A Head for Heights

Finding a new vantage point with Montblanc’s 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition.

I grew up obsessed with the Alps. When I was a kid, my family spent six weeks every summer in the Austrian farming village where my father was raised, so that he could work the fields with his siblings. On weekends, he and I would climb the surrounding mountains; from their craggy summits, my father would point out the famous peaks just over the border in Switzerland, their blue-white glaciers shimmering under the summer sun. On the flights back to Boston, we would press our faces to the window as the big Swiss Air DC-10 climbed out of Zurich, and he’d tick off the mountains stitched across the horizon: Matterhorn, Eiger, Jungfrau, Mont Blanc. I’d sit there, in the orange-colored economy seat, ears popping, spindly legs unspooled, wishing we never had to leave.

Some three decades years later, I finally got my wish. When my wife was offered a job in Switzerland, it suggested all the makings of a grand adventure: trading Manhattan for mountains, smog for snow, congested city streets for the opportunity to raise our newborn son in the same rugged region his grandfather loved. I practically accepted the position on my wife’s behalf. We now live in a small city whose cobblestoned streets and half-timbered homes seem ripped from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable. In a quirky twist of fate, which could feel commonplace only in a country like Switzerland, our new residence is above a watch store.

Or, more precisely, behind a watch store. Like a wardrobe to Narnia, the stairwell to our apartment is accessed by—and here, I’m not exaggerating—a secret door behind a display window. Everytime we come home, we pass by expensive and intricate timepieces.

Or, more precisely, behind a watch store. Like a wardrobe to Narnia, the stairwell to our apartment is accessed by—and here, I’m not exaggerating—a secret door behind a display window. Everytime we come home, we pass by expensive and intricate timepieces.

This has not been lost on my wife. She’s taken to saying that I should “invest in a nice watch,” frowning at my cheap, utilitarian Timex as we push our baby boy in his stroller through our front door.

“We live in Switzerland now,” she’ll add with a laugh. “You write for a watch magazine!”

So you can imagine her pleasure when Montblanc’s new 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition arrived in the mail before the holiday season. It’s a gorgeous piece, and a historic one, as it pays homage to the 160th anniversary of the brand’s iconic Minerva watches. Known for their robust and precise movements, many of those pieces from the 1920s and 1930s were built for mountaineering, when the sport’s popularity was exploding across the Alps.

With its handsome, 42 mm case (stainless steel or, for this special-edition version, bronze) and weathered, calfskin bund strap (made small-batch at Montblanc’s leather goods atelier in Florence), the new Geosphere feels as elegant as it is ergonomic, and built for exploration. But it’s the worldtime complication—powered by the super-smooth, ever-reliable MB 29.25 automatic movement—that sets this watch apart. Two turning, domed hemispheres make 24-hour rotations (one clockwise, the other counterclockwise), bringing the world’s time zones to life with an effortless movement. It seems to both broaden and compress our globe—a comforting feature when the rest of your family lives an ocean away.

The twin globes are also marked by seven red dots, denoting the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents. It’s a subtle design touch dedicated to the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge, which sees the world’s best climbers attempting to conquer Denali, Everest, Kosciuszko, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Vinson, and, of course, Mont Blanc.


Despite our spitting distance proximity to the Alps, my outdoor adventure these days is limited to gentle hikes and bike rides through Switzerland’s rolling Appenzell valley. Really, anything that’ll keep my encroaching dad bod at bay. The landscape here is gentle and pastoral and impossibly green, even during autumn; the mountains loom in the near distance, rocky and vertical, dusted with snow. As I hike or ride, the Geosphere’s presence is palpable, not in a cumbersome way, but thematically, almost like it’s magnetically attracted to those heady summits on the horizon.

On Sundays, our small city empties out. The shops remain shuttered. Invariably, it seems, the fog rolls in from nearby Lake Constance, adding a ghostly layer to the narrow, winding streets. The only signs of life seem to be the cathedral bells, echoing through the mist. It was on one of these days that our small family did what any self-respecting Swiss family does: We headed to the mountains.

My son is nine months old, still far too young for anything resembling a serious hike. So we took the cable car to the top of Säntis, an 8,000-foot peak with a precariously perched restaurant befitting a Bond villain. Halfway up, we broke through the clouds; at the treeless summit, over piping hot plates of cheese spätzle and cold local beers, we looked out and took in the view of our new life.

There were the clouds, like white lakes running through the valleys far below. Above them were the serrated, snow-capped Alps of Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Germany. And then there was the light, so strikingly clear yet soft, golden, otherworldly, as if God herself was developing new Instagram filters.

On that observation deck, I held my son at my hip, standing next to my wife, the red-billed alpine crows riding the thermals, mountain climbers snaking up the steep rocky face below, and I caught the Geosphere’s bronze case winking in the light. I looked at the dials: one marking the local hour, the other smaller and set to eastern standard time, where my father—now in his mid-seventies, but ever the mountain man I worshipped in my childhood—would just be waking up.

Standing there on the summit, looking at my son’s dark eyes go wide with wonderment at all the splendor below, I felt like my father for the first time in my life. I thought of him. I thought of my own son, the mountains, the pioneers who’d conquered them. All this continuity and appreciation, the outdoors blessing our lives. And the watch strapped to my wrist, keeping track of it all.

What Drives Michel Parmigiani?

The backstory is the stuff of horological legend. In the mid 1970s, as the Swiss watch industry teetered on the brink of collapse, Michel Parmigiani decided that somebody should be protecting the country’s old-world relics. The finicky pocket watches and fragile objéts d’art seemed particularly precious and vulnerable. So he opened a workshop in Fleurier, Switzerland, and he started fixing them.

The move proved cathartic—“Restoring antique timepieces saved me from nihilism,” Parmigiani says—and it allowed him to amass a singular wealth of knowledge. Partial backing from the Sandoz Family Foundation, an artistic-leaning venture capitalist outfit, turned Parmigiani’s once-modest operation into a full-blown manufacture, dubbed Parmigiani Fleurier, in 1996. The brand’s first in-house movement was rolled out two years later.

The new Kalpa resurrects the brand’s first in-house movement. 

Known as PF110, the inaugural calibre was a manual-winding marvel, brimming with artisan details and boasting an epic eight-day power reserve. Watch nerds swooned. Collectors did the same when the movement debuted inside Parmigiani Fleurier’s flagship wristwatch, the Kalpa, in 2001.

This year, that iconic piece will enjoy a renaissance of sorts, as the company introduces three new creations under the Kapla banner. Each offers a clever reimagining of the original watch’s signature styling, incorporating the classic tonneau-shaped case and teardrop-shaped lugs. The Kalpa Hebdomadaire even uses an updated version of that original PF110 movement, making it a surefire hit with brand devotees.

On the eve of its premiere, we sat down with Michel Parmigiani to discuss the virtues of independence, finding inspiration in Southeast Asia, and the future of his namesake manufacture.

“Restoring antique timepieces saved me from nihilism,” says Michael Parmigiani, world-renown horologist and founder of Parmigiani Fleurier.

You’ve spent your life making and restoring luxury watches. What keeps you going?

Curiosity. Curiosity, and the desire to discover this noble work.

Why is it noble?

It’s a vocation that requires mastery of your own hands, mastery of your actions. And before you can do that, you must first master your mind. It is a life discipline, similar to that of a surgeon. One must learn how to use tools, while maintaining complete control over them.

I’ve read that you initially wanted to be an architect. Is this true?

Architecture has always captivated me—building houses and bridges, the ability to measure and produce a certain form. It is a source of inexhaustible inspiration, and horology is very similar. At first, I really hesitated between these two professions. But there was a watchmaking school fifteen minutes from my place in Fleurier. So I enrolled there.

You launched your brand in 1996. The watch world was a very different place then—we barely had the internet. What’s different now?

The simple parts of watchmaking have become industrialized, and computers certainly help us achieve more, and more rapidly. But in the end, a fine luxury watch must still be made by hand. Take our 1950 Tourbillon, for example. Its creation requires a very high-end process that we’ve been developing for twenty years. You need both machines and experienced watchmakers to deliver it. There is no other way to compose this work of art but by patience and experience.

Why did you choose the Toric Memory Time as your debut watch?

Before we launched, I was walking on a beach in Malaysia and picked up a shell with a striking shape. It was thick in front, but if you turned it just forty-five degrees, it gave the impression of being very thin. I said to myself, When I launch my first watch, I’m going to capture this optical illusion. Toric Memory Time also displays a second time zone for travelers. For the launch, it was important to demonstrate my know-how, my savoir faire. This watch is particularly complex, and I’ve been developing different models of it ever since.

Back in 2011, you created a movement based on the Hijri Calendar, which tracks the lunar cycles of the Islamic year. Why did that interest you?

The moon has great importance in our lives, and we don’t pay much attention to it. So I wanted to create a perpetual lunar calendar, which meant I had to be able to measure it. The lunar year is faster than the solar year, with difference of about eleven days. It’s not religious symbolism. It’s a scientific instrument that depicts the lunar cycle in mechanical form. When you look at it, you can see the days, months, and years of the moon.

This took years to develop. Did your colleagues call you crazy?

I’ve always been considered crazy for doing this job in the first place! When I started in watchmaking, the industry was in a quartz crisis. But, for me, it is very important to develop new projects and new ways of thinking—which allows the industry to evolve.

You also spent a great deal of time restoring a 200-year-old gold-and-pearl pistol that fires a chirping mechanical bird. Why?

It wasn’t working. Before launching my brand, I was known for restoring old timepieces, including pocket watches. When you see what has been created in the past, it’s very humbling. As for the pistol, and it took a year and a half to restore. I ended up restoring three of them for our collection.  

The world’s top watchmakers enlist your company—which employs roughly 400 watchmakers, in five separate manufacturing houses—to make parts for their products. How do you explain what sets you apart?

We’re masters of the tools we use. We’re nimble, efficient, and a hundred percent Swiss-made. Not many houses can say that.

How do you see Parmigiani Fleurier evolving?  

We don’t plan to buy anything, or expand. We just want to make beautiful mechanical watches and remain independent. Over the past twenty years, we’ve invested in a strong staff that has truly mastered the tourbillon and chronograph. Of course, we won’t stop there. For me, it’s simple: I want to break the rules and making something you cannot find anywhere else.