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Philippe Suchard

El "Industrial" fue el primer buque de vapor en el Lago de Neucastel. (in new window)

The Industriel, the first iron steamship on Lake Neuchâtel. Suchard keenly promoted steam navigation, and personally captained the Industriel for several years.© Museum of Art and History, Neuchâtel

Suchard's house in Serrières (in new window)

Suchard's house in Serrières. The minaret, inspired by a journey to the Middle East in 1865, is still there today.© Suchard-Tobler archive

Philippe Suchard (1797 - 1884) was not only a major chocolate manufacturer, but was involved in a range of enterprises aimed at economic development.

According to the memoirs of his sister Rosalie, he was first struck by the money-spinning possibilities of chocolate manufacturing at the age of about 12, when he went to Neuchâtel - a two hour walk from his home village - to buy chocolate as a medicine for his sick mother. A mere 500 grams (just over one pound) cost as much as a labourer could earn in three days. Six years later, he embarked on his career by becoming an apprentice to his brother, already a well-known confectioner in Bern.

After eight years of hard work he used his savings to travel to America, on his return set up a modest factory in what is now the Neuchâtel suburb of Serrières, where a river emerging from a spring has cut a deep gorge. The regular flow of the water had long been used for mills of various kinds; Suchard put it to use to drive his machinery. When he started manufacturing, he employed only two people, and they produced 25-30 kg (55-65 lb) of chocolate per day.

In 1826 he designed a new mixing machine which combined sugar and cocoa powder more efficiently. The machine consisted of a shallow warmed granite dish and granite rollers moving backwards and forwards over it. The basic method is still used today.

Suchard did not enjoy instant success; chocolate was expensive and regarded by many people as suspiciously exotic, and orders were slow at first. But by a strange quirk of history Neuchâtel was not only a Swiss canton, it simultaneously also belonged to the far-away King of Prussia, and in 1842 Suchard received an order for his chocolate from the royal court in Berlin. The factory eventually took off, and was soon marketing its output abroad as well as in Switzerland. Suchard chocolate won gold medals at the London's Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855.

In 1880 Suchard was the first Swiss chocolate maker to set up a factory abroad, in Lörrach in Germany, just over the border from Basel. By the early 1880s the Suchard company was producing about half the total national output of chocolate, and employing about half the total number of people working in the industry.

Other activities

Philippe Suchard did not confine himself to improving chocolate. In 1834 he brought the first iron steam ship to Lake Neuchatel, the Industriel, and followed this up the next year with a steam ship on Lake Thun. (This ship, the Bellevue, sank in a storm in 1864; it was found again in 2002.) His experience with shipping led him to back projects to regulate the rivers of the Jura region, which had the effect of lowering the levels of Lakes Biel, Murten and Neuchatel and putting an end to centuries of flooding. (The newly created shoreline also helped reveal the Celtic settlement of La Tène dating back to around 450 BC, one of the most important archaeological finds ever made in Switzerland.)

He had business interests in activities as different as the production of silk, macaroni and asphalt. In addition he founded the Swiss colony of Alpina in the US to exploit local iron ore deposits - an enterprise which eventually failed with significant financial loss.

He also established a Temperance Café at a local beauty spot, the Areuse Gorge, where tourists could take a free cup of chocolate. At the same time they were encouraged to contribute to the construction of a road through the gorge.

He was a great traveller, crowning his many trips with a five-month round-the-world journey in 1873 - when he was 76 years old.

The family lived next door to the factory. Their house still stands out in Serrières thanks to the minaret which Philippe Suchard built on the roof, inspired by a journey to the Middle East in 1865. The use of asphalt in the construction of the house reflected another of Suchard's interests.

The company built homes for some of its workers just down the road on the shore of Lake Neuchatel; they are also still there, but the shore has receded since their construction (as a result of the correction of the Jura waters) and they are now several hundred meters from the water's edge. The workers' settlement aroused such international interest that an exact replica of one of the houses was built in Paris for the Universal Exhibition of 1900.