A Living Museum of Watchmaking

New York Times, June 16, 2011

VILLERET, SWITZERLAND — Hiking tours of the Jura Mountains, the range that runs along Switzerland’s western border with France, often stop in this picturesque municipality, population 914, because it provides direct access to Combe-Grède, a well-known gorge that cuts through the rugged landscape.

Foodies know the region as the source of Tête de Moine, or Monk’s Head, a gourmet cheese once considered so valuable that it was used as currency.

Connoisseurs of haute horlogerie, however, recognize Villeret, perched on the banks of the River Suze in the canton of Berne, as the heart of the Saint-Imier Valley, the smallest and least known of Switzerland’s three major watchmaking centers, behind Geneva and the legendary Vallée de Joux.

Although the village does not have the cachet of La Chaux-de-Fonds nor the size of Biel, its neighbors in the valley, it is possible to gain an understanding of how watchmaking began in the Jura, and how it continues to thrive, through a reading of Villeret’s history.

“Farmers needed something to do in the winter — that’s how it all started,” said Keith Strandberg, international editor for the Watch Journal, a specialty watch publication. “Villeret is like a lot of little towns in Switzerland, which are surviving because of watchmaking. And they’re perfect for it. Watchmakers love the mountains.”

The industry began here in the 17th century after the Huguenots arrived in Geneva, fleeing persecution in France. Over time, the master watch- and clockmakers among them began outsourcing production to farmers in the Jura, who used the fallow months between October and May to fulfill Europe’s growing demand for timepieces.

“These guys were the unsung heroes,” said Aurel Bacs, international co-head of watches for Christie’s in Geneva. “They made complicated movements, and sent them to Geneva or Paris or London where they were signed by distinguished makers.”

Today, only a handful of these venerable supplier firms survive. Frédéric Piguet, the renowned movement maker, is one. Nouvelle Lémania, a chronograph manufacturer famous for supplying Patek Philippe, is another: but for years now both firms have belonged to the Swatch Group, the behemoth of Swiss watchmaking.

In Villeret, a little-known factory that remained independent until 2006 lays claim to the same vaunted tradition. In 1858, Charles-Ivan Robert opened a workshop on the site of an ancient mill; in homage to his fascination with Roman mythology, it was called Fabrique d’Horlogerie Minerva. At the time, Blancpain was the only watchmaking game in town, having been founded by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain in 1735 in a chalet near the Minerva facility.

It was an auspicious time to enter the business — not only for Mr. Robert in Villeret, but also for his competitors down the road in Saint-Imier, the village to which Breitling, Tag-Heuer and Longines all trace their origins.

Over the next century and a half, those celebrated makers moved out of the area, with the sole exception of Longines. Minerva, however, remained in Villeret, where it pioneered the development of precision timekeeping with its esteemed chronograph calibers. The firm’s reputation peaked in the 1950s, a decade or so before the quartz revolution decimated the mechanical watchmaking industry, driving scores of Swiss companies into bankruptcy.

Against all odds, the independent firm survived through the darkest days of the 1970s, hanging on to the ultimate symbol of longevity: its original location.

“Why is everyone so proud of this?” asked Alexander Schmiedt, director of watches for Montblanc, whose parent company, the luxury industry holding company Financière Richemont, acquired Minerva in 2006. “It’s about having an uninterrupted competence. We found a living history.”