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LA CHAUX DE FONDS: The air is oppressively hot, with a heavy, metallic smell that sticks in the throat and stings the eyes.
In his smoke-blackened foundry, Alois Huguenin uses an enormous pot to pour molten bronze at 1,250 degrees Celsius (2,282 degrees Fahrenheit) into a metal frame.
For three generations, the century-old traditional foundry in La Chaux-de-Fonds in northwestern Switzerland – the cradle of the country’s famous watchmaking industry – has made the bells used in the Olympic Games.
Bells are rung 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 everything goes well, an Olympic bell means three hours of work,” the 30-year-old, equipped with 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 timing testing laboratory about 30 kilometers away in Biel.
“The bell is used to indicate to athletes, as well as spectators, when the last lap has started,” said Alain Zobrist, who heads OmegaTime and is responsible for timing at Swatch Group.
It tells the athletes “they have to give it their all to get to the finish line as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.
Recalling that Omega had timed the Olympic Games since 1932, he admitted that the bells were “a very traditional element”.
“Today, timing 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 yellow-orange color of volcanic lava – Huguenin can dissolve the thick liquid at a temperature of just 200C.
With heavy blows of the hammer, he breaks the hard, black-sand mold from the frame, as the smoke escapes.
The emerging bell is covered with a crust, revealing the work that remains to be done: deburring, grinding, filing and polishing.
Huguenin made his first Olympic bell for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
While not as obsessed with bells as some collectors can be, Huguenin says he’s proud that his creations are seen by billions.
“I put the same energy, the same passion into all the bells I make,” he said, explaining that he also makes bells for animals and, increasingly, for individual events like weddings.
“But to know that we are participating in a small way in the great Olympic celebration 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 edition, we watch on TV to try and see if we can spot them,” he said, recalling how he kept an eye out for his father’s bells when he was younger.
And “for several years, I’ve been looking for the bell I made.”

The bells used for each Olympics remain the same, only the logo of the edition changes.
They are always adorned with the colored Olympic rings, are about 20 centimeters (7.9 in) tall and measure 14 centimeters (5.5 in) in diameter.
But each bell is still unique, Huguenin insisted, thanks to the use of traditional techniques and recycling.
The loam of Paris used for its mold is not synthetic and is reused multiple times, he said, noting that some grains have been in operation for 100 years.
As for the copper-tin alloy used for bronze, it is made from individually sourced recycled materials.
On the shelves next to his wooden workbench, Huguenin keeps a collection of souvenir bells with flaws that were made for previous Games in Atlanta, Rio and Athens.
But with weeks to go before the Paris Olympics open, he already has an eye on the future.
Bells need to be made for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, of course, he said, but “first there’s the Milan Cortina Winter Olympics” in 2026.
“I’ll start this fall,” he said.
“I’m always one step ahead.”

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