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.)
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.
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.
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).