I have been waiting for three years to share this wonderful, one-of-a-kind experience with my readers here at Forbes.
It was worth the wait caused by the pandemic, because with travel soaring so rapidly, Switzerland jumped to the top 10 international vacation destinations for Americans this summer (see the full list here). This was not surprising, because it is very easy to get to, and very easy to navigate, since English is spoken almost universally. It has great towns, great food, great nature, great skiing, great alpine mountain towns and mixes plenty of outdoor activities with great urban experiences.
But the one thing that Switzerland dominates like everything else – not even chocolate – are watches. It is the birthplace of watchmaking, and with very few exceptions that you can count on your fingers, almost all the famous and owned brands in the world are Swiss. There are watch museums, viewing trails, factory tours, watch stores, and auction viewings, but the best kept travel secret in horology is Intium, a company that offers DIY watchmaking lessons and workshops and sends you home with the fruits of your labor, a one-of-a-kind mechanical Swiss watch made for you . It is also very easy to add to almost any trip to Switzerland, which only requires one great day.
After I tried the Intium and left the Geneva workshop, it took me less than an hour for someone to comment “nice watch”. I have other great hours, but I’ve never been able to reply before, “Thanks. I did it myself.”
Coming home with such a unique souvenir is a huge part of the Intium experience, but only part. While the watch itself is inexpensive by collectible Swiss standards, even the most ardent watch lover with multiple expensive models will appreciate it more after learning about what makes a mechanical watch in class. I’ve been writing on watches for two decades or more, understanding complications and higher level features like perpetual calendars, tourbillons, and minute repeaters, but I’m still learning wonderful things about the internals of mechanical watches that I didn’t know about before, and I’m confident they’re pretty often left to any watch lover Intium with a better appreciation for all the watches in its collection, now or in the future.
The only thing you won’t leave with the Intium is hungry, because a full day class includes a sumptuous lunch outside in a large restaurant with your teacher, a nice break and a chance to learn more about Swiss watchmaking away from the work table and the magnifying glass. Instructors are generally graduates of the most famous observation houses and offer insider perspectives.
You spend half a day or a full day in an intimate classroom (four students max) learning how mechanical watches work, assembling and disassembling a mechanical movement under magnification, and by the end of the day, pick out all the components, including the case, strap, and hands and order from hundreds of thousands of possible combinations, Then collect your own unique watch. This is built around a movement from ETA in Switzerland, which supplied world-famous brands including Panerai, Omega, TAG Heuer, Longines and Breitling. When finished, your watch is lab tested for accuracy and water resistance, and then put into a jewelry store-style gift box, but you’ll want to put it on your wrist right away.
Interestingly, the Intium started as a virtual business plan presented by three Swiss graduate students while earning their MBA, a concept for a hands-on workshop where visitors can learn about watchmaking and leave with their own custom innovations. It was such a good idea that they made it a reality about nine years ago, and today the company has three lab-style workshops in Switzerland. For many travelers, Geneva is the most convenient option, since the workshop is located in the heart of the city within walking distance of the best hotels (Four Seasons, Howell d’Angleterre, The Ritz-Carlton), while the other two are located in the suburbs of Geneva and Zurich.
There are three class options, but only two include the hours, a half-day (4 hour) gamma class ($2,000) that skips lunch and simplifies the hands-on assembly part of classroom work, and the best full day (8 hour) Delta Class ($2,500) Which delves into mechanical movement and theory. The price difference is so slight that you may also enjoy lunch and all the extra education. I did the whole day, which started with a theory session on how mechanical watches work. Not long after hands-on, each participant has a professional-style watchmaking station with magnifying lenses, precision tweezers, gears and small components. The gist of it is to completely disassemble a fine movement, then put it back together, in the hope of working. After the gourmet lunch, you go back and start making your own watch, choosing ingredients first. There is a very large variety of faces, but a disproportionate number of attendees – myself included – choose skeletal faces to better see the results of their work, and/or many go to cases with transparent backs so that movement is visible from one or both sides.
The Intium is a great value, but while the price point is well below the cost of most luxury watches on its own, even the most underpowered collector will enjoy it, and the workshops regularly host clients who own six or seven personal watches but want to learn and crave something unique from its kind. Shortly before my visit, the workshop obtained a reservation from a Qatari collector who was visiting Geneva to personally collect a rare Patek Philippe model he had ordered, one of only five made. When he learned about the Intium, he decided to add the first pocket watch to his large collection – and make it himself. This was an unusual request, but they are flexible and other options include upgrading to an automatic movement (the standard needs wounding) and there are men’s and women’s sizes.
The Intium experience is worth planning a trip to Geneva around, but it’s an even better bonus to a trip you might take to Switzerland anyway, whether it’s to hike in the shadow of the Matterhorn, take on some work, ski, or just enjoy the charming country or a weekend in Geneva ( Read my previous article on city travel, Europe’s hidden gem, here at Forbes). Since classes can be booked for private groups, it makes a great boyfriend, couples, festive birthday or anniversary trip. It’s also an excellent gift because the certificates cover any category you choose, but the recipient can schedule them at their leisure.
I finished my cooking class as the resulting meal was so special just because I made it. I’ve distilled my own bourbon, mixed my whiskey with gin, made my own cheese, and they were all more special because I made them. The same is true of the watch, except for food and drink, all I have left are empty bottles and fond memories, but my watch still keeps time – and gets compliments. You go home with the ultimate Swiss souvenir and there is nothing else like this anywhere.