I’ve been waiting three years to share this awesome one-of-a-kind experience with my readers here at Forbes.
It was worth the pandemic-induced wait, because as travel very quickly ramps back up, Switzerland has jumped into the Top 10 most popular international vacation destinations for Americans this summer (see the full list here). That doesn’t come as a surprise, because it is country that is very easy to get to, very easy to get around, where English is almost universally spoken. It has great 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 Switzerland dominates like nothing else – not even chocolate – is watches. It is the birthplace of watchmaking and with so few exceptions you can count them on your fingers, nearly all of the world’s famous and collectible brands are Swiss. There are watch museums, watch trails, watch factory tours, watch stores and watch auctions, but the best kept travel secret in horology is Intium, a company that offers DIY watchmaking classes and workshops and sends you go home with the fruits of your labor, a one-of-a-kind, customized-to-you, mechanical Swiss watch. It is also very easy to add to almost any trip to Switzerland, requiring just one great day.
After I did the Intium experience and left the Geneva workshop, it took less than one hour for someone to comment “nice watch.” I have other cool watches, but never before have I been able to reply, “Thanks. I made it myself.”
Going home with such an iconic souvenir is a big part of the Intium experience, but only part. While the timepiece itself is inexpensive by collectible Swiss standards, even the most avid watch lover with multiple expensive models will appreciate them more after learning about what makes a mechanical watch tick in the class. I have written on watches for two plus decades, understand complications and top tier features like perpetual calendars, tourbillons and minute repeaters, but I still learned fascinating things about the innards of mechanical watches that I did not know before, and I am confident that pretty much any watch fan will leave Intium with a better appreciation of all the watches in his or her collection, now or in the future.
One thing you will not leave Intium with is hunger, because the full day class includes a luxurious lunch out at a top restaurant with your instructor, a nice break and opportunity to learn more about Switzerland’s watchmaking industry away from the workbench and magnifying glass. The instructors are generally alums of the most famous watch houses and offer insider perspectives.
You spend a half or full day in an intimate (maximum four students) class learning how mechanical watches work, assemble and disassemble a mechanical movement under magnification, and by the end of the day, choose 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 is built around a movement from Switzerland’s ETA, which has supplied world renowned brands including Panerai, Omega, TAG Heuer, Longines and Breitling. When you are done, your watch is lab tested for accuracy and waterproofness, then put in a jewelry store-style gift box, but you’ll want it on your wrist right away.
Interestingly, Intium began as a hypothetical business plan three Swiss grad students submitted while earning their MBAs, a concept for a hands-on workshop where visitors could learn about watchmaking and leave with their own custom creation. It was such a good idea they made it real around nine years ago, and today the company has three laboratory-style workshops in Switzerland. For many travelers, Geneva is the most convenient choice, as the workshop sits in the heart of the city within walking distance of all the best hotels (Four Seasons, Hoyel d’Angleterre, Ritz-Carlton), while the other two are in the suburbs of Geneva and Zurich.
There are three class options but only two include watches, the half-day (4 hours) Gamma class ($2,000) which skips lunch and streamlines the hands-on assembly portion of the classroom work, and the better full-day (8 hours) Delta Class ($2,500) which goes deeper into the mechanical movement and theory. The price difference is so slight you might as well enjoy lunch and all the extra education. I did the full-day, which starts with a theory session about how mechanical watches work. Before long it gets hands-on, and each participant has a professional-style watchmaking station with magnifying glasses, fine tweezers and minuscule gears and components. The heart of the matter is to completely disassemble a high-end movement, then put it back together, hopefully in working fashion. After the gourmet lunch you return and begin to process of making your own watch, first choosing the components. There is a very wide range of dials, but a disproportionate number of attendees – including myself – opt for skeleton faces to better see the results of their own labor, and/or many go for cases with transparent backs so the movement is visible from one or both sides.
Intium is a great value, but while the price point is far less than most fine watches cost on their own, even the most jaded collector will enjoy it, and the workshops regularly host customers who own six or seven figure timepieces yet want to learn and crave something even more unique. Shortly before my visit, the workshop got a booking from a Qatari collector who was visiting Geneva to personally collect a rare Patek Philippe model he had ordered, one of just five made. When he learned about Intium, he decided to add the very first pocket watch to his large collection – and to make it himself. That was an unusual request, but they are flexible and other options include upgrading to an automatic movement (the standard needs to be wound) and there are men’s and women’s sizes.
The Intium experience is worth planning a trip to Geneva around, but an even better add-on to a trip you might be taking to Switzerland anyway, whether it’s to hike in the shadow of the Matterhorn, take care of some business, ski, or just enjoy the charming nation or a weekend in Geneva (read my earlier travel piece on the city, Europe’s Hidden Gem, here at Forbes). Because classes can be booked for private groups, it makes a great buddy, couples or celebratory birthday or anniversary trip. It’s also an excellent gift because the certificates cover whichever class you choose, but the recipient can schedule it at their leisure.
I’ve done cooking classes where the resulting meal has been extra special just because I made it. I’ve distilled my own bourbon, blended my own whisky and gin, and made cheese, and they were all more special because I made them. The same is true for a watch, except with the food and drink all I have left is empty bottles and fond memories, but my watch is still keeping time – and getting compliments. You go home with the ultimate Swiss souvenir and there is literally nothing else like this anyplace.