The Museum Every Watch Collector has to Visit
By Russell Sheldrake
Built into the heart of La Chaux-de-Fonds, you will find a Brutalist, troglodyte museum housing the history of horology. The Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) is something of a hidden treasure in the land of watchmaking, housing great works by Abraham-Louis Breguet, Antide Janvier, George Daniels, and many other celebrated names. This is not just a sealed capsule of high watchmaking, but rather a living, breathing space where these marvels are kept alive, and its fully equipped restoration workshop means the MIH has the ability to bring long-forgotten timekeepers back to life.
Built into the hillside that makes up the storied town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the museum really is part of the fabric of its community. About 70 percent of those who live and work in the surrounding area are attached to the watchmaking industry in one way or another, and they are all working in the traditions that are housed in the MIH, so it makes sense that it is the most-visited museum in the city, with more than 35,000 patrons stepping through its doors every year.
The MIH owns more than 10,000 individual pieces, but will only ever have just over 3,000 on display at any one time. The rest could be in storage, being worked on in their workshop, or out on loan to other museums around the world. We were lucky enough to have the entire museum to ourselves for a day as we were given a guided tour by vice curator Nathalie Marielloni. Below is just a snapshot of what you can expect on a trip to the MIH.
A timeline through time
As you enter the museum, its cavernous 3,400sqm space seems to unfurl in front of you as your eyes adjust to its low-level lighting. You will be immediately greeted by a hanging display of imposing clock-tower mechanisms dating back to the 15th century. These gothic-looking structures give you a sense of how far we have come in watchmaking, and how things used to be made to last forever.
To get the best view of these mechanisms, you have to walk over a bridge which takes you right underneath them. As you cross this bridge, however, remember to turn around and admire the mural painted on the wall opposite, overlooking the Hans Erni auditorium. The mural, presented on wooden panels, was produced for the Swiss pavilion at the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958 by Hans Erni. When this auditorium was originally designed, it was purposefully made to fit the height of two of these wooden panels. This view will be familiar to those who attend the Prix Gaïa as this is the spot in which they are held every year.
Its neck-craning scale stands in stark contrast to the majority of the other exhibitions found in the museum. And while it may seem a tad disorientating at first, with the spaceship-like display cases dotted around this first floor, we suggest you take an immediate left turn to a row of red, square cases. This represents a timeline of watchmaking, starting at the far end, by the workshop, and moving chronologically all the way back up to the entrance. This series of cases covers everything from the very first wristwatches, adapted from trench watches in the First World War, up to the current domination of smart watches in today’s market. While we don’t have to space here to detail every display, we have highlighted important points along the way which are worth paying attention to.
The first display in this run that really caught our attention was packed with important water-resistant timers, from the device used to test the tightness of seals in the 1930s to the Deep Sea Challenge from Rolex that made it 10,908 metres down into the Mariana Trench. For those who study the history of watches under the waves, there is very little left out in this single square metre.
The next case which we were drawn to contains an array of historical quartz paraphernalia. It includes five significant Swiss-made prototypes dating from as early as 1967, including an Omega Seamaster 4.19MHz, which shows just how seriously the industry in Switzerland took electronic timekeeping.
After this, we came to a display that made us second-guess ourselves. The first thing you notice is the rich abundance of independently made watches from familiar names including François-Paul Journe, Daniel Roth, Vincent Calabrese, and Svend Andersen. A true capsule collection of pieces that optimised the inventiveness of this early uprising of independence. We were extremely excited to see a prototype for one of Roth’s more idiosyncratic pieces, the Papillon.
Once we had finished processing what we had just seen, our eyes jumped to a Richard Mille RM 27-02 Rafael Nadal. It isn’t something you might expect to see close to a formidable collection of Breguet pocket watches – however, here it sat among pieces showing the material innovations that have taken place in recent years, including the carbon TPT components found in this tennis watch, and the ingot of 100% recycled 316L stainless steel that had been produced in a solar furnace.
Finally, in this timeline of timekeeping, we came to the smart-watch revolution, sitting in stark contrast to the hundreds of years of horological evolution directly opposite. The display, including a wristwatch fitted with an LCD screen by Seiko in 1982, and a deconstructed Apple watch, shows how far this technology has come in just 40 years.
Museum-worthy Marine Chronometers
We now jump from wearable computers of today, to the navigational instruments of the 18th and 19th century. While we might be slightly biased in a discussion around marine chronometers, given our proximity to Greenwich, the examples on display at the MIH show a real depth of what was produced in this period.
Among those that caught our eye was a cylindrical piece from Ferdinand Berthoud made in 1796, which was described a year later in the watchmaker’s own publication as a “petite horloge horizontale sans rouleaux”. While this piece might not look like what we would expect from a marine chronometer, thanks to its small size and lack of wooden case, next to it you can find examples that might meet your expectations – for instance, one from 1820 produced by Breguet with the timepiece suspended on a silver gimbal inside a mahogany case.
Next, we came to a British example that piqued our interest for obvious reasons. Its dial is signed “Parkinson & Frodsham, Change Alley, London”. According to its plaque, it incorporates the constant force mechanism of a chain et fusée with a 48-hour power reserve. All three of these show the strong heritage that these brands have in the field of marine chronometry, proving that there is a lot more to it than Harrison and his success with H4.
Breguet pocket watches
While they say all roads lead to Rome, the same could be said for conversations about historical horology leading back to Breguet. Providing perhaps the richest source of inspiration for today’s independent watchmakers, and apprenticing some of the most notable names to follow on from him, Abraham-Louis Breguet is for many the grandfather of watchmaking. This perhaps explains why the MIH ensures they display some of his finest works (and Breguet was also born not far from the museum, in Neuchâtel).
We focused on three pieces in their collection which show the full breadth of Breguet’s skill and the spectrum of what he was able to offer his clients. Perhaps the most simple looking of them all, one piece has a silver guilloché dial with a single central hand and sub-dial at 6 o’clock. It was designed for the Royal Navy of Russia in 1822 with only one purpose: to set the pace of a march. Able to count beats from between 60 to 130 per minute, this is perhaps not what you would expect from the man who invented the tourbillon, but impressive in its practical application all the same.
The next two are a little more complex in appearance, and incorporate some of the complications Breguet has become known for. The first, which was sold in 1791, combines an automatic movement with a minute repeater, moon phase, date, power reserve, and jumping-hour hand. This watch was originally owned by Louis-Joseph Nompar de Caumont who held the title Duc de La Force, a member of one of the noble families from the Dordogne, and provides an excellent example of the array of skills Breguet was able to deploy inside a gold case.
Finally, we have the golden dial of a quarter repeater watch from 1810 which also includes a jumping-hour hand, thermometer, and an anticlockwise date hand in the sub-dial at 10. Signed “No.2395 Breguet et Fils, Paris”, it contains many of the design cues that the current brand has carried forward today. These include the Breguet-style hands and contrasting guilloché patterns on the dial which are separated by knurling.
Remarkable pocket watches
There is currently a temporary exhibition running inside the MIH dedicated to the art of enamel. While this exhibition had not yet started while we were there, arguably the star of the show was already in residence: a perpetual calendar and minute repeater with two intricate enamel paintings on each side of the case, produced by two of the most well-renowned enamellers of the 20th century, Suzanne Rohr, and her mentor, Carlo Poluzzi. The relationship between these two talented craftspeople could be the topic of a whole other article, but this piece is a real symbol of Rohr being accepted by Poluzzi as an equal: one side is signed “Poluzzi-Rohr”, and the other “Rohr-Poluzzi”.
While there are plenty of other enamel marvels on display here, one that truly caught our eye contains a depiction of the Tower of Babel that was completed in 1640. The detail that can be seen on this piece is astonishing, considering the rudimentary tools they had at the time – and the fact they did not have access to heat-controlled ovens to bake the enamel. It is a testament to their artistic skill that it has managed to stay in such incredible condition, and it must have once been a prized possession for whomever owned it.
When you venture upstairs, you will find the workbench of an enameller with an assortment of dials in the various stages of the enamelling process, giving you an insight into the skill and craftsmanship that it takes to intricately decorate a piece.
There is one pocket watch that might pass many people by due to it being slightly smaller than the others – and extremely simple at first glance – but it is well worth pausing for. Designed to allow a gentleman to tell the time while keeping his hands in his pockets to avoid appearing rude, this tactile watch has a single, thick hand which glides over a guilloché dial. It is now worn smooth by many readings since it was made in 1822.
Another remarkable pocket watch we discovered on our tour was tucked away on the first floor in the very far corner. Here, in a case dedicated to pieces made by those still studying at watchmaking school, is a piece that inspired Philippe Dufour to create the Duality. Made in 1933 at the Watchmaking School in the Vallée de Joux, signed by the student, Jean R. Graef. Six of these watches were made with perhaps the most famous being the one signed by Albert Piguet which sold at auction in 2019 for CHF 250,000. From our research we believe that Graef was one of three son’s belonging to Otto Graef, at the time, the owner of watch brand Mimo, who would go on to buyout Girard-Perregaux. It is in connection to Girard-Perregaux that we find the next reference to Jean, as there was a company established in America called Jean R. Graef Inc and appears to be the sole importer of Girard-Perregaux watches into the country. This watch is the only one we know of that bears Jean R. Graef’s name and it would suggest he attended the school before entering the family business.
This piece has a single barrel running two balance wheels through a differential and is clearly finished in the classical Vallée de Joux style that Dufour so often cites. Often quoted as saying he “did not invent anything”, this watch is proof of the traditions upon which Dufour bases a lot of his work.
We couldn’t finish our conversation about the pocket watches on display at the museum without mentioning one that was, at one point, a world leader. Produced by Charles Ami LeCoultre, a watchmaker known for his prowess in complication development, this piece incorporates 22 different functions besides telling the time. Finished in 1878, its yellow-gold case is peppered with sliders and pushers controlling the various chiming, date, and time-telling functions. The completely skeletonised dial puts this multifaceted and multi-layered movement on full display, although it does detract from its legibility slightly.
The story of this watch is as long as you might expect for something so complicated, and likely deserves its own article. But it was produced in conjunction between LeCoultre and Louis-Elisée Piguet, and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1878. LeCoultre originally refused an offer of CHF 20,000 for the piece and then struggled to sell it at all. It took his son meeting François-Edmond Favre, the extremely wealthy owner of Parc and Villa Lagrange in Geneva, before he was able to make any money from his creation – although it was immediately gifted back to the watchmaker. It would not be until the late 1930s that the watch left the LeCoultre family; it was eventually bought by the MIH in 1954. LeCoultre’s grandson would later rediscover his grandfather’s masterpiece on a visit to the MIH in 1997.
Perhaps not thought of as the most exciting part of horology, the clocks at the MIH are worth paying attention to. The first that truly caught our eye was an imposing astronomical clock with a striking deep-blue dial. Made by Antide Janvier in 1802, the clock is capable of telling you the time of sunrise and sunset in Paris, the date, the month, and the day of the week, all through a dizzying array of hands balanced on the central arbour and various sub-dials.
Janvier was known for his complex creations and this piece fits perfectly inside his repertoire. Not only does it incorporate multiple dials, but the main dial is broken up into two 12-hour sections. Outside of this, you also have the date and month scales, leading to an alarming amount of hands in one place.
The next clock which was pointed out to us by Marielloni was one that you do not see every day. Made by Breguet in 1815, this clock appears far less complex than Janvier’s piece, but looks can be deceiving. This clock was designed for the astronomers of the day, chiming the seconds to ease their ability to time celestial movements without removing their eye from their telescopes. The importance of timing seconds is evident from the dial design too, with the smaller sub-dial being used for the hours and minutes. The main dial, with a singular, thin, hand projecting from the centre pivot, is used for the seconds. At the top of this clock sits a compensator for the pendulum to counter the difference in gravity depending on your latitude. This is not a complication that you will find in a modern timepiece.
While this next piece is not technically a clock, it deserves talking about as it is extremely hard to miss in the cavernous space of the MIH. This is the Great Planetarium that was made in 1815 by François Ducommun and painted by Charles Girardet. All of the known celestial bodies at the time are represented in miniature form here, crafted from gold and rotating around the Sun, while its domed case is intricately decorated with depictions of the zodiacs. This is not something that you will find in every museum, and its impeccable condition speaks to the level of work that the staff at the MIH put into sourcing and maintaining their collection.
The many faces of wristwatches
As you venture to the upper floor of the main space, the displays seem to shrink slightly in size, but not in impact. There are rows of low display cases running through the centre of this floor, identical in their construction, yet each window exhibits a different form taken by wristwatches over the last century. We recommend taking your time here, as there are some real gems to be found.
While we could dive into details on so many of these sections, we will focus on three of them. The first contains an incredibly impressive collection of early tourbillon wristwatches, all of which made an impact that can be seen in pieces made today. Whether it be the ultra-thin automatic tourbillon from Audemars Piguet that proved just how wearable this complication could be, or the Three Golden Bridges from Girard Perregaux that brought a traditional design back to life, there is a real mix of neo-vintage marvels here that show how this complication flourished during this period.
Along a very similar vein of complication revival, the display of perpetual calendars gives an excellent snapshot of how this perplexing addition to a timepiece was made relevant again for wear on the wrist. Housing three significant pieces in its development, this again speaks to the willingness of watchmakers at the time to bring these nearly forgotten complications back into the canon of modern horology. With all three pieces dating from the early 1990s, there is a certain aesthetic on display here which is making more than a comeback in today’s market.
Finally, there is a display case which doesn’t speak to any tradition, but epitomises the want for innovation in a quickly dying industry. It explores the stages of development for a Swatch – a development that arguably had a bigger impact on Swiss watchmaking than anything else. This process not only revolutionised how a watch can be made, but also helped to subsidise the haute horology sector, ensuring that the traditions displayed in the previously mentioned cases weren’t lost for good.
Opposite these rows of cases is a corner of exhibits in which you find more and more to look at the longer you gaze. There is one group of three watches, however, which stand out from the rest, mainly because they are big and shaped like food. The watches in the “One More Time” series from Swatch, designed by Alfred Hofkunst, resemble a chilli, a cucumber, and bacon and eggs. These represent the extreme of Swatch’s creativity when it came to their plastic timepieces, and we feel they are more than worthy of a spot in this museum.
Close to the Hofkunst Swatches you’ll find one of the most famous dive watches in the world. A Rolex Deep Sea Special two tone. This watch sits directly above the telegram that Jacques Piccard sent to Rolex upon surfacing from his trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench reporting the excellent condition their watch was still in. While this is not the watch that made the descent on the outside of the bathyscaphe Trieste, this one was made as part of a run of 35 to commemorate the expedition – in fact, this is the very first one produced, as seen by the No.1 stamp on the caseback. Still an incredible feat of engineering, it marks a milestone in what watches and humans are capable of.
Space Age timekeeping
The final section of the MIH houses their impressive collection of atomic timers. Once we reached this section, the most naturally lit area in the museum, we were running low on time, having been sidetracked by everything else it had to offer. However, we would highly recommend setting time aside for it, as it is unlikely you will ever see these in a private collection.
The evolution of atomic clocks is not something that is widely known about in the industry, yet it represents the cutting edge of horology. As early as the 1950s there was serious research and development in this field, and in 1955 the length of a second was officially linked to the vibrations of a caesium-133 atoms, instead of the rotation of the Earth. This changed the accuracy of timekeeping and endlessly expanded the possibilities for science.
These towers of metal can seem imposing and impenetrable at first, yet thanks to the amazing work done by the team at the MIH to explain these scientific marvels, they soon seem far more understandable. It is breathtaking to track how this technology has developed over the last 70 years and what it has given us in modern society – from allowing super-accurate global positioning to enhancing measurements on a molecular level.
At the far end of the museum is a section cut off from the exhibits by a wall of glass. Flooded with natural light, thanks to the massive skylights installed above it, this area houses the museum’s fully functional workshop. The team there are able to take apart, repair, and put back together nearly everything on display at the museum, and it is thanks to their hard work that this rich history is kept alive. We were allowed special access to walk around this space and see some of the museum’s collection disassembled for maintenance. They also take on private work on the more technical and historically important pieces out there. It’s hard to imagine there being a timepiece that they wouldn’t be able to work on.
This workshop really sits at the heart of the MIH. Through it, they hope to promote the highly skilled work that goes on there and the training that it takes to achieve it. In fact, this workshop used to be the training centre where watchmakers learned complex restoration work until this was moved to Le Locle in 1998.
While you can help support the museum by visiting and buying your entry ticket, they have also developed their own watches to help grow their funds. The MIH Gaïa watches I and II were designed by Ludwig Oechslin and Xavier Perrenoud respectively, and are now completely sold out. These minimalist designs pair perfectly with the Brutalist nature of the museum architecture and the pieces are made in La Chaux-de-Fonds to the highest level.
There is so much to see at the MIH, and it feels like we hardly scratched the surface. While it is the most popular museum in the city, it still feels undiscovered, and anyone who has more than a passing interest in watches is bound to be excited by a trip to the MIH. Filled with things that even the most dedicated scholar can learn, as well as areas that can provide a wonderful introduction to those just beginning to understand the field, it manages to strike the balance of being detailed enough for the true enthusiast while not intimidating the newcomer.
We would like to thank Nathalie Marielloni and the rest of the team at the Musée International d'Horlogerie for granting us access to the museum for this extended look at the museum's rich collection.