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Swiss Watchmaker: Can They Handle the Digital Age?

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Swiss Watchmaker Can They Handle the Digital Age
Pim Koeslag designs and fabricates some of the world’s most complicated mechanical timepieces. Especially ambitious is his Grand Tourbillon Minute Repeater, created for Ateliers deMonaco, a watch company he helped start. When I visited his bright, sunlit factory in Geneva in May, he opened a refrigerator-size safe to show me one of them.

“If you want to go for the real complex stuff,” he said, “here it is.” The watch, a gorgeous chunk of white gold, includes more than 400 painstakingly machined, polished and hand-assembled parts. One of them is a circular metal gong, struck by small hammers that mark the time with two-tone melodies. The watch’s mechanisms — including its “balance wheel,” whose oscillation is visible through an opening in the watch face — are so precise that the device loses or gains only two seconds a day. The Grand Tourbillon Minute Repeater sells for just over $200,000, and Koeslag has made just eight of them.

“A Prince of Qatar has bought three already,” said Koeslag, a mannerly blond man who wore a trim pinstriped suit. “Very special watches, for very special people.” On the factory floor behind us, a dozen white-coated women were piecing together other watches that Koeslag has designed for Frédérique Constant, a midrange watch brand. These will sell for as much as $30,000. One woman peered into a microscope as she carefully wielded a long, thin needle to apply a drop of pink oil, before setting a tiny pin in place. This is the tradition that Koeslag is selling to his customers: the patient Swiss art of manufacturing complex, handmade mechanisms.

Smartwatches have been around for years, but none have received as much attention as the Apple Watch. Much of the allure, of course, was Apple’s famously elegant design. It was recognizably a watch, complete with a crown that controlled on-screen apps, but it had Apple’s distinctive aesthetic, with its minimal lines and sleek curves; the watch is a smaller version of an iPhone, essentially.

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