La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle (World Heritage)

According to physicscat, the twin cities in the canton of Neuchâtel are unique witnesses to an industrial era that was particularly important for Switzerland. They are examples of a successful symbiosis of urban development and the watch industry in the 18th century. Roads, buildings and factories were built according to the needs of the developing watch industry.

La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle: Facts

Official title: Watchmaking urban landscape: La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle
Cultural monument: Neighboring small towns in the Swiss Jura with an economic and urban development focus on the watch industry; La Chaux-de-Fonds: first mentioned in the middle of the 14th century, since the second half of the 17th century. Development into a center of the Swiss watch industry, after the conflagration of 1794, planned construction as a “model town of the spirit” of the 18th century., important buildings from the early days of Le Corbusier; Le Locle: 1502 citizenship of Valangin, boom in the 18th century through lace making and watchmaking, since then a center of the watchmaking industry (including suppliers); well-preserved townscape from the 19th century, buildings often in Art Nouveau style; in both cities checkerboard-like floor plans, geared to the logistical requirements of industrial watch production with close links between watchmakers and factories
Continent: Europe
Country: Switzerland
Location: La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, Canton of Neuchâtel
Appointment: 2009
Meaning: Unique urban ensembles of an organic combination of private, public and industrial needs; exemplary implementation of socio-economic planning; Evidence of a homogeneous development of industrial living conditions; impressive architecture with an artistic combination of functionality and aesthetics

Swiss precision at the cutting edge

La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle in the canton of Neuchâtel are considered the cradle of watchmaking. Despite adverse conditions at an altitude of 1000 meters, resourceful city planners were already promoting a farsighted construction method 200 years ago. The unmistakable appearance of the cities testifies to the unique symbiosis of industry and urban architecture.

The area around La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle, which was only reclaimed in the 14th century, was once heavily influenced by agriculture and handicrafts. When Daniel JeanRichard (* 1665, † 1741), a Swiss mechanics enthusiast, settled in Le Locle in 1705, he met a handful of watch tinkerers. Up until then, watches were a luxury that few could afford. JeanRichard, on the other hand, decidedly took up the mission of making it possible for everyone to purchase the coveted small watch.

Step by step, JeanRichard built up an entire branch of industry in the following years. He had all processes from the manufacture of the movement to the case optimally coordinated and perfected. The great craftsmanship of the locals paid off: Production, which initially took place at home, was relocated to larger workshops. In 1857 a railway line was put into operation between the two neighboring towns. Workers from the rest of Switzerland and neighboring countries moved to the canton of Neuchâtel, whereupon the population rose sharply.

After the devastating major fires in La Chauxde-Fonds in 1794 and in Le Locle in 1833 and 1844, great efforts were made to create an infrastructure geared to the needs of the flourishing watch industry. The new, right-angled streets according to a design by the engineer Charles-Henri Junod had advantages not only for the manufacturers. The residential and production facilities under one roof saved the residents long distances to desolate factories on the outskirts – rather, the entire area developed into a pulsating living space. According to precise plans, further streets were built in a chessboard-like manner if space was needed. This system also made it easier to remove massive amounts of snow in the winter months. The long rows of four to five-story houses with usually two residential units per floor were characteristic of the cityscape. The large windows and glazing in the studios enabled the watchmakers to work in daylight. For this reason, too, the houses faced south. The white limestone of the Neuchâtel Jura was often used as a building material that could be mined in large quantities at low cost. In this expansion phase, the quick and functional procurement of living and working space was what counted. Almost half of the population was already employed in the watch industry at the end of the 19th century. Unnecessary decorative elements were largely avoided, far more important were spacious green areas and inner courtyards for relaxation.

In contrast to Le Locle, which was limited in its spatial extent by its location in a trough-shaped valley, La Chaux-de-Fonds was able to grow unchecked. It was thanks to the technical innovations in the 19th and 20th centuries that production achieved an unprecedented level of dynamism. Steam generators supplied the companies with sufficient electricity. La Chaux-de-Fonds had almost 40,000 residents in 1910, Le Locle around 13,000. At the beginning of the 20th century, half of the world’s watch production took place in the factories in this canton.

The most magnificent buildings in the cities also date from this period. Richly decorated art nouveau facades testify to the wealth and sophistication of well-traveled merchants. With the opening of the watchmaking school in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1865, the watchmaking tradition was able to take root even deeper in the region. An arts and crafts school and the technical center completed the educational offer.

Economic growth in the middle of the 20th century seemed to further cement the excellent reputation of the watchmaking cities. But cheap competing goods from Asia meant death in installments for many small manufacturers. Of the former 150,000 employees in the Swiss watch industry, only about 30,000 are left today. Le Locle was hit harder by this development than La Chaux-de-Fonds; the population has declined sharply since the 1970s, while it stagnated in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Modern technologies were able to settle in both places. Manufacturers of microtechnical and medical devices now contribute just as much to the region’s economic power as watch manufacturers. Anyone who owns a watch from the region today can – as in pre-industrial times – count themselves among the lucky few

Nowhere else is the amalgamation of urban living space with watch manufacture so clearly visible as in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. The cities formerly planned from the drawing board testify to the civilizational effort to use the technical development for a progress for the whole population. Reason enough for UNESCO to recognize the twin cities as a World Heritage Site in June 2009. Karl Marx already described the peculiarity of watchmaking cities in his work Das Kapital: “This whole city is a factory.”

La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle (World Heritage)