I’ve waited three years to share this amazing, one-of-a-kind experience with my readers here at Forbes.
It was worth the wait for the pandemic, because as travel resumes very quickly, Switzerland entered the Top 10 most popular international vacation destinations for Americans this summer (see the full list here). That’s no surprise, because it’s a very easy-to-get-to, very easy-to-navigate country where English is almost universally spoken. It has big cities, great food, great nature, great skiing, great alpine mountain towns, and mixes tons of outdoor activities with great urban experiences.
But the one thing that Switzerland dominates like nothing else – not even chocolate – is watches. It is the birthplace of watchmaking and with a few exceptions you can count on your fingers, almost all of the world’s famous and collectible brands are Swiss. There are watch museums, watch trails, watch factory tours, watch shops and watch auctions, but the best kept watch travel secret is Intium, a company that offers courses and DIY watchmaking workshops and sends you home with the fruit of your labor, a one-of-a-kind Swiss mechanical watch, personalized just for you. It’s also very easy to add to almost any trip to Switzerland, requiring just one great day.
After experiencing Intium and leaving the Geneva workshop, it took less than an hour for someone to comment on “beautiful watch”. I have other cool watches, but never before have I been able to say, “Thank you. I made it myself.”
Coming home with such an iconic keepsake is a big part of the Intium experience, but only a part. Although the watch itself is inexpensive by Swiss collectible standards, even the most avid watch aficionado with several expensive models will appreciate them more after learning what makes a mechanical watch work in the class. I’ve been writing about watches for over two decades, I understand complications and high-end features like perpetual calendars, tourbillons and minute repeaters, but I’ve still learned some fascinating things about the innards of mechanical watches I didn’t know before, and I’m pretty sure just about any watch lover will leave Intium with a better appreciation for all the watches in their collection, now or in the future.
One thing you won’t leave Intium with is hunger, as the full-day course includes a luxurious lunch in an upscale restaurant with your instructor, an enjoyable break, and the opportunity to learn more on the Swiss watch industry far from the bench and the magnifying glass. The instructors are usually alumni of the most famous watch houses and offer insider perspectives.
You spend half a day or a full day in an intimate classroom (maximum four students) learning how mechanical watches work, assembling and disassembling a mechanical movement under magnification and, at the end of the day, choosing all the components , including case, strap, hands and dial from hundreds of thousands of possible combinations, then assemble your own one-of-a-kind watch. This one is built around a movement from the Swiss company ETA, which has supplied world famous brands such as Panerai, Omega, TAG Heuer, Longines and Breitling. When you’re done, your watch is lab-tested for accuracy and water resistance, then placed in a jewelry-style gift box, but you’ll want it on your wrist right away.
Interestingly, Intium began as a hypothetical business plan that three Swiss graduate students submitted while earning their MBAs, a hands-on workshop concept where visitors could learn about watchmaking and come away with their own personalized creation. . It was such a great idea that they made it happen about nine years ago, and today the company has three laboratory-like workshops in Switzerland. For many travelers, Geneva is the most convenient choice, as the workshop is in the heart of the city within walking distance of all the best hotels (Four Seasons, Hoyel d’Angleterre, Ritz-Carlton), while the two others are in the suburbs of Geneva and Zurich.
There are three class options, but only two include watches, the half-day (4-hour) Gamma class ($2,000) which skips lunch and streamlines the hands-on part of class work assembly, and the best full-day (8-hour) Delta Class ($2,500) that delves into mechanical movement and theory. The price difference is so slight that you might as well enjoy lunch and all the extra education. I did the full day, which begins with a theoretical session on how mechanical watches work. Before long, it becomes practical and each participant has a professional-style clockwork station complete with magnifying glasses, fine tweezers, and tiny gears and components. The crux of the matter is to completely disassemble a high-end movement and then reassemble it, hopefully functionally. After the gourmet lunch, you return and start making your own watch, choosing the components first. There is a very wide range of dials, but a disproportionate number of attendees – myself included – opt for skeleton faces to better see the results of their own work, and/or many opt for cases with see-through backs so that movement is visible from one or both sides.
Intium is excellent value for money, but while the price is well below most fine watches, even the most jaded collector will appreciate it, and workshops regularly welcome customers who own six or seven watches. numbers but want to learn and crave something even more unique. Shortly before my visit, the workshop received a reservation from a Qatari collector who was visiting Geneva to personally collect a rare Patek Philippe model he had commissioned, one of only five made. When he heard about Intium, he decided to add the very first pocket watch to his large collection – and to make it himself. It was an unusual request, but they are flexible and other options include upgrading to an automatic movement (the standard has to be wound) and there are men’s and women’s sizes.
The Intium experience is worth planning a trip to Geneva, but an even better complement to a trip you might take to Switzerland anyway, whether it’s hiking in the shadow of the Matterhorn, taking care of some business, skiing or just enjoying the charming nation or a weekend in Geneva (read my previous article about the city, Europe’s hidden gem, here at Forbes). Because lessons can be booked for private groups, it makes a great trip with friends, as a couple, or to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. It’s also a great gift because the certificates cover the class you choose, but the recipient can schedule it however they want.
I’ve taken cooking classes where the resulting meal was extra special just because I made it. I distilled my own bourbon, blended my own whiskey and gin, and made cheese, and they were all more special because I made them. Same goes for a watch, except with food and drink I’m left with empty bottles and good memories, but my watch still keeps time – and gets compliments. You go home with the ultimate Swiss souvenir and there’s literally nothing else like it anywhere.