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Tracing back
horological skills

On the 17th November 1384, Imier finally gave in. It was late, he had heard and he had listened hard.

Listened to the passionate appeals of one Jean Ruedin, who had come straight from Cressier – Le Landeron, on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, to seek a tax exemption for anyone willing to undertake the task of clearing the trees up on the mountain.

A mountain, or rather a vast plateau towering 1,000 metres above sea level, covered by rugged firs which no-one had ever dared tackle.

The king of forests – as it was known to those who lived around its edges – commanded the high ground, and no tool or effort of man had thus far come close to conquering it. The fir reigned supreme, lord of the pasture, home to fox and wolf, its branches creating an arena for winds and rains. The fir was king, and none had yet ventured to challenge its supremacy atop the Hauts Plateaux of the Jura.

But Jean Ruedin and his friends had defied the decrees issued by the Bishopric of Basel. Imier de Ramstein, Prince-Bishop of this vast territory, had granted a complete tax exemption to inhabitants of the heavily forested region.

With the arrival of spring, Jean Ruedin had set out to brave the last remaining snows on the Haut Plateau. Armed with axes and saws, the adventurer set up camp on the slopes bordering the Doubs, a raging river whose course led it through a 400-metre deep canyon.

Riven by the teeth of the saws, licked and consumed by the flames of ferocious fires, the firs surrendered to the grim determination of the voyager from the lands below. The broad trunks were used to construct the buildings that would house the very first settlers on the high terrain of the Jura, christened Les Bois (The Woods), Le Noir-Mont (Black Mountain), Les Breuleux (Burning Torches) or even Les Enfers (Hell).

Imier could not have known it, but his decree was about to set this lofty community on a great and glorious path: the pursuit of watchmaking expertise.

And so La Franche Montagne was born.

Rudis Sylva: Rudis Sylva: From Jean Ruedin and Sylva, Latin for ‘forest’. Rudis Sylva became Les Bois.

The birth of the artisan

Imier de Ramstein granted a tax exemption for anyone willing to make their home on the Haut Plateau of the Jura. From the 1400s, the conferring of this exemption enabled many settlers to come to the region and build farms. Harsh winters forced farmers to find trades. They produced tools and were involved in lace and hosiery production. Having built on this expertise, they started to manufacture watch and clock components from the 17th century.

It is said that the first watchmakers in the Franches-Montagnes region were Captain Girard, François-J. Froidevaux or J-B Mauvais who, having set up at La Planche farm in the village of Les Bois around 1769, produced movement blanks which sold for 50 batz each. People also talk about Joseph Bouverat, a watch case maker at Les Breuleux in 1730, who learned his trade at Le Noirmont with the watch case maker, goldsmith and engineer François Surdez. Froidevaux also owned the Rosées farm in the village of Les Bois, whose many windows showed the extent of the watchmaking activities that took place there.

There were a good number of farms such as this on the outskirts of La Chaux-de-Fonds: a testament to the long heritage of watchmaking in Switzerland. The greater the number of windows that were built into a farmhouse, the richer a farmer would be as an artisan would be working behind each window. On the ground floor, these windows were fitted with bars in order to offer protection from bears. Behind the windows would be found large tables, on which components were manufactured. There were also buildings where raw material would be melted down.

The Franches-Montagnes or the Franche-Comté region comprised a multitude of artisan watchmakers who would take their products to the counters of shops in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. The journey was long and was made on foot, often over snow-covered terrain. Nonetheless, it was worth the effort as the rewards contributed significantly to the family’s “bread and butter”.

The industrialisation of watchmaking

Attracted by the profits made by manufacturing watch and clock components, a large number of farmers gave up agricultural pursuits in the 19th century and began manufacturing machines which allowed them to increase the production of components. The obsession with increasing production capacity pushed the inhabitants of the region to the heights of invention. Small factories sprang up manufacturing lathes, cutting tools or other machines, each ever more innovative than the last, but which still met the precise needs of watch and clock makers.

In the Franches-Montagnes region, one often hears of the Huot or Beaumann families, who came from Franche-Comté to set up in Les Bois to manufacture watch movement blanks or assortments. These two products were subsequently sold to an assortment factory, which is today owned by ETA.

The history of the Beaumann family is intriguing and it stands testament to the creativity which is responsible for our region still representing the pinnacle of watchmaking expertise: Born in 1848 in Damprichard in neighbouring France, Lydic settled in Franches-Montagnes to manufacture wheels and cylinders. Subsequently, his son Henry and his grandson Raymond became involved with the growth of the business. In 1937, the Beaumann factory manufactured 1 million cylinders per year, which equated to more than one third of all cylinders produced world-wide. Having predicted the decline of the cylinder – for which sales fell to zero in 1964 – Raymond created a frictionless cylinder escapement, called Libra.

This ingenious manufacturer then went on to develop the parking meter, a small mechanical device with a key-like design, intended to inform someone of his or her parking time via a bell.
80 million meters were sold worldwide.

Born in 1914, Raymond Beaumann still lives opposite his factory. He owns a small museum which exhibits a number of cylinder-making machines. He enjoys recounting the time he attended an auction at Zurich where he put in a bid for a record of the daily life of the Baume family from Les Bois, the founders of Baume & Mercier. A few years later, he offered this vestige of time to the Genevan brand in exchange for a mechanical watch from the Villeret house, owned by the Richemont group.

Emile Huot, also from Franche-Comté and a gifted manufacturer of watch wheels, established himself in Les Bois in 1852, where he began producing anchor and cylinder escapements. When the Fabriques d’Assortiments Réunis (FAR) trust was founded in 1932, grouping together watch component manufacturers, Huot remained independent as long as he could but finally joined FAR in 1941. The company is now known as Nivarox-FAR, and is based in Le Locle.

The best-known watchmakers were undoubtedly the Baume brothers, who founded their company in Les Bois in 1830. They also opened premises in London in 1847 and created a watch case factory in Le Noirmont. Their watches offered exceptional accuracy and won a multitude of awards in competitions at the Kew Observatory, most notably with a split-second chronograph in 1887 and then with a tourbillon keyless chronometer in 1893. Paul Mercier joined the company, and the Baume & Mercier brand was born.

Contemporary watchmaking 

The Rudis Sylva brand dates back to 1384. With its independent past, the brand has a “complicated” watchmaking history!

The artisans of our region, regardless of whether or not they contributed to the production of this timepiece, are the real founders of the Rudis Sylva concept. The sole objective of the brand managers is to connect history and technology to offer the world a product which showcases the expertise of the region in the best possible light.

Born out of mathematical formulae worked out over days and nights, portrayed through the imagination of designers or sculpted in the workshops of watch case makers, decorated by highly dextrous engravers and magnified by the delicate touch of dial face workers, the first watch bore witness to the excellence of these artisans. The complex machine processes applied to certain moving components such as bearings, pivots or plates, for example, only serve to show how talented the mechanics and cutters were too.

And thus the watchmaker appears on the scene: calm and serene, he assembles components to create this beating object, a heart to which one forms an instant attachment for fear that it might stop. Listening to the tick-tock, admiring the oscillation of the regulators, caressing this jewel of technology in one’s hand: it all evokes strong emotions for the purist.

Amongst the abundance of fir trees “up here, 1000 metres above sea level”, a multitude of companies have established themselves and are specialising in the watchmaking industry. watchmaking-related businesses are present, such as those involved in bonding glass, honing and fritting – all of which have a positive impact on the regional economy. All these subcontractors have acquired specific expertise which would effectively dash the hopes of anyone thinking about producing a watch alone.

Nowadays, in the Franches-Montagnes region or at La Chaux-de-Fonds or Le Locle, over 80% of jobs advertised in the regional press are linked to the watchmaking industry. Despite the trauma of the job losses in the 1970s, today we can celebrate the reputation that the local population has established in terms of the global exclusivity of its expertise.

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