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Launch of The Watch Library Foundation
The mission of The Watch Library Foundation is to digitise and make accessible hundreds of thousands of pages and documents of watchmaking heritage, in line with UNESCO’s recognition of the immense cultural value of the knowledge they contain.
As the issues of Europa Star regularly illustrate by sweeping through a century of watchmaking history, the preservation and enhancement of archives is fundamental. This is the raison d’être of the recently established Watch Library Foundation, which has been recognised as being of public interest by the Swiss Confederation. As a living, constantly evolving tradition, horology has indeed built up an unequalled intangible heritage over the centuries. But this heritage has yet to be discovered in its entirety. Centuries of watchmaking history remain difficult or impossible to access today.
“The Watch Library will finally make it possible to enhance the value of the information transmitted and preserved by a whole chain of people, and thereby to develop – and even rethink – our knowledge and understanding of watchmaking,” points out Laurence Bodenmann, a heritage watch collection curator and member of the scientific committee of The Watch Library.
Shelved in libraries, sometimes forgotten in the drawers or attics of watchmaking families, hundreds of thousands of archives, pages and documents are just waiting to be revealed, shared, enhanced and preserved – thanks to the latest digital technologies, including artificial intelligence. Digitisation expert Arkhênum, which has just finished processing the immense archives of the League of Nations in Geneva, has been commissioned to convert all these documents into a digital format.
“The Watch Library offers a wonderful opportunity to provide a global response to the colossal challenge of digitising watchmaking documentary heritage.”
An article about the new foundation in The New York Times on 29 March 2022.
“Preserving the knowledge of one of the finest expressions of human know-how is a mission that makes a lot of sense today, and which has received real support from our first patrons and partners,” emphasises Martine Depresle, managing director of the Foundation, whose headquarters are in Geneva.
She adds: “The digital platform that will host this horological Big Data will harness the best technology available to create a fluid experience for the user, despite the vast quantities of data involved. At the same time, it will preserve the pleasure of research and discovery through serendipity.” Thanks to the support of its patrons and partners, the Foundation has already started working on a prototype of the future platform, which will be tested by a preliminary panel of users.
The audience for the platform is potentially huge: watch professionals, of course (designers, historians, journalists, experts), but also growing numbers of enthusiasts and collectors attracted by the unprecedented euphoria surrounding the exploration of watch industry heritage.
“There is a real quest for reliable information on various watch brands, from the most famous like Patek Philippe to small brands that have now disappeared.”
Pierre-Yves Donzé, professor at the University of Osaka and a member of the scientific committee of The Watch Library, offers an example: “In Japan, where this community is very active on social networks, there is a real quest for reliable information on various watch brands, from the most famous like Patek Philippe to small brands that have now disappeared. The Watch Library will thus contribute to a democratisation of the global knowledge around watchmaking.”
An article in Swiss newspaper Le Temps announcing the new foundation.
An inclusive operation
Several leading institutions that hold thousands of titles, including the International Watch Museum (MIH) and the Horological Society of New York (HSNY), are represented on the Foundation Board. Links to the academic world are also essential, as demonstrated by the presence on the board of Ellan Spero, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The Watch Library offers a wonderful opportunity to provide a global response to the colossal challenge of digitising watchmaking documentary heritage,” stresses Régis Huguenin-Dumittan, curator for the MIH and member of the Foundation Board.
The recognition of mechanical watchmaking know-how by UNESCO, which was granted in December 2020, acted as a catalyst for the project, which is both universal in scope and inclusive in its operation. The Franco-Swiss public structure created following UNESCO’s recognition, “Arc Horloger”, also has a seat on the Foundation board.
While Switzerland and France hold large numbers of watchmaking archives on their territory, there are also immense resources in other countries, such as Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States. The Foundation intends to help coordinate local efforts in terms of heritage preservation and promotion, in order to give a truly global resonance to this “art”, now recognised as being universal.
The Foundation is continuing its search for patrons; indeed, the Watch Library platform, which requires cutting-edge technological resources, is ultimately only possible thanks to public and private sponsorship, and in particular to the active support of key players in the watchmaking industry. “Going beyond all forms of competition, this project is supported by the entire watchmaking ecosystem at international level, both among its donors and in its governance,” explains Martine Depresle.
“Going beyond all forms of competition, this project is supported by the entire watchmaking ecosystem at international level, both among its donors and in its governance.”
While the project is very concrete – with the possibility for everyone to immerse themselves in original sources – it is also intended, more philosophically, to be a bridge between past, present and future generations. As Nicholas Manousos, Executive Director of the HSNY and member of the Foundation Board, points out: “It is easy to ask someone what time it is, but asking them what time is usually results in confusion. That simple question demonstrates how profound horology is, and why the pursuit of understanding horology is central to the human condition. The Watch Library will help us all to better answer the question of time.” The countdown has started.
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