By Magnus Salbu
In this week’s instalment of Watchmakers of Switzerland, we’re taking a look at brands based in Biel. Biel is a city in north-western Switzerland, in the canton of Bern. It has a rich history of watchmaking and Rolex’s technical department where they develop most of their movements is located there. It’s worth mentioning, for those that perhaps aren’t so keen on their Swiss geography, that Biel is also called Bienne. Here’s an in-depth look at four other watch manufacturers coming out of Biel.
Omega SA was founded in 1903 by a group of four young people, all of which were descendants of the founders of La Generale Watch Co, which was Omega’s forerunner. At this point, Omega was already a huge company employing more than 800 people. Omega has always had a maritime focus and in the 1930’s they invented the first divers watch, known as the Marine Standard (which you can read more about here). Omega became particularly well known for their dress watches, particularly the Constellation which was launched in 1952. There was also a more affordable range called the Omega Geneve. After this the ever popular Speedmaster range was introduced, earning itself the name ‘Professional’ in the early 1960s. Omega also introduced a couple of models which are very collectable today, but didn’t do so well when they were released. Lines such as the Dynamic and Emerald had some success and were remarkably different compared to other designs. Although the elliptical shape of the Dynamic lasted for over 30 years in Omega’s sales catalogue, eventually the shape of the watch lost the attraction with customers as 90s design tastes were considerably different to those of the 60s.
Mido was founded in 1918 by George Schaeren in Biel, Switzerland. Their focus has from the beginning been on wristwatches, as opposed to many of the other manufacturers covered in this series who started out with pocket watches. This is because Mido was founded relatively late, right after World War 1 had ended and wristwatches became more and more popular. From the beginning, Mido manufactured watches inspired by the earliest sports cars. The cases were made to look like the radiator grills of many popular car manufacturers such as Bugatti, Peugeot and Buick.
In 1934, Mido introduced their iconic Multifort model. This was the first watch Mido produced with an automatic winding system. The watch was marketed as having an unbreakable mainspring due to Mido’s automatic winding system which prevented the mainspring from being over wound. In the early 60s the Mido Ocean Star Vaccum watch came to be, these watches used cork instead of rubber in the gaskets (cork is actually a better material for sealing watch cases, its main drawback is any slight imperfection compromises the seal). There was even a diving watch variant which used these cork gaskets and had a depth limit of 300m.
In 1914 a man named Eugene Meylan founded the Glycine Watch Company in Biel, Switzerland. Here in Biel, Glycine have been producing their watches for over 100 years, ever since their founding in 1914. They are one of the very few Swiss watch manufacturers to not relocate their operations at some point. Glycine’s first watches were very exclusive pocket watches, often housed in gold or platinum cases. Glycine has been present at every Basel watch fair since 1938 (known today as Baselworld). After World War 2, Glycine began to focus on military watches, including chronometers capable of withstanding even the toughest tasks. Their most famous watch, an icon in the world of military watches, the Glycine Airman, was released in 1953. The Glycine Airman became an immediate success because it was one of the first pilot’s watches to show the time in two time zones. Even today, the Glycine Airman is one of the longest standing watches in Glycine’s collection, the design has remained largely unchanged since the first generation from 1953.
The final Biel based watch manufacturer we are going to cover today is one that, besides Rolex, is one of the most famous and one of the largest watch manufacturers in the world. Swatch was founded as late as 1983 by Nicholas Hayek, during the worst part of the quartz crisis. Swatch’s vision was to manufacture a timekeeping device in its simplest form and to recapture some of the market the Swiss watch industry had lost to the Japanese. Swatch focused on manufacturing genuine, Swiss made watches at a low cost. The first Swatches only cost about 50 CHF in 1983. They managed to achieve this low price by automating a large portion of an otherwise handmade process. Their first mechanical movement was made of only 51 parts, thereby giving it the name, Swatch Sistem 51. Swatch is often credited with saving the Swiss watch industry, by having mechanical watches at a competitive price point compared to their cheaper, Japanese quartz counterparts. Swatch later formed the Swatch Group which owns both Omega and Mido, as well as a lot of other Swiss luxury watch manufactures such as Montres Breguet, Blancpain and Harry Winston. It is also responsible for manufacturing ETA movements which are used by many companies outside of the group.
So there you have it, four of the most famous watchmakers based in Biel, Switzerland. We still have many places to visit yet on our little virtual tour of Switzerland, but we hope you are liking it so far. If you have any feedback or would like to suggest a town to visit next please feel free to use the comments section below! Until the next time.