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 Baise 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.