Most of the people know that Switzerland is famous for producing high-quality watches. Most people also know at least one or two Swiss watch brands such as Omega, Longines, Tissot, IWC, Breitling, TAG Heuer, Zenith, Blancpain, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet and so on. However, do you know from where did this watchmaking industry start? If you are fascinated by watches, you have to visit the two towns called La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, located in the Jura mountain range, for they are not only the birthplaces of many Swiss watch-producing companies, but also UNESCO World Heritage sites as a result of an innovative town planning in service of this particular booming industry.
First of all, I’d like to say many thanks to Tiana from the Tourism office in La Chaux-de-Fonds who arranged a 5-hour interesting and informative tour for me for the two towns listed in the UNESCO World Heritage. As my guide said, without the knowledge of what happened here or how the two towns turned out to be what they are like today, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle are merely two ordinary peaceful towns like many others in Europe. However, after knowing about their history you will start to appreciate them and understand why they are protected by the UNESCO.
My strongest suggestion is that you should visit the Welcome Center or Tourism Office (Espacité 1
2302 La Chaux-de-Fonds) or Info Point (Espace de l’Urbanisme horloger, Rue Jaquet-Droz 23) in La Chaux-de-Fonds first for getting some tips about how to explore these two towns. I can assure you that people working there are super warmhearted and friendly. Like Tiana, they are more than happy to help, all the time. I will of course provide some tips here but my last trip was focused on the “Watchingmaking Town Planing” theme and if you are interested in the theme “Art Nouveau” or the theme “Le Corbusier” you might need to get more info from the Welcome Center or Info Point. I want to remind you that the two towns are closely connected and related so you can obtain the tourist information about visiting both towns in La Chaux-de-Fonds already. However, if you plan to go to Le Locle first without passing by La Chaux-de-Fonds, you can also get the information about visiting this town in the town hall (Hôtel-de-ville) or Office du Tourisme du Locle.
Opening Hours of the Tourist Welcome Centre
- Monday to Friday: 9 a.m. – 12 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. – 5.30 p.m.
- Saturday: 9 a.m. – 12 a.m.
July and August
- Monday to Friday: 9 a.m. – 6.30 p.m
- Saturday: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Opening Hours of the Tourist Information Point
May to October
Monday to Sunday: 10 a.m. – 12 a.m. and 1p.m. – 4.30 p.m
November to April
Monday to Sunday: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Tourisme neuchâtelois – Montagnes
- Telephone: +41 (0) 32 889 68 95
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this post, I’ll first of all give you some suggestions concerning how to make full use of your visit here in these two towns and then I’ll explain to you why the two special towns are inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list. By the end, I’ll recommend to you some of the buildings or historical moments that I visited and impressed me during my 5-hour guided tour. Of course I’ll also share with you some of my thoughts and tips to make your trip more pleasant, comfortable and meaningful.
1. How to make full use of your time here to explore the two towns
As I’ve mentioned above, either the Welcome Center (Espacité 1, 2302 La Chaux-de-Fonds) or the Info Point (Espace de l’Urbanisme horloger, Rue Jaquet-Droz 23) in La Chaux-de-Fonds is the first place you should visit. The Welcome Center is located at the ground floor of the Espacité Tower (as shown in the pic above), from the 14th floor of which you will have a panoramic view of the whole town and its surrounding mountains. You can take a lift to the 14th floor directly and for free and have some drinks or snacks in the café while appreciating the view. From here, you will have a clear and direct idea of how this town was planned when you see the linear center, old districts and its checkerboard of streets.
The Info Point is located in the Espace de l’urbanisme horloger (as shown in the pics above), a multimedia room, designed entirely for the watchmaking town planning of La Chaux-de-Fonds. I recommend a visit to the “Watchmaking town planning” showroom because whether you wanna explore this town by foot or with a guide, this free exhibition room together with a 15-minutes movie about the history and development of La Chaux-de-Fonds, explains why the town was built that way, and why the town planning is on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2009. A basic understanding of this town’s industrial heritage and unique urban concept that you will gain in this showroom will form the basis, on which your deeper, more detailed knowledge gained by your later visit of the town, will be built.
You can visit the two towns by yourself, with a guide or by the tourist trains. Reserving in advance with the La Chaux-de-Fonds Tourism Office, you will also have the opportunity to attend various workshops, observing and learning how to make mechanical watches. In certain workshops, you can even make your own watch and take it home.
The schedules of the tourist trains are:
Departs from Place Espacité at 2, 3 and 4 p.m.
- May, June, September and October: Saturday, Wednesday
- July and August: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
Departs from Place du Marché
From May to October :
- Thursday at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. (duration : 40 minutes).
- Sunday at 1.30 p.m. and 3 p.m. (duration : 1.15 hour).
If you wanna have more freedom and explore the two towns by yourself, it is a good idea to get some brochures from the tourism office to guide you through them. For example you can obtain free brochures (guidebooks) such as “Watchmaking town planning La Chaux-de-fonds/Le Locle” if you wanna know more about watchmaking town planning. If you are interested in architecture you can get the brochure “Le Corbusier La Chaux-de-Fonds/Le Locle” and if you are interested in art, you can get “Art nouveau La Chaux-de-Fonds”. If you are not sure what you are especially interested you can just get the brochure “La Chaux-de-Fonds/Le Locle on foot” and see in which aspect your interest develops. The visit can be long or short based on your own needs and how deep you want aknow about these towns and from my personal experience, I suggest 2 hours in each town will help you gain a better understanding. Don’t forget a get a city map of the two towns as it is also marked with important buildings or monuments and provides you with detailed information about the routes.
Last but not least, from my own experience, I suggest the reservation for a guided tour. What can be a better idea than exploring the towns accompanied by the locals who grew up here and are passionate about their own history and culture?
I had really positive experience with my guide Myrianne, who is kind, patient and familiar with the history and culture in that region. It’s really different to hear about a town from one who has been living there and from the written texts in the books. What Myrianne showed to me was much more than her knowledge but her love and memory of her home and life. She told me that her grandma was a watch maker and she even showed me what kind of box they used to use to store and transport the tiny components of a watch. She also told me that her grandma used to make watches just in the dining room when they were have family meals. She didn’t learn about the history of the towns from the books. She lived them and therefore, she gave me a more vivid and impressive image of what life was like in the two towns at that time. That is to say, she made it much easier for me to understand how the mixture of living and producing places responded to not only functionality, economy but also the quality of life.
One more tip for you is that if you plan to visit Le Locle, don’t forget to visit the town hall and you’ll be able to get a brochure about the town hall and another one called “Le Locle and watchmaking”. For me, they are both quite interesting and informative. I’ll talk more about the town hall in the third chapter together with the buildings that impressed me pretty much.
In the next chapter, I’ll talk about how watchmaking evolved from a craft to an industry and how did this industry influence the two towns’ landscape planning. If you are wondering why is town planning inscribed in UNESCO World Heritage, you will find the answer soon.
2. Watchmaking town planning as UNESCO World Heritage
The most important question in understanding watchmaking town planning is, what are the key factors in watchmaking industry? First of all, light, and then transportation. Before the invention and wide use of lamp, natural light is the only source for watchmakers to see the tiny components. Fortunately, with an altitude of 1000 meters and with no lakes closely, there has been basically no fog in these two towns. However, this high altitude brings advantages and causes trouble at the same time. In winter, the snow can be so thick that the piles are as high as people. In order to make full use of the advantages and solve the problems, rational, pragmatic and innovative planning is of great importance.
In order to know about these two towns, let’s hear about their history first. The two twin towns are located in the Swiss Jura mountain range, on the land unsuitable for farming. With the discovery of a spring, Le Locle, the second industrial town in the canton of Neuchâtel, with many world-famous brands established here, was actually firstly inhabited and the story of watching making started here. From 1630 to 1639, Le Locle witnessed the presence of the first known watchmakers. In 1683, 1765 and 1833, three fire accidents destroyed a large part of the town but it was rebuilt according to a geometrical model, using a plan by Charles-Henri Junod. From 1750-1800, watchmaking developed to a striking extent and the population grew to a large extent as well. It’s the same case from 1850 to 1900. The boom in watchmaking continued, particularly in the field of marine and pocket chronometers. The year 1868 marked the opening of the school of watchmaking. However, from 1970 to 1979, the economic crisis strongly affected the town’s economy and the population dropped by more than 2000 people.
As for La Chaux-de-Fonds, a watchmaking metropolis today, the year 1780 witnessed the economic expansion thanks to watchmaking industry, lace manufacturing and metal forging. In 1794, a huge fire destroyed 62 houses, almost razed the large village to the ground, but the reconstruction was done in time. In 1835, the town expanded on the north side of the valley following the main principles of the “chequerboard” plan suggested by Charles-Henri Junod. In 1900, La Chaux-de-Fonds became the center of the watch production and trading and single watchmaker workshops started to transform into structured watch manufactures. However, in 1975, because of the economic crisis, 1000 inhabitants left the city and 2000 jobs were lost.
In the year 2009, both towns were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list for their watchmaking town planning.
As you can see from above, the two twin towns are closely related and seem to have similar fate. Both of them were partially destroyed during the fire but were reconstructed according to the “Chequerboard” plan designed by Charles-Henri Junod. Both of them had their own economic ups and downs because of their watchmaking industry at almost the same period of time. Both of them are perfect examples of the symbiosis between urbanism and industry and both of them are tailored to the requirements of watchmaking industry and built to serve the purpose of watchmaking.
The inscription into the UNESCO World Heritage list confirms that the two towns provide an international reference for watchmaking industry and the correlation between tradition and innovation, watchmaking industry and the wellbeing of its population. The urbanism (town planning) and architecture of the two towns are intentionally adapted to the needs of the watchmakers as well as the developing industry of watchmaking. What’s more important is that the architecture is well-preserved from the 18th century to the present in terms of originality and authenticity and is still active and developing nowadays.
As shown in the picture above, Roulet SA was a company founded by Jules Alfred Roulet, famous for in speciality making small clocks (pendulettes). It is a perfect example of a mixed construction, where residential places are interwoven with workshops, watchmaking space and living space co-exist. Apartments, offices and workshops are located in the same building. This building typifies this district throughout the beginning of the 20th century.
You must be wondering that isn’t it noisy for the residents if they live so close by the factories? Is the air polluted? Well, thanks to the advantages of making watches, it is a rather quiet and clean business and as I’ve experiences in the two towns, the factories don’t actually affect the life quality of the residents except that there might be traffic jam during rush hours.
As the UNESCO comments,
The watchmaking urban ensemble of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle demonstrates outstanding universal value as these twin manufacturing-towns constitute an exceptional example of organic urban ensembles entirely dedicated to a single industry. They have been constructed by and for watchmaking. They are the product of an extremely close symbiosis between socio-technical needs and responses provided by town planning choices. Watchmaking has given rise to a remarkable architectural typology in the built structure. Housing designed for home working is situated alongside owners’ houses, workshops, and more recent factories, in a homogeneous and rational urban fabric that is open to the outside. The two towns bear witness to the exceptional uninterrupted continuation of a living and world-renowned watchmaking tradition, which has succeeded in coping with the socio-technical and economic crises of the contemporary world.
If you are bored of listening to the history or the value of the two towns, from theory to practice, in the next chapter, I’ll focus on the important or representative buildings or monuments in these two towns. If you are a fan of Swiss watches, I believe you will be interested in the brands such as Tissot, Zenith, Mont Blanc etc. Now follow me to have an industrial adventure in Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds.
3. An industrial adventure in the two towns
Well-lit rooms were being used to house the workbenches. Rows of windows are indicating the presence of workshops for the “établisseurs” who were the link between watchmakers and the merchants. This stroll in the two towns will help you to discover the houses and individuals whose originality and creativity marked the history of watches and watchmaking.
It is here that all started… As written in the introduction of Le Locle, this town is usually referred to the mother town of watchmaking industry. Over 3 centuries, most of the biggest names in watchmaking industry have come here. Today, the presence of an office of the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute bears witness to Le Locle’s reputation as the town of precision. Local legend has it that, the young man Daniel JeanRichard, as the statue in the picture above shows, is the founder of the watchmaking industry in Neuchâtel. He, together with many other families here was originally lace-makers in this region. At the age of 14, he met a merchant who was on his business trip and was passing by this region. The merchant’s watch was broken and he asked young Daniel JeanRichard to try to fix and he would pick it up on his way back. In about a year, Daniel visited the watchmaking workshops in Geneva but as a village boy, not much attention was paid to him. Benefited from the know0-how of the local population, he succeeded obtaining the tools he needed and fixed the watch. What’s more, he made a copy of the watch by himself. Since then, he had discovered that making watches made much more money than making laces and he decided to keep on with it and became the first watchmaker of this region. At the beginning, he hired 3 apprentices and afterwards, his 5 sons and 2 daughters joined him in this business. A commemoration to his took place in 1841, 100 years after his death and the statue was erected to remember him in 1888.
Behind the statue is the watchmaking school in Le Locle which was opened in 1868. If you take a look at the two front doors located at both sides you will notice that the school and the controlling office are in the same building. The controlling office is of course of great importance because no one wants the bad quality of metal to destroy the good reputation of the watchmaking industry in Le Locle.
The general atmosphere in these two towns that I visited is relaxing and friendly. My guide and I were basically saying “Bonjour” to everyone we met on the way. In front of the town hall, politicians were also wandering around, welcoming either the locals or the tourists (at the beginning, I didn’t know who he was until my guide told me he’s one of the five most important politicians in town). I guess this is a rather different case from the politicians in big cities. Anyway, all that I wanna emphasize is that the quality of life here is positive and people here are warmhearted.
Located in the center of Le Locle, the town hall, with its exterior walls decorated with monumental frescos by the artist Biéler and the interior adorned with tempera paintings by the artist Blailé, is undoubtedly the most decorated building. You can enter the town hall and visit the three floors by yourself seven days a week but if you wanna visit the rooms you will have a borrow the keys from the secretarial office in exchange with your ID card. You can get brochures at the entrance about the town hall or about the famous historical people and buildings in Le Locle. They are quite useful if you wanna gain a more deeply understanding about the history and culture of the town hall and the town.
In the town hall, you will be able to see the Weeding Room, Municipal Council Meeting Room, General Council Meeting Room, “Time and Town Planning” area on the third floor and of course many paintings, models, frescos. When you are on the third floor, you will see two paintings show Le Locle from two different directions. The town hall itself is also a masterpiece in the aspect of the blending of art. “Neo-Rainassance elements are presented in the form of the mullion windows and the window arcades. The Heimatstil can be seen in the large vaults of the roof, and Art Nouveau is evident on the capitals of the columns and the fresco.”
As you can see from the fresco in front of the town hall, the epigraph reads that “Men have divided the course of the sun, and determined the hours”. Astronomers are features in the painting, reminding us that “time is the moving image of eternity” (Plato). You will also be able to find truth, history, justice, arts and sciences on this fresco in the form of mythological figures.
The next building I wanna introduce to you is an elegant patrician mansion which once house the company Dubois. It is here that one of Switzerland’s most watchmaking firms was founded. Among many watchmakers for Philippe Dubois several are JeanRichard’s sons. You can easily notice that the windows are wide and closely arranged on the ground floor for the purpose of better light as well as the east access to watch traders. You can still see the church opposite to this mansion, which in old times on Sundays, summoned the watchmakers, traders and workers to pray.
Nowadays, this mansion has turned to be a B&B but don’t miss the charming dining room and its old watchmaker’s work bench. Isn’t it exciting to see how this prosperous industry started in this tea room which has preserved the atmosphere of the watchmaking workshop?
The building shown below is the Tissot agency in 1853, when Charles-Félicien Tissot, in association with his son Charles-Emile, founded a firm of établisseurs.
In 1907, due to the developing and expansion of the company, Tissot took up its quarters at the Plateau du Stand. In 1930, Charles and his son Paul Tissot made a commercial and industrial agreement with the Brandt brothers, founders of the Omega factory in Bienne. Since then, the “Swiss Company for the Watchmaking Industry” was born. Paul’s sister Marie Tissot ran the factory in Le Locle while Paul was appointed commercial director of Omega. Together they developed magnetic, automatic, watertight and calendar watches. In the next 60 years, Tissot has witnessed its own ups and downs but in 1989, it regained its reputation in the international market thanks to the success of the “rockwatch”, the “pearlwatch” and the “woodwatch”. In 1997, various departments left Bienne and returned to Le Locle. In 2003, Tissot was the leader in terms of volume for traditional watches made in Switzerland.You will be able to see the huge factory from everywhere in Le Locle and please note that it is possible to visit the factory if you make a request in advance.
In the early 20th century, the owners of the watchmaking factories were no longer satisfied with living in the factories, thus, they built their own mansions of new architectural style. Even till nowadays, these mansions form a contrast with the surrounding factories. Two of the buildings are especially notable along the rue des Tourelles, No.4 and No.10. No.10 was originally built for the Tissot family but now it’s acquired by Montblanc Montre SA. In 2003, the increasing demand and the success of the watches led Montblanc to extend the mansion. As you might have already known, Montblanc was originally famous for making fountain pens. Although a Swiss company founded in 1997 in Le Locle, the first pens were made and exhibited in Hamburg, Germany. At that point, the owners were having a problem with the name of the company. However, they claimed that the Montblanc pens were the best pens in all aspects. Therefore they decided to take the name of the highest peak in Europe for their company to show how magnificent the pens are. Unfortunately, Montblanc Montre SA doesn’t allow visitors to get in and making pictures close to the building is also not allowed…
Don’t ignore the building No.4 on rue des Tourelles. It has been the manufactory of Vulcain since 1858. In 1947, the first wristwatch with a veritable, functioning mechanical alarm was presented by the Vulcain manufactory. For the first time, a watch with a mechanical alarm which is powerful enough to wake up its owner was born. Since then, Vulcain watches have turned to be “watches of the presidents”. American presidents from Harry S. Truman onwards, each of them and other eminent figures around the world have owned a Vulcain watch.
The Zénith watchmaking factory was founded by Georges Favre-Jacot in 1865. Since then, various extensions and conversions took place. Inspired by the American methods they discovered at the Philadelphia Universal Exhibition in 1876, the scale of watch production has changed rapidly from small to large. Consisting of a foundry, brickworks, private houses, workers’ quarters and manufacturing premises, this complex has become the kingdom of watchmaking. As mentioned in the brochure of “Le Locle and watchmaking”,
from the eye to the hand and from drawings to a finished watch, everything focuses on beauty. Each piece, each hand, each dial reveals challenges that have been taken up and met.
It is said that by next year, it is possible to visit parts of this kingdom with reservation in advance.
Below is the former post office dating back to the mid-19th century. Till 1974, it has always housed offices for craftsmen’s workshops and local societies. The top floor used to be an old watchmaking school before the watchmaking school in Le Locle opened in 1868.
This is the only fountain in Le Locle that won’t be frozen in winter because the water comes from the underground spring.
Having talked a lot about Le Locle, now let’s come back to La Chaux-de-Fonds. As I’ve mentioned in the first chapter, the observation deck on the 14th floor of the Espacité Tower and the Espace de l’urbanisme horloger are two must-visit places in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
You will see a lot about the town on the 14th floor of the Espacité Tower. For example, the Fontaine Monumentale. It was built in 1888 to mark the arrival of running water in La Chaux-de-Fonds via an imposing, 20 km supply system from springs in the Areas Gorges.
From nowhere else will you be able to see how these residential houses and workshops are interwoven along an open-ended scheme of parallel trips.
In the picture below, to your right is the oldest part of the town. The point I was standing at gives a clear view of how different the layout of the houses to the right and to the left are.
This long road shown in the picture below will lead you to Le Locle directly. This was the road that when the watchmaking industry was flourishing, connected these two towns with the outside. This was the road around which the oldest houses were built. This was the road that brought the watches to the world. It might not be as broad as Champs-Élysées but it certainly is of vital importance to the prosperity of the two towns.
It is the former industrial college where Le Corbusier started his career.
This is an unusual mansion with a workshop, adjacent factory and lodgings. I was really surprised when I saw this building because at first, it’s really beautiful but on the other hand, how could someone just build and add other buildings or sections to their original house…
This house is not only remarkable for its impressive size but also for its curved eastern facade. The gable windows on the top floors are typical of former watchmaking workshops.
After strolling across the chequerboard streets in La Chaux-de-Fonds, I believe you will notice the similarity of almost all the houses, a house together with a garden. The garden is shared by all the residents in the same house but is still private property to the people who are not living in this house. The guide told me that taking care of the garden together makes the relationship between the neighbors much better. However, nowadays, owners of some of the houses have changed the gardens into garages.
In this house, the staircase is a striking example of Art Nouveau.
Having said so much I guess you must feel tired reading so many words. Actually, why not taking a walk in the two towns and taking a look at the buildings themselves? I can assure you that they are much more vivid and impressive than my words. Also, I’d like to apologize that due to time limit, many of the great names or buildings are not yet mentioned in this post. You will definitely be shocked after knowing how much you can see in and how much you can learn from these two “small” towns.
This post is one of the serial posts about the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland. If you are interested please take a look at the posts below and experience the cultural and natural richness of this wonderful country.
- Abbey of St Gall
- Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair
- Old City of Berne
- Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona
- Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch
- Monte San Giorgio
- Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces
- Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes
- Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona
- La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, Watchmaking Town Planning
- Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
- The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement