"That’s an interesting watch you have there," says Jochen from the back seat of the car, looking at our host's wrist.
The watch gently reflects light as he steers us along the narrow roads near La Chaux-de-Fonds, a city that is known for being set up in a modern grid system, though the roads leading to and from it curve like a well-worn watch band.
"It's a Golden Bridge in a matte black titanium casing,” answers Jorge as he unbuckles the timepiece and hands it to Jochen. “Wow! That’s light. It looks so much heavier, but I guess that is the bonus of using titanium," Jochen, a trained tool and diemaker, expresses.
"Yes, indeed. You'll get a chance to see the manufacturer tomorrow morning," we are told. Jochen passes me the watch, and I am mesmerized by the linear movement of the clock. I had never seen anything like it. The watch is almost more engineering-meets-art than a practical instrument to tell time.
The famous sons of La Chaux-de-Fonds
We are in the Swiss Jura region. La Chaux-de-Fonds is the third-largest city in French-speaking Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though most people will never have heard of it. However, they will surely be familiar with its two most famous citizens: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka. Le Corbusier) and Louis-Joseph Chevrolet.
After the city was decimated by a fire in 1794, it was rebuilt using a modern grid system, which no doubt left an impression on Le Corbusier and Chevrolet: One for clean design and an appreciation for straight lines, the other for being able to go fast when the roads lack curves.
The city’s crest is also fascinating with a beehive and stars. It is fitting for a town whose claim to fame is being the epicenter of Swiss watchmaking.
The Grand Hôtel Les Endroits is where to indulge yourself in La Chaux-de-Fonds
We spend the night in the family-owned and run Grand Hôtel Les Endroits. This four-star hotel with a lavish spa and wellness area is one of La Chaux-de-Fonds' top addresses, whether it is for business or leisure travel - or merely for fine dining.
After relaxing in the spa for a few hours, we treat ourselves to a glass of la fée verte before dinner. As it is already September, we let ourselves be tempted by the autumnal four-course menu featuring venison and chestnuts. Here is what a gourmet meal at the Grand Hôtel Les Endroits looks like:
No doubt the Green Fairy played a part in lowering our inhibitions about ordering such a feast. Over dinner, we discuss the Swiss watch industry, where it came from, and where it is going. Catching bits and pieces of the conversations at other tables, it seems that watches are on everyone's mind.
With each course, we are continuously reminded that Neuchâtel and the Jura area have more to offer than just watches. There is a rich gastronomical tradition from local buffalo mozzarella to pata negra ham, beers, wine, and, of course, cheese. The latter is the perfect way to close a meal.
The next morning before leaving for the watchmaker Corum, Jochen and I take the grand tour of the hotel with the daughter of the founders. She has grown up in the Endroits and will probably take over the property at some point from her parents.
She tells us about how she has seen the hotel grow and develop to meet the demands of the local industry and tourists. With its prime location outside the city center and overlooking the entire Watch Valley, the Grand Hôtel Les Endroits will undoubtedly continue to thrive and is worth visiting if only for a meal.
Corum is young, but with history
Our next stop is the Corum watch factory. Though Swiss watch production has more than 200 years of history, it was only after the First World War that it moved into luxury watch production.
It really ramped up after the Second World War before its bread and butter production suffered its first major blow in the 1960s. Corum was born while the Swiss watchmaking industry solidified its position as the provenance of elegant and luxurious mechanical watches.
Founded by Gaston Ries and his nephew, Renee Bannwart, in 1955, the watch brand was avant-garde in terms of style and its willingness to challenge traditional watch design.
Today, the Golden Bridge and Bubble models make the brand stick out from its competitors, as do the coin face series, which are favored by American presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Trump.)
Seeing the craftspeople at work at the Manufacture Corum
The Corum complex, if one can call it that, is housed in a few buildings that look like mid-century structures. The office lobby is rather unsuspecting for a luxury watch brand - especially compared to the grandiose and almost over-the-top structures of other brands.
There, we are kindly received and shown around the miniature museum and sitting rooms. The latter pays homage to the city's prodigal son, Le Corbusier, himself.
Then, we are taken into the watch assembly where dozens of people are meticulously inspecting components, assembling watches, and testing the finished timepieces before they are ready for packaging and shipping.
With his professional background and training, Jochen is enthralled in the craftsmanship it takes to assemble such a piece. Measurements are in micrometers, and not in millimeters. I am equally amazed at the amount of testing that each element undergoes.
And finally, we get to try on a Corum timepiece
After watching the horologists at work, we are invited to sit in a beautiful conference room with large floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete walls, and wood paneling to see the most recent collection.
There are plenty of Admiral’s Cup watches - from a traditional, nautical-inspired watch to the modern and funky Bubbles, as well as the flagship Golden Bridges and my favorite - the presidential Double Eagle. Put the one that speaks to you most around your wrist, and you quickly understand why some people take to watch collecting.
These instruments are unique, mechanical pieces of art with a purpose. It is then and there that I made up my mind that one day, I will own a Double Eagle watch. Though I will never become president of the USA, I will someday be wearing the same watch that other presidents have.
Explore Swiss watchmaking with a public tour on Tuesdays for 20 francs per person. More information