Tales By The Wayside

A collection of stories that would like to be told

This time at Baselworld cont.

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The Hautlence HL2 a breath of 70s as well

From steam to punk and thereabouts

 As time moves along, styles are becoming jumbled. The 1930s and Art-Deco have become something of a fixation, and for good reason (see below). Ingersoll is even gambling on a string of revived original Mickey Mouse watches mostly in quartz. And there are signs that the 70s and their horizontally rectangular television view of the world could be making a comeback.

The 70s are back: CHF 150k for this mechano-digtal leader

Last year saw Hamilton’s re-release of a Pulsomatic, and the new-born 4N brand resorted to the great Renaud & Papi to implement an iconic “digital-looked” watch with an industrial price-tag.


But the persistent driving force behind design is mechanics. The internal combustion and steam engines are the source of inspiration for many brands. It all has to do with the fascination of reorganizing raw materials into a function whole, that warm and fuzzy feel of pistons sliding inside the oiled sheath of a motor block, the demented samba of the valves, the easy transfer of power from the wild explosion through the camshaft to the wheels that gives men, as a rule, the definitive feeling of once and for all overcoming their insignificance.

Meccaniche Veloci, a motorbike on the arm

The success of such a simple esthetic strategy lies essentially in the level of separation between the metaphor and the message. Dozens of brands steer close to the source,  like the German “airplane” watches Breitling and Fortis, or the less famous Meccaniche Veloci, from Smits Uurwerken, whose open plan booth flickered to a film of a motorbike racing around, over an over again, sounding like some demented bee caught inside a violin. The message has all the subtlety of an anvil falling on a bare toe. The watches are bold, round and with four subdials. One piece, in vermilion red, is made from a bike that has been dissected and whose remains stand in a corner of the booth for all to see. Is this piece of metal better than a newly machined bit of steel? And what fate befell that motorbike? No idea. Somewhere among the fluttering axons and dendrites is the lost message that a vehicle is a functional tool, but the rugged feel sparks the male id, no doubt.

(A footnote: There are other ways of expressing one’s disorganized personality or its opposite and nemesis. An example: the purity of a Nomos, which avoids the user needing to pull out an iPhone to tell the time. And besides, do I really want to have a spiritual whiff of Easy Rider on my arm, when CHF 25,000 or so will get a Romain Jeromethat includes a bit of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – now there was shocker – or some rusted leftovers of the Titanic – a symbol of the world economy? – or even a bit of dinosaur feces? Tbd…..)

Pimped mechano sets

TAG Heuer can now measure a 1,000th of a second.

A few steps up the sophistication scale are brands like Eberhardt, where the dashboard look seems almost incidental. Something about the asymmetry of the four subdials on the famous Chrono 4 series treats the eye and the mind to a little diversion. Many other brands have achieved some remarkable effects with the same idea, such as Chopard, which  has integrated design elements recalling those bulky engines of the 30s. Armin Strom, too, besides revamping its booth to make it a lot lighter, has developed a new collection, the Racing series, which is in sharp contrast to the Elements series. Two models are equipped with the in-house movement and are made of car parts as well. The dials range from straightforward to fairly complex, the Regulator consisting of interlocking subdials that give the sense of optical depth. Finally, a mention of the remarkable TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Concept Chronograph, which measures 1000thof a second thanks to a special spiral, the absence of a balance wheel and a host of other patent-pending innovations. The brand pushes automobile names, like the Carrera, but what this has to do with the watch itself is anyone’s guess.

 Engineer’s dream

For many brands, it is of course not about the cars but rather about the nostalgia of our dying world of mechanics, and here the automobile and plane references join a far larger archetype.  Think Mazzuoli, who was not at Baselword, and his espresso machine pressure-gauge watches, or the Contagiri (rpm counter). Or the one-handed wonders of  Meistersinger, extremely basic, and yet with lots of space to let the imagination wander, particularly back to simpler times. The watches of the small brand Ernst Benz might have been taken straight from the cockpit of an early model crop duster,and will therefore

The Ernst Benz Chronoscope

harmonize well with muddy overalls or a casual three-piecer. The Michigan-based company’s latest idea is a tip of the hat to the old vinyl records industry, with concentric circles as a design element: just imagine a caveman faced with a jukebox playing Elvis in a greasy spoon outside Biloxi. Another Swiss-made American brand is Ball Watch– yes, it’s the origin of the expression to be “on the Ball” – A conscious effort has been made to trace back to the birth of the watch in the high-employment

The Ball Fireman Storm Chaser – decades of glow

world of hogheads, bakeheads, yard rats and the other railroad denizen of the late 19th century, when people had their feet on the ground. The watches are all about functionality, including the use of tritium-filled vials to ensure lasting illumination in the dark.

 Impossible to list all of the brands that pay homage to the age of real manufacturing, with metal parts and great wheels turning. Ultimately, however, that is the core beauty of a watch, the wheels, pivots and screws that reproduce the movement of the spheres in the galaxy. In his new X-Ray Series, Israeli horologist Itay Noy simply shows those inner workings of the timepiece on the dial as quasi-abstract element, one that suggests the workings inside. As a teacher of industrial design, Noy is educating a new generation of inventive designers, whose work is testimony to the limitlessness of the imagination when liberated from the illusion of market demand.

Itay Noy, his family of watches is growing by the year

DeWitts, always combining style and mechanics

Other brands revert to Art Deco as the polite side of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Twenty-8 Eight series of DeWitt is a superb example of the sheer timelessness, the industrial elegance of the 20s and 30s, be that the plain automatic in a chocolaty hue or the complex Tourbillon Regulator Horizons, with what seems like a homage to New York City. At the top of the gamme here, too, are the unique timepieces of Jean Dunand, and the Palace mentioned last year in this blog,the symphony of cylinders called the Shabaka, or the contrasting Tourbillon Orbital, a delight for those who enjoy top-drawer detail work and made-to-order individualism. Modern and playful, too, are the Perrelet turbines. The turbine itself no longer drives the automatic movement, since it had the drawback of acting as a brake, but it does produce a lively play of light and colour on the dial.

Turbine xl, Perrelet flashes quietly.

In the same vein are the outstanding pieces that need to be mentioned this year again: the fantastic – in the original sense of the word – Urwerk creations and the collective masterpieces organized by Max Büsser, which combine perfect craftsmanship, functionality and scintillating humour not often seen in the industry. And place must be made, too, for Hautlence’s HL2 collection, a mechanical tour de force with honeycomb dial, a jumping hour chain, various connecting rods like the eccentrics on a steam locomotive, and a particularly large crystal that allows a deep view into the mechanical pyrotechnics (see top of page). The watch comes straight out of an engineer’s LSD trip.

The stunning lucubrations of Felix Baumgarten and the Urwerkers.

Ladoire gentrifies the message a little bit

Finally, mention should be made of a brand that is nosing into this field, Ladoire.  Last year, Lionel Ladoire’s colorful  Mohican was probably more talked about than his massive platinum watch, which could easily serve as an arm weight for joggers (with CHF 108,000 plus to spare). A heavy off-rectangular frame surrounds a multi-dimensional dials that move, in part, around fixed hands. The movement is home-made. Buyers of the first editions could opt for an intricately machined titanium frame that lightened up the whole affair. Ladoire and his merry cohorts, who work in sophisticatedly trash offices in the Acacia industrial zone of Geneva have now come have toned down the steampunk look with the Black Widow series, lightened the watches and streamlined the face to make reading time a little easier. The turning dials are heavily painted with SuperLuminova, giving off an eerie glow in the dark.  The price has been halved, but the customer can still have the watch customized, and by that Lionel Ladoire does not mean etching one’s favorite animal on the rotor.

 The artists


One of the earliest steps in procreation is attraction, and that needs the wow. Nature has colorful feathers and great sexy manes for the male of the species, humans have the combined forces of Madison Avenue and “The Industry,” which manage to enliven the whole process of self-advertising for Him and Her alike. Creating colorful dials and strange shapes for watches is one possibility. But it only

 works if it appears natural, otherwise a watch might have the same rhetorical vigor of an annual report in spite of the bells and whistles. Alain Silberstein, for example, continues to produce stunning objects with his daubs of color that either confront or enhance the severity of a timepiece, like the MB&F Horological Machine No. 2. Not far from his booth this year was Christophe Claret, who was presenting his third watch, the Blackjack. The name says it all: you can play blackjack with it, it even dings results. Roulette is played on the back, and craps in a lateral window. Though the theme is similar to Azimuth SP-1 Roulette, which was also on display, the style is very different.Chris Long and Alvin Lye push the envelope rather far out in their horological Träumerei. Their current creation is in the shape of a World War One tank, with the hours but definitely needs some tweaking to be more readable and perhaps a touch more elegant. For the moment it’s seems liable to tear off your cufflinks.

In time of war (World War One tank, by Azimuth)

Claret's Blackjack, mechanical hijinx to pass the time











Primeval soup

As every year, many real cherries for any visitor to the fair were located up in Hall 5, the so-called Hall of Emotions, perhaps the most appropriately named.  It is here that I returned to Thomas Prescher, who is involved in the Promethean task of getting his Mysterious Tourbillon to work properly while surviving on a his outstanding record of special concepts. Rebuilding older watches for customer is the bread and butter of his business, and a few of those were on display.Two independents have also emerged who caught my eye.

Marc Jenni's JJJ in rose gold

The first is Marc Jenni with his JJJ, a tribute to a distant relative in the past, the 18th-century watchmaker Johann Jakob Jenny. The watch features a large lateral winding crown and some surprising display elements, such as a window giving the ancient – Roman – daily planets, the moon for Monday, Mars for Tuesday, and so forth. The other buzz is about the One Hertz by the Grönefelds, two Dutch brothers from a family of watchmakers, who have turned time on its head with a large subdial featuring deadbeat seconds driven by their own movement,  and hours and minutes in a smaller subdial at 2 o’clock. At first glance, this is a minimalist’s dream, but  slowly the different layers of the watch face and indicators begin to interweave and the beauty and balance of the piece hits home, like the alcohol concealed in the easy fruitiness of a thirst-quenching cocktail.

Tim and Bart Grönefeld, the One Hertz














Eastern winds

This all too brief review of the Baselworld 2011 closes with mention of two remarkable young watchmakers from the east. The first is the Hungarian Aaron Becsei, whose Dignitas collection seems inspired by architectural historicism.

Aaron Becsei's Diagonal Tourbillon in the Dignitas series.

 His timepieces surprise with odd outbursts, like a slanted  tourbillon carrying a seconds indicator that seems to have landed in the watch face like a ninja star, retrograde minutes in a frame with a curiously angled foot and jumping hours. Here is a watchmaker of extreme skill, who obviously has the courage to break out new ideas and then put in the days, months, even years to see them to fruition.


Becsei’s collections include intricate table clocks as well, with tourbillons and eclectic decorative  elements. Not unlike his neighbor at the AHCI booth, Konstantin Chaykin, a thin, intense Russian autodidact with a track record of particularly complex timepieces. Last year he displayed an intricate table clock with a complication showing the Orthodox Easter, another with a Muslim calendar, and a watch with ancient Jewish time in the back (see…). This year, he brought the Lunakhod, a masterstroke made of, among others, Wootz – a very special early steel alloy known inIndia over 2000 years ago – with a harmoniously integrated gray band. The watch has a could blend into the pebbles on a beach. With his sister, Nadja, interpreting, he explains that we always see the same side of the moon, so a moon phase with a turning moon is not really authentic. There in the middle of the dial  is a 3D moon. The phases are shown by the shadow slowly folding over it, a neat and well executed complication. Another little detail is the semicircular display for the hours, which is not retrograde: p.m. is shown by a moon at the tip of the hour hand, a.m. by a little sun. The seconds are in a subdial. And the dark side of the moon is in the back where it belongs. Altogether Dostoyevskian in its duality. And a stroke of genius in the overall concept.

This time at Baselworld

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Whither the watch

Anyone with a decent nose and a functioning lizard brain would have noticed the change 20 meters after the turnstiles at Baselworld 2011. The pungent, oily smell from the tchotchke candles sputtering away at the Zenith stand had vanished into last year’s thin air. Gone too were all the signs of the Thierry Nataf era, including those pseudo-brainy ads with the frowning male models and the girlies pushing very costly and blustery watches. What remains is sobriety, functionality, understatement, in other words pure Zenith from the days of 2 + 2 = 4. The Striking Tenth, already prominently displayed last year, still has flagship radiance, the new Stratos is a relaunch from 1969, sportive, muscular, but not steroidal.


This story has moved to http://www.journos-blotter.com


Written by Marton Radkai

April 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm

The story of a red bear

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Good bye to the Red Bear

A personal event…

In  2007, at a flea market in a somewhat dumpy pizzeria next to the highway, I found a kind of magic bear. It became a golden star when you turned it inside out…

The rest of the story was wonderful. But I had to take it down from the site, away from the public eye.

It was a story about being a child and the ability to imagine, to fantasize, to explore the world with one’s mind and emotions. And it was posted on this site for ages and picked up thousands of clicks.

It is now the tale of the brutality of the Internet, which has given a voice to the dull, the violent, the cheap, the banal. Because the story was personal, nothing intimate or prurient, mind you, I had to make a decision and take it down. It was just simple and positive and, I do not hesitate to say: beautiful.

Is there really truth on the WWW? Or has it merely become a cesspool into which everyone throws everything, mostly advertising?

The finest dish will be inedible after a trip in through the sewers. In our real, off-line lives, we have the ability to transcend or just ignore ugliness. It remains a theoretical haze as we go about our daily chores, work, meet friends, care for our families. We surround ourselves with beauty. With beautiful objects. We cultivate the thoughts that raise our spirits, or should, to somehow rise above the frenzy and breathe in.

Anyway: because this rather beautiful story of the power of childhood put someone close to me at theoretical risk of being mocked, or in other ways bullied by some twit with a life to get, I decided to take it down. I have it on PDF for my daughter to read at some time.

1 for garbage, 0 for beauty.

Welcome to the 21st century. I’ll have more to say about this here: http://www.journos-blotter.com/reflections/

See you thereGarbage01

Winner takes all




Written by Marton Radkai

July 13, 2010 at 9:46 am

Baselworld 2010, Part 2

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Old time in a new bottle

(Part 2-for Part 1, see older post below!)    

 Some novelties at Baselworld 2010 and a winner


The One Week "Water" featuring the Strom's new movement

Like every industry, the watch industry likes to speak of innovations. The definition of that word is really in  the eye of the beholder.Some are business moves that could shift the general manufacturing paradigm. Because the industry itself has its own special entropy, where the chaos side of the graph is represented by diversity and this is leading to some genuine innovation. I am referring to the creation of in-house movements. The smallest company with a movement is Armin Strom. The master himself has passed the 70 mark and just powers away without need for external inspiration.  The company’s  brand new ARM09 movement has been used for the One Week collection. Its modern design is in sharp contrast to Armin Strom’s legendary skeletonized watches, which suggest  the voluble baroque decor of Bavarian Catholic churches.    


Armin Strom still skeletonizes watches himself

Getting rid of excess metal

The "Clef du Temps" by the Confrérie des Horlogers, just to prove it can be done

Hublot, too, opened a manufacture in the industrial zone of Nyon last year, which is now producing the Unico movement. Like them or not, the muscular Bangs and the playful Tutti Fruttis are instantly identifiable timepieces and have their very committed fans. CEO Jean-Claude Biver has steered the brand to glory, navigating a bold course straight through the reefs of the Great Recession.  A rugged and outspoken warrior of the industry, he wisely gave space to members of the former BNB movement company and brought its select Confrérie des Horlogers on board. So Hublot’s new collection includes the Confrérie’s bullet-shaped “Liberty” watches and the Hublotized “Clef du Temps,” that outlandish confection of diamonds, with a vertical tourbillon visible on the side and an impish complication allowing the user to slow down time for a while. Perhaps a sly comment on the absurdly frenetic pace of our contemporary life.    

The techno-vations

TAGHeuer's unfinished Pendelum Concept could become a pit...

The other approach to innovation is to go right to the heart of the matter and change something in the fundamental technology of the watch. This can be quite radical. Let’s mention first of all TAGHeuer, which has been working on replacing the “spring thing” with an engine driven by a permanent magnet of sorts. The “Pendulum Concept” is still being tinkered with, but should it become viable, I am assured, it will remain a sort of niche product and not invade the industry the way quartz did. But the mere idea of electricity inside a mechanical watch (even in the form of magnetism)  could raise a few hackles. TAGHeuer  has called this little beast a “harmonious oscillator.”    

Rudis Sylva's Harmonious Oscillator, like playing the Minute waltz with one hand

   But the TAGHeuer invention is not the only one on the market with that name: After lots of timetable shifting, I met Jacky Epitaux from Rudis Sylva at the Ramada’s third-story bar for an almost conspiratorial look at a mechanism also known as a “harmonious oscillator.” One could almost imagine the ghost of Sidney Greenstreet there looking over our shoulder trying to steel a small but valuable industrial secret. Rather than no spring, this oscillator has two! They are mounted on meshing wheels and mirror each other, so they open and close alternatively and in opposite directions. The point is to cancel the effect of gravity, not just compensate for it as with the regular tourbillon. The system is intriguing, and looking at the oscillator through the loupe feels like trying to play Chopin’s “Minute” waltz with one hand.  


Hamilton Pulsomatic, an ingenious hybrid

Finally, with the 70s booming again, one wonders how could a mechanical watch avoid the curse of digital. No, I am not referring to de Grisogono’s somewhat meretricious mechanical digital dial, but rather to Hamilton‘s rebuilt version of the first solid-state wristwatch ever, the Pulsar. Forty years later, it is back again in bigger and bolder as the Pulsomatic, but it uses an automatic movement to drive a generator delivering an astounding 120 days power reserve. A hybrid for Toyota owners, perhaps?

De Grisogono -- for the 21st-century technoid man



 Unique means one of a kind

In the end, Baselworld is heaven, and it is hell. On just a few acres there are a sea of watches to be seen — and I have not even touched the jewelry section — and far too little time to explore them properly. Every stylistic idea is represented, the classics and crazies, the sporty and sportive, the cool and the hot, the dressy and the glitzy, the sober and the off-the-perch, the vanilla and jalapeño. There are entire lines of ladies watches, whereby thanks perhaps to the weakening of the Schwarzenegger gene, many men’s watches have become a little more androgynous and are drawing female buyers – but this is another story altogether. The market for diamond encrustations that make some timepieces look as if they could be used to grate a 36-month old Parmesan is going strong, obviously, but there is something to say for a masculine watch arousing latent male personality aspects. (Perhaps if men would wear some made-for-women watches, the world would be a little less violent.  Just a thought.)    


Of course, luxury is still high on the agenda, but it seems to have become more introspective rather than self-conscious. The owner knows the value, maybe a coterie of family and friends will be in on the secret, and maybe the fan with a quick eye might realize he or she has just seen a Vianney Halter or van der Klaauw flashing by. Yes, a new sense of modesty might be an excellent opportunity for the independent watchmakers, who were especially hard hit by the cash drain. In some ways, these are the industry’s genuine visionaries and artists, whose pieces not only reflect the paradigm, but do a great deal to push its fulcrum into new and as-of-yet undiscovered territory. Twelve of these masters have been beautifully portrayed in a brand new book by top horological journalist Elisabeth Doerr and photographer Ralf Baumgarten, a must have for any watch collector or connoisseur (Twelve Faces of Time, available at teNeues ).    

In the machine room of the Jean Dunand Palace

At any rate, it is among this particular — and at times peculiar — brood of out-of-the -boxers, autodidacts or ultimate purists that one can find works of genius, works that leap off the wrist, as it were, especially to the discerning watchista. It may be the colorful, laughing pieces of Alain Silberstein, or the mighty Horological Machines by Max Büsser and his friends, where the steam-punk meets sci-fi.  Another piece of gentrified steampunk – combining Charlie Chaplin, Henri Ford and Fritz Lang, to the tune of Honegger’s Pacific 231 – is the “Palace” from Jean Dunand Pièces Uniques, an unabashed celebration of the industrial age, with little chains, cogs, dials and subdials reminiscent of the meters on a locomotive,the nameplate suggesting a fishplate.     

Itay Noy's CIty Squares: Wear your hometown on your wrist

A soft-spoken philosopher of time is the Israeli Itay Noy, who customizes very affordable watches by putting famous city squares on the dials, or working with hallucinogenic fractals. He was not the only self-taught craftsman there: Konstantin Chaykin from St. Petersburg had a stupendous clock displaying the Jewish calendar day, a Jewish watch, the Decalogue, that displays specifically Jewish time units – helek and regaim – on the rear. Chaykin also created a Moslem clock, but the work he seems especially proud of is a unique clock that manages to display the Orthodox Easter. How different from the his booth neighbor Rainer Nienaber,a genius of the retrograde, who had a watch on display that doesn’t really tell the time, unless you wish to live in a purely decimal world.    

Konstantin Chaykin putting the spiritual into time







Prima inter pares – counter-entropy


Applying the KISS Principle to horology in Prescher's (very) mysterious tourbillon

In our age of neue Sachlichkeit, of reductio ad sanem at least, it may seem difficult to find a real show stopper. But maybe we will have to get used to doing without the type of Hollywoodesque hype that has marked the past decades and discover the value of simplicity, of unplugged, of focus. Peace may be more boring than high jinx and wars, but it opens many more possibilities. And so, on day four, while dragging my suitcase full of brochures and electronics through Hall five, between Nienaber and Chaykin (see above),  I stumbled across a  watch that made me loosen my tie, take a deep breath and rub my eyes. It  was a delicate, completely transparent creation with a double axis tourbillon seemingly floating in space right in the middle of the almost square “picture.” The hours and minutes appear on two barrels at the top of the watch separated by a mesmerizing three-dimensional moon, shiny on one side and mat on the other.  The watch is reversible. The date is read at 6 o’clock, as it were, on a semicircular barrel that also serves as an oscillating weight for the automatic.So where is the movement? Tucked laterally under the bezel in the side. The author of this phenomenal piece of equipment, the Mysterious Double Axis Automatic Tourbillon is the German watchmaker Thomas Prescher, whose atelier is in Twann close to Biel, Switzerland.  If any timepiece at the fair reflected a new sense of concentration on the essentials and a return to sobriety and pure art, it was this one.  It should be a pleasure for anyone to be on that wagon.    

(This concludes the very personal overview of Baselworld 2010. I tried here to find themes and patterns, not to describe a maximum of brands. So apologies are due for the absence of many eminent watches and brands, and for not mentioning all the extraordinary watchmakers whose work was displayed at the fair. In months to come, I hope to correct that problem through articles and reports).    

Written by Marton Radkai

April 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch

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A special diving watch: the Italian brand U-boat thinks big

Watch yourself!

 Baselworld 2010: a review 

 Part 1 


Blast from the past, Baselworld in 2008

If we are to believe the chroniclers of the wealthy like Steve Forbes, what affects the world’s haves, will also have an impact on the havenots. It’s a bizarre thought based on some strange algorithm only Forbes might understand – it assumes that X not being able to afford another luxury car is equivalent to Y and his family being expelled from their home. But when it comes to watches, the algorithm might just work. Because luxury is the projection and realization of some personal fairytale, and it touches everyone at all levels. For some, purchasing a muscle car is the lonely cherry atop an otherwise gloomy cake, and for others gazing at a tourbillon and a pumping hairspring may be the only way to remember one’s own beating heart in a life of soporific board meetings and business-class plane travel. You don’t really buy a watch, especially a mechanical one, to tell the time, but rather to have a little bit of the galaxy on your wrist, or on the wrist of a loved one.  It makes no difference whether it’s a €210,000 Chanel limited edition, or an entry-level Eterna …  It’s one of the messages that became quite obvious at Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry orgy held in Basel, Switzerland.  

This great trade fair just closed its doors on a happy note, with attendance up by 7% over last year, according to the fair’s daily herald, and the industry generally upbeat about the future. But optimism among the watch brands is not new. Even in the depths of the recession, CEOs and the brands’ majordomos of communication were grabbing at any number that suggested black and not red, and smiling through the drizzle of bad news. As a last resort, they would point to the overheated market until 2008 and suggest that the ensuing crash was merely a natural correction.  Quite true, of course, but since the Lehmann vaporization, the Madoff hanky-panky, even the now forgotten scandal at the Société Générale, the luxury industry has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, liquidity problems and continuing insecurity in the markets — see Greece – means that the recovery has the energy of the prisoners staggering into the light at the beginning of act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. On the other hand, the very raison d’être of luxury, exhibitionism, is now considered to be in even worse taste than it ever was. Money is a little tight for everyone thanks to the pathological greed of the past few years, but for those who have it, broadcasting the fact seems to suggest a “let them eat cake” attitude. And we know where that ended.  

Eterna Soleure, traditional values are in style

Turning back the clocks  

So it’s no surprise to hear just about every brand speak of “classic” values mixed in with the usual fusion of traditional crafts with innovative ideas. The era of bling has passed, and serious watch aficionados are not entirely unhappy with that state of affairs. Just as censorship in the former USSR led Russian writers and composers to weave a great deal of dissident subtlety into their creations, so, in the year 1 after the Great Recession, sleek lines are back, thin, elegant watches with plain bar indices are in, so are the comfortable rectangular shapes of the 1950s,  1960s and 1970s. Symmetry, or at least harmony and balance, has returned to the dials, but without the slightest sense of stodginess. And steel casings are suddenly quite fashionable — whereby red and yellow gold are beginning to return.  

Many of the older brands seemed to have had a great time rummaging around their archives and digging up older designs that hark back to simpler days. Eterna, for instance, is pushing its delicate Soleure, with Arabic numerals or bar indices, a day and night watch for all occasions. Longines has a re-issue of the Lindbergh chronograph, a manly piece but hardly Hummer-like; Tutima has resumed its 1941 Flieger Chronograph line, also recalling the brave flyers of yore, while its Classic line is a genuine chameleon, with sharper contours suggesting this millennium.  

A fast-beating heart gets a front-row showing in the Striking 10th

No brand epitomizes more the changes of the past three years than Zenith, perhaps. The flamboyant Thierry Nataf of Moet fame had tried to reinvent the traditional brand to meet the exhibitionist tastes of a class of nouveaux riches that partly crashed along with the rest of the economy all the while burying the company’s very DNA. It was like spray-painting flames on the side of a Steinway concert grand for a Grigory Sokolov  recital of Brahms’s late works…. To Nataf’s credit, it might have worked had the world economy simply continued to exist on the hallucinogenic expectations of derivatives. Suffice to say,  Mr. Nataf – who once told me in an interview, he was “born in a boardroom” – was kicked sideways and replaced by the stolid Jean-Frédéric Dufour, a Geneva resident with a real horological pedigree that includes stints at Ulysse Nardin and Chopard. Gone are the über-cool male models with their brummagem scholar-cum-samurai appeal and the glam femmes objets.  Gone are the aphoristic quotes that may be interesting while waiting for the subway, but signified nothing in terms of watches. Gone, too – but not sideways – are about 25% of the old staff. Zenith has turned the clock back and is producing strong, basic, watches, with the good and friendly looks of high-attitude Jura farmers and affordable prices. The big news is the El Primero Striking 10th, which shows each of the ten beats per second of the exceptional caliber (which beats at 36,000 vph), thanks to the jumping seconds hand. Back to the roots, indeed… All that’s left of the flashy pre-Dufour days, apparently, is the company gift candle sputtering away on the receptionist’s pulpit and producing a penetrating, musky-spicy odor that mixed somewhat irritatingly with the garlic used by Zenith’s own booth cooks.  

Coming up for air: Doxa divers

 If it ain’t broke …

Eberhardt's Chrono4 Temerario

Some brands did not need to turn down the volume too much, simply because they never really lost their dignity in the first place. Chronoswiss, Doxa and Tutima, for example, are classics by nature, and like  Breitling, Fortis, TAGHeuer, have all maintained their genetic association with big engines, diving, flying, regattas, while offering the occasional bit of craziness. It might be a surprisingly gaudy strap,  or a limited edition, like Fortis’s Mattern, which was designed by artist Michael Mattern, a specialist in transcending the inner workings of our industrial age.  Another manufacturer worth mentioning here is Eberhardt, whose watches seldom venture beyond the straight and narrow but manage to achieve recognizability without going to extremes: The standard Chrono4 series, with its four small dials, would not raise your granddad’s eyebrows, though the Temerario sub-line, in a tonneau case with the four subdials arranged vertically does generate some additional excitement. And then there is the crown buried like a gas cap behind a metal flap between the two 12-0’clock lugs.  

Beauty and the beast, biker chains, head fins, jewels on the DeWitt Tourbillon

Higher up on the scale is DeWitt, where a class and luxury do a little slumming with the steam-punk crowd. That tiny chain used to connect the power reserve in the Academia line is not just a visual delight, but rather part of an innovative system to ensure that the driving force of the tourbillon is constant. Chopard is another brand that has parked itself in the grand old days of leather helmets and mud-speckled goggles. For the company’s 150th anniversary, it has developed several new timepieces, notably a pocket watch that functions as a wristwatch as well as a tribute to founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The movement driving this serene piece was produced by a collaboration between the company and the Geneva Watchmaking School, which needed some components for the apprentices’ master works.  

The Esplendido, more après-race than racy

Another brand which has defined itself by sticking to its retro birthright is Cuervo Y Sobrinos. Like Chopard and the Mille Migli, CyS also embraces the world’s great car races, like the Grand Prix, as a sort of public identity. Whereby the dignity of the elongated case of the Esplendidos line suggests more the sensuality of a slow rumba, wafts of sweet and spicy cigar smoke, lazy afternoons, the sexiness of taking time rather than racing through it. The Pirata line offers the same identity, with a little more sportiveness, a whiff of tang coming through the porthole shaped case and the crown and push-buttons recalling blunderbusses and a cannonball, a humorous watch for walking the plank with.  

The Cuervo Y Sobrinos Pirata - goes well with an eyepatch.

Check out Part 2 above.  


Memories from another world

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Part I: East Germany

(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westwerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.

I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.

Final crossings

On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Bridge that connected East and West Berlin. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.

Glienickerbrücke-Source unknown

I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.

A lot has been forgotten over the past 20 years, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).

That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my somewhat innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting German and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped in the middle of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was against me. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was in the GDR. But without a visa.

As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess, everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. I risked, probably a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominence, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations.East Germany Part II continues…

Fahrenheit 2009, Part III: Guest of Honor

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Chinese checkers


Entrance to the Chinese hall at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Digital content creation is not the only elephant being talked about at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The other was guest of honor China. But the conversation is lopsided.  China has its own room near the entrance with a delightfully meditative installation, a pond nestled in white sand with the big logo of ideograms carved into wooden blocks.  One company has a line of small laptops all showing pages with gaudy pictures and Chinese texts. A young woman, extremely young for my tired old eyes comes up to me without bidding. We speak a mixture of German and English. It seems to me they are looking for content. They buy copyrights. “Thrillers?” I ask. Yes, yes, people like thrillers in China. And it is a huge market, I muse. Yes, she says, a big market. Something to note, a huge and eager market…. Maybe finishing that thriller I started 5 years ago might be a good idea.




Is this the same China that pumped out all those manifestoes on poor paper just a few decades ago? The country where everyone wore blue jackets and rode bicycles? The nation of great leaps forward and cultural revolutions with millions of deaths? Tiananmen Square?  I cannot recall regime change, but everyone can go there, one airline is offering special discounts: € 499. And the business sector is in awe, even freedom-loving Jack Welch. Arte is blasting a program on Chinese writers, a young authoress talks about the country being a China Town, no longer in touch with its tradition. The ubiquitous books revering its economic energy are beginning to feel like a waste of trees. A week earlier, Nelson Schwartz and Matthew Saltmarsh from the New York Times were decrying some mysterious illness called “Eurosclerosis,” Europe’s somewhat plodding economy, and noting one should speak of a G-2,  the United States and China. “Ideally, it would be the G-3, but Europe doesn’t speak with a single voice and they can’t coordinate and function the same way the U.S. and China can,” the authors quote C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But these two distinguished, oft-published journalists apparently have not noticed the human costs of the boom. It seems unimportant in Mammon’s great maw.

Human matters
For a dissenting view, you have to march all the way to the cubbyhole booths in Hall 3.0 and 3.1, for example.  lr-China-Charter08 Regina Berlinghof, IT specialist by day, authoress and publisher of ancient spiritual and lyrical texts for YinYang Media by night, has hung texts of the Charter 08, a free speech manifesto for the people and artists of China. “Human rights are not given by the state,” one page states boldly, “rather, they are rights that each individual possesses at birth.” At birth is an interesting concept. And possession, too. Possessions are eminently fragile. They can be bought, taken, or even embezzled away. “A Chinese couple came by and nodded approvingly,” she points out. “You are the only one who actually stopped to find out more. Other journalists came by, but they didn’t take notice,” she points out sadly. We eat a few macadamia nuts and talk of the great Chinese thinkers, the artists, they are always the true value of a nation. And behind its army of bureaucrats, China has a grand culture that stretches back to the days of Gog and Magog. Alas, it has no clout.

One storey higher, I find Amnesty International with a big yellow poster announcing a round table about dissident writer Liao Yiwu (his “Public-Toilet Managerwill brighten your day, no doubt), who was not allowed to travel. The event is also being organized by the S. Fischer publishing house, a big one in Germany, but the print is small. Fischer brought out a complete collection of books on the Nazi concentration camps a while ago, so they know what they are talking about.

Not far is a tiny stand with a single book on display called Laogai, from agenda Verlag & Gallerie. It has a picture of men in police uniform pointing guns. Laogai, which derives from the word for reeducation camps. A concentration camp. (Laogai…. Sounds spookily similar to Lager, and shares three letters with Gulag). I open it, a sentence springs up at me: 68 non-violent crimes are punishable by death in China, one of them tax evasion. I turn a page, gruesome pictures of executions, in the background are white vans, presumably – says the caption – mobile labs to harvest the fresh organs. Dr. Bernhard Schneeberger has a good sense of humor, but here his demeanor is filled with anger: That is what you get when you combine hard-nosed capitalism with hard-line communism, he says.

lr-laogai-01Six Sigma meets the Gulag, essentially. China’s motto at the fair is “Tradition and Innovation,” (two buzz-terms used ad nauseam by anyone from distinguished watch makers to tourist offices around the world). Traditional law meets innovative means to mete it out and profit. The law of supply and demand applied to human beings, who are in large supply in China, and always have been; the supply always a little larger than demand, so it is cheap. Organ harvesting at the killing field, a case for just-in-time delivery. A literal understanding of the term human resources. The result: fantastic growth. Great idea for Europe’s sclerotic economy, Mr. Schwartz, no? It was tried here, didn’t work out that well, but maybe now it could be tried again. After all, who really cares as long as the toys are cheap.

 Schneeberger pulls out another book, this one on cheap paper, with a paper cover featuring a youngish man with an ernest look on his face. He is lawyer Gao Zhisheng and is book is called A China More Just. This high-powered figure started defending human rights groups, but disappeared off the face of the earth. I cannot help but recall the story of Raoul Wallenberg. The Chinese did not publish his book, of course, they outsourced the job to  South Korea, which had it printed … in China. There will always be a Kafka.

 Down the aisle I see a woman in a cage. She hands me bookmarks featuring authors such as Tsering Woeser, whose Notes on Tibet was prohibited for “serious political errors.” Another bookmark announces a round table with Chinese authoress Xu Pei, the Uigur writer Sidik Haji Rouzi, and the Tibetan journalist Tsewang Norbu. And the man at www. savetibet.de hands me brochures, two bumper stickers and a cloth bag bearing the Tibetan flag. He suggests I pass by the Chinese hall on the way out. That will make no difference at all, since the powers-that-be are in fact absent. They are laughing all the way to the nearest bank.lr-China-prison


Yes, some trouble did erupt at a pre-Fair symposium. The official Chinese, worthy heirs to Chairman Mao, were very upset at hearing public displays of real criticism, and Jürgen Boos, head of the Fair, actually apologized. And so, on the first evening, the Wednesday, Angela Merkel visited the Book Fair. She was accompanied by Xi Jinping, China’s Vice President. They did not wander through Hall 3.1.  They did not hear of the demo against China in the streets. They avoided the Amnesty International/Fischer round table. Don’t want to rock any boats. Angela Merkel, like most political figures, is just a kind of PR manager at this point. What are a few silenced authors versus billions in high-speed trains and other technology; what are the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid, at times imprisoned workers against cheap shoes, shirts, bicycles and other wares. I cannot help think of Sarah Palin’s recent visit to Hong Kong to talk to Chinese businessmen. She took time to criticize the Obama administration, she calls him a Socialist, she hallucinates about death panels, and that  in the land of laogai.

 A cartoon from the 80s comes to mind: Reagan with a quizzical expression on his face holding a document marked “China briefing.” George Shultz then Secretary of State is captioned saying: “Yes, 1 billion Communists, I thought you knew!” Apparently we conveniently forgot and still forget while staring down official bogeymen, smaller ones without quite the clout of the Chinese Communist Party and its gigantic economy. Keep smiling, don’t be so negative, move on. That is the rhetorical soma of the age, the prozac slogans.

On my way to and from the Fair in the train, I am re-reading the deadpan Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera, an old edition edited by Philip Roth. In the introduction, Roth discusses The Joke, an early work by Kundera, the story of a student who writes his lover a flippant message. It begins with the words:

 Optimism is the opium of the people

 That gets student Ludvìk Jahn into some serious trouble. It’s something to think about.

Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate

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Note from the Editor: What do you think of digital books and digitizing books? Please leave a civil comment


Beauty and the Beast

by Marton Radkai


Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

 The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hirtler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

  Off the books: liber digitalis 


Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

lr-FFM-tower of books

Those pesky hardcopy books

 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name. 

Future libraries for the digi-incrowd


The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those pesky authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission. 



Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

 Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.


Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers

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Written by Marton Radkai

January 27, 2016 at 11:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Geneva run

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L’Escalade: the run of your life

In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.

2014_affiche_grandeGeneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.

The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.

The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).

Memories are made of this

A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.

The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.The ladies' run

Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.

There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit www.escalade.ch. The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.

Marmite74 The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).

What’s in a cauldron?

The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.

Marmite-03 (2)

Eat your (marzipan) vegetables for the sake of the Republic

And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)

Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.

Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.

Let them eat soup

As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.

Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009,  Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”

Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.

Written by Marton Radkai

December 11, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized