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January 12, 2019

Switzerland: La Chaux-de-Fonds


Buildings like this in La Chaux-de-Fonds served a dual purpose for housing and watch manufacturer.

The last stop on the way to Saint Jean de Losne from Vaduz Liechtenstein was at La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Neuchâtel Canton of Switzerland. La Chaux-de-Fonds is near the French-Swiss border. As the names suggest, Neuchâtel and Jura are in a French-speaking region. It’s still Switzerland but at least we can read the signs.

La Chaux-de-Fonds is considered the most important center of watch production in Switzerland’s Watch Valley. Watches produced in the area include the famous names Breitling, Corum, Gallet, Girard-Perregaux, Movado, Patek Philippe, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Tissot, Ulysse Nardin, and Chopard. Though the big names are here, the watch stores aren’t, at least there are not a lot of them in the center of the town. If you want to buy an expensive Swiss watch there’s better selection in Geneva, Interlaken, or any place where affluent tourists visit.

Watches are still made in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle.

Production of watches started in nearby Geneva in the 16th Century. From Geneva production expanded to the north and east into the Jura Mountains, including La Chaux-de-Fonds. The new industry found a ready workforce as the long mountain winters left the farmers needing something to do.

By the beginning of the 20th century, more than a half of all watches distributed around the globe were produced in the region of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fond. Watchmaking was so important to the economy that after a fire in 1794 the town plan of La Chaux-de-Fonds was altered to accommodate watch production. An open-ended scheme of parallel strips of intermingled residential housing and workshops was developed to enable watch production. The buildings were orientated such that their long direction runs north-south guaranteeing the maximal amount light, a key requirement for doing the intricate detailed work of watch making.  The comingling of housing and industry was possible do to the small size of the items being produced and the low environmental impact of the industry. The town plan also reflected the specialization of the manufacture and the ease of transport of the small individual components.

Red roofs

Perpetual movement clock at the Museum international d’horlogerie: In reality, the clock is driven by a spring concealed in the wheel’s hub.

Noting its role in the history of watch making UNESCO inscribed “La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, Watchmaking Town Planning” as a World Heritage site in 2009. UNESCO’s citation mentions both the town’s role in the watch industry and the town planning that enabled its industry. The citation also includes the nearby village of Le Locle where watches are also produced.

Though there were few tourists when we visited La Chaux-de-Fonds there is plenty of information available and many things to see. Most notable is the Museum international d’horlogerie, which has extensive displays of and about timepieces of all sorts. The museum is very well done; it can easily consume a couple of hours of visitor’s time.

With so many things to see in and around the town it is good to consult with the tourist information office for suggestions. The tourist office is a good first step in the process of learning more about timepieces than you ever imagined.

The brand is identifiable.

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We visited La Chaux-de-Fonds at the end of May 2018.

This artwork was commissioned by the US carmaker Chevrolet to honor the company’s founder Louis Chevrolet who was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1911.

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