The Terroir of Time: The Jura Triangle
Timing is everything in both wine and watches. So, today, we’re taking a look at some very good years in Neuchâtel, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, Bienne/Biel, and Saint-Imier.
With wine, we know that vintage refers to the specific year when the grapes used to make a bottle of wine were harvested. And when a year gets classified as a “good vintage,” it means many elements, especially the weather, were well balanced throughout that time frame. The same is true in watchmaking. Good timing is essential for an industry to thrive and grow.
The Jura Triangle, a Swiss watchmaking region bounded by La Chaux-de-Fonds to the West, Bienne-Biel to the East, and Saignelégier to the North, has enjoyed many good years and has produced some amazing horological vintages. The region is the birthplace of some of the most celebrated maisons, such as Breitling, Omega, Longines, Patek Philippe, Girard-Perregaux, TAG Heuer, and more. And like Italy or France exporting varietals to California and Australia, The Jura Triangle is also home to important parts makers, like Sellita.
The Golden Triangle
The Jura Mountains is a sub-alpine mountain range that got its name from the Jurassic period of the geologic timescale (with lakes carved out by ancient glaciers) and lends its name to the Swiss Canton of Jura. Needless to say: The history of the area goes way back (like 201 million to 145 million years back).
The first significant era in the horological development of this mountainous region came in the 1700s after Englishman Jeremy Thacker (may or may not have) invented the chronometer (a.k.a., a clock used for celestial navigation and determination of longitude).
However, back in the Jura, farmers often spent their winter months making clocks and clock parts, then using their proximity to Neuchâtel to sell their wares. An over-saturated market in Geneva also saw many full-time watchmakers relocating to the region.
By the first half of the 1800s, this cottage industry shifted away from clocks to watches. But when the Swiss railroad came to the Jura in 1844, the region saw its watchmaking businesses transform from seasonal side hustle to full-time production.
However, the tipping point came with the craze for observatory-based chronometer competitions that really hit their stride in the late 1800s. Held at astronomical observatories across Europe, like the Kew Observatory in London, these stringent and demanding competitions comprised tests that typically lasted for 30 to 50 days and contained accuracy standards that were much more challenging than today’s standards, such as those set by COSC.
One of the most famous marine chronometer contests was established in 1858 and held at the Neuchâtel Observatory in Switzerland (with pocket and wristwatches eventually being included in the competition). And as the influence of these awards grew, so too did the local watchmaking industry.
Manufactures started popping up all along the Jura railroad. And thanks to the cachet of the Neuchâtel Observatory competition, many of them had their eye on the prize.
While not quite adopting the assembly line model, the introduction of mass production to the watch industry in the US led to more accuracy, thus radically altering the direction of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Humans still played an irreplaceable role in finishing cases, dials, and mechanisms, but new jobs sprung up operating machinery, tracking parts and inventory, and coordinating the general business of manufacturing.
However, it wasn’t just the physical timepiece that changed. The standardization of manufacturing plays a pivotal part in the role pedigree plays in the secondary market. The introduction of reference numbers left a paper trail of information about the watch model, such as the materials used, the calibre, and the correct color of the bezel. Longines, for example, has been using the same sequential serial number system since 1832.
Of course, now, in 2023, provenance via proper documentation has become essential when determining the value of any watch.
Watchmaking had an outsized impact on the once-sleepy towns in the Jura & Three-Lakes region. For instance, Saint-Imier (sometimes written as “St-Imier”) is a small village. Yet, it is the birthplace of watch manufacturers such as Longines, Marvin, Leonidas, movement maker Excelsior Park, and more. The companies Breitling and TAG Heuer were even founded there as well.
Unsurprisingly, with this kind of industry boom, by 1900, the population of Saint-Imier, located halfway between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Bienne/Biel, had grown tenfold in only 50 years.
A visit to the Longines Museum in Saint-Imier provides an excellent opportunity to see how important the Neuchâtel Observatory accreditation was in marketing these newly accessible, mass-produced timepieces, with medals housed in countless vitrines alongside display boxes stamped with the brand’s prize history.
A day at the museum also illustrates how Longines parlayed its reputation into the world of sports timing, with examples of weird and wonderful contraptions created to capture the thrill of victory in sports sitting alongside the myriad medals. Over the decades, the brand has been the official timekeeper for countless competitions, from equestrian events to auto racing.
Examples of iconic Longines models on display demonstrate how influential the association with the sport was to the brand. Aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were the prototypes for the brand ambassadors we all know and love today, forever linking Longines with sport and style.
Located in the Canton of Bern, on the language border of the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, the bilingual Biel/Bienne is also home to some of the most famous watch manufacturers like Swatch, Omega, Mido, and Movado.
The town is ancient, while the city center features mainly 15th-century Gothic architecture. But the brands listed above are all noted for their modern take on watchmaking. It should also be noted that Rolex, which has factories all over Switzerland, has its technical development office here. Because, again, precision is just as important (if not more so) than fancy finishes in the Jura Triangle.
However, despite Rolex’s presence in the municipality, Omega is the “Big Daddy” in Bienne/Biel. Thus, no visit would be complete without a visit to the brand’s museum.
Like Longines, Omega has played an important role in sports timekeeping, and it has been the Official Timekeepers of the Olympic Games since 1934 (the recently released Seamaster Diver 300M “Paris 2024” in honor of the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games is a testament to this enduring partnership). As a result, the museum is filled with cameras and computers used to time historic Olympic moments.
The museum, sadly, recently found itself in the center of a scandal when it purchased a “Frankenstein” Omega Speed master ref. 2915-1 “Broad Arrow,” but the collection and a visit to the new (2019) building that it is housed in is highly recommended (the scandal merely adds a little spice to the experience).
Instead of one watchmaker working on a watch from start to finish, Jeanrichard increased efficiency and standardization by dividing the labor. For example, some employees worked on assembly while others concentrated on finishing. Later, in 1865, Zenith opened one of the first watch factories in the world in Le Locle.
La Chaux-de-Fonds (and nearby Le Locle) has since grown to become the preeminent watch town in the Swiss Jura, with as many as half of all the watches produced (Swiss-made or otherwise) being made there during the early part of the 20th century. That isn’t to say La Chaux-de-Fonds hasn’t seen some bad years because, despite its success in the early part of the 20th century, after the Quartz Crisis in the 1980s, the brands located there embraced the security of the luxury watch business.
Now, only two to three percent of watches worldwide come from La Chaux-de-Fonds, while they account for more than half of profits.
The region (i.e., Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds) is still the headquarters of such legendary maisons as Ebel, Eberhard & Co., Girard-Perregaux, Tissot, and Vulcain. Moreover, because it’s located just a few kilometers from the border, French luxury brands like Cartier, Hermès, and Dior make their watches here. Then, in 2009, UNESCO named La Chaux-de-Fonds/Le Locle a World Heritage Site.
Roots are just as important in watchmaking as they are in winemaking, and located at the apex of the Jura Triangle, La Chaux-de-Fonds is home to the Ecole d’Horlogerie – one of the big watchmaking schools in Switzerland. It is, quite literally, where they cultivate watchmakers. The area also provides parts other brands can use to grow by grafting into their watches.
The most important of these parts makers is Sellita, which has been designing and manufacturing movement components for over 70 years. When Swatch Group-owned ETA – the other big Swiss parts maker – decided to limit the sale and production of movements, Sellita became an even more important player.
Finally, just as inclement weather can ruin a vineyard, La Chaux-de-Fonds suffered a blow in July when a freak storm tore through the town, killing at least one person and damaging several buildings, including the Sellita factory.
Again, it’s a small, close-knit community (with a population of about 40,000), and our hearts go out to those who were impacted by this unfortunate event. If you have the means, we encourage you to support the community with a visit, starting with the International Museum of Horology. Like a visit to a winery, it’s the best place to sample all the flavors of the region.