With a little help from local government, and funding from the region, a new course in artistic mechanics will open this summer in Sainte-Croix. Home to a population of around five thousand, perched on a shoulder of rock in the Vaud region, small size and mountainous location have been no obstacle to industry. This is where Paillard made the much-loved Hermes typewriters and the equally famed Paillard-Bolex cameras and projectors, as well as the birthplace of the world-renowned Thorens turntables. And yet it would be another manufacturing activity altogether – musical boxes – that put the town on the map. At the height of demand, dozens of companies were producing musical boxes in Sainte-Croix. Even today, when downloading and streaming are the norm, Reuge, established 1865, is still making exquisite examples, including collaborations with watch brand MB&F.
The Centre International de Mécanique d’Art (CIMA) was set up in 1985, in Sainte-Croix, with the remit of safeguarding this expertise. Part of its response was to assemble a collection of the musical boxes, automata and singing birds that forged the town’s reputation. More importantly for the future, the centre set about actively seeking new talent. And so it was no coincidence when, in 1989, French watchmakers François-Paul Journe and Denis Flageollet chose Sainte-Croix to set up Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA), a company which for the next dozen or so years supplied prestigious brands with highly complex mechanisms. Nicolas Court, who describes himself as a “creator of mechanical objects that fire the imagination”, was also part of the THA adventure. This was back in the days when his “partners in crime” were Vianney Halter and clock restorer Dominique Mouret, each of whom has an atelier in Sainte-Croix. As does François Junod, the maker of such extraordinary automata as the writing and drawing Pushkin, or the remarkable Fée Ondine for Van Cleef & Arpels, presented in 2017.
Sooner or later, such a concentration of talent was bound to produce another defining project. This time, the protagonists are Denis Flageollet, who in 2002 co-founded independent watch brand De Bethune (where else but in Sainte-Croix), François Junod and Nicolas Court. “We were all on the same page as to the need to train people in these skills,” says Flageollet. “The idea had been bubbling under for a number of years but lacked a structure. It’s thanks to help received from the ex-director of the Northern Vaud training centre, and from organisations supporting business at regional and cantonal level, that the project finally became reality. We’re now in a position to launch the first training programme. It’ll be a one-month course in July that requires no previous experience. If we see there is demand, the next stage will be to develop a two-year curriculum with an exam at the end. This will be for people who already have a technical college diploma.”
With instructors of this calibre, the competencies to deliver the training clearly aren’t lacking. Nor, says Denis Flageollet, is the need for fresh blood. “Whereas there is still a certain tradition of artistic mechanics in watchmaking, which must be maintained, this isn’t the case in automata and singing birds. Personally, I learned most of these skills through restoration work. By combining techniques from watchmaking with others from automaton-making, we’re supplying demand. When companies want a musical mechanism other than a minute-repeater, they all come to Sainte-Croix. There’s also a need for project managers who speak the same language as the artisans in these disciplines. The luxury sector has everything to gain from this initiative.” Rendezvous in Sainte-Croix this summer.