Dark side of Swiss watches_racketeering of Karabakh gold

The dark side of Swiss luxury watches – the unscrupulous racketeering of Karabakh gold

By Mariya Khan-Khoyskaya Martignoli, Swiss Azerbaijanis Coordination Council member, Geneva

January 23, 2020

The dark side of Swiss luxury watches – the unscrupulous racketeering of Karabakh gold

Above poster circulated online, shared here for fair use illustration. 

Switzerland, the world cradle of finest watchmaking boasts many luxury watch brands famous all over the world. According to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland is the second-largest importer of Armenian products (after Russia) and imports watch-making products and textiles. 

One of the most famous Swiss luxury watches is Franck Muller. As they say on their website, Franck Muller watches are one of the finest and most complicated of the world, and the Franck Muller Geneva shop proudly puts these words “Master of complications” above their show windows. But what exactly hides behind these words? How is this Swiss fine watchmaking brand is connected with Armenia and Karabakh?

Vartan Sirmakes, as he appeared in a feature story by Singapore Tatler, on Feburary 23, 2017. This image originally appeared on World Tempus website in April 2008, photographer’s name was not listed. For information on fair use rights, see Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, “the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

The Franck Muller manufacture was founded in Geneva by Franck Muller and Vartan Sirmakes (pictured), who is a man of many hats. This Swiss citizen of Armenian origins is also the founder and the indirect significant participant of ARMSWISSBANK, an Armenian-Swiss private and investment banking establishment with HQ in Yerevan; a Business Fund of Armenia 100% shareholder and a board member, which means that he owns in total some 66,3 % of shares in “Artsakhbank CJSC”, established in February 1996 with the head office in Yerevan. 

That bank provided services to the structures of the separatist regime: for example, in August 2015, the bank had 22 branches, 7 of them in Yerevan and 15 – throughout the occupied territories of Karabakh. Mr. Sirmakes also financed the construction of infrastructure including a fish-growing plant built by Golden Fish company for producing black caviar near Suqovushan (or “Madagiz”, the name that was given to it by the Armenian occupiers) village in the formerly occupied part of the Tartar district. 

At his initiative, a new water reservoir was being built at the intersection of the Hakari and Zabukchay rivers in the Lachin district that was also under Armenian occupation. That reservoir’s project was designed by the ArmWaterProject Company Ltd., which designed Armenia’s all major irrigation systems. So yes, Vartan Sirmakes is not an idle man as we can see. 

Coming back to the watch subject: in October 2014, Gold Star CJSC started the exploitation of the gold mine located near Vejnali village in the Zangillan district of Karabakh. Guess who was funding the project? Bingo, Mr. Vartan Sirmakes. In 2015 Mr. Sirmakes met with the Armenian prime minister Hovik Abrahamyan. While the latter praised Mr. Sirmakes’s personal contribution to the “Armenian economic development” as Armenian sources say, the Swiss-Armenian businessman underlined that he was prepared to contribute to the development of both the Republic of Armenia and Karabakh through various programs. Both stressed out the fact that it was a matter of utmost importance to invest in Karabakh as it would have a “great economic impact” on Armenia. 

No kidding Armenia was grappling with all its claws onto Karabakh! This Azerbaijani region is plentiful with various precious metals: there are more than 160 deposits of gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, coal, colored decorative stone in Kalbajr, Lachin, Zangilan, and Tartar districts. Now, what was Switzerland importing from Armenia? That’s right! Watch-making products. Only Switzerland “forgot” to notice that these precious metals were not Armenian at all – they were stolen from Karabakh while the region was under illegal occupation by the Armenian forces

Between 2009 and 2017 the Switzerland-registered Vallex Group managed by Mr. Sirmakes and Base Metals JSC headed by Valery Mejlumyan and Arthur Mktrumyan made a declared profit of $177.5 million from the precious metal deposits of Karabakh. 

After Mr. Vartan Sirmakes attended the opening of the Vejnali gold mine in Zangilan, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan filed the official pursuit against this Swiss-Armenian unscrupulous profiteer, charging him under public calls against the state, illegal crossing of the state border of Azerbaijan and illegal business. 

What else would you call it if not an illegal business, when a country is involved in the exploitation of another country’s precious resource deposits while maintaining that region under unlawful occupation? 

Vejneli gold mine was not the only one that Mr. Sirmakes took profit from – the other gold mines of the region, Soyudlu, and Gyzylbulag deposits were also illegally exploited by him. His further plans were to label that gold as “Armenian precious metals” and sell it to Switzerland so that his Franck Muller watches could boast with these “exclusive timepieces characterized by complicated movements and original designs”, as the Franck Muller website says. 

Meeting organized by the Permanent Mission of Rep.of Azerbaijan to the UN with other Azerbaijani republic’s government officials in Geneva to discuss the fallout of illegal economics in conflict areas. Shared here for fair use illustration.

During all these years Azerbaijan never ceased to attract the international community’s and of course, Switzerland’s attention to the fact that Armenia was performing illegal economic and other activities in the occupied territories of Karabakh, including writing official letters to the UN General Assembly (August 16, 2016).

During the Second Karabakh War, when Azerbaijan was liberating its territories and discovering the proof of Mr. Vartan Sirmakes’ illicit racketeering of Vejneli gold mine, the Ambassadrice of Azerbaijan in Switzerland Mrs. Hanum Ibrahimova continuedly reported the illegal use of Karabakh’s gold mines by this Swiss luxury brand, consistently informing both Swiss authorities and the local public about this unlawful and aggressive policy of Armenia.

It is unlawful under the Fourth Geneva Convention for an occupying power to transfer parts of its population into the territory it occupied, the prohibition of the establishment of settlements, any measure designed to expand or consolidate settlements is also considered to be illegal – all that was happily forgotten while Armenia conducted the illegal settlement policy in Karabakh. 


How come Switzerland somehow closed its eyes to the fact that the activity of Mr. Vartan Sirmakes contributed to the unlawful economic activities in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, while many States and NGOs maintain that international law prohibits economic dealings with occupying States that extend to territories under their control? 

So, next time you want to buy your Swiss luxury watch, check out where it comes from – that is if you do want to avoid such “masters of complications” as Franck Muller is. 


Works cited: “Illegal economic activities…” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Azerbaijan