When you wake in your hotel room in the beautiful green mountains of the Jura, in Eastern France, you may hear, for the first time, the iconic sound of bells – cow bells, tinkling across the valleys as the brown-and-white ladies stroll to the milking parlour (or return to the pasture, if you’re a late riser). You may never have asked yourself who makes those ubiquitous bells, but perhaps you should, for it is a rare skill and one that represents the traditions of the countryside like few others.
One of literally a handful of bell foundries left in France, la Fonderie de Cloches Obertino (‘the Obertino Bell Foundry’) in the village of Labergement Sainte Marie is a special place to visit, because you can actually watch as the metal is poured and the bells are given life.
The factory dates from 1834, and the business is still in the Obertino family to this day. The range of products has expanded from the original cow bells, and smaller ones for sheep and goats, to a great variety of handbells of all sizes for home, school, chapel, boats, door chimes, as well as the clappers and leather straps for hanging them. You can even order a personalised bell with lettering or decoration of your choice moulded directly in the bronze. That would make a truly unique gift or souvenir of a special occasion – a wedding, significant birthday, or sporting trophy. Their shop is a delight – for the eyes and the ears!
A very steady hand
Through the open windows of the foundry itself you can see the whole process – the two-part moulds being prepared by packing a special sand (sable de lapin) around the pattern, then carefully extracting the pattern to leave a bell-shaped hole. It’s at this point that a very steady hand is needed, especially when the foundryman has to impress the individual letters of your chosen wording into the sand, to spell out your message – backwards, of course.
Meanwhile in the corner of the workshop a crucible of the special bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, is being heated by a ferocious gas burner sufficient to power a small town’s worth of kitchen stoves. Once it is judged (by practised eye) to have reached the desired temperature, and the slag has been raked off the now-liquid bronze, the two men carry this luminous orange pot of metal carefully around the array of moulds on the floor, delicately pouring just enough into each to fill the cavity inside.
That clear ring
If you wait, patiently if you can, for ten minutes or so, the first of the castings will have cooled sufficiently for the bronze to have solidified. Now the master founder will lift the moulds onto his bench and begin breaking out the black sand to reveal … a perfect bell! He proves each one as it comes out by striking it with a hammer and listening to that clear ring that is witness to the skill of the true craftsman.
These works of traditional art are to be found everywhere in the fields and homes of Jura, but are also exported widely to other lands and continents. The foundry is a remarkable example of a traditional artisan craft that is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago, surviving and flourishing in the peaceful and unspoilt countryside of the Haut-Doubs region, high in the Jura mountains.
FONDERIE DE CLOCHES OBERTINO
15 rue de Mouthe
25160 LABERGEMENT SAINTE MARIE
Tel. +33 (0)3 81 69 30 72
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