GENEVA — Anyone who loves watches, collects watches or is simply interested in watches wants to do one thing: visit a place where watches are made and see one as it is being created.
That is not always so easy.
The “manufacture” — as the ateliers or factories are called in Switzerland, a.k.a. watch central — are as busy producing their wares as any workplace would be. Plus, in the highly competitive luxury watch market, there also is a sense of wanting to maintain privacy, of protecting the way companies do what they do.
While it is not common for a watch company to open its doors to the curious unless they are Very V.I.P. customers, some brands have created experiences such as guided tours and workshops that allow the public to have a look. But they are not a Disneyland for watch fans, and some require a long drive from a major city.
For example, Zenith offers reservation-only tours once a week in Le Locle, in the Jura Mountains, about 150 kilometers, or 93 miles, northeast of Geneva. In the Vallée de Joux, near the border with France, Jaeger-LeCoultre offers workshops at its Atelier d’Antoine at its headquarters in Le Sentier, as does Audemars Piguet in its Musée Atelier in Le Brassus. Vacheron Constantin and F.P. Journe also allow visits to their more Geneva-centric operations, but only to people they consider the most ardent, and acquisitive, of clients.
Another brand — Roger Dubuis, known for its high-end watches, often skeletonized and often in collaboration with luxury car brands — recently opened its doors in Meyrin, on the outskirts of Geneva, to a journalist and a photographer who were greeted by what it calls its “manufacture ambassador,” Francesca Stellino.
Her job is to welcome visitors who have been recommended by a watch boutique (she conducts tours in English, French and Italian) and show them how Roger Dubuis does what it does.
She began the tour in a hallway, in front of a poster with the company’s star-shaped logo, and talked about how the watchmaker Roger Dubuis started the brand in 1995 and championed collaborations with Pirelli tires and Lamborghini cars.
She explained that she was starting the tour there because, she warned, once we passed through a set of heavy doors onto the factory floor we might have trouble hearing her. And she was right.
The doors opened to a floor filled with dozens of big metal machines making a racket. They were being used to create components, as many as 360, that go into making a Roger Dubuis watch. Considering that the brand says it produces as many as 3,000 watches a year, that is a lot of pressing, cutting, milling, filing and polishing.At points throughout the process, parts were washed in what Ms. Stellino called, no surprise, the “washing room.” What went on inside resembled the action behind a fast-food counter, with components dropped into wire baskets and dipped into liquids, like baskets of French fries being lowered into oil.
Next step was in the “rodage et tribofinition” room, where parts were polished using a luxurious exfoliant — soap with diamond powder. Back on the main factory floor, we passed a storage cabinet that looked like a floor-to-ceiling wine rack filled with hundreds of metal rods of various widths. They were destined to be turned into pieces like “pinions, screws and wheels,” Ms. Stellino said. The three-meter-long (10-foot) metal cylinder that forms those is called the décolletage. Once the rods are cut, some of the round discs that result are run through a different machine that creates tiny teeth around their circumference that will eventually engage a watch’s gears.
Ms. Stellino stopped in front of a machine so old that some of the orange paint covering its surface had chipped away. “It’s the mother of micromechanics,” she said, used to cut “some of the crazy components of Roger Dubuis watches, like the hammers that produce the sound of the minute repeater.”
Once the pieces are produced, they head to other, quieter workrooms, and into the hands of artisans, male and female, young and mature. More polishing is in order, even on the tiniest of pieces, and it is done in one of several ways, using pastes or the most refined of sandpapers. Polishers require a “minimum of 10 years’ experience,” Ms. Stellino explained. “They work with their eyes and their ears,” listening for the particular sound that tells them that the polishing is right.
One of the workers is the company’s expert in polishing tourbillon cages until they shine like a black mirror, the “poli noir” or the black polish finish that, Ms. Stellino said, “was Mr. Dubuis’ favorite.”
Cameras zeroed in on some of the work the artisans were doing and magnified it on screens around the workrooms so visitors could see exactly what was being done.Next, we headed to the floor where the parts are assembled and turned into watches, and also where clients’ watches with complications are serviced. But first we put on white lab coats and covered our shoes with blue plastic bootees that looked like shower caps, the better to keep us from tracking in dirt and dust. Once again, we opened a set of heavy doors, but this time it was to a sanctuary of quiet concentration.
Here, dozens of watchmakers, many wearing magnifying glasses or goggles, were seated at desks and overseeing aspects of assembling timepieces. The work is so detailed, so precise, so exacting, that one watchmaker, putting together a minute repeater, equated it to being “like open-heart surgery.”
A watch in the making here undergoes quality-control checks all along its way into the world. Once all it needs is a strap and buckle, it goes into a machine labeled “Cyclo 5” that has wheels to test it for an entire week in all the positions a human wrist might make. If, at the end, the watch’s time is off by less than a minute, it gets the valued Poinçon de Genève or Geneva seal.
“A watch is a piece of art,” Ms. Stellino said as the tour concluded, and like a piece of art, the latest models were on display under bell jars placed on pedestals. Some models had yet to be revealed publicly, and provided an additional insider’s view into the world of watches.
Nicola Andreatta, chief executive of Roger Dubuis, said the visits are “a big part of our client experience.
“When people come and see what we do, their perception changes,” he continued. “It adds value.”
Normally, visitors would have to arrange a tour through their local Dubuis dealer or watch boutique. The brand said it has been welcoming hundreds of people each year, including collectors and members of various clubs, and projected that the tally will reach 200 this year.
After spending on average of 1 hour 15 minutes seeing all the watchmakers, all the machines, all the tools, the expertise and the “passion” that goes into making their watches, people understand why they cost tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars, Mr. Andreatta said.
They may never look at the watch on their wrist in quite the same way again.