Bells from western Switzerland have arrived in Athens to play their traditional role in the Olympic Games.
The bells, which are made according to age-old craftsmanship, will again ring out to spur athletes to world-class performances.
Produced by the Blondeau foundry in the watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the bells’ use is confined to a moment eagerly awaited by television crews from around the globe as well as spectators: the start of the final lap.
At both track and cycle events, the Swiss bells have summoned athletes to the finishing line at Los Angeles in 1984, at Seoul in 1988, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.
The use of bells to remind athletes that the climax of the race is approaching dates back to the first Olympic games of modern times in 1896.
“While technologies have changed so much in timing and in the material used to make the track, the way that bells are made has remained traditional,” commented Serge Huguenin, who is head of the small family-run foundry.
The company owes its presence at the games over the past 20 years to the Swiss official Olympics timekeeper, Swatch.
The only exception was the year 1992 in Barcelona when Swatch’s Japanese rival Seiko carried out the timing.
Swatch has this year ordered 30 of the bronze bells, which have a diameter of 17 centimetres and weigh in at two and a half kilograms.
Only three will actually perform the job of warning the athletes, with the remainder given as presents to high-ranking officials.
“We make 30 moulds in sand, one per bell, which means that each one is unique,” Huguenin explained. It is an ancient craft, in which the bell is shaped “in a hollow”, into which a mixture of 80 per cent copper and 20 per cent tin heated to 1,200 degrees is poured.
The sand used by the Blondeau foundry comes from a quarry south of Paris, and is mixed with clay. As a result, it only needs to be made wet to keep the imprint of the decoration that will appear in relief on the bell.
For Athens, the decoration will, of course, be the Olympic rings, the logo of the games, and the name of the host city in Greek and in English.
“Making the imprints is not in our line of business,” said Huguenin. “That is more for an art foundry. But you can find any number of people locally who can do it.”
It comes as no surprise that these 30 bells which each cost SFr250 ($195) are not enough to keep this small business on its feet.
“It gives us some publicity and it is an emotional feeling to see our bells for a few seconds on the television,” Huguenin said.
Farmers in Switzerland are buying fewer and fewer bells for their cows, so the Blondeau foundry, which is one of the remaining six or seven such businesses in the country, has turned its attention towards the market for bells as souvenirs.
It also supplies about 300 bells a year to the Amish community - Anabaptists who emigrated to the United States in the 18th century, mainly from eastern Switzerland.
“They appreciate our ancient production methods,” Huguenin explained, “because our bells are cast without any use of electricity. As for the decoration, they like typical Swiss folklore.”
The foundry’s bells have also found a home with some notable personalities, including French president Jacque Chirac, who has three.
“He writes to us regularly at Christmas,” said Huguenin.
swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez
A bell rings at the Olympic Games when the athletes start the final lap of track and cycling events.
The official timekeeper of the games, Swatch, has ordered the bells from the small Blondeau foundry in La Chaux-de-Fonds since 1984.
The company has supplied bells for all Olympics but one, over the past 20 years.