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From another time

René Beyer is paying a visit to the Bolzlis, the founders of Aerowatch, to hold the new “Hebdomas” in his hands for the first time – and gets lost in millions (of years).

By Matthias Mächler
Photos: Gian Marco Castelberg

 

Stories like this one can arguably only happen in the Swiss canton of Jura. And even there, only to someone like Denis Bolzli. It was a year ago that the founder of Aerowatch was talking to a friend on the phone – a friend who is as much of a watch enthusiast and long-time resident of Jura as he is. They only broached the topic of the “Hebdomas”, a legendary fob watch, in passing. It won the gold medals at the world exhibitions held in Paris in 1900 and in Milan in 1906 and is considered to be the first watch to have an eight-day power reserve. Mr Bolzli’s friend asked him if he knew that this watch had been invented and patented in Saignelégier in 1888.  

It takes a lot to distract Denis Bolzli when he’s about to pack his pipe. This was such a moment. Of course, he had heard of the “Hebdomas”, but where it had originally been made was news to him. And the story got even better. His friend wanted to get rid of a batch of original movements in mint condition – a little over 50 of them. “I felt like Indiana Jones,” Mr Bolzli says and breaks into a smile, showing his amiable laughter lines. How great would that be: a former fob watch factory from Saignelégier reviving the historic “Hebdomas” in a contemporary look!

Reaching the finishing line

As always when something isn’t just about business, but also about passion, and isn’t just about the future, but also about nostalgia, he talks to his friend and ally, René Beyer. He, too, was flabbergasted: “I had been wanting to do something involving the ‘Hebdomas’ for a while. But production isn’t profitable below a certain quantity, and until then, nobody knew that there were so many movements left.

Back in the present day, in Aerowatch’s boardroom in Saignelégier, Mr Beyer is holding the prototype in his hands for the first time. It’s a ceremonious moment: the result of a long quest for perfection, for the right background shade for the dial and for the right bridges to properly accentuate the old open-faced movement. It was also a quest for the right modification to reach a rate accuracy of one to two minutes per day despite the old parts, and a quest for a particularly elegant moon phase display. “One that reflects the magical colour of the moon, and not just a cheesy depiction,” as René Beyer puts it. It’s not just the owners who are beaming; Mr Bolzli’s sons Jean-Sébastien (who is responsible for marketing at Aerowatch) and Fred-Eric (chief designer) can also hardly wait to see the watch presented at Baselworld 2019.

A piece of eternity

However, Bolzli and Beyer wouldn’t be Bolzli and Beyer if their imaginations didn’t feature a sneak preview of future highlights before the main act. “We’re in Jura,” Mr Beyer says, raising his eyebrows with a meaningful look: “The ground we’re standing on lent its name to an entire geological era; it’s over 150 million years old.” He pauses for dramatic effect: “With today’s technology, you can cut stones into extremely fine slices.” Pause. “You could almost cut a stone into a slice as thin as a dial...” So, a watch made of a piece of eternity? Mr Beyer smiles, Mr Bolzli smiles, Mr Bolzli’s sons smile. “We might as well go and see what the ground will yield,” says Denis Bolzli in a conspiratorial tone, and off they go across the rugged hill ranges dotted with horse pastures that traditionally get by without fences, underneath the endless sky that allows for a sense of freedom to unfold like nowhere else in Switzerland.

In Porrentruy, the group is greeted by the Director of the Jurassica Museum and led into the “In the depths of the Jurassian seas” exhibition. When the motorway in Jura was built, so many fossilised creatures from another time were uncovered that the canton of Jura decided to build a place of pilgrimage for history enthusiasts – and for visionaries who see something new even in the very old.

The actual highlight follows in the museum’s exclave on the Banné, a hill range outside of the little town. The sediments in these parts contain the most fossils in the entire Jura Arc. Urchins, snails, shells, brachiopods, gastropods: virtually everyone walking around with a pot and pickaxe will find something. René Beyer, the passionate collector who also enjoys amateur geology and digging for gold in the Napf area, immediately takes to the search like a duck to water, tapping the rocks, digging in the ground without any regard whatsoever for his shoes or dirty hands, and soon finds a shell about four centimetres big and over 100 million years old. He compares it to the reference material in the museum brochure: “This must be a protocardia.”

Gaël, one of the museum’s guides, nods and explains: “This is where the sea was once; with a little luck, you can even find parts of turtles and crocodiles – but not dinosaurs. They roamed further over there, at the beach.” René Beyer jokes: “Then I’m going to find a fossilised crocodile tear now.” And Denis Bolzli replies: “If you keep digging like this, you’re sure to find a fossilised crocodile leather bracelet for your museum.”

Visiting Gilberte de Courgenay

On the way back, the general disposition is one of thirst. And as the barrier is down at the station in Courgenay, Denis Bolzli decides to venture off on some more time travel and parks his car in front of the legendary Hôtel de la Gare. This is where, during the First World War, the innkeeper’s daughter kindly and gently took care of the German-speaking Swiss soldiers. They paid homage to her unique personality with the song “La petite Gilberte de Courgenay”. It became the perfect example of “spiritual defence”.
Of course, Denis Bolzli strikes up the song over a beer – he, the former resistance fighter who values freedom and independence over anything else. René Beyer joins in, and the love he has for his beloved home is clearly audible. It was probably during his years as an apprentice watchmaker in Jura that he experienced the only true freedom he ever knew, before he had to take over the family business at much too young an age after his father suffered a heart attack. More than that, what becomes apparent is the connection to the Bolzlis, who he described as the most honest and loveable people he’d ever met. And finally, their song conveys a romanticised treasure-hunting aesthetic that has become almost impossible in today’s world. Except in Jura, perhaps. But even there, it’s only possible if people like the Bolzlis are in charge.

Beyer and Bolzli

Aerowatch was founded in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1910 and specialised in pilot watches until it became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of fob watches in 1942. Back in 2001, Aerowatch pretty much only existed on paper, when Denis Bolzli bought the company, relaunched it – and gained support from Zurich: 2003 saw Aerowatch launch its first wristwatches in the form of the Beyer collection, and since 2004, it has done so under its own name, with renowned mechanical movements and at fair price points. In 2008, Aerowatch moved to Saignelégier. The family-owned company, which employs 20 members of staff, produces approximately 100 watches per day.