Switzerland has always been well-known for famous luxury watch brands that originate from the cities of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, a watchmaking metropolis that became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.
Amongst the Canton of Neuchâtel watch towns in the Swiss Jura, La Chaux-de-Fonds is one of the most prominent. It is the base of several illustrious companies like Breitling, Corum, Dubey & Schaldenbrand, Daniel JeanRichard, Ebel, Eberhard & Co, Girard-Perregaux, Tissot, and Parmigiani.
About half of all the watches in the world during the early 20th century were produced in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The town is also home to the Ecole d'horlogerie, one of the foremost watchmaking schools in Switzerland.
Located just a few kilometers East of Le Locle, another related Swiss watch town, La Chaux-de-Fonds is often regarded as the Western summit of the Jura triangle. Its location is at an altitude of 1000m in the Jura mountains, some kilometers on the south side of the French border.
Behind Geneva, Lausanne, and Fribourg, La Chaux-de-Fonds is the fourth largest city in Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. As of December 2019, the population of the city was 37,494
The inhabitants of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds fondly refer to their clock and watchmaking nirvana as the watchmaking industry’s Silicon Valley, even though the towns are rather unremarkable at first glance.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is an old town where farmers once worked on watches with magnifying glasses and tweezers while sitting at their windows during the cold, long winters. Alongside the giant carillon, there is a museum that used to be an old farmhouse dating as far back as 1612.
Sufficient lighting is the most important tool of a watchmaker, and La Chaux-de-Fonds is strategically designed to meet this need. The town planning is similar to a chessboard, with broad streets that supply plenty of light to the surroundings.
The old watchmaking families owned Art Nouveau villas standing next to the workers' shelters. You can easily sight the big, luminous windows of the watchmaking factories and workshops. UNESCO added La Chaux de Fonds and Le Locle to its list of world heritage sites because of this outstanding cityscape.
Watchmaking was the traditional craft and an industry that provided jobs for everyone in this town in the 19th century, unlike Geneva or London where farming was the major industry. With farming sidelined, the town was able to face the rivalry from America. At the start of the 20th century, La Chaux-de-Fonds already had 40,000 inhabitants, and more than half of the watches sold all over the world were produced there.
As the watchmaking industry in La Chaux-de-Fonds grew over the years, so did the computing, robotics, and medical industries. Skilled workers in these areas also increased in number and the town could barely accommodate them. At 22 square miles, there was no more space in the city center.
Many of the companies that emerged from this development are now located in an area that residents refer to as 'the industrial zone.' It is on the three-mile road that leads to the nearby town of Le Locle.
Several big brands in the world of watches like Breitling, Cartier, Jaquet Droz, Patel Phillips, and TAG Heuer have their factories and offices there. The area also has a chocolate packaging and distribution center and an open field where cows graze.
In 1858, the Vulcain watch company was founded in La Chaux-de-Fonds. It was renowned for making watches that past US Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson wore. These presidential watches were built to include alarms.
The company has now been moved to Le Locle, but the premises are still a sight to behold. The building has been covered with fashionable lofts, but the old passageway can still be seen with its artistically decorated staircase and wood paneling.
The Villa Fallet is adorned with fir trees. It is located high up in La Chaux-de-Fonds, beside Le Corbusier. The Art Nouveau house was designed by Le Corbusier when he was only 18 years old in 1906. He grew to become a very famous architect later and when you stand in front of this structure, you can sense his genius already.
Le Corbusier, who also came from one of the watchmaking families, went to attend the local art school when he was 13 years old. It was there that his passion for architecture was roused, while he was learning the craft of engraving and enameling wristwatches.
The great importance of light to the craft of watchmakers was eventually reflected in Le Corbusier's architectural work. The Villa Turk, one of his works, is saturated with light. It was finished in 1916 and commissioned by a rich watch factory owner from La Chaux-de-Fonds.
The emergence of Quartz watches in the 1970s was devastating, and the effect hit a lot of people. La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle survived the adversity because of the towns' passionate devotion to clocks and watches. Many machines became useless and were disposed of, and thousands of people were rendered jobless.
La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle bounced back after being able to shift focus to the luxury watches sector. This has been immensely successful as more than half of the profits from watches worldwide come from Switzerland, even though only two to three percent of the total number of watches actually come from there. Luxury brands like Hermès and Dior adjusted to the situation and set up new offices and factories in the region next to the existing ones.
Founded in Le Locle in 1865, Zenith is one of the world's first watch factories. It is also one of the most reputable and respected companies in Le Locle. Every year, 25,000 watches are produced and 80 different personnel work to produce every single watch under one roof.
You have to wear white watchmaker's lab coat and plastic shoes before you are allowed to enter the factory. This is to keep out dust – the number one enemy of the watchmaker. Since its establishment, the company has never considered moving their factory to any other place.
Even though the towns where famous Swiss watches are manufactured are almost unknown to most people, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle remain relatively quiet towns. Nevertheless, the residents have a deep knowledge of their hidden treasures.
For centuries, the core of the Swiss clock and watchmaking industry has been in these towns. It is almost impossible for anyone to visit and return home without a watch. If getting a Breitling or Tissot is too costly for you, you can always get the chocolate version. It is altogether pleasant and timeless.