GENEVA – For the founder of Fonderie 47, timekeeping and philanthropy blend in timepieces that maintain the great traditions of Swiss watchmaking.

It is a long way from an awards ceremony in the Belle Époque splendour of the Grand Théâtre in Geneva to the warlord lands of sub-Saharan Africa where child soldiers man checkpoints. Last year, as part of the jury awarding Le Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, these unhappy images intruded into the normally ordered world of pinions, arbors, springs and wheels.

One of the watches under consideration was an unusual-looking timepiece. Central tourbillon, retrograde minute and second indicators, jumping hour, lateral power reserve, a design that looks a little like a flying saucer and a ludicrously limited production run of just 20 pieces matched by a high price point somewhere north of SF300,000 – all the traits one has come to expect from independent watchmaking.

A wristwatch by Fonderie 47, which incorporates metal from AK-47 assault rifles bought from child soldiers in Africa. Photograph by Andreas Achmann.

But this refined, rarefied object came from a concealed weapon. Well, at least part of a concealed weapon – in a previous life the metal in this watch was a part of an assault rifle. Perhaps the very same watch that we jurors were assessing on its horological merits had taken a human life. The best watchmaking does make one think or dream, but here is a thought-provoking piece of a different order. Part of the proceeds from the sales of Fonderie 47 watches are invested in guns, which are bought from their underage owners in Africa and destroyed. The darker metal in the finished timepieces come from the weapons.

The watch is the work of Adrian Glessing, a talented watch designer of whom you are unlikely to have heard; but Fonderie 47 is not really a watch company, nor is it a brand. It is an idea, one of those ideas that is so simple and logical that you do not know why someone did not come up with it before. 

Peter Thum is the man behind Fonderie 47, and he became involved with the watch trade via the wine business. A trip to South Africa to merge a couple of wineries led to a project called Ethos Water, later acquired by Starbucks, financing water projects in developing countries through consumption. Thum stayed in Africa and, in the process, became more familiar than he might have wished with the business end of an AK-47. “During that trip I ended up meeting young kids who were armed with assault rifles and being stopped at checkpoints at gunpoint at night. That was the inspiration for me to want to do something about assault rifles in Africa. The idea for Fonderie 47 is, in essence, to shine a light and bring funding to work on reducing the number of these weapons in those conflict zones in Africa.”

Fonderie 47’s swords-into-ploughshares business model also includes cufflinks and earrings, but watches are key. As Thum says, “It was clear that making a Swiss watch would be important for what we were trying to do, because it is the antithesis of the AK-47. It’s a part of a way of thinking about altering the course of an extremely complicated social issue, which most people think is impossible to do anything about.” For Thum, in addition to telling the time, watches “are equally as effective as tools to get influential people thinking about something that they probably haven’t thought about in depth before.”

So, where a previous generation of peace protesters urged us to “Make Love Not War,” the new rallying cry is “Make Watches Not War.” 

Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of The FT’s How to Spend It magazine and a regular contributor to GQ.