The passer-by with the striking tattoos is struggling to form a complete sentence. “Oh my god, oh my god!” she stammers, finally managing to ask Dieter Meier for a selfie. “Of course,” he says, and puts his arm around the woman before bidding her a friendly farewell. He greets a small group that has stopped in their tracks and started whispering to one another, then returns his full attention to René Beyer. “That was our first apartment,” he says, pointing to a window on the second floor of a historic home on Fortunagasse: “Two rooms, low ceilings, you could see some trees from the Lindenhof, we were happy.”
“Zurich is the city that has made me who I am and continues to do so today. When I return home from my travels, the first thing I do is walk along my old routes from Zürichberg down to the ‘Ilgen’, where I attended school. I also enjoy strolling through the historic city centre, à la recherche du temps perdu as Marcel Proust put it. As a boy, I knew every inch of this neighbourhood because I visited my grandfather at Stadelhofen station as often as I could. He was a taxi driver with Winterhalder and when I would find him, he would always give me 20 centimes to buy sweets.” (Dieter Meier)
On this sunny autumn afternoon, Dieter Meier and René Beyer are meeting up to talk about the nature of time. And, of course, about watches: The two were both members of the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva, which reviews the latest models from important watch manufacturers every spring. What perhaps fewer people know is that Dieter Meier can do more than just wine, beef, chocolate, literature and Yello: he was also co-owner of the watch company Ulysse Nardin for 30 years. He has been a watch afficionado ever since he got his first wristwatch for his confirmation – “a rectangular one” made of steel; he no longer remembers the brand. In the 1990s, he launched a recycled watch made of used aluminium tins with a strap made from old car seats: with the “ReWatch”, he was 20 years ahead of his time.
“The watch industry desperately needs more Meier: different perspectives and outside input. The industry is sluggish and has become a bit complacent, maybe even somewhat despondent. We have not seen any major innovations yet in this millennium. That’s why brilliant thinkers like Dieter Meier are so important – individuals who can also come up with unconventional ideas. Like Jean-Claude Biver, Dieter rethinks things. Like Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, he brings his ideas to life with a great deal of style, passion and a steady hand.” (René Beyer)
The journey back in time starts at Ojo de Agua, Meier’s small wine shop in the Rennweg district, an intimate alcove where times seems to stand still. In the background, a bandoneon softly plays the tango nuevo. A spectacular bottle of wine is perched atop the table: every grape in the “Puro Grape Selection” was harvested by hand in three stages. Meier discusses his projects in Argentina, where he currently cultivates roughly 80,000 hectares. His most recent acquisition is a nut plantation on the Rio Negro in Patagonia. There is no conventional electricity source anywhere near the plantation. Instead, it runs on solar power, one of Dieter Meier’s great interests, which is reflected in the fact that he has invested his wealth in sustainability projects around the globe. In Freienbach, on the other hand, he is building a factory for his grand cru chocolate, which is made from cold-extracted cocoa beans and offers full flavour with little bitterness. How does the 75-year-old manage to pursue all of these projects and passions while at the same time seeming so relaxed? He doesn’t have any more time than anyone else. "I’m good at delegating,” says Meier, who spends half an hour every morning talking with his personal assistant and often doesn’t touch his mobile phone again for the rest of the day.
“The craziest thing about time is that it speeds up. For a six-year-old, it takes an eternity for the new Franz Carl Weber catalogue to arrive. But when you’re six, one year is one-sixth of your life. When you’re seventy, one year is just one-seventieth of your life. That is why it feels like time keeps speeding up.” (Dieter Meier)
Fortunagasse leads down to the Schipfe district, where Dieter Meier and René Beyer survey the goods in the window of an antiques shop. What they see in the fading light of early evening has clearly been refurbished: the two men, who are both decidedly analogue fans, prefer objects that wear their history proudly. “Cracks, failures – these things can also create character,” says Meier. And for Beyer, who studied watchmaking, there’s nothing better than when a mechanic brings something to life “in such a way that you can hear and feel it” because that is the moment in which you begin to wonder its secret inner workings. Spirits are high and the two men are feeling inspired as they stroll past burbling fountains, lush flower beds, and poetic plays of light and shadow, until Dieter Meier and René Beyer are standing in front of the shop windows of Beyer Chronometrie. Passers-by once again stop and pull out their smartphones. Dieter Meier is unbothered. In this moment, his full attention is directed at René Beyer and the watches on display.
Then both afficionados dive deep into the history of watchmaking: it is the first time that Dieter Meier is visiting the museum in the basement of Chronometrie Beyer, and this visit is one of the reasons that the two men met up today. Around 300 precious watches tell the history of time measurement from 1400 BCE to the present. These include the first oil watches and sundials, giant marine chronometers for navigation on the high seas, fantastic planetarium and Renaissance watches, and the Rolex that Sir Edmund Hillary wore when he first scaled Mount Everest. The collection, which is considered one of the most important in the world, is rounded out by playful curios.
“On this watch, the enamel dial alone required 50 firings. If an error had occurred during the 49th, all that work would have been for nothing. Watchmakers would spend up to four years on one of these watches. That was possible in 1640; at that time, very few watches were sold because royal families were practically the only ones who could afford them. As prosperity began to grow, watchmaking became a more lucrative business: the watches needed to be made more and more quickly and in ever-larger quantities. No one was willing to wait years for a single watch anymore. These magnificent works of art became increasingly rare.” (René Beyer)
Dieter Meier seems withdrawn, almost exhausted from the whirlwind journey through 3,400 years of history. He is amazed at the wide variety of exhibits in the watch museum, at their perfect condition, at the sheer volume of stories packed in to one place – stories of the often wondrous world of watchmaking. “Back when we sat on the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie, I was happy that René whispered in my ear and told me what to look for. His explanations here offer an entirely new dimension.” He sketches a self portrait next to his entry in the visitors’ book before declaring: “Now let’s go upstairs. I want to buy a watch today.” He is particularly interested in Tudor, sister company to Rolex, because he approves of how the brand has developed over time. But exactly which model he chose will, of course, remain a trade secret.
Text: Matthias Mächler
Pictures: Gian Marco Castelberg