On the surface, Geneva is a pristine city filled with opulent hotels, shiny, expensive watch shops, and overpriced restaurants. But times are beginning to change thanks to the Quartier des Bains, a neighbourhood set on bringing back the city’s creative heart.
On every corner I’m distracted by the gold strap of a watch catching the light, or an ornamental clock face flickering in the sun. A magpie would be in its element here, hopping from one shiny object to the next, unable to decide which one to focus on first. This is the charm of Geneva’s watch shops. Even someone as blasé about material things as me is pulled in by the shimmer of wealth and the promise of an opulent lifestyle.
In most cities you’ll find a watch shop or two, some of which double up as jewellery stores. In Geneva, things run a little differently. Watch shops are very much a part of the city’s rich personality, where wealthy bankers and international diplomats spend thousands and thousands of pounds on a single timepiece.
It seems strange, considering you can pick up a watch from any old shop for a tiny, tiny fraction of the price, but in Geneva they’re a statement. A must-have for anyone who’s anyone, and it’s been that way for centuries.
When I walk the pristine streets, not a rough edge in sight, I can see how the flawless array of watches fit into this lifestyle. Chocolate box houses, eco-friendly designs, and the opulent hotels along the lake front all look like they’ve stepped out of a showroom, like Geneva was made just to be looked at and not touched.
In the oldest watchmaking quarter, times are changing
But one of the city’s oldest watchmaking quarters is making new tracks in the otherwise rigid narrative of Geneva. At one point in history, the Quartier des Bains was a working-class neighbourhood dotted with old-fashioned watch ateliers and precision-instrument creators. It was the “behind-the-scenes” part of the luxurious watch scene, but it carried the heart and soul of the industry. This was where the glistening gold timepieces were conceptualised and made, with years of experience and intricate talent.
Today, the neighbourhood retains its creative vibe, but in a slightly different way. Where watchmakers once flourished, there are now contemporary galleries, cultural museums, and upmarket bistros serving a trendy crowd looking for something more than the seemingly perfect veneer of Geneva.
But, in true Swiss style, the district has been dressed up in a faultless display of clean design. In fact, the only hint that it was once a semi-industrial zone is the warehouse-like buildings, with their high ceilings and tall windows.
Where the rest of Geneva tries to zig, the Quartier des Bains tries its hardest to zag, spurred on by the Quartier des Bains Association, a local arts group founded back in 2004. Now, the association owns 13 of the contemporary galleries in the district and six of the major cultural institutions, including big names like the Centre d’Art Contemporain and the MAMCO (the city’s modern art museum).
Bringing the quarter to life with Nuits des Bains
What makes the Quartier des Bains so compelling for art lovers, though, is its cultural festival, Nuits des Bains, which takes place three times a year. During this bonanza of art, dance, performance, photography, and design, the galleries throw big opening parties, one-off events, and themed exhibitions, while the museums stay open way beyond their usual hours to allow visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the creative world after dark.
The festivities seem a million miles away from the precise nature of the watch shops that lurk just around the corner, but it still can’t rid itself of its former involvement in Geneva’s timepiece trade.
In fact, the neighbourhood is home to the Patek Philippe Museum, which holds one of the greatest watch and timepiece collections in the world – no surprise, really, that it’s located in Geneva.
The museum opened back in 2001 in a building that had originally been used to create watch bracelets, chains and cases (much like the other museums and gallery spaces in the Quartier des Bains). And, just like the street-front stores selling thick, gold wristwatches, the display is just as shiny and enticing – even more so, in fact.
Amongst the miniature enamels painted for museum owner Patek Phillips himself by Suzanne Rohr, and the collection of Renaissance offerings showing talented craftsmanship, there are beautiful, one-off timepieces that might have been described in the pages of a steampunk novel.
It is while exploring the galleries of the Quartier des Bains that I realise Geneva doesn’t have an obsession with watches – it has an obsession with precision crafts and beautiful design. Watches are simply one of the more lucrative ventures in this field, made popular by the number of wealthy bankers and diplomats in the city.
Inside the contemporary galleries, amongst vibrant paintings by local emerging artists and well-known international creatives, the emphasis is on beauty, talent, and a designer lifestyle. Cultural institutions like the Centre d’Art Contemporain, the Centre de la Photographie Geneve, and MAMCO showcase the artistic soul of Geneva in its rawest sense.
When I leave and wander back past the shiny watch shops, I imagine the centuries-old watchmakers hunched over their creations, working away in dimly-lit surroundings. It seems a far cry from the pristine rows of designer clock faces in front of me, but I know that these are just the polished offerings of Geneva’s artistic soul. An offering that reflects the initial image I had of the city – one that was spotless on the surface but, dig a little deeper, and there’s an unprecedented show of creativity, angst and tradition.
To me, it felt like the Quartier des Bains was created solely to connect up the city’s creative past with its regimented present, and to encourage an interaction and dialogue between age-old traditions and the design-led veneer of today.
There’s still an element of disconnect between the shiny, seemingly impenetrable surface show of watch shops and the Quartier des Bains, which is trying its hardest to get back to Geneva’s craftsman roots. I’m sure it’s nothing a few more Nuits des Bains can’t solve, though.