La Taillerie – the Gemstone Shop
Although precious stones are not found naturally anywhere in the Jura mountains, the cutting and polishing of imported stones played a significant role in the economy of this region for three centuries. There are still traces of those traditional skills to be found if you look for them.
Start by seeking out the intriguing store called La Taillerie in Bellefontaine, at an elevation of 3000 feet in the mountains of eastern France, near the Swiss border. Welcome to the Lapidary shop. What happens here? The ‘lapidaire’ or gem-cutter starts with the raw stone and transforms it, by skill and artistry, into a scintillating gem. He or she works on every type of stone except diamonds, which is the job of the ‘diamantaire’.
So how did this become a regional speciality? It’s a story of religion, migration, and invention. In the 16th century the traditionally Catholic watchmakers and jewellers of Geneva fled Switzerland after suffering persecution by the Calvinists. Many settled in the Haut-Jura, taking advantage of the mountain streams to power their machinery.
Demand from the watchmakers
A century later, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the largely Jewish and Protestant diamond-cutters of Paris emigrated; some went to Holland and some to Switzerland. These latter helped to revitalise the Swiss watch industry, which had a knock-on benefit to the watchmakers of the Haut-Jura.
Why was there such a demand for jewels from the watchmaking industry? Initially, the lapidaires made the watch faces and ornamentation for the cases. Later, watchmakers discovered that the use of semi-precious stones such as rubies to form the pivots and bearings for the delicate mechanisms would greatly improve the life and reliability of a watch. There would have been 17 or more jewels in a good-quality movement.
As the demand for watch-jewels increased, so the local population became involved. During the winter in Jura, when the land is thick with snow, the farmers could not work outside. They readily took up this ‘cottage industry’ to cut and polish the stones. This later progressed into the production of decorative jewellery as well.
The front of the shop displays some hand-powered polishing wheels, so you can see how the gem was made to glitter so brightly. The stone is bonded to the top of a holder with wax, which in turn is mounted in a jig above a rotating table dusted with abrasive diamond powder. The jig enabled the user consistently to produce the required number of facets at the designated angles – ingenious in its simplicity.
By 1920 there were 8000 lapidaires working in this industry. There are no gem-stones in the Jura; they came from India, Madagascar and Brazil. By the 1960s those exporting countries had decided to make their own jewels, and the work available to the lapidaires in Jura rapidly fell away. There are now only about 30 makers still in business.
You can see fine examples of the lapidaire’s work at La Taillerie, including necklaces, pendants, bracelets and earrings of all sizes and colours, and polished slices of natural rock enough to adorn many a classy coffee table.
4540 route des Fontaines, Parking des Téléskis
A Museum Gem in Jura
A short drive south of Bellefontaine is the lovely town of Saint-Claude, in the valley of the Bienne river. It is the centre for many traditional crafts in the region, including those of pipe-making and gem-cutting. Both of these needed water power to drive their machines, and that was available in abundance from the many mountain streams around here. So, naturally enough, there is a museum to celebrate these two important local industries.
The Pipe and Diamond Museum has several rooms dedicated to the smoker’s old friend (see my review here), but there is also an enlightening presentation of the stone-cutting and polishing craft that was so significant to the economy of the Jura in centuries past. See how precious stones including diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds are carefully cut and polished in such a way as to show off their colour and clarity.
Natural and synthetic stones are on display. The videos (one in English) explain just how the dull, unexciting raw materials are turned into those beautiful sparkling gems by the skill of the craftsman, who has to balance the demands of the least waste, the best proportions, and the removal of unwanted inclusions. A tableau of automatons demonstrates the meticulous work required to produce high-quality gems in their dozens every day.
Saint-Claude is a hub for touring this part of the Jura region, and a visit to the Pipe and Diamond Museum will give you a real flavour of the ingenuity, enterprise and skill of the people of these mountains.
Musée de la Pipe & du Diamant
1 place Jacques Faizant
Geneva Airport from airports across the UK and Europe
Dole Tavaux Airport from London Stansted, every Saturday from 22nd Dec 2018 to 30th March 2019 *NEW*
Basel-Mulhouse Airport from airports across the UK and Europe (for the northern part of the Jura mountains)
Most major car rental companies have agents at these airports.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018