A single sentence says it all… I admit that I really enjoy watching the incredulous expression on the faces of visitors who have just arrived in La Chaux-de-Fonds when I tell them that our town is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. “Really?” they answer with raised eyebrows, looking around in search of something like the Taj Mahal that might justify the classification.
The explanation lies elsewhere, as a brief historical review will show. From the 12th century, settlers came to the region, firstly in summer, and then permanently from around 1500. In 1656, La Chaux-de-Fonds (which means “the pasture of the spring”) became a commune in its own right. Watchmaking occupied an increasing number of its inhabitants. Like in all villages, the houses were tightly packed around the square, not far from the church. The town burnt several times, and completely, the last time being in 1794. Indeed, the only fountain supplying the entire community with spring water was pitifully inadequate when it came to putting out the fires which spread like lightning from one house to the next.
Immediately afterwards, the rebuilding of the village began and was based on a well thought-out plan: “intelligent” building was the order of the day, in terms of ensuring a healthy environment, ease of movement as well as comfortable working conditions in what had become the area’s main activity: watchmaking. The concretisation of this thought process finally took shape in 1835 with the checkerboard-style urban plan created by engineer Charles-Henri Junod. It must be noted that at the time and until the end of the 19th century, watchmaking was not an industry but instead a craft: there were no factories. To use a contemporary expression, people worked as a network and La Chaux-de-Fonds consisted of a multitude of small watchmaking workshops (up to 3000), each with its own speciality : there were movement-blank producers, gem-cutters, escapement-makers, profile turners and many others. At the end of the chain were the établisseurs such as Constant Girard-Perregaux, which collected the various components produced by all their sub-contractors, and then assembled and branded the watches.
Everything was calculated so that even in winter the sun would light up all the façades, and therefore the workshops.
Given that these artisans lived and worked in the same house (the workshop was on the ground floor and the residential space on the upper floors), the decision was taken to make the town’s main roads wide, thus facilitating traffic and snow clearing, and facing from east to west, following the path of the sun. In addition, the height of houses was stipulated and an “allotment” would systematically separate the house from the street on the south side. Everything was thus calculated so that even on December 21st, when the sun was at its lowest on the horizon, it would light up all the façades, and therefore the workshops, from dawn till dusk. In other words, no house cast a shadow on another. At a time when artificial light was ineffective, one of the watchmakers’ main problems was thus resolved. This urban plan remained in place until the 20th century.
Some may be tempted to think, when examining this checkerboard layout, that La Chaux-de-Fonds is an “American” town. Yet in 1835, America was a long way from thinking about urban planning… It was therefore well and truly watchmaking that shaped the face of the town, a case that is truly unique in the world and which rightly deserved its UNESCO classification.
Willy Schweizer is Curator of the Girard-Perregaux Heritage.