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LA CHAUX DE FONDS: The air is sultry, hot, with a heavy, metallic smell that sticks in the throat and stings the eyes.
In his smoke-blackened foundry, Alois Huguenin uses a giant ladle to pour molten bronze at 1,250 degrees Celsius (2,282 degrees Fahrenheit) into a metal frame.
For three generations, a century-old traditional foundry in La Chaux-de-Fonds in northwestern Switzerland – the cradle of the country’s famous watchmaking industry – has been producing the bells used in the Olympic Games.
Bells are designed for a range of disciplines including athletics, track cycling, mountain biking and boxing.
Almost half a century after his grandfather made the first bell for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Huguenin was preparing the bells for the upcoming Paris Games.
“If all goes well, one Olympic bell will take three hours of work,” the 30-year-old, wearing an apron, gloves and a protective screen, told AFP recently.
Huguenin said he had already delivered 38 bells to Paris at the request of the Games’ official timekeeper, Omega, which has its chronometric testing laboratory about 30 kilometers away in Biele.
“The bell is used to tell the athletes as well as the spectators when the last lap has started,” said Alain Zobrist, who heads OmegaTime and is in charge of chronometry within the wider Swatch group.
He tells the athletes that “they have to give everything to reach the finish line as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.
Recalling that Omega has been timing the Olympic Games since 1932, he acknowledged that the bells represent “a very traditional element”.
“Today, chronometry is done electronically. The bells are a nod to our past,” he said.

Ten minutes after pouring the molten bronze – with the texture and bright orange-yellow color of volcanic lava – Huguenin can mold the thick liquid at a temperature of only 200°C.
He smashes the hard black-sand mold in the frame with heavy hammer blows as smoke billows from it.
The bell that emerges is covered in bark, revealing the work that still needs to be done: deburring, grinding, filing and polishing.
Huguenin made his first Olympic bell for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
While he’s not as obsessed with bells as some collectors can be, Huguenin says he’s proud that his creations are seen by billions of people.
“I put the same energy, the same passion, into all the bells I make,” he said, explaining that he also makes bells for livestock and, increasingly, for individual events such as weddings.
“But to know that with our smallness we are participating in the great Olympic celebrations is a source of pride.”
Huguenin said the Olympic bells have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“Every release we watch on TV to see if we can score them,” he said, recalling how he kept an eye out for his father’s bells when he was younger.
And “I’ve been looking for the bell I made for several years.”

The bells used at each Olympics remain the same, only the logo of the edition changes.
Always decorated with colorful Olympic rings, they are about 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) tall and 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) across.
But each bell is nevertheless unique, Huguenin argued, thanks to the use of traditional techniques and recycling.
The clayey Paris sand used for his mold is not synthetic and has been used several times, he said, noting that some grains have served for 100 years.
As for the copper-tin alloy used for the bronze, it is made from recycled materials from individual sources.
On the shelves near his wooden work table, Huguenin keeps a souvenir collection of bug bells that were made for previous Games in Atlanta, Rio and Athens.
But a few weeks before the opening of the Paris Olympics, he already has one eye on the future.
Of course bells need to be made for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, he said, but “first is the Milan Cortina Winter Olympics” in 2026.
“I’m going to start it this fall,” he said.
“I’m always one step ahead.”

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