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food / travel

A So Swiss Career Path: Luxury Watches To Designer Chocolate

François-Xavier Mousin and Caroline Buechler used to do marketing for Switzerland's  watch industry. But that was before they went cuckoo for cacao.

Orfève luxury chocolates
Orfève luxury chocolates
Adrià Budry Carbó

THONEX — We've just reached his doorstep and François-Xavier Mousin has already gone from talking about a fake speech by Belgium's King Leopold II (1835-1909) and Spanish farms that produce their oil in cooperatives to the price of a particular chocolate bar that "doesn't respect cocoa." The man is a versatile chatterbox who can take you several times around the world in just one conversation.

Mousin continues on the subject of chocolate, decrying the hypocrisy of a major brand that pays for a few Latin-American children to go to school, but refuses to pay minimum wage on its cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. There's a reason for his interest in the topic: Mousin and his partner, Caroline Buechler — both former PR people in the watchmaking business — have just launched their own chocolate brand, Orfève.

From their new home in Thônex, near the French border, the couple carry out the entire "bean-to-bar" process: They import cocoa beans, transform them into chocolate, and then wrap the final product in aluminum foil to sell.

Orfève produces no more than 10 kilos of chocolate per day.

In a corner of the room, bags of cocoa beans from Peru, Colombia or Madagascar are patiently waiting to fulfill their destiny. "The great problem with cocoa is that the production is done by millions of small producers, but the transformation of cocoa beans is concentrated into the hands of three players," Mousin explains. Together, the U.S. (but Geneva-based) firm Cargill, Barry Callebaut from Zurich and the Olam company of Singapore buy 65% of the world production.

Orfève produces no more than 10 kilos of chocolate per day, which it sells online — for 9.90 Swiss francs ($10) per 75-gram slab — and at a handful of outlets in Geneva and Lausanne. "Obviously this won't revolutionize the market," Mousin acknowledges. "We just wanted to do something at our level."

He and Buechler mastered the trade, they explain, through a mixture of encounters, failures and experiences. Learning to put the machinery together was a case in point. Initially they'd hoped to just buy the equipment ready-made. But the one Swiss supplier they could find only offered what was essentially a mini-plant: machinery (with a price tag of more than $1 million) designed for industrial production of 1,500 to 2,000 kilos per day.

"There was very little possibility for human intervention in the process," he says. "But a Nacional Arriba bean isn't the same as a Gran Blanco."

In the end, the wannabe-chocolate makers imported a roaster from Israel, a cocoa-bean cracker and a conche from Russia, and a tempering machine from Italy. But that led to a whole other set of problems as they struggled, through trial and error, to get the equipment to work. Last January, for the Geneva Watch Salon (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), Orfève were supposed to deliver 500 tablets. But on the eve of the event, they had yet to churn out a single bar.

"The first tablets came out at around 2 a.m.," Buechler recalls. "We managed by delivering a hundred every day during the show."

Going all in

Watchmaking has played an important role in their entire journey. Buechler and Mousin first met a decade ago at the watch retailer Les Ambassadeurs, and they've been together ever since. Together, they launched their own watch marketing agency, Opus Magnum. "It was happenstance," says Mousin, who actually begun his career in the wine industry in the canton of Valais.

"A choice by default," Buechler adds. "In marketing, our task, above all, was to tell a story about products. We now want to sell something that we have created ourselves, that has been in our hands." she says. They're not just former PR people; they're also DIY-enthusiasts.

For all their motivation and enthusiasm, getting Orfève off the ground was no walk in the park. For one thing, neighbors at their office, where Opus Magnum was based, couldn't stand the smell of roasting. The couple had set up their first micro-factory there but ended up moving it into an outbuilding of their new home — after a few adjustments, of course.

We sold our two cars so we could keep on making chocolate.

There they installed an industrial sink, air conditioning and a poultry heat lamp to melt the chocolate in a "non-industrial" way. More importantly, they built a wall to separate the dry part of the room — where the beans are stored — from the humid part, where the cocoa nibs are mass-transformed by granite millstones.

The effort and investment are all the more impressive given that it was all, essentially, so that Buechler and Mousin could experiment — learn all the stages of chocolate production as quickly as possible. Soon they'll be looking to start over in a new, larger facility. To make it a viable business, they expect they'll need to produce about 3.000 kilos per year, nearly 10 times their current output. But for now, Buechler and Mousin are all smiles.

"We sold our two cars so we could keep on making chocolate. But it'll work!" says Mousin.

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