Legendary luxury watch brands, for which Switzerland is known worldwide, originate from La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. The watchmaking metropolis has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009.Surrounded by meadows and pastures, the Le Cartier watch factory appears, only a few hundred meters from the other big luxury brands Tissot and Breitling. Next to them, cows are grazing. The people of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle proudly call their clock and watchmaking paradise, at first glance so unremarkable, the Silicon Valley of the watchmaking industry — here, where farmers once sat at their windows with magnifying glasses and tweezers, working on watches during the long, cold winters. Next to the giant carillon, in a farm house that dates from 1612, now a museum, you’ll find, in addition to pitchforks, an old clock maker’s apron hanging on a hook. It’s unusually cold on this summer day in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which lies at an elevation of 1000 meters in the Jura Mountains. That makes it easy to imagine the harsh winters during which the farmers pursued their watchmaking activities.
Industrial architecture: world cultural heritage
La-Chaux-de-Fonds is laid out like a chess board, specifically adapted to suit the needs of the watchmaking industry, with broad streets that provide plenty of light, the watchmakers’ most important tool. Art Nouveau villas that belonged to the wealthy watchmaking families of the past stand next to workers’ housing. And wherever you look for them you’ll find the large, bright windows of the watchmaking workshops and factories. This remarkable cityscape prompted UNESCO to add La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle in 2009 to its list of World Heritage sites.
Unlike in London or Geneva, in the late 19th century, a traditional craft, the farmers’ sideline, became an industry that provided work for everyone. That enabled the area to stand up to the competition from America. In the early 20th century more than half the watches sold worldwide came from La Chaux-de-Fonds, which already had 40,000 residents.
Flowers, fir trees and mosaics
The Vulcain watch company, now in Le Locle, and known for its “Presidents’ watch,” a wristwatch with an alarm worn by US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, was founded in 1858 in La Chaux-de Fonds. Fashionable lofts have been created in the building, but the old entrance area, with its wood paneling and artistically decorated staircases, can still be viewed. The beautiful building was intended to “demonstrate good taste and serve as a sort of advertisement,” explains tour guide Claudine Buehler, who holds the key to many other hidden Art Nouveau treasures in La Chaux-de-Fonds: stairwell paintings and the crematorium with its ornaments, frescoes and urns with fir tree motifs. They are typical of La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is surrounded by fir forests.
The city’s most famous watchmaking son
Fir trees also adorn the Villa Fallet, by Le Corbusier, high up in La Chaux-de-Fonds. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but it’s worth it. Le Corbusier designed the Art Nouveau house in 1906, when he was just 18 years old, and if you stand in front of it you can already sense the genius of the man who later became such a famous architect. Le Corbusier also came from a watchmaking family and was sent to the local art school at the age of 13. There he learned to enamel and engrave wristwatches, but it was also where his enthusiasm for architecture was awakened. The emphasis on light, so important to watchmakers, later flowed into his architectural work. The Villa Turke, another house by Le Corbusier, is also flooded with light. Commissioned by a wealthy watch factory owner from La Chaux-de-Fonds, it was completed in 1916.
A treasure trove of timepieces
Almost anyone you talk to here knows or is related to a watchmaking family – like Nathalie Marielloni, from the International Museum of Horology, or watchmaking. This is a place where it’s hard to forget time. As soon as you enter the time is announced down to the very second via loudspeaker. Nathalie Marielloni absolutely loves timepieces. When she guides you through the museum, with its more than 3,400 large and small ticking exhibits, her enthusiasm is infectious. From watches as thin as a Swiss franc piece to richly enameled watch cases, everything can be found here. The most valuable watch in this impressive collection is worth a few millions – though it is not revealed which one it is. Asked whether residents here, surrounded by so much clockwork, are especially punctual, Nathalie Marielloni answers with a smile, “Yes; it’s just cultural conditioning.”
Fighting hard times with luxury watches
That almost tender love of clocks and watches is one of the reasons La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle survived the crisis caused by the advent of quartz watches in the 1970s, which hit so many people here. Thousands lost their jobs at the time. Machines that were suddenly worthless were thrown out of windows. Now that’s history. La-Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle successfully refocused on the luxury sector. Only two to three percent of watches worldwide come from Switzerland, but they account for more than half of profits. Companies such as Hermès and Dior opened new watchmaking facilities in the region next to those that had always been there.
At the “Zenith” of time
One of those venerable factories is Zenith in Le Locle. 25,000 watches are produced here annually and more than 80 different professions work under one roof, all needed for each single watch. Before being allowed into the workshop, you have to don a white watchmaker’s lab coat and plastic shoes. That’s due to dust, “the watchmaker’s number-one enemy,” according to Timothée Flückiger, who is leading today’s tour. Zenith was founded in 1865 in Le Locle, one of the first watch factories in the world. People here have never thought of producing their watches elsewhere.
Love at second sight
Even though hardly anyone is familiar with the towns where the great Swiss watches are produced and Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds lead a slightly sleepy existence, the people who live here know about their hidden treasures. This is where the heart of the Swiss clock and watchmaking industry has beaten for centuries. No one can really leave here and go home without a watch, but if a Breitling or Tissot is too expensive for you, the chocolate version is always available — sweet and virtually timeless.