-1740
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