The measurement of time
The measurement of time has been a major preoccupation of humanity since the founding of religious, social and economic institutions. Calendars were established to define the succession of days, months and years and varied systems were invented to divide up the time of one day. One such system was the mechanical clock, which appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and was later improved to give rise to modern watches and clocks. Before this invention which revolutionized the measurement of time, men used ingenious processes to determine the different times of day and measure their durations. Such processes included the flow of water and sand and the burning of a candle to leave a concrete record of the passing of time.
The beginnings of watchmaking in the Jura mountains (17th century)
In the Neuchâtel mountains, watchmaking took shape slowly in the 17th century. The inhabitants of this region certainly did not invent watchmaking, however it was here that the latter found fertile soil for its development.
The relative isolation of farmers in earlier years made them used to doing everything themselves (gunsmiths, wrought ironworkers, locksmiths, lace workers). But it also forced them to travel widely in search of needed materials. This activity lent itself particularly well to the material conditions of the region. Requiring little in terms of space, raw materials and energy, it was also compatible with decentralization (isolated houses) and seasonal variations of the occupations of a rural community. At this time, economic conditions in the region still did not allow mountain craftsmen to devote all their time to watchmaking; during the summer they were farmers, and during the winter they followed their predilections for ironwork, woodwork or needlework. Many of these secondary occupations, carried on initially by way of a pastime, gradually became a means of earning a living.
Mechanical watchmaking first appeared in the form of church tower clocks, which came well before domestic clocks and preceded the watch by several centuries. Two groups of artisans were active in its development: locksmiths, responsible for cleaning, repairing and sometimes themselves constructing large clocks; and gold and silversmiths, called upon to repair more delicate pieces, who eventually sought to create similar objects.
In 1630, the inhabitants of Le Locle acquired their first church tower clock (made by Abraham Perret-dit-Tornare des Convers) and the church in La Chaux-de-Fonds was in turn equipped with a clock thirty years later. Watchmaking expertise remained relatively limited and watchmakers were a marginal presence among metal workers. Towards 1695, one could apparently still count them on the fingers of one hand.
The rapid growth of watchmaking in the Neuchâtel mountains (18th – 19th centuries)
It was in the 18th century that the die was cast for La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle in economic terms. Watchmaking activities supplanted or monopolized other industrial activities. Only lacework, reserved largely to women and children, retained an important place alongside the dominant industry.
Watchmaking now acquired the characteristics of a real industry with the system of établissage, or large workshops. The boss, known also as the établisseur, owned a workshop or factory where watchmakers inspected, finished if necessary and subsequently assembled components from various sources before carrying out the timing operation. In view of the size of production, the necessary organisation and the number of artisans involved, the term industry is applicable, even though fabrication and assembly took place in workers’ homes, with window sills serving as work benches. However, the lucrative nature of the young industry gradually led artisans to devote themselves to it exclusively.
A study carried out in 1806 estimated the total production of the Neuchâtel region at 116,500 silver watches, 14,000 gold watches and 1,100 clock movements, produced by 4,318 workers. However, given the small size of the Neuchâtel market, watchmaking relied mainly on exports. Thus, many watches and clocks were sold through distribution channels put in place by manufacturers and exporters of previously flourishing products (weapons, precious metal objects and lace). The most gifted artisans also quickly understood the need to diversify production and began designing luxury pieces (Jaquet-Droz automata), enabling them to throw off the tutelage of Geneva and compete with major European centres. Neuchâtel clockmaking reached its apogee on the eve of the French Revolution.
The rapid growth of watchmaking and its repercussions not only raised the profile of the region, but also paradoxically weakened it as a result of frequent fluctuations in production caused by structural and economic crises. The watchmaking boom attracted a new population embracing slightly different customs and mentalities, setting in train a slow process of transformation in ways of living and thinking. In 1800, the population of La Chaux-de-Fonds was verging on 5,000, ie more than Le Locle, the region’s main city and its watchmaking rival.
Watchmaking at the beginning of the 20th century
Initially craft based, watchmaking became an industry when steam, and particularly electricity, became available to operate machines. Manufacturing in the real sense changed radically from dispersed production (the établissage system) to mechanized production in manufactories, which at the outset were small in size (Longines, Movado, Zénith). This regrouping was accompanied by the creation of professional associations and trades unions. The Swiss Chamber of watchmaking and ancillary industries opened its doors in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1900 with the aim of bringing cohesion to the entire watch industry which was spread over a very wide area. The influence of watchmaking was also felt in the realms of culture and education. The School of Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds, founded in 1865, was supplemented by a technical college and a school of art, where jewellers and engravers were trained.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than a half of all watches distributed around the globe were produced in the region.
The extraordinary industrial development of watchmaking was at the root of urbanization. The typical La Chaux-de-Fonds house, replicated moreover throughout the industrial Jura region, accompanied the boom in watchmaking at the end of the 19th century. Four or five storeys high and with a steeply sloping roof, it generally contained two apartments on each floor served by a central staircase. Often terraced, these houses were aligned on the southern side of streets and the top floors frequently displayed a row of adjacent windows; forerunners of the bay window, they provided light for watchmakers’ workshops. Many of these austere buildings, constructed quickly to absorb the rapid influx of workers, showed scarcely any exterior signs of wealth. However in many cases this understatement was combined with a measure of classicism in the form of discreet cornices, pediments and piers.
At the end of the 19th century, the vogue for Art nouveau added touches of exuberance, generally discreet, in the form of interior and exterior decorations (mock marble pillars, stained-glass windows, wrought ironwork and chandeliers). In more affluent districts, many luxurious large houses displayed an astonishing architectural diversity. These were the outward signs of watchmaking prosperity and also a mark of its presence in the wider world: the manufacturers and traders who built them often left traces of architectural influences acquired on their travels broad.