The Councillor's Clock

Writer Thomas Hürlimann thought time had run out for his father’s clock forever. But Beyer’s watchmakers were able to bring it back for him.

Carefully, Thomas Hürlimann lifts the clock out of the box, puts it back in its place on the bookshelf and loosens the locking lever of the balance: it’s true, the Atmos is breathing. Six months ago he wouldn’t have bet on it. In an interview with the NZZ, he told of how a watchmaker had pronounced the paternal heirloom incurable. beyond then offered to let the Atmos specialist from the Beyer Workshop take a look.

Luca Casciana has been working with the legendary Jaeger-LeCoultre table clock for over ten years. “The model here is doubly special,” he says. “Not only does it bear the number 0000, indicating a special version for Federal Councillors. It is also a reference 8561, a model for the 50th anniversary of the Atmos in 1981 with an enamel dial, an unusual matt gold case and Breguet hands. You don’t see that every day.”

However, he couldn’t discover a serious defect in Hürlimann’s watch: “It just hadn’t been serviced for a very, very long time.” So he did a complete overhaul, took the movement apart, cleaned all the parts, reworked and polished all the pivots, replaced the mainspring and escape wheel, and reblued the screws. He inserted a new membrane, the central element that expands and contracts with the slightest change in temperature, creating the movement that powers the Atmos.

A little oil for the main base wheel and also for the winding wheel and grease for the pallet stones, then Luca Casciana let the watch settle for 48 hours to get up to operating temperature, like an athlete warming up. When he checked it, he was amazed at how accurately it ran: a gain of one second per day is excellent for an Atmos. After the fine adjustment, the clock was finished – and Casciana proud: “An Atmos is always a delicate work of art, you have to take particular care when working on it. When it finally breathes calmly and regularly, it’s almost moving in a way. Even after ten years.”


Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atmos (Atmospheric Clock) is driven by the energy gained from changes in temperature. Ethyl chloride gas in a membrane changes its volume, expanding and contracting. A single degree Celsius change of temperature is enough to wind the movement for about 48 hours. The unique clock has served the Swiss Federal Council for many decades as an official gift on state visits – and as a farewell gift, as was the case for Hans Hürlimann, who was Minister of the Interior from 1973 to 1982.


In the old ferry house on Lake Zug, Thomas Hürlimann watches the rotating pendulum of his Atmos as it swings back and forth with an almost hypnotic slowness.

Atmos Uhr

Mr Hürlimann, what is your relationship with this clock?
It was given to my father in 1982 when he retired from the Federal Council. But in fact it reminds me most of my brother.

Your brother, why is that?
n my parents’ house in Zug, there was always a clock on my father’s bookshelf – originally a normal table clock, later the Atmos. In this house, my brother died of cancer at the tender age of twenty. That was when the table clock stopped – or I first noticed that it had stopped when my brother died; the hands showed twenty to four. After my father resigned as a federal councillor, the table clock was replaced by the Atmos. That didn’t change anything for me: this clock too reminded me of my brother.

How did the clock come into your possession?
That was a few years later. After my father died, my mother entrusted the Atmos to me. Atmos clocks are sensitive and don’t tolerate shocks; after a house move, the clock stopped running. It still had pride of place on my bookshelf. And in memory of my brother, I set the hands to twenty to four. For me, the Atmos, like the table clock in my father’s bookshelf in the past, was a kind of gravestone for my brother. I am touched that Beyer brought me back that lost time today; what a gift! The Atmos is breathing again. Becoming and passing away, passing away and becoming – that is the mystery of time.

This mystery is a major theme running through your literary work, why?
The theme was strongly influenced by the eight years of abbey school. We lived in a constant recurring rhythm; time didn’t slip away. The Now was suspended and merged with the Eternal. It is no coincidence that it was monks who invented the round clock around the year 1000 in order to always live in the same rhythm, in the same units, in becoming and passing away. Everything is routine, you save energy and conserve yourself: I wonder if that’s why monks often have rosy cheeks and firm skin even in old age.

How has time changed in your perception since then?
On the one hand, we are at a turning point, in that we are digitalising time, shattering it by taking away its roundness, its recurring character, as we experience it in nature, the flow. We press it into digits, where it dissolves into a torrent of numbers, a rushed staccato. Young people, on the other hand, deal with time differently again: they arrange to meet up much more approximately, not “at four”, but “in the afternoon”. Because they are permanently connected on their phones, they find themselves somewhere on this flow of time.

We think: behind us lies the past, before us the future. But the Greeks said: behind us lies the future, before us the past. Which mentality is closer to yours?
I’m on the same page as the Greeks and like to roll out my past, which I know, like a carpet in front of me. I’m also the kind of person who prefers to travel on the train facing backwards and watch the present disappear. Although that was something my father found dreadful: he only ever wanted to look ahead and see what was coming. Of course, you can also occupy yourself too much with the past, then you can get swallowed up by it.

Herr auf Stuhl am lesen
“We are at a turning point in time, in that we are digitising time, shattering it by taking away its roundness”: Thomas Hürlimann in the old ferry house on Lake Zug.
Atmos Uhr
Stood still for decades: the dismantled Atmos in the Beyer studio. The rotating pendulum can be perfectly balanced by adjusting the screws.

You’re not wearing a watch?
I used to have a watch, an “Eterna-Matic”. When I was invited to New York for a cultural exchange along with Jürg Federspiel and Adolf Muschg, it fell to the youngest, which was me, to thank the consul. He asked me what kind of watch I was wearing. I showed it to him. He was speechless, just shook his head. Later I learned that he thought I was the Tissot representative from Switzerland.

What happened to the watch?
I was on a reading tour out in the styx in Germany and it was getting late. When I went back to my hotel, it was closed. I came across a place where a Turkish wedding was in progress and asked if I could wait in the warm. The Turks spontaneously invited me to join in the celebrations and I gave the bride everything I owned, in other words my “Eterna-Matic”.

You don’t wear jewellery either, although in your last novel you all but worship a red diamond.
I am fascinated by diamonds, the hardest, most invulnerable material on earth. It actually embodies the closest we get to eternity. I love to think about gemstones, preferably with Plato – they play a big role in his dialogue “Phaidon”. But wearing a ring like James Joyce, for example, who styled himself as the Pope of Literature, is not my thing. Nevertheless, I feel joy when I come across beautiful jewellery or a round watch – both also reveal something about the wearer. I look at someone who owns a mechanical watch differently from someone with an Apple Watch. I could never fall in love with a woman with a digital watch.

How has time changed you that you thought would never happen to you?
At sixteen, I wanted to be older. At fifty, younger. Now I am at an age where I am slowly coming to the desire to be my real age. Not older, not younger, but as old as I actually am. I’m in sync with myself.

He is one of the most important Swiss writers: Thomas Hürlimann (1950) grew up in Zug, attended Einsiedeln Abbey School, studied philosophy in Zurich and Berlin and worked as a dramatic advisor in the theatre before concentrating entirely on writing books. His most recent novel, “Der rote Diamant” (The Red Diamond) 2022, takes us back to the Einsiedeln Abbey School: we recommend this masterpiece not only for its brilliant language and delightful humour. It also deals skilfully with aspects of time and the fascination with gemstones – topics close to the heart of Beyer Watches & Jewellery.

Beyer Chronometrie