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Tracing the origins of Zodiac

Started by Grossisten, October 05, 2023, 03:40:27 PM


This (see the attached photo) is Creux-de-Biches.

A remote plateau deep in the horological heartland of the Swiss Jura mountains, just off the national highway nr 18 that runs more or less parallel to the border to France. We are as far from the snow-covered peaks of the Matterhorn and all the touristic Swiss hotspots as you can get.

Not without beauty though, the soft ridges and peaks of the Jura allowing for broader and "softer" views over the forests and green pastures than the high and rugged Alps with their dramatic terrain do. The peaceful plateau itself is only accessible via a narrow, winding road and after passing through gates keeping free roaming horses in. This is ordinary, rural Switzerland.

It is also a key site in the history of Zodiac.

That's why I decided to make a stop there when passing by on my summer holidays. Not a coincidence though, visiting the region was all part of the overall plan for our family holiday touring parts of Europe. The main goal was to revisit Zodiacs "birthplace", the city of Le Locle, to see if I could locate a few key Zodiac sites. I was partly succesful (more on this in other posts) and this inspired me to visit nearby (about 25 km) Creux-de-Biches on my way back North.

It's a calm and beautiful area. But there is not much to see in terms of watchmaking, just a tiny farming community. And the horses. And other free roaming livestock.

And that's sort of the point:  As opposed to the city of Geneva, where Swiss watchmaking was born, watchmaking in this part of Switzerland very much started as a secondary source of income for farmers. Often isolated by snow, they had lots of time and little to do during winter. When watchmaking was introduced as an option there was already a tradition for a different craft in the region, lace making (the once famous "Neuchatel-lace"). Inspired by a certain Daniel JeanRichard, who brought the craft to the region, watchmaking quickly caught on, a development that was accelerated by the arrival of cheap alternatives to lace when the English industrialized cloth production.

Swiss watchmaking was far from industrialized back then, in fact today we would label it a cottage-industry: Farmers would involve their entire family in the work and often specialized, one family producing dials, another hands, yet another gears. Watches were often assembled by yet another craftsman and sold on by "comptoirs", trade desks. It was this system of divided labour, called "etablissage", that Daniel JeanRichard introduced.

And it was in this system that we find the roots of the Zodiac watch brand: Founded in 1882, it was owned and run by the Calame family until 1978. But the Calames roots in the region stretch much further back (again more on this in another post) - and in 1820 we find Jacob Calame registered as a watchproducing farmer. This is the first Calame to be associated with watchmaking, as you can read elsewhere on this site.

Jacob Calames farm was located at.... Creux-de-Biches, making it as close to an origin site for the Calame family and thus for Zodiac as we will probably ever find. And the starting point for their involvement in watchmaking.

Unfortunately there is no information available so far as to exactly where the farm was located. There are several buildings spread over the area - it might even have been one of those you see in the photo.

Fascinating all the same to imagine how farms like these housed the humble beginnings of the later all dominant Swiss watch industry - and how the Zodiac brand traces its roots to a humble place like this.

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