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LA CHAUX DE FONDS: The air is stiflingly hot, with a heavy, metallic smell that lingers 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, the centuries-old traditional foundry in La Chaux-de-Fonds in northwestern Switzerland – the cradle of the famous watchmaking industry – has been making 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 Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, Huguenin was preparing the bells for the upcoming Games in Paris.
“If everything goes well, one Olympic bell is 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 shipped 38 bells to Paris, at the request of official timekeeper Omega, which has its chronometric 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 Allen Zobrist, who heads OmegaTime and is responsible for chronometry within the wider Swatch Group.
Athletes are told that “they have to do their best to reach the finish line as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.
Recalling that Omega has been timing the Olympics since 1932, he admitted that the bells represent “a very traditional element”.
“Today, chronometry is done electronically. The bells are a sign of our past,” he said.

Ten minutes after pouring the molten bronze — with the texture and bright orange-yellow color of volcanic lava — Huguenin can peel off the thick liquid, at a temperature of just 200C.
With powerful blows of the hammer, he breaks the hard, black-sandy mold in the frame, while smoke erupts.
The emerging bell is covered in bark, 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 he’s not as obsessed with bells as some collectors can be, Huguenin says he’s proud that his creations are being seen by billions.
“I put the same energy, the same passion, into all the bells I make,” he said, explaining that he also makes cattle bells and increasingly for individual events like weddings.
“But knowing that in our own small way we are participating 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.
“We watch TV every release to see if we can spot them,” he said, recalling how he used to keep 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 now.”

The bells used for each Olympics remain the same, only the edition logo changes.
Always decorated with colorful Olympic rings, they are about 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) high and 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in diameter.
But each bell is still unique, Huguenin insists, because of the use of traditional techniques and recycling.
The clay Paris sand used for his mold is not synthetic and is reused several times, he said, noting that some grains have been in use for 100 years.
As for the copper-tin alloy used for the bronze, it is made from single-source recycled materials.
On shelves near his wooden desk, Huguenin keeps a collection of souvenir bells with defects made for previous Games in Atlanta, Rio and Athens.
But weeks before the Olympics open in Paris, he already has one eye on the future.
Of course, there are bells to be made for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, he said, but “first is the Winter Olympics in Milan Cortina” in 2026.
“I’m going to start it this fall,” he said.
“I’m always one step ahead.”

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