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The Perfect Swiss Watch

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.)

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