The sound of the Alps

2 July 2019 - The bell founders of Engelberg

With his welding helmet pulled down over his face, Werner Hurschler looks more like a visitor from another planet than an artisan working in a traditional craft trade. Werner is actually an Alpine farmer, but in his free time he makes bells. In his workshop the sparks fly as he carefully welds together two curved pieces of 2.5-millimetre-thick sheet metal that he shaped earlier. When he takes up his grinding machine to smooth the join the sparks fly again. Werner is one of three bell founders in Engelberg who make the traditional Swiss cow bells. The others are Urs Hess and Robi Tschümperlin. The three men do not work together as each has his own system for founding the bells. For example, Werner Hurschler forces the sheet metal over a mould with the help of a 120 tonne press, while Urs Hess gives his bells form by hammering them into shape with targeted blows.

Werner does not only count farmers among his clients: it is pretty much compulsory for collectors of these artisan pieces to own an original Hurschler. He offers seven different models of the large ceremonial bells called “Fahrtreicheln” and around 12 different variants of the smaller “Chlepfen”, the kind of bells that cows usually have hanging around their necks while grazing on the pastures.

Every bell produced by Engelberg’s bell founders is unique. It is essential that the bells have the right sound. The slightest slip in the production process can give a bell a jarring clang instead of a beautiful ringing note. If Werner accidentally produces such a bell, it quickly ends up on the scrap heap – and the work of a whole day has been in vain. But Werner puts a brave face on it. “That’s just how it is. The sound of the Alps has to be perfect.” Cow bells have an important function in the Alps. They help farmers to find their way around in the fog, and while the bells might sound the same to outsiders, farmers can detect the differences in each bell and are able to tell which cow is where by hearing alone. In this way, Engelberg’s bell founders are helping maintain an important local craft that has passed from generation to generation. And the guests get to enjoy the typical, evocative sound of the Alps.


Alpine cheese trail

Text & Photos: Beat Christen