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swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

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Watch Valley – The Land of Precision

Clock probably made in La Chaux-de-Fonds

Caged bird with clock and small organ playing 7 tunes. The clock has a second hand, and chimes the quarter hours. Dated 1790, probably made in La Chaux-de-Fonds.© Swiss National Museum LM-71670

Watchmaker's sign on a house in La Chaux-de-Fonds

Watchmaker's sign on a house in La Chaux-de-Fonds: company founded in 1790. La Chaux-de-Fonds owed its rapid development in the 19th century to the clockmaking industry. Most of the work was carried out in people's homes.© Service d'urbanisme La Chaux-de-Fonds

Like mountains, cheese, chocolate and banking, watchmaking has long been synonymous with Switzerland. For centuries the Swiss have been renowned for their exceptional horological expertise. The Swiss watchmaking industry is concentrated in western Switzerland, in the arc formed by the Jura mountains which stretches from Geneva in the south to Basle in the north, an area which the tourism authorities have catchily named Watch Valley.

Moving further afield

Clock and watchmaking in Switzerland started in Geneva and dates back to the mid-16th century. Calvin, the great reformer and a stickler for punctuality, is partly to thank for the emergence of the Swiss watchmaking industry. He encouraged Hugenots, fleeing religious persecution in their native France, to take refuge in nearby Geneva, which by then had become a Protestant stronghold under his austere rule.  Many heeded his advice and settled in the city. Among them were master watch- and clock-makers, who would help turn Geneva into a renowned watchmaking centre. Watchmaking would later spread north and east. By the end of the 16th century, entire families in the canton of Neuchâtel worked for the watchmaking industry, and by the middle of the following century (1740) the first watchmaking workshop was established in the Vallée de Joux. Later, the mid-19th century to be precise, watchmaking would spread to a number of German-speaking cantons: first Solothurn and Bern, later Basle and Schaffhausen.

Machine tools

Not only watchmaking, but a number of machine-tool factories for the industry provided work in Watch Valley - and still do. As is typical of the Swiss engineering industry, some of these factories are world leaders in the production of niche products. Vallorbe prides itself on being the world capital of precision files; Moutier for cam-controlled automatic screw-cutting lathes with adjustable headstocks, which revolutionised watch making in the 1880s.

Tourism

For over one hundred years, 90% of Swiss watch production has been concentrated in Western Switzerland, specifically in the “arc jurassien”, the arc formed by the Swiss Jura mountain range. The fact that it is not only the heartland of the world-renowned Swiss watchmaking industry but also one of country’s most scenic regions did not escape the local tourist industry, which re-named it “Watch Valley –the Land of Precision”. In 2001, a 200 km-long heritage trail entitled “The Watchmaking Route” was launched. Each of the 38 stages of this trail celebrates Switzerland’s illustrious watchmaking tradition. It includes visits to some of the most prestigious purveyors of high-quality timepieces as well as to museums dedicated to this intricate craft. Visitors will be able to discover how watches and clocks are made, and marvel not only at the fascinating and diverse timepieces on display, but also at the surrounding countryside with its lush vineyards and chocolate-box villages. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, a trip to this region seems to make visitors lose all sense of time…

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