Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A few minutes with Willy Schweizer

Sometimes you get some wonderful opportunities, and my visit to Girard-Perregaux's Headquarters and Manufacture this past March was right up there in a "Wonka Golden Ticket" sort of way.  I was very excited to see the operation, observe first hand how movements were assembled and watches were made.  I was also anxious to look at the buildings, take in the architecture, and try to get a sense of what the place is like on a daily basis.

But in all honesty, the high point of the day was spending time with the conservateur of the museums, and to some extent the guardian of the legacy of Girard-Perregaux and Gino Macaluso.  A historian, curator, and genuinely interesting guy.  

When I think of the stereotypical museum worker, I tend to think of a fussy person scurrying about, with a better rapport for objects than people.  Girard-Perregaux's Willy Schweizer - not so much!  Engaging, extremely knowledgeable, a communicator beyond compare... and frankly, an extremely gifted story teller.  

And now a few minutes with the Poet Laureate of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Willy Schweizer -

James Henderson - What was your first watch? Was it a gift? Is there a story behind it?

Willy Schweizer - It was a non-branded manual-wind, made by the students of the watchmaking school of la Chaux-de-Fonds. It was a gift from my father for my 8th birthday.

JH - When you were a boy, what did you want to be when you "grew up"?
WS - I had 2 dreams : aviation and car racing, which both came true, but not professionally : I am private pilot and I used to race in the Swiss and European rally championships.

JH - My understanding is that you almost didn't get involved in the watch industry? I believe that you studied something a bit removed from main-springs and tourbillons?

WS - Not exactly - I come from a family of watchmakers, but I am not a watchmaker myself, because when I had to choose a profession in the 1970’s, watchmaking was in crisis and within less than 10 years, the number of jobs fell from 150.000 to 30.000.  In this context, everybody was thinking that this trade would disappear sooner or later.  So I studied history at the University of Neuch√Ętel, with a special interest in local history and watchmaking.  When I graduated, I started at the Swissair aviation school, but after one year, they said my eyes were not good enough.  So, with the idea of entering into the watchmaking world, I sudied marketing in St-Gallen.

JH - After your studies, what was your first job in the working world?

WS - Marketing and sales at Zenith, for the Swiss market.

JH -  So from History, to the watch industry, to museum curator - was that at all how you planned it?

WS - Certainly not.  When I moved to Girard-Perregaux in 1984, the logo was already referring to 1791 (« fine watches since 1791 »), but nothing was done to enlighten the rich history of the brand, so I started to work on that immediately, and we opened a first Museum in 1991, the year of our bicentenary.

JH - What brought you to Girard-Perregaux originally?  What was your first job there?

WS - The opportunity to work on the international markets.  I was in charge of Germany, Britain and the Middle-East.

JH - Lately, it has been said that there are now essentially three "ages" of Girard-Perregaux: Pre- Gino Macaluso, Gino Macaluso, and Post-Gino Macaluso.
What was GP like in the time you were there before he arrived?

WS - It was a small company (60 people), producing nice watches, but watches which did not correspond to the demand : high end already, but with quartz movements.

JH - If you can put your finger on it, what was the one most important change that he made?

WS - Precisely that he changed completely the products, which were then exactly in line with the demand of the international markets.

JH - When did the idea come about to create the museums?

WS - The date of foundation of GP is 1791 and we have been constantly active since then, so the history is authentic.  When we started to think about the celebrations of the bicentenary, I thought it logical to show this history to the public, through watches we have been patiently collecting over the years.

JH - In the past year, your museum has gone on a world tour - what was that like?

WS - A very rich, but also scary experience : imagine that all the most precious watches of the Museum were on tour, without exception, and that anything could have happened. What is almost incredible is that we needed 15 tons of material to display them properly…

JH - What was your favorite "stop" during the world tour?

WS - With cities as different as Singapore, Shanghai, Paris or New-York, you cannot really put it this way.  Each time, the exhibition was much appreciated, with many visitors, but for reasons that were never the same.  I liked Shanghai quite a lot, but maybe because it was my first time there.

JH - What is a typical day in the life of Will Schweizer?

WS - I like to start early, like 07.30. First I read my emails and reply immediately to those which do not need a research. I am in charge of the factory tours, which start either at 09.00 or 14.00. the rest of the time is dedicated to meetings, preparation of texts or of exhibitions, research, monitoring of auctions or sales in order to complete the collections of the Museum. And there are the days when I travel.

JH - You have often said that if you wrote a book about Girard-Perregaux or La Chaux-de-Fonds, you would actually have to write 2 books. What do you mean by that?

WS - There is what is politically correct and there is the reality, which often do not superimpose exactly.  So, let us say that the first book would be as close as possible to the reality and the second would tell what happened exactly.

JH - So what is one story or event that the general public might not be aware of that would appear in the "second book"?

WS - It is a bit too early to unveil one.  Everybody knows that the shortest way between 2 points is the straight line, but very often things do not happen so ideally.

JH - What is your favorite Girard-Perregaux watch? And for Jean Richard?

Courtesy of JeanRichard
WS - The Tourbillon with three gold Bridges in its skeleton, selwinding version for GP and the Diverscope LPR for JR.

JH - Who else out there is making watches that interest you?

WS - I don’t have a preference. For me, anybody making an innovative and interesting watch works in the right direction and deserves respect.

JH - What is the Swiss watch industry doing right?

WS - To keep on working like above. That is what our public expects from us.

JH - Where can the Swiss watch industry improve?

WS - Maybe less opportunism and more morality. I was shocked when I heard that Switzerland exported watches to Syria last May, for a value of 8 million of Swiss Francs.

JH - If you weren't doing this, what do you think you might be doing?

WS - Good question ! I promise i’ll start to think about it : after all, in theory, I shall be retired in less than 9 years…

JH - What advice do you have for aspiring horological historians and curators?

WS - No doubt that the interest for watchmaking has been tremendously growing these last 20 years, in every respect, and history is part of it.  Not every brand has a history like GP.  However, quite a number of brands have the legitimacy to tell stories : Look at JeanRichard, whose history is incomplete, but where I created a museum of watchmaking machines and tools which is unique in the world.  A Museum will never be a profit center, but can be a tremendous communication tool : all brands which are concerned should consider it under this angle.  So there is still a lot of work and space for all those who have ideas.

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