Ver la Versión Completa : History of farmer watchmaker from 1384 to 1952

02/03/15, 02:25
Hello my friends,

I was absent from the forum in past year, as I was working for a watchmaking company, for which I was involved in preserving know-how projects.

But I missed my blog activities! I don't feel I am cut off to sit behind a desk, so I created a new website:

Let's talk about watchmaking, without complacency, and also about history and know-how. Here is a condensed version of an article I wrote recently about the Farmer-watchmaker, from 1380 to the beginning of the « glorious thirties ».

In Europe, Roman Empire collapsed by the end of the 5th century, but it left behind a continent more united than ever, using a single language, Latin, and a single religion, catholic Christianity.

This unity led to one of the longest period of deadlock in European history: the middle ages. Its economy was based on the clearance of vast forests that covered the continent. In these conflictual times of relative stability, the population
grew until the end of forest cleaning, in 1280. Contemporary Europe was less wooded than it is today.


Celtic and Gallic agricultural skills had been forgotten and the yields were minor: between 5 and 10 quintals per hectare.
The current productivity in comparison is 80-100 quintals per hectare in intensive and 40-50 in organic. It was only in the 17th-18th century that Europe started its first agricultural revolution, with new techniques of crop rotation, accompanied by forage plants.
Doubling yield were translated into savings on labor, and feeding several generations of scientists. One of them was
Christian Huygens widely regarded as the inventor of modern watchmaking concepts. This will be the beginning of the industrial revolution.


Let us return to the 14th century, the darkest period in Middle Ages history, which unfortunately tends to provoke a skewed vision of that period, yet relatively prosperous and peaceful.
Poor crop yields were hardly sufficient to feed the increasing population. In addition, in the early 14th century, a series of years of drought followed by years of torrential rains caused widespread famine in Europe. Malnutrition was a fertile compost for diseases, especially for the terrible black plague.

The tensions related to the resources led to a war series, in particular the one hundred years war. To finance wars, taxes rose disproportionately, provoking violent jacqueries. It is thus in this particularly dark context that ended the 14th


Imier De Ramstein, Prince-Bishop of Basel was elected in 1382. His bishopric included the Canton of current Jura. Its debt remained huge at that time. Imier made repeated attempts to boost the local economy. In 1384, he published a ery innovative edict: a tax exemption for those who settle 1000 meters above sea level.

Many farmers, by the end of the century, weakened by a hundred years of shortages, diseases and violence, set out to conquer an environment famous to be inhospitable, even hostile.

In the year of our Lord 1384, the Canton of Jura wasn't completely wild, as evidenced by the village of Montfaucon, built in the early 11th century.
However, the nature remained particularly wild, probably unchanged since the last glacial era. Wolves and bears reigned supreme over the fauna. The common point of these species is their adaptability in the conditions of height, thanks to their coat, their muscular power, their overdeveloped vascular network or their large-scale wings. If this fauna prospered, it was because Jura was protected for a long time from the human presence, thanks to a rough microclimate and to a steep topography.


In spite of a modest maximum height (1720 meters), the drafts and the high perched valleys cause very low temperatures during the winter : in the Vallée du Joux, or, even worst, in the vallée de la Brévine, the temperatures
Sometimes dip as low as -40°C.


Nowadays, Jura is divided between Switzerland and France. The wars made the border move, notably during the 30 years war (1618-1648) and also during the Napoleonic wars (1798-1815). The imperial desires of the French autocrats
Sometimes overflowed on the future territory of the Swiss Confederacy, the people from Jura have always shown themselves to be extremely supportive, especially in the Franches-montagnes, where contraband (notably watchmaking) was wisely organized.


But in 1384, our « Franc montagnard » had to become established. As he often does, man changed his environment and farmer-watchmaker ancestors organized vast slash-and-burn, in order to increase the building and arable surfaces.
That is how a multi-thousand-year-old forest of broad-leaved trees disappeared. The inhabitants of Jura planted coniferous trees which push away much faster in extreme montain conditions.
This choice of essences made them precursors of sustainable forestry exploitation. With a view to preservation, fences were forbidden in « Franches montagnes » by the Bishopric of Basel. That explains the presence of these magnificent demarcation low walls in the fields.


It should be pointed out that contrary to common beliefs, until the industrial revolution, serfs in traditional society did not work a lot, three days a week in average. The rest of the time was dedicated to parties or celebrations (religious or not), household activities, collection in the forest, handiwork and wine.

But the farmers of Jura had to work a lot more. In order to gather enough provisions to get through the cruel winter, the brief six month sunny season was a period of intense work. Thus, in the summer time, they had to get up even earlier for long days of agricultural labor: do the transhumance, plant and collect cereals, fruits and vegetables quickly, cut hay, and take refuge with the hearth before the snowfalls. The agro-sylvo-pastoral balance was particularly fragile in such a hostile context. Moderation, patience and precision were essential to the survival mountain farmers. They also needed those virtues for craft sector, and even more for watch-making.


From the beginning of the 15th century, the « Franc-montagnards » farmers knew the torments of contemporary work pattern, with the stress of a "deadline", literally!

At this beginning of the Renaissance, the leisure society was still distant. The future farmer-watchmaker were about to spend their winter time making crafts.

And as the constraint makes the man, they adapted their crafts to logistic constraints, in a typical Darwinian logic. It takes a daytime to walk 15km in the mountains. This difficulty of access weighed against any manufactured product of consequent size, so they specialized in small accessories with high added value.

From the 15th to the 18th century, as the raw material was plentiful, they worked mainly the wood of conifer.
They began to excel at the following fields: The turnery, the white cooperage, the pipe, the toy...


But in spite of the sustainability of the model farmer-craftsman, history came into the mountains: by 1450, a goldsmith called Johannes Gutenberg improved an old Chinese invention: printing.

Gutenberg and his successors massively printed the Gospels, as the Bible was the only best-seller of this period. The holy word quickly spread to wealthier classes and then to working classes of the beginning of the Renaissance.
The possibility of interpreting freely the Christian writings without intermediaries led to a schism between the partisans of Roman clergy and the reformist’s partisans of a free reading of the Bible. Protestantism was born.

One of the founders of the Protestant thought, Calvin, sought refuge in the cities of the future Helvetic Confederation.
He lived in Basel and finished his days in Geneva in 1564, where he forbade notably the bearing and the sale of jewels. To by-pass this ban, Jewelers moved into the luxury accessory, watch cases in particular. The watch-making industry was born.


In those days, current Switzerland did not exist, but the current cantons existed under other names and were already more or less independent. By the 15th century, the social tolerance, particularly regarding religion, encouraged many great reformers, artists, philosophers, such as Calvin, Voltaire, Rousseau, Patrick Mac Goohan, ect... To settle in the confederation.

Therefore, numerous religious minorities, mostly protestant, streamed in the « cantons », and so did some Jews, running away from the commonplace judeophobia in Europe.
The reform offered a greater freedom as for money or work, just as judaism. Although wealth was frowned upon by
Catholics, the Protestants and the Jews were storekeepers, craftsmen, intermediaries... And every storekeeper needs a factory. Progressively, the Chaux de Fond or Neuchâtel became meeting places between the « Franc montagnards » producers and the merchants.


Thanks to those new outlets, the « Francs-montagnards » specialised even more in precision crafts, such as stone cutter, diamond worker, eyewear, pottery work...
It's an important step in watch-making farmer's history, because he left the wood processing sector to turn to strong value-added occupations.
In a more melancholic way, it is also the first time that the Franche-montagnes farmer's agro-sylvo-pastoral balance was disrupted.


As well as the Middle Ages were not so dark as we let it think, the Renaissance was not so flamboyant.
Golden from the Americas made a large majority of the imperial courts crazy, and the religious wars plunged the populations into inhumanity.

Thus, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led many protestant refugees to flight to Geneva, including some talented watchmakers. Consequently, from the 18th century, Swiss Romandie became a major watch-making place.
Until the French revolution and during the first empire, the watchmakers benefited from a crucial role in society …
In this time, for the French, British and Dutch sovereigns, the key to maritime domination was the precise chronometers.


The attraction represented by the technological skills made that the Genevan workforce was quickly overworked, so people from the mountains provided reinforcement.
From the 18th century, the craftsman farmer became farmer-watchmaker. This phenomenon accelerated after 1750 thanks to flat movement of Lépine. Jean-Antoine Lépine was born in the « Pays de Gex », at the end of the Jura chain, close to Geneva. He took advantage of the improvement of the quality of springs to put forward an innovative construction of watches allowing to reduce their thickness.

The watch-making technology progressively reached maturity and demand increased as watches were getting more compact and more precise. The rugged Franches-montagnes became fertile watch-making lands.


Every farmer-watchmaker's family specialized in the making of a single type of component, wheel, pinion or bridge.
The pieces were gathered at an « établisseur » who made the assembly and the possible endings.

At the time of autumn fairs, he took orders in the local village. The delivery was made during the spring fair.
Within a season, the farmer turned into a skillful assembler. The more windows a watch-making farm counts, the richer the farmer is: that meant he could afford to get a lot of family members working.


From cheese, wine and fodder productions, which allowed humans an animals to get through the winter, to education and craft, autonomy was imposed by the climate and the topography. And contrary to what one might suppose, farmer-watchmakers were extremely efficient. The educational level was very high from the 18th century. Most of the
Francs-montagnards were able to count (essential to produce watch-making components), read and write. Mothers played a crucial role in basic skills learning process, and they were at the root of the creation of a craft elite.

This anarchist social organization (in the original sense) was close to the libertarian thought of the American pioneers, with this fierce will of independence, this cult of the free enterprise, this autonomy... And the end arrived subtly precisely from the United States of America.

By 1850, the American watch-making industry woke up in a thundering way. The Americans from Waltham led the watch-making production to a new era: industrialization.
In their manufactures, they imposed standardization: all the parts were to be exchangeable, which was in contradiction with the tradition of “appairage”.


As the distribution methods had also been modernized, American watches killed the market. Swiss watchmaking had to reform to remain competitive.

Step by step, Switzerland industrialized too, but the investments were expensive and it was necessary to cover them.
After 1870, the situation gets really tricky. The Americans almost started with a clean slate, and their workers were very flexible.
To the contrary, Switzerland had an enormous watch-making heritage, and this powerhouse of skills and also the long history were a burden to the scientific organization of work. Farmer-watchmaker had to become an employee.
The rural exodus and the employer’s' pressure on ébauches prices jeopardized the farmer-watchmaker activity.

The 14-18 butchery had an unexpected consequence on watch-making: the small wristwatches. Soldiers wore them in the trenches in order to coordinate the artillery barrages.
This led to an unprecedented miniaturization: watchcases moved from about 60mm to 35mm. As a consequence, the average size of movements moved from 20 to 10 lines. For the Watchmaking famer, it was almost an impossible task to adapt : all the precious tooling, passed down from one generation to the next, had to be replaced to produce twice smaller components according to traditional methods.


As always, Americans adaptation was quicker, but it did not last long, because the 1929 crisis brought to an end the good old days. The impact of the crisis on the old continent was limited, as France and Switzerland remained rural and their financial centers were not yet fully developed. It provided respite to our Farmer-watchmaker from Jura; they kept on feeding the market with pocket watches...
While European industry was bled dry because of the hostilities, Switzerland worked twice as hard to supply the
belligerants (the GI were often equipped with Swiss watches).

Finally, as Worl War II was ended, discoveries of nuclear energy and computing were made. It was a fantastic technological leap forward, just as it was after the First World War.

As regards watch-making, it was a paradigm shift, as wristwatches were no longer a fashion: they were watch-making.
Indeed, pocket watches seemed old-fashioned and their demand was in freefall.

Europe was euphoric, as a result of the Marshall plan. The glorious thirties began. In the United States, the American
Way of Life was born. American laboratories created the digitally operated machine tool.

In the early fifties, the first numerical controls were presented in the USA. It was certainly at this moment that the last farmer-watchmaker went out of business.

Until the next time my friends!