La Chaux-de-Fonds is not a tourist town. Its location, 1,000m up in the Jura mountains – one of Switzerland’s most scenic regions – means the air is crisp, the clouds are close and the mountain peaks are closer.
It’s packed full of low-key attractions, including many surprisingly stealthy Art Nouveau apartment block lobbies (none of which look like you can just walk into, but all of which you can) and the tucked-away, abstract chrome monument dedicated to Louis Chevrolet, the motor company-founding race car driver who was born and raised here in the 1870s and ‘80s. The father of literary modernism, poet and filmmaker Blaise Cendrars, was born on one of the streets facing Chevrolet’s monument four months earlier. Le Corbusier, the father of architectural modernism, who was also born and raised in La Chaux-de-Fonds about a decade after Chevrolet and Cendrars.
For any other town of 37,000 residents, this would be more than enough to build a tidy tourist business on. But La Chaux-de-Fonds is a practical, hard-working town and not much for showing off. It made sense, then, that’d I’d never heard of this town before arriving. And I certainly had no idea that it’s where the world's most expensive watches are made.
More than that, La Chaux-de-Fonds is essentially the watchmaking capital of the world, home to the workshops or corporate headquarters of Rolex and Patek Philippe, Tissot and Girard-Perregaux, Ebel and Omega, many of which were founded here. Messrs Vacheron and Breguet, two of the first men to make a success of Swiss watchmaking, started their workshops in the middle of the 18th Century in Geneva, but La Chaux-de-Fonds, about 150km to the northeast, is where Swiss watchmaking became the world standard. It was here that Daniel Jeanrichard (1665-1741), the region’s first watchmaker, developed a system of apprenticeship and cultivated watchmaking as a local cottage industry. As early as 1867, Karl Marx held up the town and its system as an example of efficient industrialisation in his seminal work Das Kapital, saying that in his day, this small town was producing five times the number of watches than in all Geneva’s workshops combined. Today, La Chaux-de-Fonds remains the administrative, and in many ways the spiritual, heart of the Swiss watch industry.
As we ducked out of one of the Art Nouveau apartment block lobbies, hidden behind thoroughly quotidian-looking front doors, I remarked at how wide the road was, an oddity for a town as old as this. My guide Claudine Buehler, whose husband, father, uncle, aunt and grandfather all work or worked in the watchmaking business, explained that the buildings were laid out this way in the early 19th Century to maximize the amount of sunlight that could flood into the first-floor workshop windows. Looking into one of these windows, I could imagine how the town must have been, street after sunlit street, with lone craftsmen bent over their workbenches, each making a tiny part that would contribute to the thousands of watches being made. Many of these original workshops have been turned into apartments now, but small open-door shops still populate those same streets, where third- and fourth-generation craftspeople continue to make the mainsprings, bridges and balance cocks that power some of the world's most exquisite and pricey timepieces.
Given La Chaux-de-Fonds’s watchmaking history, it’s little surprise that the town is also home to the International Clock-making Museum. One of my favourite exhibits explained how a pocket watch designed between 1796 and 1800 by Breguet told the time with little pins that would jab its owner in the hand, allowing him to check the time without pulling it out of his pocket and potentially revealing his boredom to the person — boss, emperor or spouse — in whose company he found himself. The museum also has the world’s first quartz timepiece: the upright, four-drawer filing cabinet-sized contraption that almost killed La Chaux-de-Fonds.
In 1968, more than 11,000 people — 47% of the workforce — were employed by the town’s watch companies. By 1975, that number had dropped to just a little more than 7,000, as the industry struggled with the advent of the quartz watch. Watchmakers had laboured for centuries to keep time as precisely as possible, perfecting the basic mechanical system of transferring energy from a coiled spring through an escapement to the balance wheel to create as close to perfectly regular oscillation as possible. And they got pretty good, with watches that were accurate to within seconds a day. But quartz technology, which took advantage of the mineral’s much more stable rate of oscillation, made watches accurate to within seconds a year – at prices in the dozens, rather than the hundreds or thousands of dollars being charged for mechanical Swiss watches in the 1970s.
For the next 20 years, it looked as though Swiss watches were going the way of the buggy whip, until some executives, led by Patek Philippe’s Philippe Stern, decided they could compete on luxury and craftsmanship rather than accuracy. The plan worked – a few decades on, the Swiss industry is more profitable than it’s ever been – but the war hasn’t been won. La Chaux-de-Fonds’ next quartz-sized challenge will be to measure up against the technology behind products like the iWatch, which hit markets on 24 April. Using satellite global positioning, the watches produced by Apple and Google may be even more accurate than quartz. Of course, how technology will measure up against craftsmanship this go around only time will tell.
After the museum, Buehler dropped me off at one of the town’s larger workshops, Girard-Perregaux, which is famous among aficionados for the watch’s three-bridge tourbillons. Many of the workshops in La Chaux-de-Fonds offer free tours.
After learning some history — it was the first company to manufacture all watch parts under one roof, and the first to manufacture in large numbers after Kaiser Wilhelm ordered, 2,000 Girard-Perregaux watches for his naval officers in 1880 — my tour guide Willy Schweizer and I walked through the various work rooms, where parts made in La Chaux-de-Fonds’ smaller workshops are assembled by master watchmakers. Another room was devoted entirely to engraving each part, visible or not, with tiny decorative patterns.
As we walked around watching the engravers, enamellers and guillocheurs do their work, I was surprised to see that many of the watchmakers were fairly young. I had pictured men with failing eyes and greying beards hunched over their worktables, mallets and brushes flying about. But the average age of the women and men making these watches, among the best made anywhere, is about 30. Even more striking, especially for Switzerland, is that a lot of them are immigrants; in fact, 30% of La Chaux-de-Fonds’ population is foreign-born. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, craftspeople from around the world are being drawn to the industry’s explosive growth, with worldwide sales more than doubling from 2000 to 2014.
Schweizer told me that each worker at Girard-Perregaux gets their own 6,500 euro watch after working for the company for two years. You’d expect then, to see every wrist bedecked, but I’d been paying attention, and the most expensive watch I’d seen was a 450 euro Tissot, with most people wearing less expensive Swiss brands like Certina or Hamilton. After a day or so exploring La Chaux-de-Fonds, it made sense. This is a working-class town, every bit as much as Detroit. The roughly 9,000 workers are well paid, but they’re not fancy. They’re not the 0.1% found so often in Geneva’s diplomats, Zurich’s bankers and on the slopes of Gstaad, Klosters and Zermatt.
No, La Chaux-de-Fonds is a different kind of Switzerland. It’s the type of place that gave birth to the monied juggernaut by working hard and making things.
Step into a bar like the convivial, casual L’Entre Deux or the local, Swiss-style Bière Shop, and you’ll find sneaker- and Birkenstock-wearing locals ordering beer and the local vin jaune d’Arbois — aged precisely six years and three months and tasting heavily of walnut — instead of high-end cocktails. In the shop attached to the Bière Shop, I bought a small bottle of absinthe — the Jura is where much of Europe’s wormwood is grown — and before I even got back to my table with it, I ran into the guy who made it at his home distillery on the outskirts of town.
When Buehler had taken me to see the shiny, new and abstract Chevrolet monument earlier that afternoon, an elderly woman sauntered over with her tiny, elderly dog and said she wasn’t at all sure what to think of it. Conversation ensued, and it turned out both she and Buehler had been born in the rather large building behind us, which used to be the old lying-in hospital where Cendrars was also born. It’s the type of exchange that reminded me, as much as the industry might evolve, this tucked-away little Swiss gem of a town probably hasn’t changed much since Chevrolet was a boy.
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