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Yes, Virginia, there is crime in Switzerland.
Take a tour of the country and certain words come to mind: idyllic, peaceful, charming. In short, perfect. Add humans and crime arrives in the land of spectacular lakes and mountains.
But what kind of crime? Switzerland is like a small southern town in America—something I’m also very familiar with. There are big crimes and tiny, festering ones. In the American South, communities share memories of their part in the Trail of Tears or role in the Underground Railroad. There are family feuds so old that no one remembers why Great-Great Uncle Joe was shot on his front porch by his cousin.
The Second World War left a similar mark on the Swiss, and new debates continue to emerge. These are stories of spies and hoarded gold, borders closed and opened and closed again. Post-war Switzerland is a world of high-tech advances, secure investment, and luxury goods.
Watches have long been associated with the Swiss. Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France brought family groups to an industrious agricultural country. This was a natural springboard for watch manufacturing on a small scale. Spring forward 300 hundred years, and family lines remain unbroken. Various Swiss inventors increased the precision and beauty in tandem with manufacturing developments. By the end of the Second World War, Switzerland controlled the luxury watch market. For a writer, this is a springboard for “what if?”
What if watches were at the heart of murder? With this in mind, I revisited the watchmaking region of Switzerland, visiting friends in their workshops and ending at Baselworld, the world’s premier watch and jewelry show held annually in Basel. Five buildings spread across a large convention center filled with loose, high-quality, precious stones, magnificent jewelry, and watches made for a few snatch-and-grab jokes. Of course, this is Switzerland, where every tenth person is a policeman. Probably not a snatch-and-grab job. But what about industrial espionage? Clearly a possibility.
Industrial espionage is such a serious threat that a conversation about watchmaking that began in an atelier in the watchmaking town of Biel never carries over to lunch in a restaurant. Particularly when most of the tables are occupied by the legions of Omega employees.
Similarly, small luxury watchmakers who share an entry foyer will barely say a polite good morning upon seeing one another. (These are the same people who greet one another effusively upon entering and leaving a café. Hello, welcome, have a nice weekend, thank you, goodbye—repeated until the customer isn’t sure they will ever be allowed to leave.)
Today, manufacturers such as The Swatch Group—which is the parent company of nearly 20 watch and jewelry brands, including Breguet, Harry Winston, Blancpain, and Omega—have worldwide instant name recognition. However, there is another realm of luxury watchmakers who don’t compete in terms of quantity but certainly do in terms of quality.
An example of this continuing tradition is Philippe Dufour. Approaching 70, he is a legend often referred to as “the pope of watchmaking” or “the greatest living watchmaker.” The waiting list for one of his watches hovers near 200 names. Since the watches often take months to create, many on the list are nervous about their chances of acquiring one (he has been known to spend over two years on a single piece).
Each timepiece that leaves his atelier is a masterpiece inside and out, on every level of creation and design. That made it all the worse when, several years ago, his workshop was burglarized. Items were stolen, including one of his famous Simplicity watches. Sometime later, a collector noted its sale on eBay out of Romania. In this storybook ending, the collector bought the watch and returned it to Dufour as a gift.
In writing A Well-Timed Murder, I wanted to play on crime at both levels in Switzerland. The small manufacturer and what is at stake for these families with the advent of globalization and modern manufacturing techniques countered with the global nature of cyber theft. For me, these are Swiss crimes. Global and very human at the same time. A world that operates like a village.
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Tracee de Hahn completed degrees in architecture and European history at the University of Kentucky and then lived in Europe, including several years in Switzerland. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband, a Swiss architect, and their Jack Russell Terriers. This is her second novel, following Swiss Vendetta.