Five Hundred Years of Gem Cutting in the Mountains of Jura
Lapidaries on the Swiss/French Border: 1550–2017
In Eastern France, near the Swiss border, there lies a sleepy, forest covered mountain range 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 region’s importance to the history of gem cutting. In modern times, the mountain range has become a haven for skiing holidayers, yet if you were travel back a few hundred years, you might find a gem or two.
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, though the region’s lapidary history only goes back to the 16th century. Local legend says that a watchmaker from Geneva named Michaud introduced the technique of stone cutting to Jura in 1735. The farming villages that are scattered 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 which might explain why the lapidary trade excelled in these plateau villages and in the Valserine Valley.
This border region 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 in Jura 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. The first lapidaries were present in 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 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.
In 1704, the use of Ruby bearings in mechanical watches was developed. Ruby’s low and predictable friction improved watch accuracy as well as improved bearing life. The demand for the tiny custom-cut rubies increased exponentially, giving rise to many lapidary shops around Jura in villages such as Mijoux and Septmoncel. In 1712, Joseph Guignard became the first lapidary of the Valley of Joux which counted 50 stonecutters in 1749. In 1735, a cutter named Michaud arrived in Lamour, another small village in the Joux Valley. By 1770, there are 600 lapidaries working on the plateau of Jura.
By this time, the Age of Enlightenment had arrived in France. The well known writer and historian Voltaire settled in Ferney, near Geneva and started a watch company called Manufacture Royale. Voltaire’s company put a large competitive strain on Geneva’s watchmaking industry, causing it to close its borders which nearly suffocated the lapidary activity in nearby Jura and the town of Gex at the base of the mountains. This caused the lapidaries of Jura to begin to turn away from Geneva and look towards Paris for customers.
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 such as Bavoux, Chevassus-Mathias, and David, become merchants, facilitating the transfer of cut stones between Jura and Paris. By 1770, this relationship with France’s capital caused 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.”
The lapidary trade developed further under King Louis XVIII. Finely cut stones came into fashion and Paris began supplying orders for gemstones and jewelry around the world. During this period, the number of cutting houses multiplied. As demand increased, the small lapidary houses started making more money which eventually enabled the creation of the first full fledged lapidary workshops. These modern factories were comfortable, well equipped, and large. In 1840, the first lapidary factory, La Grande Fabrique, was founded in Lajoux by David Missilier. La Grande Fabrique employed 200 workers in the factory plus an additional 100 lapidaries that worked from their home workshops. In 1846, Missilier had contracts with over 300 Swiss watch companies. Jura and its lapidaries were starting to gain notoriety and in 1832 an honorable mention was awarded to the lapidaries of Septmoncel at the Public Exhibition of the Products of the French Industry.
In 1878, with the help of lapidaries from Antwerp, Eugène Goudard from Divonne, developed a machine for cutting diamonds and installed it in a village near Saint Claude which is now known as Montbrilliant. Sainte Claude with its La Bienne river was an ideal location because the diamond workshops needed to utilize water power to drive the powerful diamond cutting machines. Goudard recruited workmen from among the best local lapidaries and started a thriving diamond cutting business alongside the colored stone cutters of the watch and jewelry industry.
The 20th century brought the Industrial Revolution to Jura, inspiring new technological innovations, along with new ideas about worker’s rights. The Lapidary Workers’ Union was founded in 1911 in Septmoncel. The Union was especially concerned with payment criteria for its lapidaries and it developed tables and charts that divided cut stones into difference pricing categories. The small stones were charged per piece and the bigger stones were charged per carat. The smaller the stone, the more expensive they were, because of their difficulty to cut. In 1914, César Mandrillon founded a lapidary cooperative company called Les Ateliers Coopératifs des Lapidaires Jura. The cooperative provided work for home-studio lapidaries, paid its members for their work, paid them shareholdings, and managed a pension fund for their retirement.
Lapidary technology was developing and by 1885, the Jurassians were using the “mechanical stick” which had many sides providing the first mechanism for “indexing” a faceted stone. This allowed the lapidaries to be more precise and create more repeatable results. In 1895, Emile Dalloz of Saint-Claude and Jules Grandclément of Moussières grouped several sticks together and substituted the traditional cylindrical millstone for the flat wheel, creating the first automated cutting machines.
By 1920, it’s estimated that there were 8,000 lapidaries in the Jura Mountains, mostly farmers seeking employment in the winter months. Technology continued to be improved upon, and they had developed a new kind of faceting head with the “case-mechanics” (for the location of the facets) and the “évention” (for angles). Another new development was an automated machine able to cut hundreds of stones at a time. With the creation of the synthetic Ruby by Auguste Verneuil, Jura started to become proficient in the production of faceted synthetic stones. The Groupe Dalloz company was founded in 1917 in Septmoncel and has since become a world leader in synthetic cut 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. In recent years, as with many European cutting centers, it has become very difficult for Jura to compete with the importation of cheap Asian-cut stones. Today, there remain three or four small workshops in Saint-Claude and the surrounding region. Some French lapidaries are destined for repair and maintenance cutting, while the most exceptional workshops are linked to the Paris jewelry industry and continue to cut stones for some of the most prestigious jewelers in the world.
Though still tucked away in it’s sleepy forest sanctuary, the lapidary industry survives in Jura and there are many landmarks for the curious seeker including the very impressive Museum of Lapidary in Lamoura, Trabbia Vuillermoz Jewelry Shop and Museum in Mijoux, The Museum of Pipes and Diamonds in Saint Claude, La Taillerie in Bellefontane along with several cutting factories that are scattered around the Jura plateau.
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Trabbia Vuillermoz Jewelry Shop and Museum in Mijoux
The Museum of Lapidary in Lamoura
Museum of Pipes and Diamonds in Saint Claude
Lapidary Demonstration in Septmoncel
Jura’s Lapidary Trail
The Lapidaries of Jura — Video
The Workshop of the Lapidary in Lélex
Gemcutter Andre Verguet in Longchaumois
Jura Archaeology Museum
World Atlas, Jura Mountains
Lapidaries Of Haut Jura
L’Atelier Des Lapidaires La Peyrière
Jean Baptiste Tavernier — Wikipedia
Georg Frederich Strass — Wikipedia
Jewel Bearing — Wikipedia