The epitome of sumptuous shopping in Geneva, Rue du Rhône’s history in the luxury brand business began with the symbol that would come to primarily define Switzerland in the international market: watches. Swiss watches are a symbol of upper class, encapsulating exorbitance as well as subtlety. Symbols used to help define iconic characters in Hollywood, such as Angelina Jolie’s ‘Lara Croft’ when she wore a Tissot watch in Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life (2003), or Nicholas Cage’s ‘Yuri Orlov’ wearing a Rolex in Lord of War (2005). It may be surprising then to find out that the long history of Rue du Rhône dates back to the 12th century, where changes in geographical and urban plans lay the foundations for Rue du Rhône’s development, and where later on in the 16th century, these symbols of a richer lifestyle began as a way for Genevois’ to express themselves under an oppressive leader without getting reprimanded for it.
Dating all the way back to the 11th century, European cities began urban reconfigurations as they started building suburbs outside ancient fortifications, usually surrounding market areas or places du marchés. Bourg-de-Four, now the home of Collège Calvin and the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, was back then an intersection between trading routes from Lyon and Italy and the chosen spot to build suburbs around due to its proximity to commerce. In the 12th century, a new fortification system included suburbs and as well as the surrounding countryside, enlarging the surface of the city. Expanding urban plans even further in the 14th century, the shoreline of Lake Geneva is pushed back from Rue-Basses to what is now know as Rue du Rhône, allowing space for places like Place de Fusterie, du Molard, and de Longemalle, each opening at a respective port along the lake shore.
By the 15th century, the economy in Europe overall is severely weakened.
Refugees from neighboring France seeking both religious and economic leniency travel through Geneva, bringing Geneva’s population to a modest 14,000 souls inhabiting the city. While refugees did not dramatically increase the population of Geneva, it did dramatically change the quality of workers. Due to a revival in religious persecutions and tensions between Catholics and Protestants, these newcomers, if only because they left their country to keep their faith, are part of an intellectual and moral elite, whether scholars profession, businessmen or manual workers. Bringing in new trade secrets and a heightened sense of individual morality, Geneva goes through not only a cultural reformation but an economic one as well.
Refugees in Geneva brought in an international market like no other in Geneva’s history. Made up of capitalists from small colonial Italian villages and French merchant bankers, Geneva’s newest inhabitants brought money, experience, and relationships with foreign business into Geneva’s commerce. For the first time in it’s history, Geneva developed an industry made of up exports in mid-sixteenth century. By the end of the century, more than 50% of the workforce is made up from export workers.
Enter John Calvin, a French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th c entury. A humanist lawyer and principal figure in Christian theology later known as Calvinism, he was caught in the middle of major religious tensions in France, which eventually broke out in violent uprisings, forcing him to flee to Basel, Switzerland. Due to his being an avid supporter of a combination of democracy and aristocracy in order to encourage balanced rights and freedoms for the middle and lower classes, Calvin’s name drew quite a bit of controversy. He supported hard work, an absolute faith in God and the Divine, and in the separation of curch and state. He was, however, strict and almost unusually callous with his judgments.
Having settled and reformed his own church in Geneva, Calvin became a prominent religious figure who wielded a large amount of authority. His was the gospel to be followed, and while he had the mind of a reformer, he also had the rash ideologies of an activist.
Believing that illustrious accessories promoted inequality amongst his people, Calvin banned them from wearing ornamental objects in 1541. He also banned any accessories in the shapes of crosses or bearing relation to Catholicism, wanting to reform Geneva as a purely Protestant canton. Goldsmiths and jewelers, possessing fairly successful reputations in neighboring countries regarding their work, had to find something practical enough that Genevois could wear without being reprimanded by Calvinists, but while also being able to apply their years worth of experience in jewelry making and metal bending. And so, they turned to fabricating either music boxes or watches.
By the end of the century, just a little over 60 years after Calvin’s ban, Geneva had already acquired a reputation for excellence in watchmaking in the 1600’s. In 1601, the world’s first organization of watchmakers was born under the French name of “Maîtrise des horlogers de Genève,” (Masters of Watchmaking Geneva). According to historians, Genevois watchmaking went on the dominate the watchmaking industry in Europe for the next two centuries. In a hub of a new commerce and trade, positions for apprenticeships and general fine work became abundant. By the late 1680’s, Geneva’s population had tripled. With Geneva having become essentially ‘watch obsessed’, watchmakers moved to the Jura area in order to further their craft as well as escape an over populated hub of purchase.
While authentic Swiss watch brands developed in Geneva as well as in the Jura area, such as Vacheron Constantin and Piaget, Rue du Rhône turned into a hub of competitive watchmakers’ shops. Due to Rue du Rhône’s proximate location to the lake as well as being in the heart of Geneva, other luxury brands eventually followed suit. Urban expansion plans took place in 1900, changing the layout of the Rue Basses, replacing medieval buildings with newer ones. Between the years 1900 and 1930, the streets of Bel Air, Stand, Madelaine, and Rôtisserie are either built or renovated to pave easier access to Geneva’s hub of commerce. The nature of business and capitalism took care of the rest, with Geneva experiencing an influx of foreign artisans coming in to learn tricks of the trade and customers following closely behind in order to own the latest and most precious watch on the market. And thus, Geneva’s most prestigious shopping street was born.
Article by Joy Corthesy