Fleurier is, indeed, a company town. Book a table for lunch at the Restaurant Les Six-Communes in Môtiers, the hamlet just a mile or so from Fleurier. Dining on local char in absinthe sauce are the movers and shakers of the area’s industry: executives from Bovet, Parmigiani and Chopard; a fellow who makes watchbands; an engraver, and Fleurier’s mayor, all table-hopping and greeting one another with enthusiasm. The president of one watch brand may have a child working at the competition, and probably worked there himself at one time. It’s all in the (business) family.
Unlike the techniques in the Vallée, where farmers spent the winter months making watches, the artistry of Fleurier had a different genesis: the Huguenots. In the 16th century, persecution in Catholic France drove Protestants to Geneva, where they specialized in decorative arts. But a hundred years later the Reformation forced them to look for yet another refuge, and they went to Fleurier, about 50 miles away, where many of the townspeople already were stonecutters, masons and carpenters.
David-Jean-Jacques-Henri Vaucher is called Fleurier’s first watchmaker, having set up shop in 1730. By 1750, the town had 459 residents, 103 of whom were Vauchers, and many were involved in various aspects of watchmaking.
In the early 1800s Édouard Bovet and his brothers were running an import-export business between Fleurier and Guangzhou, China, then known as Canton. Aware of the popularity of embellished pocket watches, he started Bovet Fleurier in 1822 to produce them.
He was not alone. “By 1860 there were 600 watchmakers and more than 40 families in Fleurier making watches for the Chinese,” said Michel Parmigiani, the founder and owner of the watch company Parmigiani Fleurier. “The town had the largest concentration of millionaires in Switzerland.”
By the 1970s, things had changed. The arrival of the quartz watch was so catastrophic that local people still refer to it simply as The Crisis. Factories closed, residents moved, businesses shuttered.
“People laughed at me back then when I said I wanted to be a watchmaker,” said Benoît Conrath, now 53 and working at Parmigiani. “Back then, to be a watchmaker was to be unemployed. No one wanted mechanical watches. It was like using a horse and cart to travel.”
It was Mr. Parmigiani who came to the rescue. He had grown up in a neighboring village, graduated from Fleurier’s watch school and had his own workshop specializing in restoration. (He briefly owned Bovet, in 1989-1990.) Then in 1996, bucking the quartz trend, he decided to make his own watches, and to do so in Fleurier.
Parmigiani Fleurier was established with headquarters in a mansion formerly owned by the Vaucher family. Vaucher, which now makes watch components, began making parts for the new company. That same year, Mr. Parmigiani persuaded Chopard to base its watchmaking in Fleurier. The town’s revival had begun.
“People would stop him on the street and thank him,” recalled Mr. Parmigiani’s daughter, Anne-Laure.
Then, Mr. Conrath said, a backlash began against quartz watches. “In the 1990s people realized that a watch was not just an instant instrument, but a luxury product,” he said. “German and Italian journalists realized how beautiful a mechanical watch is and started writing about them.
“They saved the watchmaking industry in Switzerland,” Mr. Conrath continued. “The watchmaking school in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which was in danger of closing, is now turning away students.”
In addition to scores of independent specialists, working on their own or under contract to the larger local companies, Fleurier also has its own watchmaking quality control center. It was founded in 2004 by the four local companies to establish standards and to certify watch quality, and it operates in Bovet’s former mansion. The building, which locals once called the “Chinese palace,” also served as Fleurier’s town hall for a time.
Bovet Fleurier, now owned by Pascal Raffy, has headquarters in a 14th-century castle on a mountainside in Môtiers, just past a little museum chronicling the birth of absinthe.
The antique Chinese cabinet just inside the entrance is a nod to the company’s heritage. And in the work area, a wall of windows provides a sweeping view of the Val-de-Travers, location of the villages of Môtiers and Fleurier.
During a visit, a young artisan sitting near the windows demonstrated how to engrave a watch case with fleurisanne. He used a drypoint chisel to etch the design on the case’s curved surface and then deepened the lines with a series of chisels with different tips. With the aid of a microscope that enlarged the pattern 25 times its actual size, he then tapped the end of another drypoint chisel with a tiny hammer, covering parts of the surface with dots so minuscule that to the naked eye, they could not be distinguished individually.
The workman then used an onglette, a larger chisel slender as a blade of grass, to demonstrate the bris de verre technique, covering a surface with tiny prism-shaped triangles to catch and reflect light. To show just how effective the decorative technique is, he placed a bezel covered with bris de verre next to a real diamond, and it was easy to see that the bezel had a brighter sparkle.
Such work has always been prized, but, as Anne Walther, Chopard’s heritage manager, explained, “When mechanical watches started being popular again, watch brands went back to their roots.
“Engraving, enameling, bezeling, all done by hand, have come back,” she continued. “Now customers understand that the more people give their touch to the watch, the more it gains in value.”
Such watchmaking was in Ms. Parmigiani’s blood. She grew up in Fleurier during the difficult ’70s, then went to school in Neuchâtel to study engraving and watchmaking before joining her father’s company. She lives in the town today. “Fleurier is a watchmaking village once again,” she said. “Most of my friends work in the watch industry. We’re always chatting about watches.”
And there are several new businesses to serve them, like La Cabane du Hibou, with its stock of 2,000 toys; the restaurants Bouchon Gourmand and l’Arrosée feature fresh seasonal fare. And the Celle à Guilloud, a shop for absinthe, opened recently, too.
“People like to live where they work,” she continued, “and when you have children it’s very easy to live in a little village like Fleurier, where everything is close and everyone knows each other.”