Watchmaking Tourism Saga – La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle Region
Welcome to the 3rd episode of our watchmaking tourism saga. Today we’re in La Chaux-de-Fonds and its surrounding area, a region where many brands and many suppliers of the watchmaking industry are located. We’ll start with a little focus on the city, which is one of the largest at this altitude in Europe at 1,000 meters with a population of approximately 40,000 people. And at 40,000 it is the 3rd largest French-speaking city in Switzerland, which gives you a bit of perspective on the size of this country…
We often laugh among ourselves concerning the very special weather that people endure here: statistically speaking, there are 150 days per year with sub-zero temperatures and snow is regularly part of the picture! At the same time, this city benefits from quite sunny conditions as it is located above the layer of clouds often found in other parts of Switzerland.
But let’s go back to the watchmaking dimension of this region because it has really played an important role in the development of this industry and continues to do so.
Following on what we showed you that happened in Geneva and the Vallée de Joux and the importance of immigration of French protestant craftsmen, the same can be said as having taken place in these valleys. Watchmaking occupied a lot of farmers during the harsh winter periods during the 17th and 18th centuries. But as this industry grew, so did the rationalisation of fabrication methods, and people started to specialise in the different skills required to produce a full watch. The notion of a web and network of connected suppliers emerged, a principle that prevailed for a long time before the current verticalisation that we see today among the power houses of watchmaking.
Big drama took place in 1794 with a massive fire destroying almost all of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Watchmaking being already a big economic driver, rebuilding the city was seen as an opportunity and a very clever and comprehensive approach to make it as efficient as possible to support the development of the industry that followed. A grid approach was adopted for the streets in order to optimise circulation from one supplier to the next, and streets were made larger than what they had previously been. This helped with snow shovelling, but also with the simple fact that buildings would not cast shadows upon each other, light being so important for watchmakers to be able to see what they are doing!
But the reconstruction didn’t stop at these architectural parameters, and the social dimension was also greatly taken into consideration. Interactions between different social classes were also highly encouraged, as these new buildings would house not only workshops, but also their workers and bosses in the same units. Small gardens in front of houses let people grown their own vegetables, for instance, very similar to the concepts of urban farming that we are talking about today.
The cultural offering was also totally remarkable and of great quality, boasting theatres, concert halls with outstanding acoustics, and conference auditoriums. And the successful watchmakers themselves directly sponsored much of this infrastructure and the cultural performances. All this created a greater sense of solidarity, and the city as a whole was portrayed as a huge factory town, even described as an example by Karl Marx!
The basis of watchmaking industrialisation was set, and by the end of the 19th century almost half of the world’s watch production came out of this region.
The sister city of La Chaux-de-Fonds is called Le Locle, also built using the same grid principle, and between them one can say that they were at the epicentre of Swiss watch production until the 1980s, before the quartz revolution made a massive impact on mechanical watchmaking.
Because of all these very special urban features, La Chaux-de-Fond and Le Locle have been listed as a World Heritage Site of UNECSO, and I can guarantee you that people here are super proud of that.
Among some important people outside of watchmaking originating from La Chaux-de-Fonds, I would like to mention architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, whose first works can be found here – well before other major projects in other parts of the world where the notion of collective architecture took on a special meaning. I would also like to mention Louis Chevrolet, founder of the Chevrolet Motor Company. This probably presents quite a surprise, but he must have taken some of this industrial and well planned background to the US.
If you come to visit this region, you should know there are 2 important watch museums, the International Watch Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds hosting one of the biggest watch collections on display in the world, and the Museum des Monts just above Le Locle, which also has some very interesting pieces on exhibition.
And please bring some warm clothes with you!!