A small valley in the south-western part of the Jura massif, barely 25 kilometres from end to end, with around 6,200 inhabitants, 3 communes and 10 villages; no skyscrapers, but enterprises and farms – all moreover devoted to the art of watchmaking – and inhabitants who refer affectionately to this place as The Valley. Contrary to what might be expected from its isolated geographical situation, the Joux Valley boasts an impressive CV. The cradle of high-end mechanical watchmaking for more than two centuries, it is home to some of the most prestigious brands and irreplaceable suppliers. A wealth of expertise has accumulated in the Valley in world-renowned manufactories and artisans’ small workshops, in the skills passed on from father to son, in the architecture of the buildings, sometimes even written on their facades, as is the case for example of L’Essor, a building brimming with history.
L’Essor is a stone building. This apparently anodyne detail testifies however to an important cultural shift. In the 17th century, watchmaking skills were spread far and wide in farms. Farmers, glad of a source of additional income to help them subsist on their land, plied the watchmaker’s trade in winter, each on his own farm. A building that concentrated watchmaking skills in one place therefore denoted a new organisation of labour, as the system of “établissage* gradually gave way to industrialisation, bringing workers together on a single site. The typical architecture of the L’Essor building attests to these changes: three floors with wide mullioned windows lining the front of the building without interruption, flooding the rooms with light so that craftsmen could ply their meticulous trade not singly, but as a workforce.
L’Essor: from a factory to a museum
The story begins 95 years ago. In 1917, the company Zénith had two factories built, one in Les Charbonnières, the other in Le Sentier. Their purpose was to allow the manufacturer to benefit from the techniques and specializations of the Joux Valley. Ten years later, the manufactory changed hands and became the property of Jacques David LeCoultre. The latter renamed the factory “L’Essor”, which in French means rapid development or expansion: an apt name in view of what it was to become.
In 1928, the manufactory built avant-garde products, in particular the new 11-line movement. An annex was constructed to house a workshop where cases, bezels and movements were nickel-plated. Two years later an assortments workshop was installed which mass-produced escape-wheels, pallets, rollers and balances. On the first floor, behind the double windows of the factory’s workshops, the watchmakers of LeCoultre & Cie worked at assembling watch movements. On the ground floor, a surface treatment laboratory gave watch components a fine metallic protective coating. This system was to remain in place for nearly 30 years.
In 1979, the commune of Le Chenit bought the former watchmaking factory. The edifice kept its name and was converted into a social and cultural centre for the people of the Joux Valley. It remained as such until 1995 when it took a new direction. Under the leadership of a group of impassioned teachers from the Technical College, the Museum of Watchmaking was established, the first of its kind in the canton of Vaud.
1996, the canton of Vaud has its first watch museum
Setting its sights high but deservedly so, the Museum threw light on the sophisticated technologies of watchmaking and the richness and diversity of complicated movements: minute-repeater, grand strike, split-seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar, tourbillion, phase of the moon, etc.
Two exhibition floors featured Comtê clocks from the Albert Jean collection, which includes more than 200 timepieces, as well as old clocks from the 16th to the 19th century from Germany, Italy, France and England, and lastly contemporary timepieces created by watch manufacturers established in the Joux Valley, rubbing shoulders with the spectacular mammoth skeleton discovered during excavations in the region. While the Praz-Rodet Mammoth is no longer in residence, its presence left an indelible mark on the building.
A site brimming with history, filled with exhibits bearing the hallmarks of true genius: and yet the museum’s different rooms failed to spark any great interest among the three thousand or more visitors who came each year. The tick-tock of the exceptional timepieces on display gradually became muffled… The museum did not open every day and little by little lost touch with its role as a witness to the Joux Valley’s watchmaking heritage and the guardian of its expertise. The task then was to find an image and a vector of communication on a par with its ambitions, and to spread word far and wide of its existence, its location and its unique character.
Photos: Collection J.- Devaud, Vincent Hofer