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Watch Valley keeps up with the times

The 900-year-old Tour de Diesse clocktower chimes the hour in Neuchatel. Neuchâtel Tourism Office

The people of the Jura region may have thought time was running out to come up with a new image.

This content was published on November 14, 2001 - 09:44

Home to Switzerland's watchmaking industry, the authorities decided to dub the whole region "Watch Valley".

Watch Valley starts in Geneva and runs through Neuchatel, Biel, La Chaux-de-Fonds and up to Basel in the north. The placid lakes Geneva, Biel, Neuchatel and the rolling Jura mountains provide a magnificent setting for recognisable brands such as Patek Philippe, Omega, Rolex and Swatch.

The story goes that today's multi-billion dollar Swiss watch industry began in the 17th Century when Swiss farmers took up clockmaking to pass the long winter months.

Their quest for perfection is the cornerstone of what has become a prestigious industry that last year sold 30 million watches worldwide.

Quest for precision

Walter Frey, a tour guide at the International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds says that today's close association of Switzerland with quality has its roots in the Jura.

"It's the passionate search for quality and perfection. The know-how that has been passed on by several generations is a sign of the search that people have for producing quality watches."

People in this town take pride in living in the birthplace of the Swiss watch and clock industry and so La Chaux-de-Fonds makes an excellent place to start a discovery trail.

Indeed, the International Museum of Horology boasts a prize collection of close to 5,000 items dating from the 16th century to modern times.

Aladdin's cave

Walking into the museum is like entering Aladdin's cave. The building is hewn into the side of a sloping park and the collection of timepieces is dazzling.

The comprehensive collection also allows the art lover to trace the evolution of aesthetics and style from medieval times to the present by examining the gold enamelling of the Louis XVI wall clocks to the diamond-encrusted Cartier wristwatches.

The museum, along with its sister museum at Le Locle, allows the visitor to trace man's quest to measure, and so conquer time. The Bell Tower at the museum shows just how far the world has come from the days when the clock atop the church spire dominated village life.

The tower, designed by the Italian, Onelio Vignando, is an extraordinary monument to time. The steel structure looks like a giant silver organ. In the centre of the "pipes" is the Master Clock that has antennae enabling it to receive hour signals broadcast by a time station near Geneva.

The luminous digits can be read from a distance of at least 150 metres. Speakers replace the traditional bell, and play an animated sequence at each quarterly interval.

Medieval clock town

Neuchatel also boasts its share of skilled timepiece makers. The half-hour train journey from La Chaux-de-Fonds passes through verdant Jura forests.

Neuchatel lies on the shores of the lake of the same name and was once the playground of the Prussian aristocracy.

The ancient castle, which dates back to the early 1200s, gave the town its name and is a popular tourist site. The clock tower in the centre of the old town wields its own magic. Built in the late 1200s, La Tour de Diesse served as a prison and more than 700 years later, its bells still proudly ring out the hour.

Keeping the tradition alive

The lake road to St Aubin leads to the Le Castel wall clock workshop, run by Roger Wermeille. He is the third generation of clock makers to oversee the delicate and skilled production of the Le Castel clock, which is manufactured in the time-honoured way using traditional mechanical movements.

It takes eight craftsmen at least four months to make one of the wall clocks. They are individually hand-painted and made out of lime-elders and pear wood.

The idea of industrialising the process or discarding the mechanical clock movements in favour of modern technology is simply out of the question for Wermeille.

"No, never, as long as I am alive, Le Castel clocks will never use electric movement but still the Le Castel mechanical movement with very good accuracy and quality!" Wermeille declares.

"You can see that all people who work here are craftsmen who are passionate about their trade. Time is not an issue but the quality is important," he adds.

Crisis of 1970s

But it was precisely this commitment to quality that nearly caused the industry's complete collapse in the 1970s. Watchmakers were slow to embrace quartz and electronic technology, preferring to stick to mechanical watch movements.

Believing it didn't have a future, the Swiss were left behind by the Japanese who developed the much cheaper quartz technology.

The turnaround for the Swiss industry began in March 1983. A company called Swatch launched a revolutionary line of slim, plastic watches with only 51 components that combined quality with affordability.

Chiming a-new

About 200 million Swatches later, it has become the most successful watch of all time. According to Yann Engel, head of Neuchatel Tourism Office, Swatch saved the Swiss watch industry.

"It's funny because it's just a plastic watch but it was instrumental in saving the very prestigious brands. Everybody knows the name Swatch so it helps to promote the Swiss watchmaking industry," Engel says.

While Swatch brought a new way of thinking and making watches, the values of quality and precision have continued to stand the industry in good stead.

Foreign watch companies like Gucci and Bulgari have chosen Watch Valley to set up their businesses. Engel said it is the mecca of quality watchmaking.

Printed on the face of each of the watches produced here are the two words most sought-after in the world: 'Swiss Made'.

by Samantha Tonkin

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