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Bern’s bankers, businessmen and property barons

Charles von Graffenried was Bern's media mogul RDB

The von Graffenrieds who stayed in Europe had a luckier hand than Christophe de Graffenried who founded New Bern.

Family members have always known how to ride the crest of the economic wave of their day.

There were those who held the purse strings of the medieval city of Bern as treasurer, and others who were in charge of the very important salt monopoly. In the 18th century, many lent their services as mercenaries to the rulers of France and the Netherlands.

The landowning families of Bern, which included the von Graffenrieds, eventually lost their political privileges, but maintained ownership of the town’s common property.

When equal rights were extended to all citizens of Bern in 1852, the von Graffenrieds kept their say in how the city was governed by becoming lawyers, bankers and businessmen and – not surprisingly – eventually getting involved in the lucrative real estate market and asset management.

The “old” families of Bern are still closely associated with one another today as members of the city’s Burgher commune, a legal corporation that manages the membership’s extensive holdings. Not surprisingly the commune’s current president is a von Graffenried – Franz.

But the von Graffenried who crops up the most today in connection with private banking, real estate and publishing is octogenarian Charles.

Media mogul

The grey eminence in the Swiss publishing world is president of Von Graffenried Holding. The company is believed to control the most property in Bern and Charles’ worth is estimated at up to SFr400 million ($395 million).

In 2003 – when he was still chairman of the board of the publishing house, Espace Media Group – von Graffenried displayed his loyalty to the city by rescuing the city’s traditional, but cash-strapped newspaper, Der Bund, even though it was a competitor of Espace Media’s flagship daily, Berner Zeitung.

A couple of years later the senior von Graffenried went on to sell Espace Media to Zurich’s Tamedia.

“But we aren’t only lawyers and board members,” says Christine von Graffenried, president of the association founded to support events related to New Bern’s 300th anniversary. “Many members of the younger generation have chosen more creative professions,” she told

Photographer Michael von Graffenried, Charles’ son, made the headlines for a photographic essay he produced a few years ago on New Bern called “Our Town” – a series which does not portray the North Carolina city in its most positive light.

Eco warrior

A contemporary of Michael, Alec von Graffenried remained true to family tradition by becoming a lawyer, albeit one who is also involved in private enterprise. But Alec has become better known as a member of parliament for the Green party.

Well known in French-speaking Switzerland was the race car driver, the late Emmanuel de Graffenried, fondly known as “Toulo”. He won five Grand Prix races, including one when the competition was held in Bern.

“We also have a hairdresser!” says Christine, telling the story of David, a former metalworker who built stages for the theatre, and was also involved in film and photography. “He now owns a hairdressing salon on the outskirts of Bern.”

Andreas von Graffenried has also devoted his life to the arts. He was deputy technical director at the German Opera in Berlin, and now has a similar function in Paris. Another von Graffenried, Ariane, prefers the spotlight to behind-the-scenes activities, and works as an actress.

And last but not least, Christine von Graffenried counts among the most active women in the family. For many years she headed the South American activities of a Geneva-based chemicals company.

Alexander Künzle, (Adapted from German by Dale Bechtel)

The family was first mentioned in 1272 – nearly 20 years before the date traditionally regarded as the birth of the Swiss confederation.

Niclaus (1468 – 1554) von Graffenried is considered the founding father of the line. He was a monk at the time when both of his brothers fell in the battle of Grandson. They fought on the side of the Swiss confederates against the forces of Charles the Bold.

Niclaus received absolution to marry in order to continue his lineage.

The oldest Graffenried branch with Johann Rudolf (1505 – 1557) died out in 1909.

The youngest branch with Peter (1507 – 1562) divided later into the Worb, the Münchwyler and Burgistein lines.

Christophe de Graffenried (1661 – 1743), founder of New Bern, is from the Worb line.

His son Christoph founded, along with his wife Barbara Tempest, the Landgrave line.

Their only son, Tscharner von Graffenried, married four times and has numerous descendants in the US.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR