Lyne Tromblay, a charming French Canadian, already has her life mapped out. Next stop: marriage. Suddenly an uncle in Switzerland dies, and Lyne inherits the Univers watch factory. Nothing left to do but fly over to Europe, sell up as quickly as possible, and come back in time for her wedding.
But upon Lyne’s arrival in Le Locle, Plot Happens. She hallucinates a murder at a wedding ten years ago (yep, this is a paranormal murder mystery). She is wooed by Vincent, the handsome watchmaker who wants to get his hands on her factory. Her taxi driver is murdered – and she’s the prime suspect. All of this unfolds charmingly slo-o-o-owly over seven episodes, with lots of time for pottering about, admiring watch museums, recapitulating the plot and so on.
Having made it through more or less unscathed, the stakes rise for Lyne in Season Two when she hallucinates more murders at the Creux du Van, the picturesque “Swiss Grand Canyon” not far from Le Locle. She soon encounters a bizarre esoteric community with deadly dodginess afoot. Meanwhile, her watch business is put on the line by Russian mafia types. At various points Lyne spiritually heals burns – and people around her valiantly expose themselves to fire, so she can demonstrate her powers. This second season reduces the glacial pace by around 50%, but ups the plot’s ridiculousness by a solid 150%.
Worth a watch?
In short, L’heure du secret is charming escapism. Three times “charming” in this review so far, but it’s true! It’s all delivered in a slow, sleepy French to match the pace of the thrills. A good language refresher, and they really lay on the local colour, with plenty of shots of the criss-cross streets of industrial Le Locle (unusual in Swiss townscapes, which tend to be older than nineteenth century). A murder takes place at a Le Corbusier house; wine is guzzled, in moderation; Lyne is converted to the mystical beauty of traditional watch mechanisms.
I’m hesitant to pick too many holes in all this, because its budget clearly wasn’t huge, and it’s aiming at the widest possible audience with very tastefully depicted murders. The lead actress, the Canadian Catherine Renaud, is a class above the rest of the cast and carries the script as best she can.
Unfortunately she’s got a lot of work on her hands. The dialogue is very often of the “they would never say that!” variety, both the plot device of Lyne’s paranormal gift and the specificities of her being a fish-out-of-water are mostly wasted, and the audience is not given enough raw materials to keep guessing – the revelations are often deus ex machina (Lyne has another vision), or simply ridiculous.
So, yeah. The French part of Switzerland has been doing some good TV of late, and this isn’t the best place to start (see: Ondes de choc). But you know, I kept watching to the end. The Gallic seriousness of everything made a refreshing change compared to, say, Midsomer Murders. The filmmakers heroically avoid self-referencing the ludicrousness of the set-up, so you don’t feel dirty at the end – and Lyne never loses our sympathy, even as the plot digs itself into a hole as big as the Creux du Van.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Creux du Van (absolute beginners).
Language: French. PlaySuisse has the usual F, G and I subs.
Swissness Lab Report: Watches
The uniqueness of L’heure du secret comes neither from its “paranormal detective” device, nor the undercooked poisson hors de l’eau “plot” (which starts and ends with Lyne’s Quebec accent). However, the B-plots involving the watch industry reveal something fundamentally Swiss.
The series’ location, Le Locle, is a spiritual home of watchmaking in Switzerland; the town grew around that industry in the nineteenth century. Nowadays the Tissot company, amongst others, still has its main factory in the town. Their main product line of automatic watches each bears the name “Tissot Le Locle 1853”.
The fictional Univers watch company forms the subject of both B-plots in L’heure du secret. In Season One, Lyne Tromblay inherits the fading firm receives two rival offers for ownership: Vincent, a dedicated craftsman and watch history devotee, and Evil Capitalist Man, a philanderer and general sleazebag. The latter is accused vaguely of having “more commercial” intentions for Univers which will ruin its proud traditions. Then, in Season Two, Vincent falls foul to the lure of foreign wealth. He is tempted by a group of Russian Mafia Stereotypes into making illegal copies of his most valuable productions. Will he do the right thing before it’s too late?
In order to understand this repeated trope – the revitalization of a faded traditional industry without betraying traditional artisanship, while avoiding the trap of selling out to the vulgarly wealthy – I investigated the history of the Swiss watch.
1. Success by Specialization (1800s)
My little book of Swissness in a Nutshell says that in 1870, three out of every four watches in the world was made in Switzerland. A 2019 documentary goes further: it claims that at the turn of the twentieth century, 95% of watches in the world were made here (see reference below). Nowadays, successful industries in Switzerland such as big pharma (Roche), food processing (Nestlé) and high-tech engineering (ABB) also have their distant origins in these principle, although much has changed, as we will see.
In his ever-useful Why Switzerland, Jacob Steinberg underlines the three characteristics of Switzerland’s export-orientated economy during the Industrial Revolution: specialization, decentralization, and focus on luxury products. Specialization and decentralization resulted partly from the political situation of Switzerland – a patchwork of regions, split along religious and linguistic lines as well as political ones, and rich merchant towns nestled side by side with poorer peasant municipalities. Instead of the towns expanding as the poor looked for gainful work in factories, as I am used to from my background in Manchester, the Swiss town merchants encouraged poorer regions to specialize in different parts of a widespread “production line”. The peasants in the Jura mountains kept machinery in their cellars to work on in the winter months, and homes specialized in producing one particular mechanical part. All the parts were then sent for assembly to small factories in towns like Le Locle.
This system was known as établissage. It was highly successful; according to a New York Times article, the Swiss went from making 200,000 watches in 1800 to 2,200,000 in 1850.
The établissage process of “heterogenous manufacturing” was highlighted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital (1867). It was unusual in Western Europe (this Englishman is used to the vast redbrick factories of North Manchester), and understanding it from Steinberg’s analysis helped me understand two aspects of class in Swiss society. Firstly, Switzerland was heavily industrialized, but not particularly urbanized. Secondly, “proletarian conditions rarely occurred” since many peasants owned their means of production. An anarchist watchmaker addressing a congress in 1874 apologized for the lack of class consciousness amongst his “half-bourgeois workers”.
The prevalence of luxury products in Switzerland is explained by Steinberg in terms of two reasons: “their natural environment was poor and the transport costs high.” That natural environment didn’t offer enough land to support the population (less than 40% is available for agriculture), so the Swiss needed to make money to import essential goods. Meanwhile, the mountainous regions and competitive disadvantage against much larger neighbouring nations meant that transporting cheap goods was costly. Overall, then, it made sense to concentrate on high quality to add value to the original product, using that specialized Swiss skill. (Not that all Swiss watches were for a “luxury market” – as their établissage system took off, they would also made “fakes” to look like English or French models, and in the 1860s attempted to flood the US market with cheap pocket-watches. See NY Times piece below.)
2. The Fall and Rise of the Industry, and the Birth of Swatch (1970s-1980s)
The Seventies brought an oil crisis and currency nightmare for the Swiss in which the the dollar went down from CHF4.30 to CHF1.40. Swiss watches, which had dominated the global market for so long, were suddenly a lot more expensive.
Worse still, a technological revolution put them at a dangerous disadvantage. The mineral quartz is cheap, and its various properties make it a perfect fit for a small battery-powered device. The Japanese firm Seiko pioneered its use, and the market was soon flooded with their wristwatches which were both cheaper and, damningly, more accurate than their Swiss mechanical equivalents. Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds couldn’t compete with massive, automatized factories in Japan. By the late Seventies the big conglomerates were close to bankruptcy.
What happened next went down in entrepreneurial history. The remaining resources of many failing watch companies were merged, and over a hundred banks came together to invest additional money in a new consultant/entrepreneur and his idea for a new production line. The man was a Swiss-Lebanese called Nicolas Hayek. The production line was christened Swatch.
In an interview later, Hayek claimed to have found three fundamental attitude problems in the Swiss watchmakers at the dawn of the neoliberal 1980s. They had massive expectations to be rescued; they were arrogant, “because their great-grandfathers were so successful”; and they’d become ignorant of what their foreign customers wanted. But the crisis had shook them out of their complacency.
The first plan was to recapture the market lost to Seiko. As Don Draper once said, “If you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation.” Hayek did this by introducing new quartz Swatch watches that were fifty Francs each, sold in plastic boxes, and crucially sold as fashion accessories. The etymology of “Swatch” is apparently “Second Watch”, playing to the idea of having multiple watches for different outfits and occasions. The consequences of this were enormous. Watch companies worked with fashion designers and artists; later, the fashion designers themselves began to produce watches. A Bloomberg article notes that, nowadays, “the world’s most valuable luxury fashion brands – Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci and Chanel – make their own watches in their own Swiss factories”.
3. After Swatch (1980-2016)
After the cheap and trendy Swatches recaptured the market from the Japanese, Hayek began aggressively pushing luxury brands like Omega and Longines. These mechanical watches were a sign of wealth and decadence, and as such presented a chance to make a lot more money. At one point in a documentary on this topic, I would guess in the 1990s, Hayek claims to have sold thirty watches of a million dollars each in one year. (Not that he comes across as very trustworthy – he’s a real character, worth searching for on YouTube.)
The Swiss saved their industry, and with it many thousands of jobs in the location of L’heure du secret. But in doing so, it had to abandon one of the core ingredients of its success. In effect, Switzerland “had to accept a drastic, centralised, top-down solution… [It] saved its watch industry in an un-Swiss way” (Steinberg). Watchmakers were still specialized, and offered luxury items with higher profit margins; but gone were the “cellular” structures of many different firms in an établissage system. Or, as the New York Times points out, it survived only in a modern, globalized form – “divided between companies that carry on the modern equivalent of établissage, sourcing parts and movements from outside suppliers… and those making a go of being manufacturers.”
The switch to Swatch also involved more and more involvement from “foreign elements”. Nicolas Hayek may have been Swiss-Lebanese, but his larger-than-life competitive character comes across as more in keeping with Reagan’s America. Around the time of L’heure du secret it was normal to hear of a prestigious old watchmaking firm falling in the hands of a foreign parent company. In 2013, between the seasons, a Chinese holding company bought a haute horlogerie brand, Corum, for the very first time. Speaking of which, the Chinese hadmade quite a name as a market for Swiss watches in the 2000s; in 2016, though, the government cracked down on corruption – and the industry took a big hit, because less luxury timepieces were being given as bribes.
The current meaning of “Swiss Made” is also rather foggy. Intriguingly, the latest law on “Swissness” was also introduced in 2013, at the time L’heure du secret came out. It was supposed to be stricter, and stated that 60% of a given watch has to have “Swiss value.” In essence, 60% of the manufacturing costs had to be incurred in Switzerland; it has to be assembled in this country; and 50% of the value of the watch had to come from parts made here. To this outsider it seems like my so-called “Swiss watch” still has a surprising amount of foreign parts.
Conclusion: The Spectre of Watch History in L’heure du secret
How does this turbulent history translate to a TV crime story about a paranormal detective? Well in both seasons, traditional values and the “mystical, magical” side of the watches is placed under threat, first by a Swiss, then by rich Russians. My pet theory is that the show unconsciously plays out wish fulfilment for a culture which has not come to terms with the drastic changes of the last forty years.
Three wishes are granted. Firstly, the wish for total integration of foreign influence in the watchmaking industry. This is represented by Lyne Tromblay, the least foreign of fish out of water, who inherits the factory and co-runs it, but does so along the lines set for her by the Swiss traditionalist Vincent. In this sense the “danger” of impurity posed by the globalized world is reduced (see also the Arab estate developers in Wilder, Season One).
Secondly, the wish for a return to the glory days of the postwar era. Back then Swiss mechanical watches manufactured by small firms still dominated the market, free from the pressure to make more, sell cheaper, appear more fashionable. By having Vincent triumph in Season One and find success with his new model of watch, the binary of fashion quartz watch/mechanical luxury timepiece is completely avoided; I don’t believe the word “quartz” is uttered in any of the twelve episodes of L’heure du secret.
Finally, the wish for Switzerland to be let off the hook for the unsavoury association of its most prestigious export with corruption. In Season Two Vincent flirts with cheating the system, but only because he’s to stupid to notice he’s being conned by the Russians. When it comes to the final delivery of copied watches, he changes his mind, but is pepper-sprayed by a Russian femme fatale. It all puts the Swiss watch industry in the best possible light – well-intentioned but dim, manipulated by powerful outside sources. When Vincent confesses all to a newspaper, he doesn’t lose his business – he can start again with a clean slate.
A nice, non-sell out type of clean slate – not the terrifyingly un-Swiss one that happened in real life.
My main resource was Steinberg, Why Switzerland? (Third Edition). If you’ve made it this far in the blog, you should think about getting a copy.
Swissness in a Nutshell, Bergli Books.
This 2019 SRF documentary about the Swatch revolution gives good historical context and some funny characters.
NY Times article: “How Switzerland Came to Dominate Watchmaking”
Bloomberg article: “How Swatch Started a Revolution”