Art of watchmaking gets Unesco heritage status

The craftmanship of Swiss and French mechanical watchmaking on Wednesday won Unesco intangible heritage status, casting the spotlight on an art practised for centuries in the Jura mountain region straddling the two countries.

Inclusion on the prestigious global list highlights “a living and emblematic tradition in the French-Swiss Jura Arc,” the Swiss cultural ministry said in a statement.

The craftmanship getting the Unesco nod sits at a “crossroads of science, art and technology,” the UN agency said.

Unesco annually announces a list of cultural artefacts that encapsulate the spirit and heritage of their countries.

The craftsmanship involved in watchmaking has been recognised by Unesco. (AFP)

Switzerland and France had last year presented a joint application for their centuries-old cross-border watchmaking craft to be included on the list.

Their listing covers the skills related to the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics, which are used to create watches, clocks and other objects designed to measure and indicate time.

But the manufacture of automatons, music boxes and mechanical songbirds are also included.

And techniques range from the manual and traditional to the cutting-edge and innovative.

“Though generally hidden, the mechanisms can also be visible, which contributes to the aesthetics and poetic dimension of the objects,” the Unesco listing said.

The Swiss-French Jura Arc, stretching from Geneva to Basel, is considered the cradle of the European time keeping industry, with the craft practised there for centuries.

French theologian Jean Calvin, the influential reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation, actually played a role in embedding watchmaking in the region.

By banning the wearing of ornamental objects in 1541, he “in effect forced goldsmiths and other jewellers to turn to a different art: that of watchmaking,” the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry explains on its site.

The fact that numerous Protestants fleeing prosecution in France also fled into the city, bringing their watchmaking skills with them, also helped embed the craft in the city.

Today, the Jura region remains bustling with watchmaking companies, big and small, with highly qualified craftspeople and a multitude of training options.

In Switzerland alone, 57,500 people are employed in the sector, which counts a broad range of professions that are needed to assemble the casings and internal mechanics of a precision timepiece.

Watchmaking is the third largest export sector in the Alpine country, with exports ticking in at nearly 22 billion Swiss francs (Dh92 billion) last year.

Art of watchmaking gets UNESCO heritage status
In this file photo taken on January 18, 2016 an employee of Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet assembles a watch, during the opening day of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), a professional fair in fine watchmaking, in Geneva. (AFP/Richard Juilliart)

Couscous also joined the UN list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

Couscous, the Berber dish beloved across northern Africa’s Maghreb region and beyond, on Wednesday also joined the UN list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

The countries that submitted the listing to Unesco — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania — may have their differences, but their common love of the grain staple runs deep.

“Couscous, present at every social or cultural event, is at once ordinary and special,” their joint presentation argued.

“Ordinary because of the frequency of its use in a family setting, and special because of the unifying and propitiatory role it plays at convivial community occasions at which food is shared.”

Bland by itself, couscous is served with meat or fish, spicey stews, chickpeas and vegetables in a mouth-watering variety of dishes.

Moroccan restaurant owner Hicham Hazzoum was among the couscous connoisseurs who applauded Unesco’s honour.

“I think we are the only Arab countries to have a high regard for this dish,” he said. “It is impossible not to eat it every Friday.

Couscous - BBC Good Food

“Moroccans are crazy about couscous and even children love it. It shows that the couscous flame will never go out.”

Across the region, couscous — also known as Seksu, Kusksi and Kseksu — is as elementary as rice or noodles are to Asian cuisine, the staple without which no meal is complete.

Arabic dictionaries have documented “Kuskusi” since the 19th century, though it is known to be far older.

The regional pride in couscous found full expression in the countries’ joint nomination for the “knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of couscous”.

“Women and men, young and old, sedentary and nomadic, from rural or urban communities or from immigrant backgrounds all identify with this element,” it gushed.

“The ethos of couscous is the expression of community life.”

AFP/Zurich, Switzerland

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