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A Village Regains Past Splendor

New York Times, March 8, 2012

BASEL, SWITZERLAND — When Jean-Patrice Hofner, a lawyer and public notary, arrived in the Swiss village of Fleurier 35 years ago, the region, known as Val-de-Travers, or Twisted Valley, in the Jura mountains, had very little to show for its storied past as a center of mechanical watchmaking.

“The main industry was knitting machines, and they went bankrupt,” Mr. Hofner said. “The area was quite depressed and losing inhabitants. I thought, how can we save this place?”

Salvation arrived in two guises: First, the mechanical watchmaking renaissance of the early 1990s drew the world’s attention back to Swiss-made timepieces, and second, Michel Parmigiani, a Swiss-Italian watchmaker who also restores antique watches and automatons, founded his self-titled brand in Fleurier in 1996, drawing talented artisans back to the valley, where he had been born.

Today, Mr. Hofner is president of the Fleurier Quality Foundation, an organization founded in 2001 by four watchmaking companies — Bovet, Chopard, Parmigiani Fleurier and Vaucher, an upscale movement supplier affiliated with Parmigiani — that have tethered their reputations to Fleurier’s once and future glory.

Along with a handful of independent suppliers, the brands have helped bring the total number of people employed by factories in Fleurier to 700, according to Mr. Hofner. Meanwhile, the entire Val-de-Travers area has an estimated 1,500 watch industry workers, up from about 500 in the late 1990s.

Equally remarkable are the small changes brought about by Fleurier’s revival.

“Now we have fantastic pastries and good restaurants,” Mr. Hofner said. “Because you have people coming from Japan and the U.S., and you have to feed them.”

To students of Swiss watchmaking history, the hoopla over Fleurier is an old story.

The village first earned a global reputation in 1822, when a native son, the watchmaker Edouard Bovet, cultivated a thriving trade with Guangzhou after boarding an East India Company ship bound for China four years earlier.

Chinese buyers grew so enamored of Bovet’s 19th-century pocket watches that the name Bovet entered the Cantonese lexicon as a generic term for watch, Mr. Hofner said.

Today, the Bovet brand, reborn in 2001 under the stewardship of Pascal Raffy, markets wristwatches known for their hand-painted enamel dials and construction in the manner of pocket watches, with crowns distinctly positioned at 12 o’clock, a throwback to the models coveted by the Chinese elite nearly 200 years ago.

For Chopard, based in Geneva, Fleurier’s future has proved more compelling than its past.

Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, a co-president of Chopard, first visited Fleurier in the mid-1990s, when he sought Mr. Parmigiani’s help in reviving the firm’s in-house manufacturing efforts. Although philosophical differences led the men to dissolve their partnership in 1995, Mr. Scheufele was charmed by the location.

“The more I got involved in Fleurier, the more I liked it,” he said. “The people there are very good, and we have calm and serenity, the right prerequisites for watchmaking.”

In 1996, Chopard Manufacture opened in an old Fleurier factory space. The first model to emerge from that facility, the L.U.C. 1860, would spawn a series of complicated watches — named after the company’s founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard — that define the limits of Chopard’s watchmaking capabilities.

The new Chopard L.U.C XP Skeletec, which makes its debut this week at the Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland, is one such model. With its ultrathin skeletonized movement, the 18-karat rose gold watch is “the result of a number of years of activity up there,” Mr. Scheufele said.

He referred to the opening of a research and development unit, Chopard Technology, in Fleurier in 2005.

Three years later, the company gained further independence from outside suppliers by establishing Fleurier Ebauche, a factory producing industrialized movements for its Chopard branded watches.

This year, Mr. Scheufele said, the company expects to employ about 180 people in total in its three Fleurier facilities.

Manufacturing, however, is just one element in Chopard’s campaign to restore Fleurier’s eminence. In 2004, the company purchased an 18th-century mansion on Rue du Temple and spent five years restoring it.

Inaugurated in 2010, the building, christened the Chopard Forum, serves as a guesthouse and meeting space, as well as a small museum housing Mr. Scheufele’s collection of ancient sundials, measuring instruments and artworks on the theme of time by contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Folon.

Last but not least, Chopard, as one of four founding members of the Fleurier Quality Foundation, has helped lend credibility to the foundation’s Fleurier Certification, a quality mark established in 2004. Unlike the Geneva Seal certification, which is limited to wristwatches made in the city or canton of Geneva, the Fleurier Certification is open to all brands that aspire to produce high-quality mechanical wristwatches (although, so far, only Bovet, Parmigiani and Chopard have embraced the hallmark).

In addition to complying with a number of exacting finishing criteria, watches that earn the Fleurier Certification must also pass the Fleuritest, a 24-hour test that simulates typical wear and tear on a finished timepiece, Mr. Hofner said.

One of the most convincing signs that Fleurier’s rebirth may soon come full circle is the planned restart of Fleurier Watch by Claude Sanz, the owner of Bunter, a Swiss manufacturer for brands like Hublot and Jacob & Co.

“If not for Fleurier Watch, the watch industry would not exist,” Mr. Sanz said.

He noted the company’s founder, Paul Jequier, was one of Swiss watchmaking’s earliest industry giants. “He started building a factory for the assembly of parts around 1830,” Mr. Sanz said. “In 1901, they were selling movements on five continents.”

Fleurier Watch guaranteed its legacy in the annals of Swiss watchmaking in 1925, when FEF, the mark of its caliber division, was “integrated into Ebauches SA — which, as watch-history fans will know, later merged with ASUAG, destined to become part of the giant today known as Swatch Group,” Elizabeth Doerr wrote in iW magazine.

“FEF movements have obviously ceased to exist as such, but their technology lives on in today’s ETA conglomerate,” which is owned by Swatch, Ms. Doerr wrote. “New old stock and vintage FEF calibers remain coveted.”

Just ask Mr. Sanz.

In 2011, he brought Fleurier Watch’s high-end brand, Arcadia, back to the market. Incorporating vintage Valjoux chronograph movements sourced throughout Switzerland, the vintage-modern timepieces embody the notion that past, present and future commingle in this tiny town with an outsize reputation.

“Fleurier is to watchmaking what Memphis is to music,” Mr. Sanz said, referring to the city in Tennessee. “We’re telling a true story.”