A quaint, picturesque region of Switzerland is the global nucleus for luxury watchmaking—and another industry less well known but equally cherished.
Bovet’s Château de Môtiers facility.
When Pascal Raffy first saw the Château de Môtiers, he was smitten. The 14th-century estate, built by Rodolphe IV, Duke of Austria, on a hilltop in Switzerland’s Jura Valley, resembles a fairytale castle, and Raffy resolved to secure it a happy ending. After all, his connection to the 62,000-square-foot château was personal. In 2001, the Lebanese-born entrepreneur had plowed the fortune he had earned in pharmaceuticals into reenergizing one of Switzerland’s most prestigious watchmakers, Bovet. Five years later, Raffy learned that the Château de Môtiers was for sale. The property was once home to the firm’s namesake family, but financial duress forced them to sell it to the local canton in the 1950s.
Returning Bovet to its birthplace was the fulfillment of a long-held dream for Raffy, who practically swoons when recalling the moment he knew he could make it happen: “I was the only potential buyer in a position to ensure the long-term preservation of this unique heritage site. It’s an idyllic setting.” The project was massive, with the entrepreneur investing heavily in the astonishing building’s restoration while updating it so it could serve as both Bovet’s worldwide headquarters and its watchmaking atelier. For the latter, he selected an area flooded with natural light that could be transformed into a hermetically sealed facility.
“It had to maintain a minimum and constant humidity rate,” he says, “as well as a pressurized atmosphere able to expel even the slightest traces of dust and impurities.” No small task in a 700-year-old castle covered by stringent historic-preservation rules. But a decade after he purchased it, the Château de Môtiers is finally complete, and Raffy relishes every moment he spends there: “I cherish appreciating nature from any of my windows, which offer so many different smells, sounds, and colors throughout the year.” He isn’t alone.
Bovet’s hilltop headquarters, hidden behind soaring conifers, is part of the world’s densest concentration of luxury timepiece workshops. So many renowned manufacturers jostle for space here that the region has earned the nickname Watch Valley. Alongside Bovet, there’s Breitling, Corum, Rolex, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, and Piaget, among others. Craftsmen painstakingly produce the world’s finest watches while surrounded by cows grazing in fields and forests of centuries-old pine trees. Of course, Switzerland is synonymous with superior watchmaking; while the area may produce only 3 percent of the world’s timepieces, that tiny tranche is worth $24.3 billion, or as much as the other 97 percent combined. Almost all of the priciest watches created in the country are made in and around this valley, a 120-mile stretch of land near Geneva in the tiny cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel.
A watchmaker tests the Bovet by Pininfarina OttantaTre Tourbillon.
The watchmaking tradition began here in the 16th century, when a zealous Protestant leader deemed jewelry too papish and banned adornment, forcing goldsmiths to apply their skills elsewhere. They settled in this area, on the slopes of rugged hills, where 500 years later their descendants continue to live. By the 19th century, firms like Bovet began to emerge (Bovet originally produced timepieces for the nascent Chinese luxury market before becoming widely known in the West). The quality of the workmanship encouraged more companies to move to the valley, as did the weather.
The region is so cold in the winter, it has earned another nickname: Swiss Siberia. Forced to remain inside for months, craftsmen could hone their skills relentlessly, buttressing the area’s reputation as a worldwide hub for premium watches. The timepieces are so special, Bovet chooses its recipient boutiques carefully. It sent the Braveheart currently on display at Wynn & Company Watches exclusively to Wynn.
Bovet Sportster Saguaro Chronograph
Visiting in the spring or summer, it’s hard to imagine that chilly landscape. The region is postcard-pretty, with villages that seem snatched from The Sound of Music, their winding cobblestoned streets lined with half-timbered cottages. Auvernier is typical; its settlement dates back to the Bronze Age and its prehistoric stilt houses make it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Raffy credits this stunning setting with inspiring many of the best watches that Bovet and its counterparts produce. “The light there is unique, and the watchmakers draw their inspiration from the serenity of enchanting nature,” he explains. “We oriented the watchmaking workshop to offer maximum natural luminosity and emphasized that by including a completely glazed wall.”
He likens watchmaking to viticulture: “Just like a great wine, the terroir has its importance.” It’s a fitting comparison, given the little-known second industry that underpins the area’s economy: wine. The same craftsmen who spent winters in their cottages working on watches earned money in the summer by cultivating grapes on the area’s steep slopes, and that ancient small-scale production persists. Watch Valley’s vineyards rely on a cozy, cave-like tasting room, known in the local dialect as a carnotzet, to host visitors. You’ll likely straddle a few rickety stools, with some barrels arranged as impromptu tables; the winemaker himself will probably lead any tastings and will welcome questions about his work.
Miniature paintings in progress for Bovet dials.
The vibe here is refreshingly uncommercial and reminiscent of Napa in the 1970s; there is nothing prepackaged or commodified about Watch Valley’s wine trails. Chasselas is the region’s centuries-old varietal, more commonly eaten as a table grape in France and elsewhere. For the Swiss, it’s central to winemaking, constituting more than 60 percent of production in Vaud. Keith Wallace is the author of Corked & Forked: Four Seasons of Eats and Drinks and trains sommeliers at his wine school in Philadelphia; he’s also a Swiss wine superfan.
“Chasselas is the anti-Chardonnay,” he says. “It’s pretty, mineral, delicate, ethereal, and with a delicate, fairylike body.” It’s also a hardy, vigorous plant, well-suited to cope with the low levels of sunshine here—around 1,700 hours per year, at the bottom end of the amount required to successfully ripen grapes. The resulting wine is bright and low in alcohol, perfect for pairing with cheesy fondues, among other things. Much of Switzerland’s wine is white, but it also produces a fine red from the gamaret vine, which is little known outside the country and barely four decades old. A hybrid developed in the 1970s specifically for local conditions (compare South Africa’s pinotage), it’s increasingly treated like Bordeaux, with a similar richness when aged.
The Piaget boutique on the Esplanade at Wynn Las Vegas.
Like Pascal Raffy, Piaget’s CEO, Philippe Léopold-Metzger, draws parallels between the two industries that thrive in picturesque Watch Valley: “Swiss watches and wine have so many things in common—family roots, skills transmitted from one generation to another, and they’re both businesses that even today remain very artisanal by nature.” (Léopold-Metzger also always serves local wines to visitors to his company’s headquarters and workshop in the valley.)
Perhaps it’s Nicolas Joss, though, who best sums up the kinship between Switzerland’s watches and wines. Joss runs the Office des Vins Vaudois, the trade organization for the canton. “Everywhere in the world, Swiss-made is a sign of quality,” he says. “When you wear a Swiss watch, though, you don’t tell all your friends, ‘Look! I have a Swiss watch!’ It’s the same way for our wines. We are very proud, but very discreet.”