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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Zenith represents well the changes that have swept the Swiss watch industry over the past, say, 10 years, when people believed in the magic growth of money and the Madoff snake oil. How could something promoted with loud and ostentatious events and fetching absurd prices not be worth a lot of money? Today, the company is buying back the unsellables and moving forward with its classics – with, I hear, some technical involvement from LVMH Group partner Hublot. Not everyone thinks poorly of Nataf. “Whenever I used to show my watches to distributors, I was ignored,” recalls one former Zenith salesman from the early days. “Now they wouldn’t dream of doing that anymore. That is to Nataf’s credit.”
The big picture
Essentially, the industry is back with an excellent year behind it and rosy, nay incandescent, prospects for the coming one, provided some new bubble doesn’t appear on the horizon and then burst again: Exports rate up around 22 percent, February seems set to be a record month, even beating the great 2008. The exhilaration was palpable, audible and legible across the board, and was not really affected by the war in Libya or the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan (this issue did allegedly keep some of the Japanese away, but one distributor mentioned that it would be out of character for them to actually not show up) … From Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Chopard, to Jean-Claude Biver of Hublot, all were radiant, enthusiastic, ecstatic. It was more than just the usual uplift; for even at the height of the Great Recession, while easily-earned yet vaporous cash snapped, crackled and popped under the dousing by the liquide glaciale of reality, the mood at Baselworld remained, at least rhetorically, positive. Nevertheless, this year there a slightly giggly mood going round, similar to that at the foot of a particularly shaky rollercoaster, when the pale passengers disembarking look around to see if anyone had flown off the carriage. In fact, just about everyone seems to have made it, even though there are a few bruises and headaches.
Dazed and dazzled, however, the industry was to an extent caught by surprise by the surge, as Max Büsser of MB&F told me in an interview in his customary pithy style: “The suppliers were anemic in the crisis, and now they’re being asked to run a 9-second 100 meters, and that’s impossible.”
In other words, supply might be lagging somewhat, while some brands, caught unawares, have to restock not only on product, but on the talent they threw off the bus perhaps a little hastily. The demand itself is driven mainly by China, which picked up around half the exports; Europe is doing well and the USA is, well, no one really knows, while the Middle East no one seems willing to talk about.
Different day, same hit
What Chinese demand really signifies in terms of design is difficult to tell. Some brands have an older connection to Asia, like Jaquet Droz and the so-called “Beijing collection,” whose styles range from minimalist to complex. At the booth, one of the Droz artists was demonstrating the extraordinary technique of drawing on enamel, which has been one of the brand’s trademarks.
The deeper question though is whether tigers on watches is going to truly appeal to Chinese consumers. As this segment of the industry is mostly market driven, determining what is going to be the big hit is perhaps irrelevant. Hardly astonishing then to find horological innovations that are carrying on from last year’s trends. 2010, one might remember, was back to basics. As the economy is as predictable as the weather along the English Channel, few seemed prepared to take massive chances. Watches were a touch smaller, some flatter, steel was back (that trend has slowed), and prices were looking reasonable even in the haut-de-gamme range. And so the sudden surge may have caught the industry off guard, an industry that produces new material with lag uncharacteristic for our just-in-time times.
So steering a solid course through the recession without trying anything outrageously new proved to be the only strategy, hence many of the booths revealed good friends from last year some in new guise, some appearing perhaps a tad larger, with a few extra daubs of color or deco. Hall 1, home of the biggies including Swatch Group, Patek Phillippe, the LVMH companies, seemed full of watches that were indeed beautiful, sexy, masculine, anything but outrageous. From Breitling to TAG Heuer, from Breguet to Longines, there were no shocks to the fans, to the collectors, none, at last, that were truly visible. And while the crowds were fairly heavy, the frenetic feeling was not there. Even Blancpain, whose CEO Mark Hayek succumbed to the sophomoric dream of driving a fast car with the shape and color of a crushed beetle, happily continues to thrive with its classics, notably the Villeret Complete Calendar.
This overall cautiousness – or is it just the surprise – may be the chance for brands with lower budgets and less visibility. Or for those who seek a more intimate sense of beauty and quality. Or even for the newbies on the block. Heritage Watch Manufactory, which went live in September 2010, has come up with a purist’s delight and has done its marketing properly. This classic looker (the Tensus, for instance) , boasts five patented innovations, including a special escapement, double spring barrel and an adjustment system It will no doubt find its fans, perhaps among those who wish to remain in the Glashütte mold, in spite of a solid price tag ranging from CHF 15,000 to CHF 50,000. On the other side of the scale is the simple craftsmanship of the tiny Hebe Watch company, which is buried up in Alle the Jura and whose booth was tucked at the farthest geographical point from the entrance in Hall 5. Besides a few small watches in 1920s/30s style from its previous incarnation, Hebe has come out with a few modern skeletons at a good price. The brand, which was already dealing with China in the 30s and in the 80s, was recently purchased by Anouk van de Velde from Belgium, who seems intent on giving the watches in Alle space to develop naturally, while at the same time making them better known. Perhaps a more visible booth?
Another Belgian to mention
is Benoît Mintiens, who launched Ressence, apparently as a compact version of “renaissance of essentials.” That seems to summarize the whole show really well. As an industrial designer, Mintiens seemed out of place in the GrandPalace along with some of the wizards of the watchmaking craft. His idea of a revolving dial, with moving subdials, however, did create some chatter. And it’s not a one-time shot. He is, so he says, already working on the next design, and the next, and the next.
Mechanics, retroistas, and the artists coming up soon on this blog. Please come back soon….
Three years ago, at a flea market in a somewhat dumpy pizzeria next to the highway, Seraphina (my daughter) found and fell in love with a little bear dressed like Santa Claus. She called it “Rotbär”, red bear, and pronounced it hohtbär (with long dark “O” as in home). A few months later, disaster struck. On a cold November night, Rotbär got lost somewhere in Basel, how is anyone’s guess. We searched for it, made calls, returned to each location we might have been. To no avail. Seraphina, at three and a half years of age, was inconsolable.
“Rotbär has certainly gone on vacation for a while,” I told her, trying to explain that even bears like to take a break, that winter was coming and he had surely caught a southerly-bound, to Ticino, to Italy, Spain, later Africa… He wanted to see the world, he would be back.
It worked. For a while. But every now and then, she would burst out in tears and say, “Hohtbär is surely, surely lost forever, why would he want to leave?”
This went on for two-and-a-half years, or thereabouts. She did not forget the little bear dressed like Santa Claus. In the meantime she even pronounced him “rrrotbär”, rolling the “R”s properly. “He probably found a wonderful place to live,” I told her, “and I am sure he is happy, he must be.” It worked. For another while.
But soon after, one quiet night, my lucubration was interrupted by a plaintive cry: “Papa, I wonder where Rotbär is right now, I am sure he was stolen by pirates,” and the tears flowed and flowed and flowed, and the story of the traveling red Santa bear grew and grew, decorated with touches of real life, train rides, plane trips, seasickness on ships and joyrides in cars, visits to poor children in faraway lands, who really needed to be comforted by the Miracle Bear, because they had so, so little. And Seraphina’s little-giant heart felt this was right and Rotbär was doing fine. So it worked. For another while. Say a month or two, maximum.
About five weeks ago, Rotbear finally phoned me, I was happy to report. From England, of all places. He had decided to come back home because he missed Seraphina. And she was excited. “Really???” Yes, really, I answered, and mentioned in passing that he had probably changed a bit, just like she had changed in all those years. She had become bigger, and he, too, probably. But apparently he still had those clothes on. “He told me he would send a postcard from Hamburg,” I dropped casually at the table one day.
I knew other key parts of Rotbär that had changed, but I will not tell her. In fact, I will keep this a secret, period.
Lo and behold, a few days later a picture came in an envelope addressed in heavy, cumbersome letters: A little bear in a Santa suit, looking cocky indeed, and, oddly, sitting on a chair like the one in our living room. I placed the picture on the kitchen table. At mealtimes, Seraphina would look at that bear, and could hardly believe it. Rotbär was really, really coming home. And it must be that bear, she sort of remembered. He was in Hamburg (“Is that far?”), he is in Hannover (“Is that far?”), he is in Düsseldorf (“Is that far?”), he is taking a ship down to Karlsruhe (“Is that far?”). We did the map of Germany. Once she even asked if he was in Alsace, across the border. “No,” I replied earnestly, “The train line from Hamburg comes through Freiburg, not Alsace…
You have to be realistic, right?
Today was Seraphina’s sixth birthday. She had seven friends over. The heat was excruciating. In the afternoon, just as the party was setting off for a treasure hunt (accompanied by our flesh-and-bone cat), after the cake-eating ceremony, heavy storm clouds suddenly stacked up in the sky, menacingly. But they only broke to the north and east of the district, causing floods and all manner of havoc. We just got the dark clouds and wind and a few drops of rain. So the children could play outside for a while and dip in the inflatable pool and scream.
Seraphina was in seventh heaven. She had woken up this morning to an apartment in festive garb, with garlands strung from the beams and pink vinyl cloth on the table decked out with fairy cups and princess plates. Suddenly, at 8:20 a.m., the doorbell rang perfunctorily. She ran down the stairs. And there, on the table in front of the entrance door sat none other than Rotbär, the prodigal Santa bear, back after so many adventures. Exactly the same as on the postcard. Except in his backpack were some gummi bears. Well, what do bears snack on while traveling?
Twelve long hours later…
Before going to bed, Seraphina’s front tooth, which was very wiggly, finally came out. The tooth fairy will be along as soon as everyone is asleep. Seraphina gets to bed, undresses Rotbär, because it is still quite hot out, she points out. And once again, her voice rings out in the now quiet house… “Papa!” It carries a mellifluous tone that suggests worry. “The guests,” — she really calls her friends guests – “said that someone brought Rotbär, he didn’t come by himself.”
Somehow, I expected this. Or rather, I feared this.
Like those fragile, pearly little teeth giving way to more stable eating tools, her childhood is slipping away. The dreams, the fantasies, are ceding to reason and logic. She knows it. She is proud of those new teeth coming. Her friends all have Halloween pumpkin smiles already and boast about it among themselves. And yet two nights ago, she called again when all was quiet. (The time when one’s thoughts seem loudest, don’t they?) And she tearfully, desperately explained that she really liked being five years old, and did not want to be six. She couldn’t explain why, but having to go to school suddenly seemed too daunting. “Five is a good age!” she threw at me. And so we chatted about age, about being six, and 53, and how old grandpa is (77) and about why Joni, our neighbor in Hungary, died two years ago at around 80.
Like the child she is, Seraphina has few filters. She listens with each cell to what life is telling her. In a few years, no time really, she will be a different person, I assume. What lesson is there here? Should one obey the harsh laws of 2+2 make 4 and nothing more? Is this a charade I am playing with her? Or is it simply nurturing happiness? I believe in authentic emotion, in sadness, and anger, and joy. There is so much to say for feeling and expressing genuine emotion. It’s what make us whole and real and able to truly communicate in the end. Her feelings, I suddenly realize, have nothing to do with a little bear in a Santa suit.
“You always knew Rotbär was coming back, didn’t you?” I ask.
“Yes!” – “You believed he would? Truly, in your heart?”
“Because you really love Rotbär, right?”
“Well, your friends were not here this morning when the doorbell rang, so they don’t know. He’s here, and that is because you believed it would happen.” This is in a voice of conviction.
“Yes, and he came back to be with me.”
“Of course,” I answer,” what more do you need to know? Good night, sleep tight…”
“… and don’t let the bedbugs bite” she finishes off.
She is asleep in minutes, clutching Rotbär. Her dream is still intact, she has all the time in the world to do the growing up bit. She knows a lot anyway, so I am not worried.
But I keep thinking that it’s true, she actually willed that Rotbär back in some way. This is the genuine power that children have. It’s so unbelievably pure, so surgically precise and in some ways devastating. It takes my breath away and releases tears of wonder and longing: to be suddenly bathed in this electrifying power of dreams, to feel free of the narrow protective armor needed to survive the daily skirmishes, to just, for a moment, feel the immensity of imagination and the full force of its impact. She breathes life into any object. This is true strength. This must be protected and nurtured at all cost.
The house is quiet. Time to get back to work.
Old time in a new bottle
(Part 2-for Part 1, see older post below!)
Some novelties at Baselworld 2010 and a winner
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.
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 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.”
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.
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 ).
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.
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.
Prima inter pares – counter-entropy
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).
Baselworld 2010: a review
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.
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.
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.
If it ain’t broke …
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.
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.
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.
Check out Part 2 above.
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.
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.
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…
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.
For a dissenting view, you have to march all the way to the cubbyhole booths in Hall 3.0 and 3.1, for example. 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 Manager” will 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.
Six 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.
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.
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.
Geneva 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.
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.
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.
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.