Do donkeys fly? In your dreams



A brief review and shout-out to a film never seen before, because its world première was given the day after the official closing of the great Locarno Film Festival, which is held every summer on the Piazza Grande of this traditional hub of Swiss tourism.

9816618_origAsino Vola (Fly, Donkey) was screened on the Sunday night August 16, following the Festival’s official closing. The day had taunted the region with rain, but ultimately delivered a dry and slightly chilly, starry night with no moon, a perfect finale to one of the world’s great film bacchanals. It was billed as a children’s film, so obviously Locarno’s Piazza Grande was filled to the brim mostly, it seemed, with the young and their parents. This was not a children’s movie only, however, it was more like a cockeyed fairytale, ageless, a touch magical, humorous, heartwarming.

Maurizio and the “flying” and talking donkey.

The story of Asino vola is quickly told: A little boy, Maurizio (Francesco Tramontana), seven years old, living in a dusty Sicilian backwater, dreams of becoming a musician and makes good thanks to a drum that he learns by proxy, since the bandleader had assigned him to a flugelhorn, which his parents simply cannot afford. As in all good stories of success, the path to the goal is really what counts, and in Maurizio’s case it is not all smooth going. So much can be expected of a movie. Continue reading “Do donkeys fly? In your dreams”

The Geneva run

L’Escalade: the run of your life

In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.


Geneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.

The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.

The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).

Memories are made of this

A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.

The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.The ladies' run

Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.

There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.

Marmite74 The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).

What’s in a cauldron?

The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.

Marmite-03 (2)
Eat your (marzipan) vegetables for the sake of the Republic

And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)

Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.

Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.

Let them eat soup

As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.

Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009,  Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”

Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.

Switzerland’s referendum: the spoils




The February 9, 2014, referendum that garnered a “yes” to stop mass immigration into Switzerland and replace it with a system of quotas has sent ripples, even shock waves, throughout Europe. The initiative passed by a slim margin of 50.3% to 49.7%, with participation at just over 55% of eligible voters, and people in both camps are nursing hangovers these days, from different spirits, as it were.

The issue on the table was by no means new. Societies the world round are occasionally gripped by nativist impulses that target foreigners, and Switzerland is no exception. In the 1970s, one James (sic) Schwarzenbach launched an initiative against “over-foreignization,” turning what appeared to be a groundswell of backing from several Swiss cantons into a political party. But the initiative failed and the party ultimately fizzled.


The current initiative was put to the Swiss people via the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC), which is a lot more savvy than the late Schwarzenbach, and, of course, operating in a different era. It has produced a number of rhetorically noisy and cunning campaigns in the past already, mostly designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction to anything foreign. One recalls the famous anti-minaret campaign of 2009, which drew the ire of the EU, or the “black sheep” campaign of 2010 to throw out foreigners who had committed felonies.

At first glance

Both earlier initiatives won, thanks in part to the ruckus raised by the posters whose communication boiled down to crude demagogery. Simple colors, simplistic icons, oafish but graspable message. And effective. In fact, the People’s Party’s “black sheep” poster even found use by the Neo-Nazi NPD party in the German state of Hessen, by Italy’s Neo-Fascist Lega Nord, and by some other extremists in the Czech Republic. The poster in Switzerland showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag, and it raised hackles all the way to the UnMassenEinw_Jaited Nations.


The present referendum’s artwork also grabbed the headlines but for other reasons: the apple tree whose roots are crushing Switzerland with an inscription proclaiming the damage of mass immigration was actually borrowed from Economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation, which opposed the initiative together with syndicates and other industrial associations. Its apple tree – used in campaigns since 2000, no less – was intended to show how relations and treaties with European Union were benefiting Switzerland (the apples). What this had to do with the concerns of the Swiss people about immigration was not immediately clear and either confued or alienated potential voters. “I was against the initiative,” said a friend of mine, who is very engaged in Switzerland’s political debates, “but I couldn’t vote for the Economiesuisse proposal, because they seemed to be supporting the kind of wage dumping that big business would like to have. But no one is taking the issue of immigration seriously and addressing it, and the SVP/UDC did.”


Battle lines

The People’s Party does choose its issues well. The topic is always a little taboo, hence it attracts lots of attention, which is the cardinal rule in breaking out of websmog. Their initiatives can usually be summed up in a single short phrase and they go to the gut or the jugular, or both, ideal for the 140-character society. And the Party’s strategists have a musician’s gift for timing, they know when to simply let their issues ferment and simmer. The Internet and papers do the rest, especially the comment sections of newspapers and blogs. This permits all kinds of nonsense to be uttered without the higher-ups catching any flak. Vague connections are made between immigration (or any other bugaboo) and the lack of affordable housing, the high price of real estate, the filled trains, traffic jams, failures in schools, crime, noise in the streets, dirt, crooked bankers, ugly architecture, and lost jobs, etc.

On the other hand, countering these gregarious views is inherently difficult and often requires moral, ethical and even legal arguments that most voters are hardly inclined to follow after a hard day’s work, what with all the mesmerizing entertainment provided by our daily screens.

And, finally, perhaps at the core of the issue, there is the subtext of unemployment, which is one of the main Swiss worries, especially, when it comes to immigration. Life here is expensive, and maintaining a high standard of living is not that easy. While the country’s own jobless rate is very low (averaging around 3.1%) and economic growth is high, what people actually perceive is different and they have the proof just beyond Switzerland’s borders.


It’s no picnic out there, if we are to believe the media. Europe’s economy is sluggish, unemployment is over 10% for the whole EU, earnings are low (though social benefits excellent). It all seems very threatening, like some Fritz Lang movie of the 1920s. Foreign nationals are needy and greedy and pressing at Switzerland’s gold-strewn shores, or so it seems … And the ghastly conflict in Syria, the unrest in North Africa, the hordes in the East waiting to pounce, the Chinese plagiarists are all giant shadows performing some ghastly economic Totentanz in the background. The result is a fortress mentality, which is aggravated every time the United States IRS puts a gun to the head of the Swiss banking system, or the German or French tax authorities get a hold of a few CDs with the names and account numbers of German tax evaders.

So the immigration issue may well be getting mixed in the minds of many with the whole cluster of other insecurities and uncertainties that have become the electrifying juice of our capitalist system, the Damocles sword held over the Average Joe and Jane to keep them on the straight and narrow, no complaining, please, your job is next on the block. So what some Swiss voters are saying then is: leave us alone, we’ve done our bit, now you do yours and let us get along with our lives, things were better before. The fact that cities like Zurich, Geneva or Basel actually voted against the initiative suggests as much. Geneva! Which is literally overrun by foreigners of all stripe, but could not really survive without them.


But vote they did, and now the chickens are fluttering and clucking near the roost. The Nays are disappointed and shocked that the measure, which seemed doomed to failure just a few weeks ago, actually passed. The Ayes, for their part, are gloating but with that slightly sour “I-told-you-so” attitude. Many of their comments in the papers, on television, and even in public, suggest that they did not quite understand the implications of their yes to the no immigration. Or worse yet, they don’t really care either way, since the point was to show the world that the Swiss system of direct democracy still works and that they will not let themselves be subjected to a “dictate” from Europe – a kind of political dog whistle often blown by the right wingers in the country, and one that is sure to garner votes.


Unfortunately, though, the laws in place are not that simple. The Swiss government can’t just text or tweet the EU Commissioner and break off the engagement. The CH-EU relationship is far more complex. In the run-up to the referendum already, the EU had been sounding the alarm about Swiss voters deciding to roll back the “free movement of people” across borders, a right written into the first set of Bilateral Agreements that went into force in 2002 and was extended to new EU members in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Negotiations on including Croatia in the Bilaterals (which joined the EU on July 1st, 2013) are now threatened, said Richard Jones, EU Ambassador to Switzerland , and with it a number of research and exchange programs, like Horizon2020 and the Erasmus+ program, which facilitates all sorts of professional and academic exchanges across EU borders. So opportunities for young, talented and ambitious Swiss individuals may have just taken a blow… if, as the Germans would say, the food is eaten as hot as it is cooked…


The European reaction to the vote was swift and categorical. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Swedish Foreign Minister Brigitta Ohlsson spoke of reconsidering EU-CH relations, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said she would put the issue on the table with the EU Council, and Jean Asselborn from Luxembourg warned EU countries of striking separate deals with Switzerland.

The Swiss are an important partner for the EU, said Viviane Reding a few weeks before the vote, “but the EU is also an important partner for Switzerland.”

Talk has been of invoking the “guillotine clause,” which would call into question all the benefits of the Bilateral Treaties that Switzerland managed to negotiate after saying no to membership in the European Economic Area in December 1992 – curiously by a majority of 50.3%. The consequences could be quite drastic in many different areas, including technology, agriculture, education, environment, security and cooperation, even road traffic. In short everything that made CH a virtual member of the EU without having to deal with some of the political shenanigans and without losing its sacred right to direct democracy.


In an interview with the Tages Anzeiger, National Counsellor Christian Wasserfallen from the Free Democrats, a member of the Energy Commission, pointed out that the treaty on electrical power trading with Europe is in jeopardy, and the threat could extend to a variety of other industries, from the chemical – not news Basel wants to hear – to financial services. “Our companies have a lot of value creation in the balance,” he said, “but how the initiative will be implemented is still an open question.”

Theoretical victory

For its part, the populist right wing is in ecstasy. Their feeling was summed up by Markus Somm, Editor-in-Chief of the Basler Zeitung daily. Pride comes before the fall, he remarked, and that he feels led to the incredibly weak argumentation by Economiesuisse and its fellow oppositionists, including the Federal Council, no less: “Something historical happened. By their approval of the mass immigration initiative – against the will of almost all parties, federations, media, syndicates and pundits – the Swiss dared to do something extraordinary. A tectonic shift is happening. For the first time since their rejection of the EEA [European Economic Area] over twenty years ago, our country is taking the risk of muddying the relationship to our most important trading partner, the EU.”

Whether that is the case remains to be seen, the barking at the present time is loud, but whether the bite ever really comes is questionable. When all is said and done, the little Alpine confederacy has gone up against European powers before. And even the most vociferous EU politician knows that the nation is ruled by consensus. Even the anti-European forces will have to recognize that the relationship with the EU is symbiotic and in no way parasitic. And the forces opposing initiative will also have to recognize that not everyone in Switzerland was prepared to take on 80,000 new residents per year.

Paradise…. only for the few Lucky ones (and the rich)

At any rate, the federal government now has three years to put some kind of contingency system in place. That leaves enough time to finagle, argue, twist arms, take names, find carpets to sweep things under, create complications, exceptions, and appease. The country is somewhat divided, of course, with inner-Swiss cantons The president of the Geneva State Council, François Longchamp, told the local Tribune de Genève, that separate conditions will have to be met for the Vaud and Geneva because of the enormous number of international firms and organizations that have settled around Lake Geneva and that require highly qualified personnel. “They [these Cantons] said no to the end of free movement.” So those who shut the door are just going to have to take on the consequences.” His fellow State Councillor of the Canton of Vaud, Pascal Broulis was also clear: “Any regulation will have to take an open and a closed Switzerland into account.” These Cantons, after all, provide the Confederacy with considerable income from the employment they create. Even Schwarzenbach had allowed for a higher percentage of foreigners for Geneva (25%, and 10% for the rest of the country).

And now, with the negotiating table full of shards and loud words, some elasticity may be showing on the part of the Europeans. Richard Jones suggested in the above-mentioned interview: “The ball is in the Swiss court. … The relationship is important for both of us. No one is ready to cut ties, but we must find a viable path.” That sounds conciliatory, in a very oblique manner.

Playing the field

In the end, this all plays perfectly into the hands of the People’s Party. Their anti-European and anti-foreign rhetoric has leavened their shares over the past decade with people who seem disgruntled at a society being transformed by globalization, while reaping the benefits as well. The strategists – including the rather brilliant billionaire Christoph Blocher – have managed to play the victim card over and over again with initiatives that always give off a musty odor of xenophobia couched in reason. That is not good advertising for a country with so much at stake abroad even if “money has no odor,” as the French say. Until now it still has not affected the economy in any tangible manner, hence even people like Mr. Blocher have not suffered any financial setbacks. But it does raise the question: if Switzerland is so timorous with its booming economy, what will it be like when the big bust comes?

It’s all about trade…. a barge travelng from Basel to Rotterdam on the Rhine

The anti-immigration initiative is serving the SVP/UDC as a kind of test balloon to see if the “foreigners issue” can be used for the parliamentary elections in 2015. The party would like to extend its majority – which recent polls actually suggested was dipping in favour of smaller parties. And Europe continues to serve as an easy target: if it doesn’t react to the populist SVP/UDC, it looks as if it is ignoring Switzerland. If it does react, then it comes across as school-marmisch. And the last thing the Swiss want to hear is a bevy of European officials browbeating them for ur-Swiss values and customs, particularly their sacred direct democracy. On the other hand, not all those who voted yes to the initiative are pro-People’s Party. And at some point the less vociferous and more urbane segments of the electorate may decide that they have done enough for the nativists, and it is time to let Switzerland back into the race.


Hype and nonsense: the Osama error

MAY 25, 2011 11:14AM

The death of Osama  bin Laden, like his life, was a noisy affair. Throughout the world, the media finally had something really big to report, because after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the meltdowns at Fukushima and the ongoing “Arab spring,” now brought to us from Libya and Syria, consumers were getting restless for something new, something spicy, something with some extra-strength pizzazz to enliven the daily news. After all, how much leading-bleeding reporting from Misrata can one take before it gets a little repetitive?  Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s adventures wear thin after a short while.

So Obama was the one who got Osama, dead, not alive, and that event, carried out was carried out by yet another gang of heroes, accompanied by a cute heroic dog. A delightful picture that sent shock waves throughout the world and generated inordinate amounts of whatever passes for column inches these days. In Washington, New York and other points on the globe, large crowds came out to jubilate, to express their unbounded joy at the demise of one of the most effective bugaboos since Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega – who, like Osama  bin Laden, shared the distinction of having been a good friends of the US at some time, and recipients of our tax dollars and military aid in exchange for proxy work. And the media joined in and heated up the frenzy.

Encores and more

Unlike with the handling of budget talks with the GOP, the health insurance debate, or even the bailouts, this time the Obama administration put on a fairly good show, dragging it out with a surprise, gravitas-filled presidential visit to ground zero, keeping everyone on their toes with talk of violent pictures, dumping the body in the sea, lots of praise for the anonymous wet-ops group of Navy SEALs, keeping the mystery going just enough to draw the hype. To this day the information is dripping out in homeopathic doses, mostly silly stuff that feeds the ghoulish need to know what Osama’s personal life was like as he holed up in Pakistan, delighting all the while in the ravages he caused.  It’s all picture perfect, Hollywood and Marvel Comics live and wrapped in one. The message says: “Osama bin Laden, author of the senseless and mindless 9/11 act has now been killed, good triumphs, evil is defeated.” Or in the words of the President “Justice has been done, the world is safer.”

Quick solutions, perhaps too quick 

Has justice been done? Is the world safer? Did the execution of  Osama bin Laden really bring closure, as so many pundits would like to convince themselves it seems? Perhaps at one level yes, because tracking terrorists will undoubtedly be a little easier now with the information from Osama bin Laden’s files. But how that is managed is or should be cloak and dagger stuff. Suffice to say:  any well-organized terrorist network will have set up contingencies.

Closure or safety are another matter.  Osama bin Laden did not exist in a vacuum, nor for a period lasting from  9/11 to 1/5.  It would be naïve to think that ending the Osama episode also concluded the “war on terror” series.

The administration and the media seem to revel in the images of Osama bin Laden as a dumpy old man, like Saddam Hussein in his mole hole. One can seriously doubt whether this will be of any relief to the families and friends of 9/11 victims. To get true justice, to understand and integrate the lessons of the past 10 or more years, to finally close the book on Osama  bin Laden would have most probably required at least a proper trial. A trial, though, would have spawned terrorist acts, the officials all said, a flimsy excuse at best, but one that remained unquestioned. If anything, going through the judicial ritual, as was done with the Nazis at Nuremberg, or even Manuel Noriega, would have proven that our democratic rule of law is still strong and functional. Alas, it is not that functional anymore, and thus by getting himself killed, Osama bin Laden once again managed to triumph in a bizarre way.

Whether the killing was an operational necessity or an expedient decision is an open question. The inexorable momentum of the news will allow for no real reflection, just the creation of a kind of consensus that the act was logical and good, and anything else would have been unacceptable. By allowing the publication of a picture depicting the entire cabinet watching the operation unfold, the Obama administration managed to both identify those in charge and hence responsible for the act, while at the same time spreading out the guilt, should anyone dare doubt the legality of it.

Nuremberg did it

In the absence of reality, though, we the observers have to contend with appearance, which has become our reality in a world dominated by advertising, self-promotion and public relations. As long as the message is well crafted and acceptable and fills some emotional gap or desire, it is taken as evidence. Popularity then serves as the yardstick for judgment, doubting the majority is not an option. Democratic processes are governed by mob rule. It would behoove the nation as a whole to stop and think for once, because even though “we got Osama bin Laden,” his strategy and legacy may well have been a degree more subtle and effective than the simpletons cackling away on TV would have us believe.

One challenge would have been to understand why someone would organize such a fiendish attack as 9/11. Was it really “senseless” in Osama bin Laden’s mind (or in the mind of whoever organized the attack, which is now beyond our intelligence)? Was it just to kill Americans for some private reason?

Looking back

Suffice to say, the phenomenal noise those planes made crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a remote area of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, is still echoing in everybody’s ear. In the immediate aftermath, the world was treated to a drumfire of slogan-like platitudes, dead-or-alive, smoke’em-out, terrorists all over the place, our liberties, their hatred, them and us. It was all in convenient bite-sized black and white portions, no fuss, no muss. Anyone who did not agree with the president and his cohorts, like peaceniks and some Democrats, was “them.” Period. No discussions accepted, no cool heads could prevail. Truth and individual liberties, be damned. To say a word against the George Bush strategy was tantamount to treason. Any opposition, as always happens in such cases, was pushed into a rhetorical corner.  Fear and hysteria gripped the nation.

At one level, the noise helped disguise the fact that George Walker Bush had been asleep at the helm in spite of warnings of a serious threat to the nation. So all eyes were immediately refocused on this strange bird,  Osama  bin Laden, now indelibly associated with 9/11, but whom an American Grand Jury had already found guilty of conspiring to attack  US military installations in 1998.  That was during the Clinton years, however, when the World Trade Center was attacked the first time (very soon after George Bush Senior handed over the presidency to Bill Clinton). Clinton was not very successful in convincing the GOP of the need to shore up the national defenses against terrorist attacks. Republican Congressmen were more interested in spreading the president’s dalliances around the globe and making a fool of him and the nation.


The Patriot Act was thus rammed down everyone’s throats. In the Senate, only one lone figure voted No, Russ Feingold:

The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks. As the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, I recognize that this is a different world with different technologies, different issues, and different threats. Yet we must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy.

That took courage. The Act, which is scheduled to end on May 29, 2011, was voted in. What followed was deafening cacophony freely mixed with imagery as crazy and perplexing as an Erró, and accompanied by the nightly swatch of color-coded alerts that went up and down, haphazardly, for all intents and purposes, or whenever the Bush people needed some distraction.  The willing accomplices in this grand guignol were the nation’s newsmen and –women, and the astute businesspersons peddling security gadgets. It was like the Fifties all over again, simple stuff in 4/4 and C major, when the USSR was The Enemy and all one needed to do was hide under a desk if an A-bomb went off.

Lots of fearmongering, no substance

(Note to self:  Vociferous patriotism should always get alarm bells ringing, because it usually means that someone in power wants to do something unpopular.) Indeed, the public was served the usual bread and circus and remained thoroughly confused as to what was real and fake. Self-inflating evangelists added the screeching sound of their axes grinding. And in the strange audio-visual haze, the media gave scant attention to the steady chiseling away at civil rights, to the unwieldy and ineffective policies of a government stocked with ideologues and cronies, to the pernicious mixing up of the private sector and government, or even the one-sided economic boom that was heading for bust.

In the months and then years following 9/11, fundamental rights were eroded in the name of national security. The tide of violent rhetoric and unadulterated bilge also generated a mobocracy of superpatriots who began randomly attacking anyone of Muslim faith or suspected thereof, like Sikhs who wear turbans.* (Even today, there is a class of con artists and other frauds willing to sacrifice their self-respect, like pastor Jones, or all those bizarre birthers, to heave themselves into prominence and profit from riding anti-Muslim sentiment.) Wiretapping became commonplace (still is most probably), arrests arbitrary, peace groups were harassed by the FBI, private rights started bending to the point of breaking in the face of alleged national security needs.  A survey showed at one point that a majority felt that free speech had its limits, and reading a book about Islam in a public library could get you flagged. The Valery Plame affair stands out as a notoriously dangerous encroachment on someone’s life by government. It looked like the salami tactic of the Communist parties in Eastern Europe in the post-war era.

Torture(d) logic

The country even engaged in a spurious debate on the whether torture (waterboarding) was effective and whether it was even allowed. A moot debate, since it is notoriously ineffective and no one in their right mind can deny that waterboarding is torture and was always considered such, no matter how much it is called “enhanced interrogation.”* Moreover, waterboarding was not the only means of torture used, notably in Afghanistan and in the countries involved in the extraordinary rendition scheme.  To this came prisoner abuse in many forms (see Abu Ghraib) obviously enabled and supported by ignorant, brutish commanders and sanctioned from farther up the hierarchy. But the US population could not put aside its fear and its differences to unite on upholding the law, and since any reading is for left-wing-elitist-college types, the debate ground on within a cocoon of total ignorance.

Waterboarding, it’s torture and a war crime

At any rate, the disgraceful trampling of human and civil rights culminated in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which might have shocked Americans into a new revolution 40 years prior. But in 2006, after decades of television news, confusing and equivocating punditism, and a five-year diet of hyper-news, fear-mongering, and sheer propaganda from Washington trickling down through a 24-hour news cycle starving for content, We The People were ready to surrender habeas corpus with barely a whimper. Guantanamo and permanent detention without trial were thus justified, arrests on suspicion as well, and torture under whatever name with it. And whenever anyone complained, they were literally accused of treason (New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersch, for example, who was more or less called a terrorist for reporting on Richard Perle’s wheeling and dealing in the private sector). A majority in both houses voted for the Act. Amazingly, one of the pro crowd, Republican Arlen Specter, pointed out that 900 years of habeas corpus were being undone. Two years later, the Supreme Court came to the rescue and voted (5-4) to restore habeas corpus at least.

Spreading the news

What the USA does within its own borders is its own business. But George Walker Bush and his people (Cheney, Rice, and less visible figures like the old desk-bound Cold Warriors Perle and Wolfowitz) were also hell bent on getting boots on the ground to defend US exceptionalism and spread the neo-conservative tripe. And, one can only suspect, keep the country whipped into shape.

It was all in response to the hysteria they were themselves creating. Oil may also have played a role in the decision-making, but it’s not as relevant as some would believe.  The casus belli: Terror. The Bush administration managed to trigger a permanent war like that in Orwell’s 1984, a war to justify any act no matter how brutal, no matter how un-democratic. The absurdity of the “war on terror” (like the “war on drugs”) is worthy of Kafka. It was never defined, there are no benchmarks, no milestones, no road maps, no goals, no exit strategies, no rules. To this end, however, we lowered the bar even further on democratic ideals and ethics: Alberto Gonzalez, as the White House chief legal advisor, went so far as to call some of the Geneva Convention provisions “quaint and obsolete.” Only one person in the administration, Colin Powell, one of the very tragic, almost Shakespearean, figures on the American political scene, protested. He saw, no doubt, that the nation was lowering it’s standards to those of the “other side.” But the “other side” was indefinable, so in the end, the task of creating the enemy was left up to the noise machine in the USA, which proved short on info and rich in easily swallowed stereotypes. The snake started eating its own tail.

Fighting shadows

In fact the only thing that can be said of the “war on terror” is that it is an admission of defeat. Terrorism has always existed as a form of violent expression of the downtrodden. Even Russia under the Czars was beset by terror, for instance. But in the USA, every pundit, every pol and every fraud with a pulpit compared Osama bin Laden to Hitler or Stalin, probably for no other reason than these are perhaps the only really Big Names in Monstrosity known to the general public. The comparison was totally false. Gavrilo Princip, today considered  something of a hero by the formerly allied powers of World War One, also committed an act of terror and was the member of a secret, terrorist society. His act set off  World War One, we all learn in school. But the real reason for the outbreak of World War One, was the sheer hubris and aggressiveness of the Habsburg government in Austro-Hungary, which was, like the Bush administration, determined to go to war come hell or high water. Twelve million dead later, plus countless casualties including millions of acres of land, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled. And the social and political seed was sewn for the next war. Osama  bin Laden was, I fear, closer to Gavrilo Princip than  Hitler. He understood that the fundamental aim of terrorism is to push a dominant power into destroying itself.

Hitting the neural point: Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914

All those allegedly sharp heads in the Bush White House couldn’t figure that out because they were pursuing their own ideological hallucinations and a completely flawed policy of applying military force to police action. Combating terrorism is asymmetrical, and sending a huge and high-tech army to hunt down a few fellows is like trying to swat a fly in a porcelain store with a two-by-four. It does not take a genius to figure this out, and in fact at least one journalist, Robert Fisk, who knew bin Laden, wrote a few days after 9/11:

“[W]hat happened in New York was a crime against humanity. And that means policemen, arrests, justice, a whole new international court at The Hague if necessary. Not cruise missiles and “precision” bombs and Muslim lives lost in revenge for Western lives. But the trap has been sprung. Mr Bush – perhaps we, too – are now walking into it.”

Prophetic words before the wars began. Afghanistan was first, the easiest sell, though it was of questionable legality as well, as Kate Hudson, General  Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rightly points out

“To wage war against a whole nation for the crimes of a few was not only wrong but illegal under international law: collective punishment of a people is outlawed. Even assuming bin Laden was guilty and was hiding in Afghanistan — and even if the Taliban government harbored him and his al Qaeda network — that would not make it right or legal to bomb innocent civilians.”

The wave of compassion for New York and the USA, however, drove many countries to join in this coalition of the more-or-less willing. Germany did felt queasy about invading Afghanistan, even though the country finally acquiesced and sent in support. But there was some hemming and hawing about it in the media at the time that Americans may not have understood.

Here is a hint: Ever since the country’s twelve-year psychotic episode under Hitler, Germans take war very seriously, since every village has a cenotaph to the kids the country lost in perfectly senseless wars. And Germans take laws and constitutionality very seriously as well. Hence, the execution of Osama bin Laden has been taken with a feeling of discomfort. Chancellor Angela Merkel did approve, perhaps too quickly even for her own party of Christian Democrats (my emphasis).  While the BBC correspondent Stephen Evans notes this “carping” in Germany, he wrongly attributes it to anti-Americanism. (It is strange, that whenever anyone criticizes Germany, they inevitably make some Nazi reference. But when Germany maintains a staunchly legal argument, the critics suddenly throw a hissy fit.)

Anything goes

In the shadow of Afghanistan, the Bush administration also tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez, but failed – apparently heads of state in Latin America have actually learned to be more careful of their North American neighbors. The issue there was oil. But the real focus of the administration was not Latin America, but rather Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. As a target, though, one couldn’t have asked for better: Saddam Hussein was a larger than life dictator, a repulsive man, who dared use the weapons the US sold him on his own people and on Iran.  G.W. Bush, having failed to smoke out Osama bin Laden, was ready to conduct “une bonne petite guerre” to rally the country and keep up the hype.

The war in Iraq was launched following a campaign mixing stupefying theatrics and transparent disinformation. The administration also powered up a massive expectations management campaign, during which the coming conflict and the armies of Saddam Hussein were depicted as invincible killing machines. This made the “victory” seem all the greater, and G. W. Bush made his farcical appearance on an aircraft carrier to the delight of the nodding TV crowd. All pure nonsense, of course.

It was a repeat of the 1991 bull sessions, when the same information management system was in place, a system that simply ignored the fact that Iraq had been engaged in a horrible war of attrition with Iran for eight years, thanks in part to arms sold to both sides. And since 1991, Iraq had been the subject of a brutal embargo and occasional bombings and had no way of resisting. Its airspace was, as far as anyone could see, open for foreign business. .

Iraq was still in the process of exploding and imploding, when the Bush administration turned the heat up on Iran. Another convenient target, too, with a very shoddy human rights record. Iranians, like Iraqis, lived through in a dictatorship. Yet we were willing to bomb them as well, apparently, and if “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” McCain had won the 2008 elections, thousands of families there, too, would be grieving because of the president we might have voted into power. That is the difference between democracy and dictatorship: we are clearly responsible for the harm our leaders do. Failing to understand that means failing to understand the responsibility we have in a democracy to elect leaders who will uphold the law and the national standards of humanity. We might not expect decency from a Kim Il-Jong, but we should expect it from our government and from our allies.

The balance sheet

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and remain brutal. In spite of sexy videos and lots of hi-tech gadgetry, the fact is that only a minority of bombs delivered were smart bombs, and some of those were quite stupid. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the lives of untold numbers of innocent people, so many in fact that there is no clear tally. How many wedding parties in Afghanistan and Iraq became targets? How many children killed by our heroes? How many drones dispatched innocents going about their business to the next world? How many American soldiers dead, how many wounded or now debilitated by PTSD?

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, billions upon billions poured into what became a ghastly civil war that the news media refused to recognize as such, because whenever the term was used, a coterie of double-speak specialists and the entire Bush cabinet said it was not so. The issue of proportionality, another of the quaint provisions of the Geneva Conventions, was never even considered apparently, except on the part of real bleeding hearts. The result: When we started in Iraq, there was no Al Qaeda there. Now there is. And there are thousands upon thousands of grieving families, some who probably never heard of the World Trade Center. The country is a mess. Afghanistan is still a war zone, and heroin is still a major export (the big taker is Russia). Do the civilians in these countries not have a right to hear why Osama  bin Laden was pursued with such vigor? And perhaps the American taxpayers should start demanding where all the money they throw at the Pentagon is really going. In the 80s, there were 7000-dollar toilet seats in aircraft carriers and hammers worth more than Maxwell’s. Today no one even bothers asking. The hawks should be wondering how, with a military budget that is way beyond anything anyone spends in the world, we are still incapable of pacifying Afghanistan. As with Vietnam, surely, they will blame the “left-wing media” and “Jane Fonda types.”

Collateral damage

Pressure to react to 9/11 prompted the invasion of Afghanistan, though the results have been fairly disastrous. On the other hand, Iraq was, to paraphrase Talleyrand, “worse than a crime, it was an error.” Besides the pain inflicted on the country, it estranged strong allies. The Europeans for the most part were naturally reluctant to go along with the Bush adventure, especially with extremely flimsy evidence, though it was enough to convince the two houses of Congress.

Tony Blair should have known better, though he is still defending the decision, now as a Catholic, which allows for the cleansing of crimes by confession.  Rather than respect the sovereignty of European countries and their freedom of choice, the American government, backed by Fox News, trash radio and a mainstream media too timorous to uncover the nonsense and educate its consumers, went on an infantile rampage against them. Remember the Liberty Fries, and the demonstrative decanting of French wines in the streets? Such silliness, hardly worthy of a great nation still goes on to this day, because Obama has not felt any real need to cash in his popularity in Europe for support. Did anyone explain to Americans, for example, that European armies are often conscripted and hence using them particularly for illegal wars of aggression is not exactly good marketing?  How about asking the French about their experience with an Arab nation? That might have been very instructive. In fact, once the civil war (insurgency) got going in Iraq, the Pentagon apparently offered itself a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and highly instructive docudrama The Battle Of Algiers.  Perhaps if Americans would have seen it instead of watching inane, repetitive soaps and reality shows, they might have had a more differentiated view of the war, of the Middle East, of the moral dangers of torture, even of terrorism and how it functions.

In the final analysis, any basic performance review of the handling of the whole sorry Osama bin Laden affair should put paid to any idea that in killing him “we won”. It was a Pyrrhic victory at the very best. We won nothing at all. We got distracted, we refused to take a step back and look at the broader picture. The nation fell into paroxysms of fear and hence became malleable as wax in the sun. That is probably why Osama bin Laden could kick back, relax, watch home movies of himself and make a baby or two in the past seven years or so. By touting itself as the sole defender of the free world against a faceless threat, the USA also became an open wallet for any foreign power seeking a little cash for real or imagined services, which is why the sudden dismay at Pakistan’s dubious role seems so silly. The USA simply dissembled of its own accord, becoming more and more obsessed by another attack, by Muslims, by anything that went bump in the night. It sent soldiers to do a policeman’s job, regardless of the collateral damage that may well come back to haunt the nation. In the process, the country lost allies and lost much of its relevance.

Powerful nations, like powerful people, are often offensively narcissistic. They strut about, fascinated by their own glow, oblivious of other nations, other peoples and their desires, needs and customs. The USA, with its doctrinal variations on the theme of manifest destiny, suffers from this obsession of the self.  How is it that the government and the people cannot see that by trampling over the whole planet without the slightest regard for, or curiosity about, other people, other lifestyles, other cultures, most of them far older than theirs, they are making enemies?  Where is the attempt to walk a mile in other’s shoes?  In its quest to hunt  bin Laden the USA has raged around the globe, wiping out innocent people left, right and centre, destroying millions of livelihoods for no better reason than it has the means to do it and seems to believe firmly that something in the eight letters spelling American gives them the right to do so. And then they wonder out loud in all innocence why people “hate them.”

Tough self-love

With all the excitement, Osama bin Laden also became irrelevant, a victim of his own hubris. The world’s great monster, as we now know, sat in a dumpy “mansion,” tanking up on Pakistani Viagra and scribbling his thoughts in his diary. Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Business News got it partly right when he said in a commentary that Osama bin Laden’s popularity was dwindling in the Arab world simply because he was acting like a rock star and had failed to address the issue of poverty and the lack of opportunity in the Arab world. That was obvious, he was a very rich man who never had to really work in his life. Plus he wanted to turn the clock back to a time when the rich really ruled without any challenges and without even letting the Great Unwashed have fun, say, with the Internet and other cheap techno-distractions. The street, as it were, realized fast enough that this man was not really behind them.

It should be a lesson for the West and especially the USA. The spread of pure capitalism is not putting Lexuses and olive trees all over the place, rather it is reinforcing existing economic structures and hence sealing in poverty. Poverty and lack of opportunity will breed violence. Violence will always breed violence. So powerful nations and powerful organizations will at some point have to decide if short-term profits are really sustainable politically and socially. Kate Hudson secretary general of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, expressed this sentiment in a CNN editorial: “It is our hope that the rule of law, underpinned by our Constitution that was so terribly strained in the name of September 11th will again become the guiding light of our policies at home and abroad.”

And the rule of law must be for all and has an economic component as well. William O’Connor over at Counterpunch, a former firefighter and Vietnam vet put it differently, but just as pointedly: “This is no game, no time to rejoice, and no time for partisanship. I encourage you to demonstrate the angels of our better nature, expose America’s compassion.”

Terrorist acts cannot be prevented. The clockwork model of the world is an illusion we have carried since the 18th century, along with the delusion of the invisible hand of the market.  By the same token, Osama bin Laden was not a cause, he was a symptom and the support he received at least for a time, was born of despair, of a sense of injustice, nurtured by frustration and led by individuals seeking power.  To see terror in the Middle East as being a mere product of psychotic imams and ill-tempered Palestinians is stupid at best and grossly negligent at worst. In the article mentioned above, Robert Fisk reminded readers of the obvious fact that “America’s name is literally stamped on to the missiles fired by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank.”  Would that not generate a modicum of frustration and anger, especially since the USA is the most prominent peace broker in the region? Osama bin Laden was just one in a long line of men who tried to channel that despair and he will by no means the last one. The world cannot stop such people, but by dint of teamwork, by sharing resources rather than hoarding them, by shedding racism, xenophobia, and the nationalist impulse to feel superior, we as global citizens, can dry out the abscess of hatred and despair that keeps rejecting peace.

*Waterboarding is plain and simply torture, describing it otherwise is disingenuous at best. Amongst others, it was a technique used against a Jewish editor of the Alger Républicain newspaper named Henri Alleg by the French parachutists in Algiers in 1957, who were trying to put down the insurgency in the city of Algiers. Alleg managed to survive and then escape and publish a book about his experience called La Question (in the Editions de Minuit). He was helped by Jean-Paul Sartre. Though the French government tried to suppress the book, enough copies circulated to begin turning public opinion in France against the Algerian war. Alleg describes how keeping his mouth shut became his only means of resistance. The book also makes the point that using torture reflects darkly upon the whole of a democratic society.

And here is what Françoise Sironi has to say about torture (from an interview with the Swiss newspaper La Liberté). She is co-founder of the Centre Primo Levi in Paris, which cares for victims of torture):

The efficiency of torture is a political lie. It is disinformation, and I can say that as a doctor. First of all it creates confusion: the victims no longer know what they are saying, they will say anything just to get it to stop. We also know that all the movements of organized struggle – secret services, resistance movements – prepare their members to give false information under torture. Finally, the opening of the archives of the French Army showed that at the time of the war in Algeria, already, where torture was frequently used, the army itself considered it that least effective means to obtain accurate information. The most effective means was infiltration.”

This time at Baselworld (2011), part 2


The Hautlence HL2 a breath of 70s as well

From steam to punk and thereabouts

 As time moves along, styles are becoming jumbled. The 1930s and Art-Deco have become something of a fixation, and for good reason (see below). Ingersoll is even gambling on a string of revived original Mickey Mouse watches mostly in quartz. And there are signs that the 70s and their horizontally rectangular television view of the world could be making a comeback.

The 70s are back: CHF 150k for this mechano-digtal leader

Last year saw Hamilton’s re-release of a Pulsomatic, and the new-born 4N brand resorted to the great Renaud & Papi to implement an iconic “digital-looked” watch with an industrial price-tag.

But the persistent driving force behind design is mechanics. The internal combustion and steam engines are the source of inspiration for many brands. It all has to do with the fascination of reorganizing raw materials into a function whole, that warm and fuzzy feel of pistons sliding inside the oiled sheath of a motor block, the demented samba of the valves, the easy transfer of power from the wild explosion through the camshaft to the wheels that gives men, as a rule, the definitive feeling of once and for all overcoming their insignificance.

Meccaniche Veloci, a motorbike on the arm

The success of such a simple esthetic strategy lies essentially in the level of separation between the metaphor and the message. Dozens of brands steer close to the source,  like the German “airplane” watches Breitling and Fortis, or the less famous Meccaniche Veloci, from Smits Uurwerken, whose open plan booth flickered to a film of a motorbike racing around, over an over again, sounding like some demented bee caught inside a violin. The message has all the subtlety of an anvil falling on a bare toe. The watches are bold, round and with four subdials. One piece, in vermilion red, is made from a bike that has been dissected and whose remains stand in a corner of the booth for all to see. Is this piece of metal better than a newly machined bit of steel? And what fate befell that motorbike? No idea. Somewhere among the fluttering axons and dendrites is the lost message that a vehicle is a functional tool, but the rugged feel sparks the male id, no doubt.

(A footnote: There are other ways of expressing one’s disorganized personality or its opposite and nemesis. An example: the purity of a Nomos, which avoids the user needing to pull out an iPhone to tell the time. And besides, do I really want to have a spiritual whiff of Easy Rider on my arm, when CHF 25,000 or so will get a Romain Jeromethat includes a bit of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – now there was shocker – or some rusted leftovers of the Titanic – a symbol of the world economy? – or even a bit of dinosaur feces? Tbd…..)

Pimped mechano sets

A few steps up the sophistication scale are brands like Eberhardt, where the dashboard look seems almost incidental. Something about the asymmetry of the four subdials on the famous Chrono 4 series treats the eye and the mind to a little diversion. Many other brands have achieved some remarkable effects with the same idea, such as Chopard, which  has integrated design elements recalling those bulky engines of the 30s. Armin Strom, too, besides revamping it

TAG Heuer can now measure a 1,000th of a second.

s booth to make it a lot lighter, has developed a new collection, the Racing series, which is in sharp contrast to the Elements series. Two models are equipped with the in-house movement and are made of car parts as well. The dials range from straightforward to fairly complex, the Regulator consisting of interlocking subdials that give the sense of optical depth. Finally, a mention of the remarkable TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Concept Chronograph, which measures 1000thof a second thanks to a special spiral, the absence of a balance wheel and a host of other patent-pending innovations. The brand pushes automobile names, like the Carrera, but what this has to do with the watch itself is anyone’s guess.


 Engineer’s dream

For many brands, it is of course not about the cars but rather about the nostalgia of our dying world of mechanics, and here the automobile and plane references join a far larger archetype.  Think Mazzuoli, who was not at Baselword, and his espresso machine pressure-gauge watches, or the Contagiri (rpm counter). Or the one-handed wonders of  Meistersinger, extremely basic, and yet with lots of space to let the imagination wander, particularly back to simpler times. The watches of the small brand Ernst Benz might have been taken straight from the cockpit of an early model crop duster,and will therefore

harmonize well with muddy overalls or a casual three-piecer. The Michigan-based company’s latest idea is a tip of the hat to the old vinyl records industry, with concentric circles as a design element: just imagine a caveman faced with a jukebox playing Elvis in a greasy spoon outside Biloxi. Another Swiss-made American brand is Ball Watch– yes, it’s the origin of the expression to be “on the Ball” – A conscious effort has been made

The Ernst Benz Chronoscope

to trace back to the birth of the watch in the high-employment


The Ball Fireman Storm Chaser – decades of glow

world of hogheads, bakeheads, yard rats and the other railroad denizen of the late 19th century, when people had their feet on the ground. The watches are all about functionality, including the use of tritium-filled vials to ensure lasting illumination in the dark.

 Impossible to list all of the brands that pay homage to the age of real manufacturing, with metal parts and great wheels turning. Ultimately, however, that is the core beauty of a watch, the wheels, pivots and screws that reproduce the movement of the spheres in the galaxy. In his new X-Ray Series, Israeli horologist Itay Noy simply shows those inner workings of the timepiece on the dial as quasi-abstract element, one that suggests the workings inside. As a teacher of industrial design, Noy is educating a new generation of inventive designers, whose work is testimony to the limitlessness of the imagination when liberated from the illusion of market demand.

Itay Noy, his family of watches is growing by the year
DeWitts, always combining style and mechanics

Other brands revert to Art Deco as the polite side of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Twenty-8 Eight series of DeWitt is a superb example of the sheer timelessness, the industrial elegance of the 20s and 30s, be that the plain automatic in a chocolaty hue or the complex Tourbillon Regulator Horizons, with what seems like a homage to New York City. At the top of the gamme here, too, are the unique timepieces of Jean Dunand, and the Palace mentioned last year in this blog,the symphony of cylinders called the Shabaka, or the contrasting Tourbillon Orbital, a delight for those who enjoy top-drawer detail work and made-to-order individualism. Modern and playful, too, are the Perrelet turbines. The turbine itself no longer drives the automatic movement, since it had the drawback of acting as a brake, but it does produce a lively play of light and colour on the dial.

Turbine xl, Perrelet flashes quietly.

In the same vein are the outstanding pieces that need to be mentioned this year again: the fantastic – in the original sense of the word – Urwerk creations and the collective masterpieces organized by Max Büsser, which combine perfect craftsmanship, functionality and scintillating humour not often seen in the industry. And place must be made, too, for Hautlence’s HL2 collection, a mechanical tour de force with honeycomb dial, a jumping hour chain, various connecting rods like the eccentrics on a steam locomotive, and a particularly large crystal that allows a deep view into the mechanical pyrotechnics (see top of page). The watch comes straight out of an engineer’s LSD trip.

The stunning lucubrations of Felix Baumgarten and the Urwerkers.
Ladoire gentrifies the message a little bit

Finally, mention should be made of a brand that is nosing into this field, Ladoire.  Last year, Lionel Ladoire’s colorful  Mohican was probably more talked about than his massive platinum watch, which could easily serve as an arm weight for joggers (with CHF 108,000 plus to spare). A heavy off-rectangular frame surrounds a multi-dimensional dials that move, in part, around fixed hands. The movement is home-made. Buyers of the first editions could opt for an intricately machined titanium frame that lightened up the whole affair. Ladoire and his merry cohorts, who work in sophisticatedly trash offices in the Acacia industrial zone of Geneva have now come have toned down the steampunk look with the Black Widow series, lightened the watches and streamlined the face to make reading time a little easier. The turning dials are heavily painted with SuperLuminova, giving off an eerie glow in the dark.  The price has been halved, but the customer can still have the watch customized, and by that Lionel Ladoire does not mean etching one’s favorite animal on the rotor.

 The artists


One of the earliest steps in procreation is attraction, and that needs the wow. Nature has colorful feathers and great sexy manes for the male of the species, humans have the combined forces of Madison Avenue and “The Industry,” which manage to enliven the whole process of self-advertising for Him and Her alike. Creating colorful dials and strange shapes for watches is one possibility. But it only

 works if it appears natural, otherwise a watch might have the same rhetorical vigor of an annual report in spite of the bells and whistles. Alain Silberstein, for example, continues to produce stunning objects with his daubs of color that either confront or enhance the severity of a timepiece, like the MB&F Horological Machine No. 2. Not far from his booth this year was Christophe Claret, who was presenting his third watch, the Blackjack. The name says it all: you can play blackjack with it, it even dings results. Roulette is played on the back, and craps in a lateral window. Though the theme is similar to Azimuth SP-1 Roulette, which was also on display, the style is very different.Chris Long and Alvin Lye push the envelope rather far out in their horological Träumerei. Their current creation is in the shape of a World War One tank, with the hours but definitely needs some tweaking to be more readable and perhaps a touch more elegant. For the moment it’s seems liable to tear off your cufflinks.

In time of war (World War One tank, by Azimuth)

 Primeval soup

As every year, many real cherries for any visitor to the fair were located up in Hall 5, the so-called Hall of Emotions, perhaps the most appropriately named.  It is here that I returned to Thomas Prescher, who is involved in the Promethean task of getting his Mysterious Tourbillon to work properly while surviving on a his outstanding record of special concepts. Rebuilding older watches for customer is the bread and butter of his business, and a few of those were on display.Two independents have also emerged who caught my eye.

Marc Jenni’s JJJ in rose gold

The first is Marc Jenni with his JJJ, a tribute to a distant relative in the past, the 18th-century watchmaker Johann Jakob Jenny. The watch features a large lateral winding crown and some surprising display elements, such as a window giving the ancient – Roman – daily planets, the moon for Monday, Mars for Tuesday, and so forth. The other buzz is about the One Hertz by the Grönefelds, two Dutch brothers from a family of watchmakers, who have turned time on its head with a large subdial featuring deadbeat seconds driven by their own movement,  and hours and minutes in a smaller subdial at 2 o’clock. At first glance, this is a minimalist’s dream, but  slowly the different layers of the watch face and indicators begin to interweave and the beauty and balance of the piece hits home, like the alcohol concealed in the easy fruitiness of a thirst-quenching cocktail.

Tim and Bart Grönefeld, the One Hertz

 Eastern winds

This all too brief review of the Baselworld 2011 closes with mention of two remarkable young watchmakers from the east. The first is the Hungarian Aaron Becsei, whose Dignitas collection seems inspired by architectural historicism.

Aaron Becsei’s Diagonal Tourbillon in the Dignitas series.

 His timepieces surprise with odd outbursts, like a slanted  tourbillon carrying a seconds indicator that seems to have landed in the watch face like a ninja star, retrograde minutes in a frame with a curiously angled foot and jumping hours. Here is a watchmaker of extreme skill, who obviously has the courage to break out new ideas and then put in the days, months, even years to see them to fruition.

Becsei’s collections include intricate table clocks as well, with tourbillons and eclectic decorative  elements. Not unlike his neighbor at the AHCI booth, Konstantin Chaykin, a thin, intense Russian autodidact with a track record of particularly complex timepieces. Last year he displayed an intricate table clock with a complication showing the Orthodox Easter, another with a Muslim calendar, and a watch with ancient Jewish time in the back (see…). This year, he brought the Lunakhod, a masterstroke made of, among others, Wootz – a very special early steel alloy known inIndia over 2000 years ago – with a harmoniously integrated gray band. The watch has a could blend into the pebbles on a beach. With his sister, Nadja, interpreting, he explains that we always see the same side of the moon, so a moon phase with a turning moon is not really authentic. There in the middle of the dial  is a 3D moon. The phases are shown by the shadow slowly folding over it, a neat and well executed complication. Another little detail is the semicircular display for the hours, which is not retrograde: p.m. is shown by a moon at the tip of the hour hand, a.m. by a little sun. The seconds are in a subdial. And the dark side of the moon is in the back where it belongs. Altogether Dostoyevskian in its duality. And a stroke of genius in the overall concept.

This time at Baselworld (2011), part 1

Whither the watch

Anyone with a decent nose and a functioning lizard brain would have noticed the change 20 meters after the turnstiles at Baselworld 2011. The pungent, oily smell from the tchotchke candles sputtering away at the Zenith stand had vanished into last year’s thin air. Gone too were all the signs of the Thierry Nataf era, including those pseudo-brainy ads with the frowning male models and the girlies pushing very costly and blustery watches. What remains is sobriety, functionality, understatement, in other words pure Zenith from the days of 2 + 2 = 4. The Striking Tenth, already prominently displayed last year, still has flagship radiance, the new Stratos is a relaunch from 1969, sportive, muscular, but not steroidal.

Zenith passes the breathalizer

Zenith represents well the changes that have swept the Swiss watch industry over the past, say, 10 years, when people believed in the magic growth of money and the Madoff snake oil. How could something promoted with loud and ostentatious events and fetching absurd prices not be worth a lot of money? Today, the company is buying back the unsellables and moving forward with its classics – with, I hear, some technical involvement from LVMH Group partner Hublot. Not everyone thinks poorly of Nataf. “Whenever I used to show my watches to distributors, I was ignored,” recalls one former Zenith salesman from the early days. “Now they wouldn’t dream of doing that anymore. That is to Nataf’s credit.”

The big picture

Essentially, the industry is back with an excellent year behind it and rosy, nay incandescent, prospects for the coming one, provided some new bubble doesn’t appear on the horizon and then burst again: Exports rate up around 22 percent, February seems set to be a record month, even beating the great 2008. The exhilaration was palpable, audible and legible across the board, and was not really affected by the war in Libya or the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan (this issue did allegedly keep some of the Japanese away, but one distributor mentioned that it would be out of character for them to actually not show up) … From Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Chopard, to Jean-Claude Biver of Hublot, all were radiant, enthusiastic, ecstatic. It was more than just the usual uplift; for even at the height of the Great Recession, while easily-earned yet vaporous cash snapped, crackled and popped under the dousing by the liquide glaciale of reality, the mood at Baselworld remained, at least rhetorically, positive. Nevertheless, this year there a slightly giggly mood going round, similar to that at the foot of a particularly shaky rollercoaster, when the pale passengers disembarking  look around to see if  anyone had flown off the carriage. In fact, just about everyone seems to have made it, even though there are a few bruises and headaches.

Dazed and dazzled, however, the industry was to an extent caught by surprise by the surge, as Max Büsser of MB&F told me in an interview in his customary pithy style: “The suppliers were anemic in the crisis, and now they’re being asked to run a 9-second 100 meters, and that’s impossible.”

In other words, supply might be  lagging somewhat, while some brands, caught unawares, have to restock not only on product, but on the talent they threw off the bus perhaps a little hastily.  The demand itself is driven mainly by China, which picked up around half the exports; Europe is doing well and the USA is, well, no one really knows, while the Middle East no one seems willing to talk about.

Different day, same hit

On the Jaquet Droz stand, enamel drawings

What Chinese demand really signifies  in terms of design is difficult to tell. Some brands have an older connection to Asia, like Jaquet Droz and the so-called “Beijing collection,” whose styles range from minimalist to complex.  At the booth, one of the Droz artists was demonstrating the extraordinary technique of drawing on enamel, which has been one of the brand’s trademarks.
The deeper question though is whether tigers on watches is going to truly appeal to Chinese consumers. As this segment of the industry is mostly market driven, determining what is going to be the big hit is perhaps irrelevant. Hardly astonishing then to find horological innovations that are carrying on from last year’s trends. 2010, one might remember, was back to basics. As the economy is as predictable as the weather along the English Channel, few seemed prepared to take massive chances. Watches were a touch smaller, some flatter, steel was back (that trend has slowed), and prices were looking reasonable even in the haut-de-gamme range. And so the sudden surge may have caught the industry off guard, an industry that produces new material with lag uncharacteristic for our just-in-time times.

Patek …. A simple solution in the Grandes Complications
A Blancpain Villeret, for those in need of a classic

So steering a solid course through the recession without trying anything outrageously new proved to be the only strategy, hence many of the booths revealed good friends from last year some in new guise, some appearing perhaps a tad larger, with a few extra daubs of color or deco. Hall 1, home of the biggies including Swatch Group, Patek Phillippe, the LVMH companies, seemed full of watches that were indeed beautiful, sexy, masculine, anything but outrageous. From Breitling to TAG Heuer, from Breguet to Longines, there were no shocks to the fans, to the collectors, none, at last, that were truly visible. And while the crowds were fairly heavy, the frenetic feeling was not there. Even Blancpain, whose CEO Mark Hayek succumbed to the sophomoric dream of driving a fast car with the shape and color of a crushed beetle, happily continues to thrive with its classics, notably the Villeret Complete Calendar.

The Hebe Crepuscule, skeletons in the closet

This overall cautiousness – or is it just the surprise – may be the chance for brands with lower budgets and less visibility.  The Tensus: patents, quality, delivers the commoisseur's discreet wow.Or for those who seek a more intimate sense of beauty and quality. Or even for the newbies on the block.  Heritage Watch Manufactory, which went live in September 2010, has come up with a purist’s delight and has done its marketing properly. This classic looker (the Tensus, for instance) , boasts five patented innovations, including a special escapement, double spring barrel and an adjustment system It will no doubt find its fans, perhaps among those who wish to remain in the Glashütte mold, in spite of a solid price tag ranging from CHF 15,000 to CHF 50,000.  On the other side of the scale is the simple craftsmanship of the tiny Hebe Watch company, which is buried up in Alle the Jura and whose booth was tucked at the farthest geographical point from the entrance in Hall 5. Besides a few small watches in 1920s/30s style from its previous incarnation, Hebe has come out with a few modern skeletons at a good price. The brand, which was already dealing with China in the 30s and in the 80s, was recently purchased by Anouk van de Velde from Belgium, who seems intent on giving the watches in Alle space to develop naturally, while at the same time making them better known. Perhaps a more visible booth?

Another Belgian to mention is Benoît Mintiens, who launched Ressence, apparently as a compact version of “renaissance of essentials.” That seems to summarize the whole show really well. As an industrial designer, Mintiens seemed out of place in the GrandPalace along with some of the wizards of the watchmaking craft. His idea of a revolving dial, with moving subdials, however, did create some chatter. And it’s not a one-time shot. He is, so he says, already working on the next design, and the next, and the next.

Extramural intervention: Ressence reconstructs modernity

Mechanics, retroistas, and the artists ….Baselworld 2011 continues here.

Man of the People – Nicolas Hayek

Nicolas Hayek died the way he probably wanted to, enjoying his daily leisure time at his desk in Biel. He was a grand entrepreneur in a class of his own. If anything came close to the art of business, it was what he did, and like all great artists, whatever he did seemed easy. Of course he could toot his publicity horn as much as anyone – did I say horn? I meant a five-manual organ –  but that is the business of truly loving your business. Furthermore, his grandson, Mark Hayek, once told me in an interview that his grandpa relaxed on Sundays by doing the books. His concern for his industries and the people working for him was genuine, and that is what made him one of Switzerland’s most trusted public figures. When he said “sustainability,” it was not just fig leaf stuff, it meant something, because he believed in it. Swatch Group managed to navigate the massive recession of 2008-2009 without shedding many jobs. That must have given Nicolas Hayek a feeling of success, if not elation. 

As a journalist, one who keeps a very low profile, I was thrilled to be able to write about Nicolas Hayek following an interview he granted me at the Baselworld 2008 watch fair. I wanted to discuss his project for a solar-powered fuel-cell car. I was given a 20-minute slot and stayed 45. Within that short time span we covered all sorts of subjects, from his Marie-Antoinette watch, to green technology, passing by the Middle East. There are several statements he made that I have never forgotten, in particular his attributing success in business to a CEO’s ability to motivate workers. Ironically, at around the same time, I – who knows Pittsfield, MA, and the social and environmental disaster area left behind by GE in what was their company town – was asked to go to a press conference given by Jack Welch and write about Neutron Jack (the article appeared under the title Jurassic Jack). It was like listening to a Mahler’s 8th Symphony and following it up by chopsticks played at supersonic speed.

So without further ado ….  Nicolas Hayek as I humbly saw him.


If an adult male would walk around saying he believes in Santa Claus, he would probably end up spending some time under observation at the nearest booby hatch. Or receiving medication, as befits our zeitgeist. But when Nicolas Hayek said so, ears pricked up, eyes lost their glaze, brains fine-tuned their reception mode. Not because anyone thinks that he really believes in some fellow with a beard and dressed in a red cloak distributing presents from a sled pulled by reindeers. Rather, Hayek, founder of Hayek Engineering, co-founder of Swatch Group and the impulse behind Smartcars, is revealing one of the secrets of his success as an entrepreneur. Continue reading “Man of the People – Nicolas Hayek”

Baselworld 2010, Part 2

Old time in a new bottle

(Part 2-for Part 1, see older post below!)

Getting rid of excess metal





 Some novelties at Baselworld 2010 and a winner

Like every industry, the watch industry likes to speak of innovations. The definition of that word is really in  the eye of the beholder.Some are business moves that could shift the general manufacturing paradigm. Because the industry itself has

The One Week “Water” featuring the Strom’s new movement

its own special entropy, where the chaos side of the graph is represented by diversity and this is leading to some genuine innovation. I am referring to the creation of in-house movements. The smallest company with a movement is Armin Strom. The master himself has passed the 70 mark and just powers away without need for external inspiration.  The company’s  brand new ARM09 movement has been used for the One Week collection. Its modern design is in sharp contrast to Armin Strom’s legendary skeletonized watches, which suggest  the voluble baroque decor of Bavarian Catholic churches.

Armin Strom still does the skeletonizing himself.






The “Clef du Temps” by the Confrérie des Horlogers, just to prove it can be done

Hublot, too, opened a manufacture in the industrial zone of Nyon last year, which is now producing the Unico movement. Like them or not, the muscular Bangs and the playful Tutti Fruttis are instantly identifiable timepieces and have their very committed fans. CEO Jean-Claude Biver has steered the brand to glory, navigating a bold course straight through the reefs of the Great Recession.  A rugged and outspoken warrior of the industry, he wisely gave space to members of the former BNB movement company and brought its select Confrérie des Horlogers on board. So Hublot’s new collection includes the Confrérie’s bullet-shaped “Liberty” watches and the Hublotized “Clef du Temps,” that outlandish confection of diamonds, with a vertical tourbillon visible on the side and an impish complication allowing the user to slow down time for a while. Perhaps a sly comment on the absurdly frenetic pace of our contemporary life.

The techno-vations

TAGHeuer’s unfinished Pendelum Concept could become a pit…

The other approach to innovation is to go right to the heart of the matter and change something in the fundamental technology of the watch. This can be quite radical. Let’s mention first of all TAGHeuer, which has been working on replacing the “spring thing” with an engine driven by a permanent magnet of sorts. The “Pendulum Concept” is still being tinkered with, but should it become viable, I am assured, it will remain a sort of niche product and not invade the industry the way quartz did. But the mere idea of electricity inside a mechanical watch (even in the form of magnetism)  could raise a few hackles. TAGHeuer  has called this little beast a “harmonious oscillator.”

Rudis Sylva’s Harmonious Oscillator, like playing the Minute waltz with one hand

   But the TAGHeuer invention is not the only one on the market with that name: After lots of timetable shifting, I met Jacky Epitaux from Rudis Sylva at the Ramada’s third-story bar for an almost conspiratorial look at a mechanism also known as a “harmonious oscillator.” One could almost imagine the ghost of Sidney Greenstreet there looking over our shoulder trying to steel a small but valuable industrial secret. Rather than no spring, this oscillator has two! They are mounted on meshing wheels and mirror each other, so they open and close alternatively and in opposite directions. The point is to cancel the effect of gravity, not just compensate for it as with the regular tourbillon. The system is intriguing, and looking at the oscillator through the loupe feels like trying to play Chopin’s “Minute” waltz with one hand.

Hamilton Pulsomatic, an ingenious hybrid
Finally, with the 70s booming again, one wonders how could a mechanical watch avoid the curse of digital. No, I am not referring to de Grisogono’s somewhat meretricious mechanical digital dial, but rather to Hamilton‘s rebuilt version of the first solid-state wristwatch ever, the Pulsar. Forty years later, it is back again in bigger and bolder as the Pulsomatic, but it uses an automatic movement to drive a generator delivering an astounding 120 days power reserve. A hybrid for Toyota owners, perhaps?
De Grisogono — for the 21st-century technoid man



 Unique means one of a kind

In the end, Baselworld is heaven, and it is hell. On just a few acres there are a sea of watches to be seen — and I have not even touched the jewelry section — and far too little time to explore them properly. Every stylistic idea is represented, the classics and crazies, the sporty and sportive, the cool and the hot, the dressy and the glitzy, the sober and the off-the-perch, the vanilla and jalapeño. There are entire lines of ladies watches, whereby thanks perhaps to the weakening of the Schwarzenegger gene, many men’s watches have become a little more androgynous and are drawing female buyers – but this is another story altogether. The market for diamond encrustations that make some timepieces look as if they could be used to grate a 36-month old Parmesan is going strong, obviously, but there is something to say for a masculine watch arousing latent male personality aspects. (Perhaps if men would wear some made-for-women watches, the world would be a little less violent.  Just a thought.)

Of course, luxury is still high on the agenda, but it seems to have become more introspective rather than self-conscious. The owner knows the value, maybe a coterie of family and friends will be in on the secret, and maybe the fan with a quick eye might realize he or she has just seen a Vianney Halter or van der Klaauw flashing by. Yes, a new sense of modesty might be an excellent opportunity for the independent watchmakers, who were especially hard hit by the cash drain. In some ways, these are the industry’s genuine visionaries and artists, whose pieces not only reflect the paradigm, but do a great deal to push its fulcrum into new and as-of-yet undiscovered territory. Twelve of these masters have been beautifully portrayed in a brand new book by top horological journalist Elisabeth Doerr and photographer Ralf Baumgarten, a must have for any watch collector or connoisseur (Twelve Faces of Time, available at teNeues ).

In the machine room of the Jean Dunand Palace

At any rate, it is among this particular — and at times peculiar — brood of out-of-the -boxers, autodidacts or ultimate purists that one can find works of genius, works that leap off the wrist, as it were, especially to the discerning watchista. It may be the colorful, laughing pieces of Alain Silberstein, or the mighty Horological Machines by Max Büsser and his friends, where the steam-punk meets sci-fi.  Another piece of gentrified steampunk – combining Charlie Chaplin, Henri Ford and Fritz Lang, to the tune of Honegger’s Pacific 231 – is the “Palace” from Jean Dunand Pièces Uniques, an unabashed celebration of the industrial age, with little chains, cogs, dials and subdials reminiscent of the meters on a locomotive,the nameplate suggesting a fishplate.

Itay Noy’s CIty Squares: Wear your hometown on your wrist

A soft-spoken philosopher of time is the Israeli Itay Noy, who customizes very affordable watches by putting famous city squares on the dials, or working with hallucinogenic fractals. He was not the only self-taught craftsman there: Konstantin Chaykin from St. Petersburg had a stupendous clock displaying the Jewish calendar day, a Jewish watch, the Decalogue, that displays specifically Jewish time units – helek and regaim – on the rear. Chaykin also created a Moslem clock, but the work he seems especially proud of is a unique clock that manages to display the Orthodox Easter. How different from the his booth neighbor Rainer Nienaber,a genius of the retrograde, who had a watch on display that doesn’t really tell the time, unless you wish to live in a purely decimal world.

Konstantin Chaykin putting the spiritual into time







Prima inter pares – counter-entropy

Applying the KISS Principle to horology in Prescher’s (very) mysterious tourbillon

In our age of neue Sachlichkeit, of reductio ad sanem at least, it may seem difficult to find a real show stopper. But maybe we will have to get used to doing without the type of Hollywoodesque hype that has marked the past decades and discover the value of simplicity, of unplugged, of focus. Peace may be more boring than high jinx and wars, but it opens many more possibilities. And so, on day four, while dragging my suitcase full of brochures and electronics through Hall five, between Nienaber and Chaykin (see above),  I stumbled across a  watch that made me loosen my tie, take a deep breath and rub my eyes. It  was a delicate, completely transparent creation with a double axis tourbillon seemingly floating in space right in the middle of the almost square “picture.” The hours and minutes appear on two barrels at the top of the watch separated by a mesmerizing three-dimensional moon, shiny on one side and mat on the other.  The watch is reversible. The date is read at 6 o’clock, as it were, on a semicircular barrel that also serves as an oscillating weight for the automatic.So where is the movement? Tucked laterally under the bezel in the side. The author of this phenomenal piece of equipment, the Mysterious Double Axis Automatic Tourbillon is the German watchmaker Thomas Prescher, whose atelier is in Twann close to Biel, Switzerland.  If any timepiece at the fair reflected a new sense of concentration on the essentials and a return to sobriety and pure art, it was this one.  It should be a pleasure for anyone to be on that wagon.

(This concludes the very personal overview of Baselworld 2010. I tried here to find themes and patterns, not to describe a maximum of brands. So apologies are due for the absence of many eminent watches and brands, and for not mentioning all the extraordinary watchmakers whose work was displayed at the fair. In months to come, I hope to correct that problem through articles and reports).

Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch


A special diving watch: the Italian brand U-boat thinks big

Watch yourself!

Baselworld 2010: a review

Part 1

 If we are to believe the chroniclers of the wealthy like Steve Forbes, what affects the world’s haves, will also have an impact on the havenots. It’s a bizarre thought based on some strange algorithm only Forbes might understand – it assumes that X not being able to afford another luxury car is equivalent to Y and his family being expelled from their home. But when it comes to watches, the algorithm might just work. Because luxury is the projection and realization of some personal fairytale, and it touches everyone at all levels. For some, purchasing a muscle car is the lonely cherry atop an otherwise gloomy cake, and for others gazing at a tourbillon and a pumping hairspring may be the only way to remember one’s own beating heart in a life of soporific board meetings and business-class plane travel. You don’t really buy a watch, especially a mechanical one, to tell the time, but rather to have a little bit of the galaxy on

Blast from the past, Baselworld in 2008

or on the wrist of a loved one.  It makes no difference whether it’s a €210,000 Chanel limited edition, or an entry-level Eterna …  It’s one of the messages that became quite obvious at Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry orgy held in Basel, Switzerland.

This great trade fair just closed its doors on a happy note, with attendance up by 7% over last year, according to the fair’s daily herald, and the industry generally upbeat about the future. But optimism among the watch brands is not new. Even in the depths of the recession, CEOs and the brands’ majordomos of communication were grabbing at any number that suggested black and not red, and smiling through the drizzle of bad news. As a last resort, they would point to the overheated market until 2008 and suggest that the ensuing crash was merely a natural correction.  Quite true, of course, but since the Lehmann vaporization, the Madoff hanky-panky, even the now forgotten scandal at the Société Générale, the luxury industry has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, liquidity problems and continuing insecurity in the markets — see Greece – means that the recovery has the energy of the prisoners staggering into the light at the beginning of act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. On the other hand, the very raison d’être of luxury, exhibitionism, is now considered to be in even worse taste than it ever was. Money is a little tight for everyone thanks to the pathological greed of the past few years, but for those who have it, broadcasting the fact seems to suggest a “let them eat cake” attitude. And we know where that ended.

Eterna Soleure, traditional values are in style

Turning back the clocks

So it’s no surprise to hear just about every brand speak of “classic” values mixed in with the usual fusion of traditional crafts with innovative ideas. The era of bling has passed, and serious watch aficionados are not entirely unhappy with that state of affairs. Just as censorship in the former USSR led Russian writers and composers to weave a great deal of dissident subtlety into their creations, so, in the year 1 after the Great Recession, sleek lines are back, thin, elegant watches with plain bar indices are in, so are the comfortable rectangular shapes of the 1950s,  1960s and 1970s. Symmetry, or at least harmony and balance, has returned to the dials, but without the slightest sense of stodginess. And steel casings are suddenly quite fashionable — whereby red and yellow gold are beginning to return.

Many of the older brands seemed to have had a great time rummaging around their archives and digging up older designs that hark back to simpler days. Eterna, for instance, is pushing its delicate Soleure, with Arabic numerals or bar indices, a day and night watch for all occasions. Longines has a re-issue of the Lindbergh chronograph, a manly piece but hardly Hummer-like; Tutima has resumed its 1941 Flieger Chronograph line, also recalling the brave flyers of yore, while its Classic line is a genuine chameleon, with sharper contours suggesting this millennium.

A fast-beating heart gets a front-row showing in the Striking 10th

No brand epitomizes more the changes of the past three years than Zenith, perhaps. The flamboyant Thierry Nataf of Moet fame had tried to reinvent the traditional brand to meet the exhibitionist tastes of a class of nouveaux riches that partly crashed along with the rest of the economy all the while burying the company’s very DNA. It was like spray-painting flames on the side of a Steinway concert grand for a Grigory Sokolov  recital of Brahms’s late works…. To Nataf’s credit, it might have worked had the world economy simply continued to exist on the hallucinogenic expectations of derivatives. Suffice to say,  Mr. Nataf – who once told me in an interview, he was “born in a boardroom” – was kicked sideways and replaced by the stolid Jean-Frédéric Dufour, a Geneva resident with a real horological pedigree that includes stints at Ulysse Nardin and Chopard. Gone are the über-cool male models with their brummagem scholar-cum-samurai appeal and the glam femmes objets.  Gone are the aphoristic quotes that may be interesting while waiting for the subway, but signified nothing in terms of watches. Gone, too – but not sideways – are about 25% of the old staff. Zenith has turned the clock back and is producing strong, basic, watches, with the good and friendly looks of high-attitude Jura farmers and affordable prices. The big news is the El Primero Striking 10th, which shows each of the ten beats per second of the exceptional caliber (which beats at 36,000 vph), thanks to the jumping seconds hand. Back to the roots, indeed… All that’s left of the flashy pre-Dufour days, apparently, is the company gift candle sputtering away on the receptionist’s pulpit and producing a penetrating, musky-spicy odor that mixed somewhat irritatingly with the garlic used by Zenith’s own booth cooks.

Coming up for air: Doxa divers

 If it ain’t broke …

Eberhardt’s Chrono4 Temerario

Some brands did not need to turn down the volume too much, simply because they never really lost their dignity in the first place. Chronoswiss, Doxa and Tutima, for example, are classics by nature, and like  Breitling, Fortis, TAGHeuer, have all maintained their genetic association with big engines, diving, flying, regattas, while offering the occasional bit of craziness. It might be a surprisingly gaudy strap,  or a limited edition, like Fortis’s Mattern, which was designed by artist Michael Mattern, a specialist in transcending the inner workings of our industrial age.  Another manufacturer worth mentioning here is Eberhardt, whose watches seldom venture beyond the straight and narrow but manage to achieve recognizability without going to extremes: The standard Chrono4 series, with its four small dials, would not raise your granddad’s eyebrows, though the Temerario sub-line, in a tonneau case with the four subdials arranged vertically does generate some additional excitement. And then there is the crown buried like a gas cap behind a metal flap between the two 12-0’clock lugs.

Beauty and the beast, biker chains, head fins, jewels on the DeWitt Tourbillon

Higher up on the scale is DeWitt, where a class and luxury do a little slumming with the steam-punk crowd. That tiny chain used to connect the power reserve in the Academia line is not just a visual delight, but rather part of an innovative system to ensure that the driving force of the tourbillon is constant. Chopard is another brand that has parked itself in the grand old days of leather helmets and mud-speckled goggles. For the company’s 150th anniversary, it has developed several new timepieces, notably a pocket watch that functions as a wristwatch as well as a tribute to founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The movement driving this serene piece was produced by a collaboration between the company and the Geneva Watchmaking School, which needed some components for the apprentices’ master works.

The Esplendido, more après-race than racy

Another brand which has defined itself by sticking to its retro birthright is Cuervo Y Sobrinos. Like Chopard and the Mille Migli, CyS also embraces the world’s great car races, like the Grand Prix, as a sort of public identity. Whereby the dignity of the elongated case of the Esplendidos line suggests more the sensuality of a slow rumba, wafts of sweet and spicy cigar smoke, lazy afternoons, the sexiness of taking time rather than racing through it. The Pirata line offers the same identity, with a little more sportiveness, a whiff of tang coming through the porthole shaped case and the crown and push-buttons recalling blunderbusses and a cannonball, a humorous watch for walking the plank with.

The Cuervo Y Sobrinos Pirata – goes well with an eyepatch.

It’s not over yet: Check out Part 2 .

Continue reading “Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch”

Memories from another world

Part I: East Germany

(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.

I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.

Final crossings

On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Brücke that connected East and West Berlin over the Havel river. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.

Glienickerbrücke-Source unknown

I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.

A lot has been forgotten over the past decades, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).

That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my rather innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting Germany and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped before reaching the West Berlin side of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat (finest spy garb…) might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was coming toward me from the east. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was reborn in the GDR. But without a visa.

As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before that I only had a one-time visa, care of an East German misunderstanding. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski, I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And secretly, I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. My own risk would have probably been a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominent folk, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations. East Germany Part II continues…