Seconds City: Exploring La Chaux-de-Fonds


La Chaux-de-Fonds_Inside_MuseumIn our March-April issue, on sale now on newsstands and for the iPad, Norma Buchanan visits the Swiss watchmaking town of Le Locle. In this feature story from our June 2009 issue, Buchanan journeys to another cradle of Swiss horology, La Chaux-de-Fonds, a town that is still, as Karl Marx described it a century and a half ago, “one giant watch factory.”

Some Swiss towns win you over as soon as you see them: Lucerne, with its lakeside views and quaint, covered bridge; Berne, with its medieval buildings and endless, old-world arcades. La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the Jura Mountain watchmaking region, is not one of those towns. Its charms don’t grab you right away. But once you find them, you’ll be hooked.

Especially if you love watches. Because La Chaux-de-Fonds, with a population of just 37,000, is, and has for two centuries been, one of the most important watchmaking towns in the world. At one point, in the beginning of the 20th century, it was producing more than half of the world’s watches. Today it has about 180 watch companies, employing, in 2007, some 6,000 people, a figure that had grown by 60 percent in the prior decade.

Some of La Chaux-de-Fonds’s watch companies are household names, like Girard-Perregaux and Ebel, which were founded here, and TAG Heuer, which moved to the town from nearby Marin a few years ago. Other firms — Montremo (dials), Cronal (engraving), Oréade (cases), and scores more — toil in anonymity making watch components and performing various watch-manufacturing tasks. Universo, the king of watch hands, is based here, and so is the movement maker Sellita. To the west of the city, in a rapidly growing industrial zone, are facilities owned by Patek Philippe, Cartier, Ulysse Nardin, Jaquet Droz, Breitling, G & F Chatelaine (which makes watches for Chanel and Bell & Ross), La Joux-Perret  and others. Sprinkled throughout the town are a handful of other brands whose names watch aficionados will know: Corum, British Masters (Graham and Arnold & Son), Jean d’Eve, Ernest Borel and more.

Watchmakers at Cartier factory
Above: Watchmakers in the Cartier facility. Below: Corum was founded in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1955.

Corum HQ in La Chaux-de-Fonds

If you go to La Chaux-de-Fonds by train, you’ll get your first taste of watchmaking’s importance to the town the moment you arrive. In the railway station is a mural showing workers busy at their stations in a bustling watch factory. The mural, painted in 1951 by the local artist Georges Dessouslavy, is a strident and colorful declaration of the city’s watchmaking identity.

It’s just a start. In front of the train station is a street named after the town’s foremost horological hero, Daniel JeanRichard. Born near La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1665, JeanRichard is often credited with bringing watchmaking to the Jura region. As a teenager, he showed a gift for fixing timepieces, and traveled to Geneva, where the watch trade was already flourishing. When he returned home, he brought watchmaking tools and equipment back with him. JeanRichard taught watchmaking to his five sons and to many apprentices, who then set up their own workshops.

Most important to his reputation as a founding father, he employed a small army of cottage workers, each of whom specialized in making one type of component or performing a single manufacturing operation. This, accepted wisdom has it, was the start of the so-called établissage system — the person assembling and, often, selling the final product was called the établisseur — that became the backbone of the Jura watch industry. These cottage workers were often farmers, who welcomed watchmaking as a way to make money during the region’s long, snowy winters when they could not work outside. Often, some members of the family would make watches while others, usually the women and girls, would make lace, the town’s other big export product.

Other La Chaux-de-Fonds streets bear the names of other watchmaking heroes. Two blocks from the station is Rue Jaquet-Droz, named after the famed 18th-century maker of automatons, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who was born here. Abraham-Louis Breguet, born in Neuchâtel, about a half-hour away, has his own street, as does the Fleurier-born Charles-Edouard Guillaume, the Nobel prize-winning inventor of invar and élinvar, used in balances and balance springs. (Given the importance of watches to La Chaux-de-Fonds, it’s something of a surprise that the town’s main thoroughfare, the broad and straight-as-a-watch-hand Avenue Léopold-Robert, is named not after a watch personality but after the now all-but-forgotten painter Louis Léopold-Robert, who was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1794.)

La Chaux-de-Fonds watchmaking museum
The Musée International d’Horlogerie

The first place any watch aficionado visiting La Chaux-de-Fonds will want to visit is its world-famous watch museum, the Musée International d’Horlogerie. It lies a few minutes’ walk from the train station on the Rue des Musées. The museum, a very modern-looking, underground building completed in 1974, houses one of the finest collections of timepieces found anywhere, tracing the entire history of timekeeping. There are 3,000 watches and clocks on display; it would take a day or more to give them all their due.

Some pieces highlight the role that La Chaux-de-Fonds and its environs played in timekeeping history. Among these are a fusee movement and a finished watch by Daniel JeanRichard. There are also clocks by Pierre Jaquet-Droz. One features an automaton musician holding a musical score in one hand and, with the other, beating time to the music emitted by eight flutes, which can play eight different tunes. Several paintings from the 19th century depict watchmakers from the area of La Chaux-de-Fonds working in factories or home workshops. Among the latter is a sentimental work entitled “The Watchmaker and his Family,” which draws an obvious, if unexplained, parallel between a watchmaker, his wife and their angel-faced baby and the holy family.

Jaquet Droz automaton clock
A Jaquet-Droz clock, with an automaton on the bottom, from the watch museum

Another piece specific to La Chaux-de-Fonds is a watch made by Georges-Frédéric Roskopf, the inventor in the 1860s of the famous, low-cost movement that bore his name (he referred to his watch as a “proletarian” watch because of its accessibility to the masses). Roskopf lived in La Chaux-de-Fonds from 1829 to 1873 and his simple, pin-lever movement, used in millions and millions of watches, made fortunes for many of its citizens.

Roskopf watch-front
Above (front) and below(back): a “proletarian” watch by Georges-Frédéric Roskopf

Roskopf watch-back

At the other end of the price spectrum, there’s a rare, clock-sized pocket watch made by the modern-day, ultra-high-end La Chaux-de-Fonds watchmaker Vincent Bérard as part of his Quatre Saisons series. Watch fans will be interested to know, if they don’t already, that the director of the museum is Ludwig Oechslin, the technical wizard best known for his many innovations at Ulysse Nardin (such as the Trilogy of Time astronomical watches and the Freak).

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