For the third episode of the “Bienne Makers”series, we have the privilege of being hosted at the headquarters of Hamilton International by Vivian Stauffer, the company’s CEO. He first joined the Swatch Group in 2002, working on the Olympic Games back when Swatch was the official timekeeper. In 2007, Vivian Stauffer joined Hamilton. An airplane pilot himself, it is not surprising that he chose to continue his career with the company that is famous, among other things, for its aviation watches. After having previously led Hamilton’s Sales department, he was nominated to the CEO position in July 2020.
All photos courtesy of Hamilton International
Hamilton is one of several Swatch Group brands to be based in Bienne. But, unlike the other ones, its origins are on the other side of the Atlantic. Can you tell us about this history? What made Hamilton end up here?
Hamilton is the only brand in the Swatch Group that was born in the United States, specifically in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1892. Its foothold in Switzerland began when it acquired the component manufacturer Huguenin in 1959, followed in 1966 by the acquisition of Buren. The decision-making center, and the HQ, remained in Pennsylvania until 1993, when it moved to New Jersey and finally to Switzerland in 2003. Hamilton was acquired by SSIH, which later became the Swatch Group, in 1974, but the head office remained on the other side of the Atlantic for almost 30 years.
We started out by being located with Rado in Lengnau, near Bienne. And in 2006, we moved to Bienne. We had a number of different locations in the city, but I think that now we will remain in our current location, Langgasse, which has a lot to offer both for our present and our future.
Bienne in French, Biel in German, is known for being Switzerland’s largest bilingual city and is recognized for its cultural diversity. Hamilton itself, with its American
heritage and its Swiss present, is a bi-cultural brand. Can you tell us how this is reflected in your values and your watches?
We are really proud to have this rich American heritage and spirit. The American spirit is the starting point. We go from there and transform it into a finished product with the globally recognized precision of Swiss watch standards.
Our watches emerge from this American spirit. During WWII, we produced over 1 million watches for American soldiers. In our aviation collection, we have bold products with a lot of character. There are also pieces of true American design, for instance the Ventura, the world’s firstelectric watch, designed by Richard Arbib in 1957. Or the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch, in 1970. Also, the Art Déco pieces from the 1920s, and 1930s, which are still part of our collection today. America is really the origin of the brand and where we find inspiration.
We talk about bilingualism in Bienne. We are an American brand, and the US is a
multicultural country. Here in Bienne, with just over 50 people working at Hamilton HQ, we have more than 10 spoken languages such as Italian, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai or Japanese. We are a bit of a little America here at Hamilton!
Hamilton has now set up home for good in Bienne. What do you think has made this city, for many, the true capital of the Swiss watch industry? What are Bienne’s unique strengths?
So many watch companies have their headquarters or production in Bienne. For me, it is the capital of watchmaking for different reasons. One is the know-how. When we first purchased companies in Switzerland over 50 years ago, we came here because the know-how was here. Bienne has done very well by remaining such a skill center over time, both in the city and in its surroundings. It’s easy for us to visit our component suppliers or assembly lines who are all located nearby.
For Hamilton at least, Bienne is definitely the capital of watchmaking!
You have worked in Bienne for two decades now. Watchmaking aside for a moment, what is your general impression of the city? Its overall vibe, its atmosphere? How do you feel it has evolved over the years?
Back then, when I told friends who were living in Bienne that I was going to work there, they would say to me: “To love Bienne, you have to be born in Bienne.” It was too late for that, but I did move over and lived in the city for a few years. Later, I moved to Neuchâtel and then back to Leman region for family reasons.
The Bienne spirit is quite impressive. Its multicultural dimension is about language, of course, but also about nationalities. I think this comes from its past, when there was a need for workers to come from all around the world for the watchmaking industry. And this is still the case today. I think this multinational atmosphere really helps with creativity. For instance, in the Old Town, all those small shops, really creative, artistic. I don’t see the same thing in other cities. There is something quite special here.
Regarding the city’s evolution over the past 20 years, it has been huge. I remember when I started to work here, there was no highway between Yverdon and Bienne, none from the Jura either or from Bern. Bienne was outside of the central road axis of Switzerland. Now, we can see the massive developments that have been undertaken, allowing people to commute into work here. Another example is around the Palais des Congrès area, how it has been transformed over the past ten years, it’s quite impressive.
What are your favorite hangouts in Bienne? For instance, where do you like to go for a meal or for a drink?
As I have not actually lived here for 15 years, I am not up to speed with the latest places to hang out. But, of course, we have guests coming here from around the world--retailers, distributors, journalists, and generally we have lunch with them. For instance, we like to go to La Péniche for its lake views. The Bözingerberg restaurant also, just a 10-minute drive, with a fantastic panoramic view. We’re also fans of L’Ecluse, with its little garden atmosphere. Nearby, we frequently go to Marruzella, which is very intimate and has that local, personal “Swissness” touch that is very important when we have people come from abroad.
Sometimes, for farewells when people are leaving the company or moving to other brands within the group, the younger members of our team will go to the Lago Lodge for drinks, or the POOC, depending on the season.
You became CEO at the heart of the Covid pandemic. What has this global context meant for Hamilton? Once things are, hopefully, “back to normal,” what will have forever changed in the way you do business?
Taking over during the pandemic was not so difficult for me because I had already been at the company for 15 years. We work in an emotional environment. Our products are emotional. People need to touch them, wear them. They always try them on. When you’re not able to travel around with your product, to get the feedback from your customer, from your retailer, from your team, it’s challenging. This kind of emotion cannot be transferred online.
Nonetheless, we have not been that affected by the pandemic because we already were quite active on ecommerce. The first platform we opened was in 2014. But clearly, the pandemic boosted our online presence. I sometimes had the impression that we were a picture and video production company! It was very important to transfer emotions to customers and retailers in a world where you could no longer do it physically.
What has helped us face the pandemic is the strong sense of community within the company. There is a true start-up mentality. People take ownership, and we are also very accessible to the outside world, whether to business partners or the many fans of the brand.
2022 will undoubtedly be a big year for Hamilton, the 130th anniversary of the brand and 90 years since it was first featured in cinema… Without revealing any secrets, can you give us a flavor of what to expect over the coming months?
I can say that for Hamilton, every year is a big year! In a sense, 130 years just makes us a teenager in the watch industry, so that alone does not motivate us to do something truly exceptional--we have the impression that every year we do something exceptional. When we look at our rich past, we want to be a reference for the future of our brand. We want that when they look back at the archives in 2080, they say: “Wow, look at what they did in in the 20’s!”
In terms of cinema, we don’t want to call out a special celebration for the 90 years because we are convinced that there may be even earlier appearances of Hamilton watches in films that have just not yet been identified. It was only a few years ago that we discovered our presence in Shanghai Express from 1932.
That being said, we do, of course, have celebratory plans for this year. We will have an animation around the PSR, which we released two years ago for the model’s 50th anniversary. The cycle started in December, with the release of the Matrix Limited Edition. Those who follow us know that last year we launched a new hand-wound chronograph, and you can expect us to unveil new models with the movement. We are also working on a commemorative piece to celebrate the 130th anniversary. But we were born on December 14, 1892, so we still have a few months to go in order to fine-tune things that I can’t disclose today!
Hamilton is definitely a collector’s sweetheart. Few brands in its price range are able to capture so much attention from aficionados. What do you think explains this success?
I think this success is mainly due to our commitment to authenticity. Everything we do needs to have true value from the perspective of our brand. As I said, we take inspiration from our past. What we produce has to make sense, be truly valuable. It’s about being honest with our customers and in the storytelling, because we know people appreciate a genuine passion for quality craftsmanship, and that’s what we try to bring into our products every year.
You talked earlier about inspiring the future. Let’s imagine there is a time capsule in which each major watch brand can put one single watch to be revealed in 200 years to future generations… Which Hamilton model would you choose, and why?
That’s a very challenging question. When you look at the 130 years of Hamilton, so many models come to mind for the time capsule… If someone had to do this 200 years ago, wrist watches did not even exist! And, obviously, I have no idea what the world will be like in 200 years.
Thinking out loud, however, the potential candidates would definitely include the Ventura as the first electric watch, the Elvis Presley watch with its triangular shape, totally revolutionary at that time. The Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch, a true watchmaking milestone... It could also be the watch from the movie Interstellar, which can communicate with Murphy, Joseph Cooper’s daughter, so maybe I could use it to communicate with the future generation! Another idea: We are partners with Dario Costa, the first pilot to fly through a tunnel. Maybe this will be the norm in 200 years. So perhaps his watch could be a good fit for the capsule.
But if I really had to choose just one, for its importance in the history of watchmaking, it would be the Pulsar.
2022 also coincides with your 20 years in the Swatch Group and your 15 years at Hamilton… What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over this period?
What I learn every day and have learned in my 20 years in the group is the entrepreneurial mindset. Mr Hayek, Sr. was an entrepreneur, the younger Hayek generation as well. This mindset is really transferred to all employees. There is no barrier. We have to open the closed doors. That’s what motivates us every day.
I also learned how people can make a difference. At Hamilton, we are part of a big group, but the start-up mentality gets things moving in the right direction. Team spirit is critical to continue to build the brand and to share the emotion with the products in which we put our energy every day.
You’re hosting us today in a space with exceptional pieces from your archives on display. Can you tell us about any plans you may have regarding a potential Hamilton museum here in Bienne?
Hamilton’s history and various moves that we discussed earlier mean that, unfortunately, some things have been lost. It’s like when you move houses. We are now working on regrouping those archives, by searching for and purchasing the missing pieces.
We have the project to build a museum now that we have found our true headquarters. This is a beautiful building where we have the space to continue to grow.
The Watch & Clock Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania has many valuable pieces froHamilton. We are working closely with them. For the time being, that is the best place to see original pieces from 130 years ago.
And, finally, among the watches in front of us right now, which is the most special in your view?
If I had to choose one of the watches in front of us today, I think it would be the Interstellar movie watch. After we initially loaned the watches to Christopher Nolan, we were astonished when we got the watches in return, after being used on set. As you may know, Mr Nolan does not like to use CGI and thus, the mechanism integrated into the watch to animate the hands was truly impressive.