The land of mechanical dreams

Our reporter makes a trip to an extraordinary place and feels like Alice in music-box Wonderland.

Our reporter makes a trip to an extraordinary place and feels like Alice in music-box Wonderland.

Pierrot the Clown
The child on the cupboard
Mozart playing a grand piano
The bird in a cage

THE sound of birdsong in the museum startled me. I turned to see an exquisite little “oiseau” with beautiful plumage chortling joyfully in a golden cage. The sound was so pure and sharp, I had to look closely at the tiny creature to figure out if it was real or not.

I was visiting the CIMA Museum (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), the Museum of Music Boxes in Sainte-Croix, a village in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland.

The region in the canton of Vaud is known as “the land of mechanical dreams”, the world capital of musical automatons.

I felt like Alice in music-box wonderland. Every item stretched the imagination and seemed more incredible than the one before. It’s an enchanting fairytale place, rich in history, where adults can revert to their childhood fantasies and children can learn about a form of music and movement that existed long before electronics and the digital era.

The little bird in the cage was invented in 1755 by Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss clockmaker from La Chaux-de-Fonds, near Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and perfected at the Bontemps workshop in Paris. Bontemps was taken over by the firm Reuge in 1960 so this unique mechanism is still exclusively manufactured in Sainte-Croix.

Automata reach far back into history when artisans in ancient Egypt and the Arab world created mechanisms imitating human movement and shape.

Geneva clockmaker Antoine Favre-Salomon is credited as being the father of modern automata, having invented a musical pocket watch in 1796.

He created a mechanism capable of playing a melody as steel pins mounted on a revolving cylinder caused a row of thin steel strips of variable length to vibrate.

Mounted in snuff boxes

The steel strips were tuned and mounted horizontally like a keyboard. This arrangement resembling a comb at first bore the name of “musique de peigne” (peigne is the French word for comb) and the original mechanisms were mounted in watches, snuff-boxes and jewels. Later they were encased in wooden boxes and became music boxes.

The android form appeared in the 18th century, thanks to Jaquet-Droz and the Frenchman Vaucanson, followed by prestigious craftsmen such as Théroude, Bontemps, Phalibois, Roullet, Decamp and Vichy.

The farmers in the region, known as the Siberia of Switzerland due to its fiercely cold winters, needed an occupation during the long snowbound winter months in the valley so music box-making became a popular pastime and means of income.

Towards the end of the 19th century, up to 600 workers in over 40 companies were producing music automatons and mechanical singing birds in Sainte-Croix.

And so the little village in the Jura Mountains evolved as the capital of musical automatons. Far from dying out, it has been actively promoted in the villages by the government, much like watch-making.

The Reuge company still manufactures music boxes in Sainte-Croix, each item taking craftsmen about three months to complete.

Founder Charles Reuge was born near Sainte-Croix and set up business there in 1865, manufacturing musical pocket watches. Son Albert opened a music box shop in 1886 and converted the family’s workshop into a small factory. Surviving the Great Depression by diversifying into Kandahar ski bindings, Reuge returned to the art of mechanical music when the economy recovered.

In 1960, Reuge took over the manufacture of mechanical singing birds from Blaise Bontemps and is today regarded as the leader in the mechanical music field.

The modern version of the singing bird comprises more than 250 parts and produces a song so real it can be mistaken for a live bird, as I discovered. Attaching feathers to the little singing birds takes three hours alone.

We saw astonishing creations by famous Sainte-Croix automaton-maker Michel Bertrand including The Acrobat who balances upside down on a couple of chairs, Pierrot the Clown who writes with a feather quill and The Child on the Cupboard, a small boy raiding food from a sideboard.

The Angel

The Angel, an automaton created in 1989 by the late Bertrand’s apprentice Sainte-Croix native François Junod, hangs above the main stairwell at CIMA.

Junod also created the exquisite Prince Eugène who writes at a rosewood table while Mozart playing a grand piano is the workmanship of Reuge.

I was utterly absorbed and intrigued with the intricacy of the movements and the mechanism behind such elaborate creations.

We moved on to a concert room with grand, large-scale orchestrions and symphonions that once entertained people in theatres, streets and railway stations.

In 1890, Auguste Lassueur fulfilled his goal to place music boxes in all the train station waiting rooms on the Jura-Simplon rail line. Operating like slot machines, they remained in use until 1938 and were considered the first juke-boxes.

Our guide Elisabeth Gudit showed us the inside workings of the music boxes and explained the various stages in the manufacturing process from the arranger who transforms the music into a score to the drilling, pinning, stamping, soldering, tuning, damping, assembling and encasing.

The cases themselves are a work of art, with craftsmen skilled in the centuries-old art of inlay, using as many as 1800 pieces and 30 types of wood.

In an era of iPods, digital music and sleek modern electronics, it was refreshing to be able to study the mechanism behind such creations and actually understand how they worked.

Far from being relegated to a quaint bygone era of history, modern craftsmen custom-make music boxes for customers who are looking for an expensive, unique gift for a special occasion, evoking the romance and nostalgia of the past.

THE sound of birdsong in the museum startled me. I turned to see an exquisite little “oiseau” with beautiful plumage chortling joyfully in a golden cage. The sound was so pure and sharp, I had to look closely at the tiny creature to figure out if it was real or not.

I was visiting the CIMA Museum (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), the Museum of Music Boxes in Sainte-Croix, a village in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland.

The region in the canton of Vaud is known as “the land of mechanical dreams”, the world capital of musical automatons.

I felt like Alice in music-box wonderland. Every item stretched the imagination and seemed more incredible than the one before. It’s an enchanting fairytale place, rich in history, where adults can revert to their childhood fantasies and children can learn about a form of music and movement that existed long before electronics and the digital era.

The little bird in the cage was invented in 1755 by Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss clockmaker from La Chaux-de-Fonds, near Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and perfected at the Bontemps workshop in Paris. Bontemps was taken over by the firm Reuge in 1960 so this unique mechanism is still exclusively manufactured in Sainte-Croix.

Automata reach far back into history when artisans in ancient Egypt and the Arab world created mechanisms imitating human movement and shape.

Geneva clockmaker Antoine Favre-Salomon is credited as being the father of modern automata, having invented a musical pocket watch in 1796.

He created a mechanism capable of playing a melody as steel pins mounted on a revolving cylinder caused a row of thin steel strips of variable length to vibrate.

Mounted in snuff boxes

The steel strips were tuned and mounted horizontally like a keyboard. This arrangement resembling a comb at first bore the name of “musique de peigne” (peigne is the French word for comb) and the original mechanisms were mounted in watches, snuff-boxes and jewels. Later they were encased in wooden boxes and became music boxes.

The android form appeared in the 18th century, thanks to Jaquet-Droz and the Frenchman Vaucanson, followed by prestigious craftsmen such as Théroude, Bontemps, Phalibois, Roullet, Decamp and Vichy.

The farmers in the region, known as the Siberia of Switzerland due to its fiercely cold winters, needed an occupation during the long snowbound winter months in the valley so music box-making became a popular pastime and means of income.

Towards the end of the 19th century, up to 600 workers in over 40 companies were producing music automatons and mechanical singing birds in Sainte-Croix.

And so the little village in the Jura Mountains evolved as the capital of musical automatons. Far from dying out, it has been actively promoted in the villages by the government, much like watch-making.

The Reuge company still manufactures music boxes in Sainte-Croix, each item taking craftsmen about three months to complete.

Founder Charles Reuge was born near Sainte-Croix and set up business there in 1865, manufacturing musical pocket watches. Son Albert opened a music box shop in 1886 and converted the family’s workshop into a small factory. Surviving the Great Depression by diversifying into Kandahar ski bindings, Reuge returned to the art of mechanical music when the economy recovered.

In 1960, Reuge took over the manufacture of mechanical singing birds from Blaise Bontemps and is today regarded as the leader in the mechanical music field.

The modern version of the singing bird comprises more than 250 parts and produces a song so real it can be mistaken for a live bird, as I discovered. Attaching feathers to the little singing birds takes three hours alone.

We saw astonishing creations by famous Sainte-Croix automaton-maker Michel Bertrand including The Acrobat who balances upside down on a couple of chairs, Pierrot the Clown who writes with a feather quill and The Child on the Cupboard, a small boy raiding food from a sideboard.

The Angel

The Angel, an automaton created in 1989 by the late Bertrand’s apprentice Sainte-Croix native François Junod, hangs above the main stairwell at CIMA.

Junod also created the exquisite Prince Eugène who writes at a rosewood table while Mozart playing a grand piano is the workmanship of Reuge.

I was utterly absorbed and intrigued with the intricacy of the movements and the mechanism behind such elaborate creations.

We moved on to a concert room with grand, large-scale orchestrions and symphonions that once entertained people in theatres, streets and railway stations.

In 1890, Auguste Lassueur fulfilled his goal to place music boxes in all the train station waiting rooms on the Jura-Simplon rail line. Operating like slot machines, they remained in use until 1938 and were considered the first juke-boxes.

Our guide Elisabeth Gudit showed us the inside workings of the music boxes and explained the various stages in the manufacturing process from the arranger who transforms the music into a score to the drilling, pinning, stamping, soldering, tuning, damping, assembling and encasing.

The cases themselves are a work of art, with craftsmen skilled in the centuries-old art of inlay, using as many as 1800 pieces and 30 types of wood.

In an era of iPods, digital music and sleek modern electronics, it was refreshing to be able to study the mechanism behind such creations and actually understand how they worked.

Far from being relegated to a quaint bygone era of history, modern craftsmen custom-make music boxes for customers who are looking for an expensive, unique gift for a special occasion, evoking the romance and nostalgia of the past.

FACTBOX

* The CIMA is one of 480 museums free to visit with a Swiss Travel Pass. www.myswitzerland.com/rail.

* Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism. To learn more about Switzerland: www.myswitzerland.com

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