December 20, 2016 / Property Spotlight

My City: A Watchmaker’s Guide to Geneva

Geneva-based watchmaker Yoan Gruffaz takes Luxury Defined on a tour of his home city, the international capital of fine timepieces


There is much to admire about Switzerland’s sophisticated second city of Geneva, an elegant, clean, and supremely cosmopolitan center of business. An important diplomatic hub, it sits on the curved shoreline of exquisite Lake Geneva and enjoys a breathtaking backdrop of imposing Alpine peaks.

“From an early age I was fascinated by the intricate mechanisms of a mechanical watch,” says Backes & Strauss watchmaker Yoan Gruffaz. Banner photograph: © Geneva TourismAs a global center of finance, enormous wealth abounds here; Geneva is regularly named in the Mercer Cost of Living Survey as one of the 10 most expensive cities to live in. As a result, weekdays in Geneva can appear a fairly riotous affair, with suited businesspeople weaving frantically in and out of streets between meetings. But with many Europeans flying in just for the day, a peaceful calm descends on the city when night falls and the weekend arrives.

Geneva-born Yoan Gruffaz, a watchmaker at Backes & Strauss, whose timepieces are all made in the Geneva workshops of Franck Muller Watchland, tells us all about the place he calls home.

A city steeped in history
Lake Geneva is the centerpiece of the city, with a bustling harbor and the landmark Jet d'Eau water fountain. Photograph: Geneva TourismGeneva is a small city blessed with cultural diversity. The lake and surrounding mountains make it a very peaceful location to live and be with your family. The presence of the United Nations, international organizations, and many company headquarters give it a thriving international vibe, but much of the town is still steeped in rich heritage, allowing traditional industries to flourish. I am lucky to have always lived in Geneva, the cradle of fine watchmaking.

Becoming a watchmaker
I began my training while still in school, and at the age of 16 took the entrance exams for the world-renowned l'École d'Horlogerie de Genève. From an early age I was fascinated by the intricate mechanisms of a mechanical watch, and I am completely entranced by the aesthetic and technical beauty of its inner workings.

Backes & Strauss's Regent Beau Brummell Tourbillon Pocket Watch is set with 1,669 baguette and ideal-cut diamonds, totaling 37.91 carats. In order to excel in the craft of watchmaking you must be very patient and passionate about horology. You also need to be extremely detail-oriented and take genuine pride in your work. Having mastered the complete craft, my true expertise lies in the fabrication of grandes complications, such as the tourbillon movement and the perpetual calendar. These horological complications can be seen on The Regent Beau Brummell Tourbillon Pocket Watch, which features an intricate Flying Tourbillon FM 2001-2 Hand Winding Mechanism in addition to its date display and day/night indicator.

A watch-buyer’s guide
Grand Hotel Kempinski’s Il Vero restaurant is the place for traditional Italian dishes and stunning water views.If you are looking for a luxury timepiece in Geneva, the Franck Muller boutiques in Grand Hotel Kempinski and underneath La Tour-de-l’Ile are a good place to start. Another good location is the Rue du Rhône, where you’ll find all the best brands. Plenty of boutiques in town also sell a good range.

The Patek Philippe Museum collections cover the entire history of watchmaking. Photograph: Arnaud ChildericThe Patek Philippe Museum is an incredibly well-curated place to learn about the heritage of Swiss watchmaking, from the 16th century to present day. On display are collections of clocks and timepieces, musical automata, and enameled portraits that illustrate the evolution of high horology. If you want to learn more about the watchmaking process, Franck Muller Watchland also welcomes visitors by appointment.

When buying a watch, you should always observe its mechanisms in detail. If the movement is exposed, take particular note of its finish. If the movement is completely encased, assess the overall piece. Is it well proportioned? What materials is it made from? What is the color like?

A city of beauty
<i>Broken Chair</i>, in Geneva’s Place des Nations, was built by sculptor Daniel Berset in 1997 to highlight the plight of landmine victims. Photograph: Geneva TourismWhen not making watches, I find it very relaxing to walk around Lake Geneva and visit the Bains des Paquis for swimming and a sauna. We are lucky that in Geneva there are so many places to relax in, but my favorite place is the Jardin Anglais, in Eaux-Vives, right beside the lake. I would advise tourists to walk around the lake and visit all the beautiful parks, go to Place des Nations in front of the UN and definitely take a cable car up the Salève mountain for the best panoramic view.

A hive of activity
Carouge’s unique architecture reflects its Sardinian heritage, and the picturesque streets are full of cafes, bistros, and antique shops. Photograph: Geneva Tourism/Olivier MicheGeneva is an easy city to stay active in, and I play a lot of sport, particularly tennis and football. I also enjoy trekking in the mountains. A wonderful place to visit is the Old Town where there are lots of bars, restaurants, art galleries, and lovely boutique shops on Rue de Rhône. I am always enticed by the little shops in Carouge, the city’s Italianate district, or La Praille shopping center.

Exquisite dining
Set in Geneva’s old market hall, Brasserie des Halles de l'Île is an industrial-style bar and restaurant serving French regional produce. Photograph: Geneva Tourism/Greg MartinThere are so many different restaurants in Geneva, many of which are Michelin-starred, and we have a huge number of Italian establishments in particular: Il Lago at the Four Seasons Hotel Des Bergues is one of the finest. The best restaurant for traditional Swiss fondue is Au Vieux Carouge. And the city also has a wonderful selection of bars, such as in Brasserie des Halles de l'Île, cocktail bars such as Rooftop 42, and many excellent wine bars in Carouge.

Rest your head
Around Lake Geneva we have many luxury hotels, but my favorite is the Four Seasons, with its palatial façade and classically elegant interiors. I also love Hotel Kempinski, which houses a theater showing wonderful dramas and ballet performances.

Stepping away from the city
Two sculptures by Luc Jaggi flank the main entrance to the World Trade Organization headquarters, representing peace and justice (pictured). Photograph: Geneva TourismIf you wish to take a day trip, I would suggest the traditional lakeside town of Montreux, where the famous jazz festival is held. Vevey, next to Montreux on the opposite side of the lake, is also interesting; it is the city in which Charlie Chaplin spent his final days and there is a museum dedicated to him. Yvoire is a beautiful medieval town situated on the French side of the lake that you access via boat. Finally, I would recommend Lausanne, on the lake’s northern side. It has amazing views across the lake of Evian, in France, and is the home of the World Trade Organization and International Olympic Committee.

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Martha de Lacey
writes for The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and The Times