Has Time Run Out for a Traditional Swiss Clock?

Has Time Run Out for a Traditional Swiss Clock?

November 10, 2020

The Swiss don’t buy new clocks anymore — many actually are trying to get rid of the ones they have.

Tourists, usually from Asia, had been buying clocks in recent years — but then the pandemic happened and tourism did not.

Laurent Panzella, 46, was explaining the situation via FaceTime from his clock repair atelier in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, in the French-speaking canton of Vaud. He talked while he gave a virtual tour of the shop (white walls lined with clocks of all shapes and sizes, as well as work tables and pieces of machinery) and of the quiet street right outside.

Two clients did walk in during the call: One dropped off two clocks for repair, and the other inquired about services. But there were no sales.

But Mr. Panzella remembers sales: “I once had a client who ordered a custom-made clock. He wanted it in a pink hue, almost a fluorescent pink. He came with a color sample so we did it exactly like he wanted.”

Mr. Panzella’s Atelier de Pendulerie Eluxa specializes in Neuchâteloise clocks, a pendulum timepiece with an enamel dial and brass movement named for its birthplace, the town at the northern end of Lake Neuchâtel. (Yverdon-les-Bains is at the southern end.)

The timepiece is characterized by its elegant curves — it actually looks a bit like Cogsworth, an enchanted servant in Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” — with hand-painted flowers or gold-leaf detailing. They usually are purchased to sit on a mantle or hang on the wall.

Also, “Neuchâteloises are distinguished by the construction of their movements,” said Régis Huguenin-Dumittan, director of the Musée international d’horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, “in particular by a mechanism called Grande Sonnerie.” That is a pendulum that strikes the hours and quarters and repeats the hour at each quarter. “It’s a lot of different tones,” he said. “It’s quite complicated.”

Production started in the mid-18th century and reached its peak in the 1960s to 1980s, a period when, Mr. Panzella said, the clocks often were bought by newlyweds. “Neuchâteloises were the must-have item, an achievement of a dream,” he said. “It was a way to display success. Back in those days, people would do that through their home décor, with nice furniture and a beautiful clock that would last for a lifetime.”

(“A Neuchâteloise is rewound once a week, a ritual that is performed almost religiously, usually on Sunday,” he noted.)

But then sales faltered. “I’d say the pivotal year was 1990,” said Mr. Panzella, who took over the business when his father retired in 2016. “For my father it was that year, as numbers started to decline regularly from 1990.”

In the early 2000s, Mr. Panzella had the idea that the company should do repairs. “There are so many clocks in Switzerland, every family has one or many clocks,” he said. “We offer complete revisions, mostly of movements, meaning we take everything apart, clean it, change the parts that need to be changed and put everything back together. We restore their youthfulness.”

Still, the family company, Yverdon-Eluxa, is one of the last in Switzerland to sell new Neuchâteloises — three models in 10 colorways through its online catalog and, to tourists, in souvenir shops. Prices range from 2,000 to 3,000 Swiss francs, or $2,160 to $3,240.

There are two other companies that sell the classic clock: Le Castel (Roger Wermeille, the director, said the company still made them but did more repairs now) and Zenith (which said it assembled clocks on request).

In the past, there were attempts to “sell Neuchâteloises directly to China, but it never worked out,” Mr. Panzella said. “That’s why I do maintenance now.”

In the Region

But sales to China have been somewhat successful for another regional style, the Comtoise, a grandfather clock with a weights movement and a violin-shaped case that ranges from about 6.5 feet to 8.5 feet tall.

Almost all Comtoise clocks were produced in France’s watch country, the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region on the border with Switzerland. “The 18th-century Comtoises were expensive and mainly intended for large farms and bourgeois homes,” François Buffard of the Association Horlogerie Comtoise wrote in an email.

Production was sporadic, practically stopping after 1930 but then reviving between 1960 and 1980. Today, makers like Philippe Vuillemin, based on the outskirts of Besançon, France, annually produce a few Comtoises — but with a twist.

“We have taken a contemporary turn by creating modern clocks while retaining timeless mechanical movements,” Laurence Prudhon Delagrange, an associate at Manufacture Horlogère Vuillemin, wrote in an email.

The company’s exports are mainly concentrated in China, with the clocks selling from 980 euros to 18,000 euros ($1,150 to $21,100). “It is precisely,” Ms. Delagrange wrote, “the notion of buying a made-in-France design that is important to them, as well as the ‘luxury’ branding: French-style gold plating or palladium, the skeletonized mechanism and the traditional manufacturing are arguments that catch their attention.”

The Future

Aside from a stainless steel Le Castel collaboration in 1997, Neuchâteloises have not had a similar kind of reimagining.

And, Mr. Panzella said, “it’s hard to tell” whether changing the design would appeal to buyers, noting that Neuchâteloise clocks took off “with materials like Bakelite, that shiny material used for those old-school black telephones.”

Mr. Panzella said the company certainly could fulfill customer wishes, much like it did with the pink Neuchâteloise. “Maybe personalization is the way to move forward, such as more muted styles with solid colors, because flowers tend to give an old-fashioned look,” he said.

The flowers that Yverdon-Eluxa paints on usually are roses and carnations — not the edelweiss, the small white blossom regarded as the Swiss national emblem.

“My wife suggested we create an edelweiss-patterned Neuchâteloise,” Mr. Panzella said. “Maybe that’s something some overseas buyers would like. It’s so beyond kitsch that it becomes cool again.”

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