UNESCO Adds Watchmaking To Its List Of Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO Adds Watchmaking To Its List Of Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO welcomes the Jura region’s art of watchmaking to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

By Sophie Furley

In the waning days of 2020, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization dedicated to the promotion of world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture – recognized the craftsmanship and know-how related to watchmaking and the mechanical arts in the Jura region straddling France and Switzerland by officially adding the art of watchmaking to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Why Cultural Heritage Is Important

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was ratified by Switzerland in 2008. Its mission is to protect oral traditions and expressions, the performing arts, rituals, and festive events, as well as traditional crafts and knowledge, and practices concerning nature.

A joint application had been officially submitted by both Switzerland and France in 2019, requesting cultural heritage status for a large range of mechanical arts that have been passed down from generation to generation over several centuries. And on December 16th, UNESCO granted the prestigious status, saying that the art of mechanical watchmaking stands "at the crossroads of science, art and technology."

This UNESCO cultural heritage status follows on from the 2009 inscription of the watchmaking towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle onto UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage Sites. Both towns were recognized for their architecture and urban planning and their trans-national importance due to link with the timekeeping industry and the automaton and music box manufacturing industries.

Indeed, UNESCO's Evaluation Body acknowledged the influence watchmaking skills have had on the Jura region, saying: "While these skills have primarily an economic function, they have also shaped the architecture, urban landscape and the everyday social reality of the regions concerned. They convey their own symbolism, combining notions of precision, refinement and temporality that have a significant impact on local and regional identities.

"Historically, entire families were involved in watchmaking or music box assembly, developing apprenticeship practices and professional and family alliances. The lifestyles of the inhabitants and part of their vocabulary (professional and colloquial) have been influenced by these activities. The craftspeople generally live in the buildings where their workshops are located, which, like the factories, feature large windows bringing light to the workbenches. 

"The development of know-how in mechanics goes hand in hand with the socio-economic development of the Jura Arc."

Arc Horloger

In conjunction with the UNESCO application, a bi-national steering group of craftsmen, trainers, and museum representatives put together a plan for the safeguarding of watchmaking savoir-faire, including documentation, training, transmission, and the awareness and promotion of the tradition of the mechanical arts.

The implementation of the first safeguarding measures has already started, thanks to the Arc Horloger project piloted on the Swiss side by arcjurassien.ch and Grand Besançon Métropole on the French side, in partnership with the International Watchmaking Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Federal Office of Culture, the City of Besançon/Musée du Temps and the PETR du Pays horloger.

This new UNESCO status will reinforce cross-border cooperation in the watchmaking sector through several different programs and initiatives, starting with a photographic exhibition by the International Watchmaking Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds and the Museum of Time in Besançon coming soon.

Images © UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

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