It feels very much a place at the end of the line. The station at Le Locle is tiny and the last stop from Lausanne. The town itself is dominated by the largest watch factories: Tissot, Zenith, Ulysse Nardin, Montblanc and others. The main streets have a few cafés and restaurants, but not much more. In Switzerland, a city is considered such if its population is above 10,000. Le Locle registered 10,077 in December 2011, and so you could say that it's hanging on for dear life.
But Le Locle is a Unesco World heritage site. Since the 1700s, the city, along with its neighbour Le Chaux-de-Fonds, has been creating some of the finest timepieces in the world. Part of this history can be seen in a museum situated in a lovely mansion on the slopes high above the town. I had come to see the Musée d'Horlogerie at Château des Monts.
Inside the mansion, you immediately feel that you are in a very special place. Not only are you surrounded by the most beautiful antique time-pieces, but a lot of them are actually running, pendulums swinging, wheels moving, and an assortment of ticks that blend to form a sort of warm background hum. At the quarters and the hours, the air comes alive with a variety of bells and gongs, before settling back into its discreet tranquillity.
A ground floor lounge has its original furniture, with a lovely landscape painting. In a corner of this room there is a bust of Abraham-Louis Breguet, one of the most famous watchmakers of all time, born in Neuchâtel but who made his fortune in Paris.
In a small circular room, you find yourself within the workings of a watch. The component parts – many of which are so tiny that they can only be appreciated from the large-scale drawings – are displayed and explained with French captions, with translations provided on interactive screens below. It tells you exactly what each part does in the overall functioning of the watch, and it provides an overview of clock and watch history, from the first clocks made in about 1330, right up to quartz.
It also provides an indication of just how dramatic the early 1970s were for Swiss watchmaking. After having enjoyed the post-war years, when the country covered half the world's watch production, the quartz revolution was a disaster. A thousand of the 1,600 fine watch brands in Switzerland went out of business. The museum describes all this, along with the technical aspects of both mechanical and quartz timepieces.
Moving upstairs, there are rooms dedicated to 17th century French wallclocks, beautifully decorated with painted scenes and gilt carving, a striking contrast to the simplicity of the English long-case clocks from the same period displayed on the ground floor.
One of the most outstanding exhibits is a singing bird automaton, one of the three known to have been made by Blaise Bontems in about 1860. Bontems was an apprentice for a clockmaker, and was asked to restore a singing-bird snuffbox. He didn't think much of the simulated nightingale's song, and spent long hours in the forest to study the bird's call. He went on to create his own birds that sang convincingly, as well as being very realistic to look at. (The other two existing examples are in private collections. One was sold by Sotheby's in 2008 for $17,500). Below, Cage oiseau chanteur, courtesy of Museée d'horlogerie du Locle - Château des Monts, Le Locle, Switzerland (Photo G. Savini).
On the top floor, there is a fascinating overview of time in its widest sense. A 3D film provides an introduction to the measurement of time from Ancient Egypt up until recent times. Fossils illustrate the geological timescale, a blackboard with complex formulae chalked on demonstrates the complexity of Einstein's relativity, and a whole sequence of objects shows how men have been trying to measure time right from the dawn of history. There is a model of Stonehenge, clocks based on a weight slowly descending a cord, and a wide variety of sundials. One extraordinary piece is a sundial with a miniature cannon and a lens. At midday, the lens focused the sun's rays onto the cannon's touch-hole and fired a shot.
A reconstruction of an ancient workshop shows how the Swiss watchmaking tradition began: farmers who built movements as a way of making extra money in winter when there was little to do on their farms, and the evenings were long.
Above, watchmaker's bench, courtesy of the Musée d'Horlogerie du Locle - ChaÌ‚teau des Monts, Le Locle, Switzerland.
There is a lot to see, and a visit can take from an hour to the whole afternoon, depending on how closely you want to observe the pieces and read the captions. We recommend a visit to the Musée International d'Horlogerie in Le Chaux-de-Fonds, larger, housed in a stunning piece of contemporary architecture. But the period charm of the museum in Le Locle is absolutely unique.
After strolling back down into town, I took the train back down to Neuchâtel, glimpsing yet more watchmaking factories on the first part of the route from Le Locle to Le Chaux-de-Fonds: Patek Philippe, Jaquet Droz, Cartier Haute Horlogerie, Montblanc Villeret, TAG Heuer... At a certain point, we emerged from a long tunnel, and through the windows, there was this huge view over the lake, right across to the long Alpine chain, where the snowy peaks – Eiger, Wetterhorn, Jungfrau – were catching the last golden rays of the evening, glowing orange against the blue-grey sky. I tried to find a window with a clear view to take a photo, but the sun slid inexorably down and that magical instant passed. But somehow the Swiss obsession with measuring infinitesimal moments by means of beautiful timepieces made a little more sense.
Photo above: courtesy David Tesar, flickr.com
Musée d'Horlogerie, Route des Monts 65, Le Locle
Tel. +41 (0)32 9311 680
Open April-October, Tues-Sun, 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m.; November-March, Tues-Sun, 2.00 p.m.-5.00 p.m. Admission €10. Guided visits available with prior booking.