Blue Sapphires and Blue Cheese in the French Jura

The Story of the Gemcutting Cheesemakers of Septmoncel

Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim
13 min readApr 22, 2024


In eastern France, near the Swiss border, there lies a sleepy, forest covered mountain range called the Jura which is full of secluded villages with an unusually interesting history. If you were to visit these villages today, a casual observer might not notice much that would indicate this regions combined importance for the trades of gemcutting and cheesemaking. The mountain range is large, but the scattered villages around the city of Saint-Claude have a unexpectedly unique story.

The Jura mountains, whose name is derived from the Celtic word for “forest,” has had people living on them since at least the 13th century. It’s a beautiful place, but has proven to be a challenging locality for people to survive in. Harsh winters and poor soil mean that vegetable farming rarely yields anything of interest. The people who decided to call the Jura home have historically needed to look for other ways to feed themselves and earn a living. Raising cattle has long been a necessary tradition in the Jura, both for meat and for milk.

Jurassian Dairy Farmer, early 20th century.

The area has long since had a traditional for cheesemaking and local legend tells us how the techniques for producing cheese came to the region: Once there was a monk from Chézery who recklessly ventured into the middle of the mountains during a violent snowstorm, intending to go to Saint-Claude. Lost in the forest after hours of walking, blinded by large snowflakes, and surrounded by wolves waiting for prey, the exhausted old monk let himself fall into the snow. Soon, a mountain man, tough and capable of facing the storm passed by. He noticed the man covered in snow and realized that he was still alive. He put the monk over his shoulders and carried him home in an attempt to save him. Warm and well cared for in the peasant’s poor home, the monk gradually regained his strength. Alive and well, the monk wanted to thank the family to whom he owed his life. The best way he could think of was to gift him the secret technique of making cheese that only the Chézery monks knew. Since then, this modest mountain family has been able to live in great material comfort thanks to this production. The secret gradually reached the rest of the mountain where it generated real prosperity.

For half a millennium, the other major industry in this part of the Jura has been gemstone cutting and local legend also has something to say about that trade. The story says that a watchmaker from Geneva named Michaud introduced the techniques of stone cutting to the Jura in 1735. The farming villages that are dotted across the mountaintops eagerly took to the trade because it gave them winter work while they had no agricultural income. In the higher mountain altitudes, the soil is of poor quality, so the farms were meager. This might explain why the lapidary trade and the cheese trade excelled in these plateau villages and in the Valserine Valley.

A Cheesemaking Center

The mountainous areas of the southern Haut-Jura have long been occupied by goats and sheep. However, some cows were present especially in the valleys and the local cheeses were traditionally made from goat and cow’s milk. The significant implantation of cows dates only from the 18th century, when the textile industry that was relying on the goats and sheep turned to other localities. This new bovine breed made it possible to develop the manufacture process for “chevrets” and “blue” cheese.

Cows grazing in the green fields of the Jura, early 20th century.

Strangely enough, the center of both of these traditions, cheesemaking and gemcutting, lies in the town of Septmoncel, a small mountain village 12 km outside the local capital city of Saint-Claude. If we dig a little deeper, we can find factual accounts that help back up these anecdotal local legends. The origins of the cheesemaking in the region seem to date back to the 12th century, when monks from Dauphiné introduced the production technique to the monks in the abbey at Saint-Claude. We have three documents which date from around the beginning of the 19th century which shed light on the unique kind of blue cheese that the residents of Septmoncel have since became known for.

We can find a reference to the manufacturing of blue cheese on farms under the name of “Septmoncel” in the Jura directory of 1813. The lawyer and deputy Christin, Voltaire’s wrestling companion, presents in June of 1791 a report defending the maintenance of the activities of the Salines de Montmorot, whose production is necessary for the manufacturers of the cheeses of “Gruyère” and “Septmoncel”.

In 1799, the Breton Lequinio, in his Voyage Picturesque dans le Jura, tells us “To the south-east of Saint-Claude, and about two leagues from this town, you will find Septmoncel, a large village, and the capital of the district where the excellent cheeses that bear its name are made. These are blue cheeses like those of Roquefort, and which approach them in taste as much as in the appearance of the cut. It is one of the best types of cheese in France; and if it is not generally known there, it is because the district which supplies it is not large enough to produce a very considerable quantity of it.”

A 20th century card depicting the products of the Jura including cheese from Septmoncel.

A document from a little before 1800 indicates: “The so-called Septmoncel cheese is made exclusively in the communes of Septmoncel, Les Moussières, Bellecombe and Bouchoux; these last three do not even make any others. Unlike Gruyère cheese, which is made with the help of a large number of cow owners mixing their milk to produce cheeses of 15, 20 to 30 decimal pounds, these are made separately in each home. Septmoncel cheese, having reached its point of maturity, is one of the best known and has valuable properties for digestion. It would be better known if it could be transported further away. It goes to Lyon, Geneva, and Besançon, where it is very sought after; but only a small quantity is taken to Paris.”

Also in 1799, François-Nicolas Eugène Droz, writes in a letter: “As for the Septmoncel cheese, after it has been purified, turned and returned in the mold, wiped on shelves placed around the wooden fireplace which is in the middle of the kitchen; it remains there for a few days… it ferments, then it is dried in the fireplace and when it is completely dry, it is placed in the cellar from the field , safe from flies and mice; they then weigh 15 to 20 pounds…”

This cheese, he writes, is made by women. He explains; “The advantage of this production consists in the fact that … the whole thing costs nothing to manufacture, being done by women and children, while for the Gruyère, you need cheesemakers which cost [150 francs] for four months and which require good food; finally, Bleu de Septmoncel is usually sold in Lyon for 5 francs per quintal more than Gruyère.”

A mid-20th century view of Septmoncel

Like Morbier, Bleu de Septmoncel, was a women’s specialty. These two productions did not require, like that of Gruyère, the difficult manipulations of a well-muscled man. They were also relatively quick and required simpler hardware. As a result, the farmers had the opportunity to become the masters of these productions in their own homes.

Bleu de Septmoncel has a fine yellowish crust and is slightly floury under the finger. The ivory white cheese is spotted with fairly pale blue-green veins that gives off a characteristic nutty flavor. It has a medium flavor that’s slightly fruity with hints of vanilla and spices, as well as mushroom. Considerably larger than most blues, it is also recognizable thanks to its deep yellow inner paste and high proportion of blue mold. It is firm and dense in texture in the same way as a Stilton is, but tastes much spicier and less sweet.

A Gemcutting Hub

The story of Jurassian gemcutting is a bit complex compared to the cheesemaking origins. The part of the Jura that borders Geneva saw a lot of population groups moving back and forth over the years. With the rise of Calvinism in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of nearby Geneva’s Catholic artisans from the watchmaking industry were pushed west across the French border due to religious persecution. At that time, Geneva was experiencing an exceptionally prosperous period with many rich merchants and when the extremist Calvinists rose to power, they pushed the merchants, watchmakers, jewelers, and their associated lapidaries out of the city. This brought a lot of families and their trade secrets into the Jura region. Saint-Claude became a kind of mountaintop sanctuary for Catholic pilgrims. The local past-time handicraft of producing small wooden religious items meant that the local Jurassians already had a meticulous skillset when the lapidary trade arrived and it spread easily. It seems that the first lapidaries were present in the Jura around 1550.

In 1685, with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Protestant jewelers from the diamond cutting trade were pushed out of an increasingly Catholic France and many took refuge in Geneva. This revitalized the Swiss watchmaking industry and by association, boosted the lapidary activity in the Jura. It is for this reason that the famous Protestant explorer, gem merchant, and jeweler of King Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier sold his Chateau in Aubonne near the base of the Jura mountains and left for Russia and hopefully safer lands to settle in.

A Gemcutting workshop in Gex, early 20th century

In 1704, the use of ruby bearings in mechanical watches was developed. The demand for the tiny custom-cut rubies increased exponentially, giving rise to many lapidary shops around the Jura in villages such as Septmoncel and Mijoux as well as a bit further down the mountain closer to Geneva, in Gex. By 1770, there were 600 lapidaries working on the plateau of the Jura.

From there, the industry grows steadily. Lapidary families such as Gauthier-Clerc, Dalloz-Furet, Hugon, Roland, Fournier, and Chevassus-Berche started to show their products to jewelers in Paris and some families become merchants, facilitating the transfer of cut stones between the Jura and Paris. By 1770, this relationship with France’s capital caused the Jura to experience an economic boom. The Jurassian women began to dress themselves in the latest Parisian fashions and the town of Septmoncel became known as “Little Paris.”

Cheesemaking Lapidaries

If we consider that most of the gemcutting work in the Jura was being done in the home, in the winter season by family groups, such as husband and wife or brother and brother, we can imagine how easily these family groups would have shifted modes between the winter and summer months. When the weather was nice, it was time to tend to the cows and the milk and the cheese. When the weather turned cold and snowed you in, it was time to focus on gemcutting. In this way, the families of the Jura were able to survive for hundreds of years and increase their standard of living from simple peasants in the 16th and 17th centuries to “Little Paris” in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Not only did the lapidary farmers raise cows and milk them, but they also possessed the secret of cheesemaking. As time went by, they had developed specific techniques to make a kind of blue cheese that they would become well known for; Bleu de Septmoncel, later known as Bleu de Gex. Like cheesemaking, gemcutting was also very much a woman’s art and in surviving photos we often see more women than men in French gemcutting factories and studios.

A Gemcutting Workshop in Septmoncel in the early 20th Century.

In 1856, Alphonse Rousset in the Dictionary of the communes of Jura wrote: “The main source of income for residents is cheese making. This production includes only the famous blue cheeses known as Septmoncel as well as Chevret, a sort of small square-shaped cheese with a soft consistency, which are not likely to be exported far away and are consumed almost exclusively in Franche-Comté; manufacturing has seven main cheese centers, each formed from the meeting of a certain number of owners or farmers who pool the daily product of their livestock and then share the sale price… Independently of these associations, there are still a few individuals, but in very small numbers, who alone or with the help of one or two neighbors also engage in the same manufacturing…” The transition from manufacturing to cheese production had therefore already become a reality.

“There are as many cheese factories as there are households. Each resident makes their own cheeses in their home. We make two kinds of it, one called Septmoncel, which is of the first quality, and the other called Gruyère. The production of blue cheese amounts to 40,000 kilograms annually. It originated in this town.”

In 1861, the Annuaire du Jura says very explicitly: “This type of cheese is made in the cantons of Saint-Claude and Morez; There are no cheese companies for gray-blue cheeses, each cow owner makes and sells for his own account. Twenty-three municipalities were manufacturing them at the time.”

A card advertising Bleu de Septmoncel

It was very likely that gemcutting men would tend to the fields and the cows while the gemcutting women which work on the production of the Bleu de Septmoncel when the weather warmed up.

The Development of Two Industries

Over the next 150 years, the lapidary trade in the Jura continued to grow. By 1920, it’s estimated that there were 8,000 lapidaries in the Jura Mountains, with the major cutting center being Septmoncel. These cutters were mostly cattle farmers seeking employment in the winter months, though some families chose to cut all year. With the creation of the synthetic Ruby by Auguste Verneuil, the Jura started to become proficient in the production of faceted synthetic stones.

After World War I, the lapidary activity in Jura was at its peak. In the 1920’s, there was an increase in demand for square sapphires and baguettes with the lozenge tables, of which the American market was very fond. The sale of these stones happened in Paris, which had become an important gem and jewelry trading center.

The financial crisis of the 1930’s hit the Jura cutting industry and destroyed many of the local lapidary businesses. In the 1950’s, another wave of financial despair moved through the region and nearly wiped out all of the at-home workshops that still existed. The home cutting business continued to decline until 1989 when the last home workshop closed its doors.

Bleu de Septmoncel aka Bleu de Gex

The blue cheese industry has done a better job at surviving than the Jurassian lapidary industry. The director of the National Dairy School of Poligny, P. Sajous, noted in 1935: “Due to the difficulties of transporting milk for farms far from villages, farm manufacturing still has great importance.”

By 1859, 23 municipalities in the borough of Saint Claude produced 253,000 kg of Bleu de Septmoncel. At the start of production, the peasants made cheese on the farms, but progressive currents in the Saint Claude sector as well as economic prospects caused the birth of cooperative groups who produced the local cheeses including Bleu de Septmoncel. By 1931, these cooperatives produced 560 tons of the unique blue cheese versus only 120 tons on isolated farms. In the middle of the 20th century, throughout the Haut Jura there were , more than 30 cheese production collectives of various importance and the Municipality of Septmoncel had four of them, located in the hamlets of Vie Neuve, Montépile, Clavière and Manon.

The success of the cheese and the manufacturing collectives led the Ministry of Culture, with the financial support of the General Council and the Chamber of Agriculture of the Jura, to create a mixed training school for cheese making in La Pesse in 1925. This training was led by teachers from L’E.N.I.L. in Poligny and operated each year over four wintertime months.

In France, the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) is a label that identifies products whose production are carried out in a defined geographical area — the terroir — and using recognized and traditional techniques. Bleu de Septmoncels cheese, also known as Bleu de Gex, was able to define its terroir and protect its heritage and name, being one of the first to receive the AOC label in 1935.

Bleu de Gex (as its mostly know today) also has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). This European label guarantees consumers that all stages of production take place in the delimited geographical area of the Appellation — the Haut-Jura, straddling the departments of Ain and Jura. All manufacturing, from the production of milk to the maturing of cheese, takes place exclusively in this area.

Today, there are two cooperative cheesemakers who make Bleu de Gex and only one farm workshop left. On the cutting side, there remains two small workshops in Saint-Claude and the surrounding region. It’s still possible to have stones cut in the gemcutting center that was once the biggest in the world and it’s still possible to taste the unique flavor of Bleu de Septmoncel, the cheese that the gemcutters of Septmoncel started making more than 200 more years ago.

Bleu de Septmoncel cheese on a traditional Jurassian gemcutting bench.

About the Author

Justin K Prim is an American gemcutter. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. Justin has taught gemology and gemcutting at AIGS and IGT in Bangkok and he has recently published his first book, The Secret Teachings of Gemcutting. He is the founder of Faceting Apprentice, an online gemcutting school, and he also writes articles, produces videos, and gives talks about gemcutting history.

If you are interested in supporting the work that I do and would like exclusive access to all the content that I create then please consider becoming my patron on Patreon!


AOP Wikipedia Article

Audiganne, M. Armand, 1859, Les Lapidaires de Septmoncel, Revue des Deux Mondes, Seconde Période

Audiganne, M. Armand, 1864, Travail et les Moeurs Dans les Montagnes du Jura, Revue des Deux Mondes, tome 51


Burdet, G., 1925, L’industre Lapidaire, Imprimerie Albert Roussel

Boullier, H., 1908, Les Tailleurs Pierres Fines Jurrasians, Imprimeries Réunies

Cheese wire… Bleu de Gex

Du Bled, Victor, 1893, Un mois à travers la comté, Les industriels de Saint-Claude, Morez et Septmoncel, Revue des Deux Mondes, 3rd Période, Tome 119

L’histoire du Bleu de Gex

Septmoncel Municipal Website - AOC Bleu de Gex, du Haut-Jura

Vernus, Michael, 2010, Le Morbier, le Bleu de Gex, Presses du Belvédère



Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim

Gentleman Lapidary | Author | Faceting Instructor | Chronicler of Gemcutting History