Special Report : From Switzerland with Love

An invitation to Omega’s manufacture and museum in Biel Reveals a behind-the-scene story that only a selected few have seen—writes Chris Andre

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John F. Kennedy’s Omega watch

Basel in early spring brought to mind an idyllic image of scenic gardens with blossoming tulips and multihued petals. While the post-winter chill might curb one’s enthusiasm to explore the city and travel far, my train scheduled to depart for Biel was not to be argued with. And as with anything Switzerland being unapologetically punctual, a minute late would mean bidding adieu to an already leaving train. Once arrived at Biel—also known as Bienne in French—I was pretty surprised of how snugly rural the area was. The streets were lined with green tress, and bicycles are a common sight. The train stop itself was conveniently located in the middle of the town, and the police station was right in front of it.

 

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A vintage stamp of Omega; an artwork by Salvador Dali with an Omega watch

THE MANUFACTURE

It took roughly 10 minutes from the train stop to Omega’s manufacture, which, by the way, was temporarily ensconced within the same building as the other brands under the Swatch Group. But having seen gigantic and ear-deafening manufacturers of other goods in Asia, I was completely stunned looking at how immaculate and “petite” the Swatch Group’s was. A revolving entrance door welcomed my curiosity, and a minute after I was consciously treading on to the Omega’s building wing. My first impression was rather suspicious. Again, I wasn’t trained to be familiar with the surroundings of such, but inside the manufacture reminded me of immaculately clean, disinfectant-scented hospitals. “Please cover your shoes with this pair of wraps,” asked an administrative officer on duty before I entered the pre-assembly room; I was, naturally, further intrigued. “Some part of the manufacture was engulfed in fire last year, but we’ve managed to keep this room safe from the incident,” he explained matter-of-factly. The room in question appeared, to my layman’s eyes, like a human aquarium. A large number of desks had female workers absorbed in their respective works. I, as the audience, leisurely stared at these watch labors, who have been silently contributing to the production of arguably the world’s finest timepieces.

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Omega manufacture

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The ETA manufacture

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The lobby of Omega museum

Along the exterior of the aquarium, there were several touch panels that would play videos elaborating the watchmaking process: A small white carrier case containing watch components is passed on from one station to another in a stop-and-go motion, where each post is responsible to place in parts of a movement component. Some parts are minutely small and would require a trained eye to work with them. “That’s why we maintain a stringent level of hygiene,” the officer abruptly added. “Every particle, even the smallest bit of dirt that’s perhaps stuck on your shoe sole, can seriously make an impact on the watch assembling process. Simply put, we’re like doctors against viruses,” he burst into laughter. “Another thing, if you notice the fact that there are more female workers here, it’s because they are meticulous to details, since it’s not easy to fit the components into the movements.” A simple Omega movement, I was told, requires two days to finish in average, but one watch can take up to 3,5 months or more to complete, depending on the level of complexity and the case design. While the production department is busy crafting watches after watches, the R&D department is tirelessly seeking new trails to blaze in the watchmaking technology. One of the latest innovations is a patented Master Co-Axial caliber, the first truly anti-magnetic watch movement. Unlike most magnetic-resistant watches relying on an encasing protective shield, Omega’s new caliber uses a Si14 silicon balance spring, nonmagnetic plates and even an amorphous material for the shock absorber, making each movement incredibly antimagnetic (of more than 15,000 gauss) without the need to cover up the watch in a protecting shield anymore. Either way, why should anyone put a mask on beautiful faces, the likes of Omega Seamaster and Speedmaster?

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“Every particle, even the smallest bit of dirt that’s perhaps stuck on your shoe sole, can seriously make an impact on the watch assembling process”

THE MUSEUM

Also a must-visit in Biel is the Omega Museum that’s located across the brand’s headquarters. Founded in 1984, it remains the oldest museum dedicated to a single watch brand. Incumbent museum manager and curator Petros Protopapas gave the visiting group, which included me, a very inspiring tour around the extensive collection of the 166-year-old Swiss brand, founded by Louis Brandt. Upon entering, I came across a replica of Lunar Rover, a vehicle used by past astronauts when exploring the moon. A staircase behind it led to the museum on the second floor, which are divided into three separate quarters containing different collections.

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Omega watches from James Bond’s films

“A simple Omega movement requires two days to finish in average, but one watch can take up to 3,5 months or more to complete, depending on the level of complexity”

The first space on the right-hand side showcases early inventions by founder Louis Brandt back in 1850s.Arguably, the most important of which is a defining movement for a pocket watch that set the standard for a watch crown placed at 3 o’clock. (Prior to that, watch owners had to go to a mechanical repairer to set the time using a special tool suited to the type or the watch brand.) That movement was named Omega, which was coined for the name for the watchmaking enterprise. Fast-forward to the mid-twentieth century, the journey of the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon in 1969 is the preeminent theme explored in the middle exhibition room. Omega Speedmaster, being the timepiece of choice for the daring space travelers, is displayed in fine showcases, which also contain gloves and a few paraphernalia related to the monumental trip.

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Omega headquarters; A closer inspection of vintage Omega movement

Sports fans, meanwhile, will be thrilled to find the showpieces of Omega chronographs and stopwatches as the official timekeeper of Olympic Games for more than 25 times since 1932. That and other  milestones are further celebrated in the third room, housing special timepieces once worn by some of the most influential people on the planet. Among which is John F. Kennedy’s Omega watch, which he wore during his inauguration as the 35th president of the United States. Even Albert Einstein used to carry an Omega pocket watch with him all the time. Perhaps the most iconic character that propelled Omega into cultural stardom is fictional British spy James Bond. A series of Seamaster sported in the wildly popular “007” films since 1995 are housed within the comprehensive museum as well. As I was walking out of the premises, I stumbled upon men’s fragrance by Omega. What a quirky option of goods to produce, I must say; but since the brand has built watches appropriate for lunar trips, the sky is truly the limit.

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