t all started with his passion for insects, then it was the skateboard, and only later the watch. On his way home from school, he would gaze at the windows of watchmaking boutiques, enraptured by the watches on display. And so, after collecting insects, Balthasar de Pury began to collect watches.
In the beginning, it was Swatches, then he bought his first mechanical watch at a flea market. For months, he saved his pennies to buy himself a brand new one. Mesmerised, he wanted to understand how it all worked. His fate was sealed. He fell hook, line and sinker under the spell.
Thirty-five-year-old Balthasar now works for Piaget and the FHH (Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie), but pops over to the Val-de-Travers whenever he can. Nestled deep in the valley is the family estate, acquired by his ancestors in 1680 and now ‘the family’s secret garden’, of which Balthasar de Pury is currently the ‘guardian and rock’. One of his ancestors collected plants there, together with Rousseau, not so far from where the famous Bovet ‘from China’ watchmakers once lived. Nevertheless, the de Pury family, with its famous Neuchâtel lineage of military men, politicians and traders, has no particular ties with watchmaking, save its geographical proximity. And yet might the long family past not be partly responsible for turning Balthasar into the man we now know, an erudite and sophisticated collector with a passion for all things vintage and an eye for a watch with a story to tell?
“Nowadays, everything has become a perishable commodity. But, when you pick up a watch that has lain untouched for decades and wind it up, it lives again! The hitherto dormant mechanism still works, it has a past, a story to tell, it sparks my imagination. Both maker and wearer of the watch have long since disappeared, but the watch is still here, still telling the time.”
- 1. FOUR POCKET WATCHES
ON A GLOVE (from left to right)
‘Four watches, four pasts. The first is a school watch with an IWC calibre. It’s student-made, but the finishings are extraordinary, worthy of the Philippe Dufour tradition. Nowadays the watchmakers only learn to assemble the movement in school. It’s the kind of watchmaking that no longer exists these days, or if it does it commands crazy prices. The second is an Omega from Somazzi, one of the very first Omega retailers and still in existence today. The third dates by 1941 and it’s the first water-resistant pocket watch from Omega. A super-rare piece. The fourth, a Universal, is a unique piece, which once belonged to a train inspector called August Ruggli. It was sold to me by his grandson. It’s an exquisitely fine example. All four watches are pieces of absolute purity.’
- 2. TWO IDENTICAL LEMANIAS
‘When I found the first watch, I thought it was unique. On its back was an engraved inscription: ‘Marchissy, To its soldiers, Lucien Pilloud, 1939 – 1945’. It’s a soldier’s watch. Then one year later, I chanced upon another, absolutely identical, but engraved with the inscription ‘Burtigny, To its soldiers, Albert Pilloud, 1939 – 1945’. Both were purchased from the same dealer. The two identical pieces are the only known examples of their kind. They are both crafted in the same style. They had lived separate lives for 70 years, now they are reunited and sitting here side-by-side. Quite incredible’
- 3. A GENDARME’S WATCH
‘This one is an unbranded watch. It has no particular value apart from its past and the stories it conjures up. I find it quite beautiful. What I like about it is its interesting history: it was a gift made to Brigadier Billieux in the 40s by his colleagues at the police station in Rive [a district of Geneva]. You soon find yourself imagining all kinds of things this watch has lived orseen on the wrist of this otherwise unknown man.’
- 4. MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER’S WATCH
‘My grandfather was a night fighter pilot, or ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ pilot, with RAF Squadron 219 & 168. On 13 March 1942, he was given this watch at the end of his flying school instruction in Florida. He continued wearing it on his wrist during the war throughout his 300 night-time sorties. He was one of the few survivors of his squadron. Amazingly, it’s only 29 mm in diameter!’
- 5. THE ABSINTHE FOUNTAIN
‘Banned for a long time, but now back in favour, absinthe, the ‘green fairy’ that drove poets mad, had always been distilled in secret in the Val-de-Travers. Absinthe is as much a part of this land as watchmaking. In its own way, it remains an inseparable part and anyone visiting these parts should definitely taste it.’
- 6. A QUAINT RURAL SCENE
‘This one dates from the 17th or 18th century. It’s a tiny painting on wood, naive and almost surrealistic. The composition is slightly strange and it has oddly shaped clouds. But there’s something about it that made me instantly fall in love with the piece. I had to have it at all costs. Why? Who knows? Probably its hidden past.’
- 1. FOUR POCKET WATCHES ON A GLOVE (from left to right)
Balthasar believes that it might be the time-worn aspect of an object steeped in history that explains their growing appeal among millennials today. They are looking for meaning, and a watchmaking past that is still alive and kicking, as they search for objects with a soul, rather than products of pure marketing hype.