The Mystique of Swiss Watchmakers

True beauty is not only in the eye, but in the mind of the beholder. It lies in knowing what's behind the painted face, the well-polished surface, the baubles and diamonds. It is to understand (or at least imagine) what gives that beauty life, what makes it tick.

Yes, we are talking about watches—the kind made exclusively, and beautifully, in Switzerland. Their purpose is to tell time, of course, but in a timeless way that, at the apogee of the craft, is as much immune to the fashions of technology as to the vogues of apparel. Their mystique is in their movements, which are entirely mechanical and based on engineering principles that go back centuries: myriad tiny cogs, balance wheels, internal jewels machined to exquisite tolerances, then polished by hand and assembled by master watchmakers.

There was a moment in the 1970s—the age of astronauts and the Concorde airliner, which had a simple liquid-crystal display to clock the surpassed speed of sound—when such mechanical elegance was little esteemed. But the passion of collectors and connoisseurs for the inner beauty of fine watches has returned over the last quarter of a century as a post-modern obsession, and many people will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for timepieces that, if not works of art in the classic sense, would have been the envy of the inventor in Leonardo da Vinci.

One approach is that of Rolex, which prides itself on external simplicity born of internal complexity. Its watches were among the first to be waterproof. It was also first with a "perpetual" movement wound by the motion of the wearer's wrist, back in the 1930s. By contrast, Patek Philippe, Breguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and a handful of other watchmakers put enormous effort into mechanisms renowned for their "complications," defined as anything a mechanical watch can do beyond telling the time and the date. (Remember: no quartz, no "tuning fork" like your uncle's old Bulova, no battery, just winding by hand or by motion.)

These range from "simple" complications, such as the phases of the moon, to "lesgrandes complications," as they say in Geneva—like the phases of the moon for the next 122 years without resetting. A "minute repeater" might chime the hour, quarter-hour and minute on cue, "like a church," as one aficionado puts it. A tourbillon rotates the entire spring-energy-transmitting core of the watch (the escapement) to counter the effect of gravity on the mechanism. A perpetual calendar will calculate the length of every month, not to mention the leap year, so it never needs to be reset. Another complication called "the equation of time" figures the difference between "true" solar time and man-made "mean time" on earth. Last year's Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso grande complication à triptyque has three faces and lists 18 complications.

Accuracy is a virtue of such watches, of course, but electronic precision is seen as a kind of vice. Customers who measure their tourbillons against atomic clocks are not likely to be taken seriously in the world of fine watches. The price? What the global market will bear. Only 75 Triptyques were produced, each of them selling for €375,000. Truly a sign of the times.