I moved to Bienne 4 years ago, for reasons unrelated to watchmaking. I work in Zurich, for a “tech” company, and Bienne was the closest place to put our kids in the public, French-speaking, school system. Back then, I was not suspecting how much I would end up appreciating the town.
I was, of course, aware that Bienne is an important place for watchmaking. And I was, almost secretly, excited to move there for that reason. Still, it’s only when I settled in and discovered the city that I realised how much more there was than I thought to the local watch scene. That’s what made me, eventually, start this blog, to share my “findings” with others like me.
Where things got a bit tricky was regarding my watch “obsession”. I started the hobby in 2014, so was about 4 years in. Back in Paris, where I lived previously, the world of watchmaking was quite well hidden. You would have to deliberately go to a retailer, or meet collectors, to talk about, and admire, watches. That, organically, contained the passion, leaving room for other things in life.
In Bienne, on the other hand, it was like being a kid in Disneyland, or a gambler in Vegas. Everywhere you look, there is something to remind you of watches: the Omega building, the Swatch museum, the Rolex facility, the old Bulova factory, the Hamilton HQ, Armin Strom, Hermès, my kids’ pediatrician in the former Heuer offices…
And “places” are just the beginning. What makes it all come to life is the people. They walk in and out of those buildings. All wearing amazing watches. Sometimes watches not even released, being tested on their wrists. Any restaurant you go into, you can pretty much be sure there will be people from the industry sitting next to you. Brand executives or employees, but also suppliers from the region, or retailers from around the world.
And then, of course, there are the watches. On the official retailer side, prior to the Omega and Swatch HQ boutiques opening, there was nothing too special to report. Jacques Tissot is a great shop, but similar to what you will find in many places around the world. Villiger was the Rolex AD but no longer is (as you can read about here). Apart from that, there is a Christ, like in most Swiss towns and shopping centres, and that’s about it. But it doesn’t end here. Where I found Bienne to be truly special was on the second hand market…
Imagine a city where the Swatch Group is established, Omega has its HQ and Rolex is the largest employer… That means a lot of people who, over decades, have had access to incredible watches at employee discount prices, typically paying 40% of retail. Of course, this process is regulated: it doesn’t apply to all watches, is during time-limited annual employee sales, and resell is not authorised. But over the years, people accumulate watches, some retire, other change companies, etc. As a result, the local supply for pre-owned watches is massive. And demand is harsh, because most people can get those watches brand new for under second hand price… I remember a vintage dealer in Bienne telling me, about a Daytona he was selling: Bienne price: X; Geneva price: X + 20%; Paris price: Geneva price + 10%.
Of course, this will all vary depending on the model and overall demand. What I would say is that for a watch that is not in particular high demand (so, not the Daytona, despite my example above), typical Bienne rates are great. Beyond the price, the quality and range of watches on offer is pretty fantastic, and rotation is fast. Several friends of mine, working in Zurich or Geneva, including in the watch industry, have taken the first train they could to Bienne after I spotted a watch for them.
Back to my little adventures. As you can imagine, this easy access to great watches resonated with me. Actually, it was a bit overwhelming. This was further amplified by my friendship with Dario Ratti, an incredible watchmaker (and human being), who could not only help me spot anomalies before pulling the trigger on a vintage piece, but also pretty much bring anything I bought back to life. During my first 2 years in Bienne, I purchased a very significant number of watches. Both to fund the next one and because I am a minimalist at heart, I typically traded in, or sold, just as many watches over the same period.
This was a time-consuming hobby of course, and sometimes, excessively. My ability to obsess over a watch I was considering or had just purchased was pretty high to put it mildly. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to control some of my pulsions better, and not let the passion eat into other, fundamentally more important things in life, such as family time. But then of course, it is probably better to spend such time and energy on watches than on many other things (back to the gambling example…).
While I definitely did not break even financially, and that was never the goal, I did gain a lot from my intensive watch buying and trading during my first couple of years in Bienne. First, I learned a good deal about watches, researching each model and discussing it with the seller, or experts such as Dario and my good friend Luc, who heads up R&D for a Bienne watch brand. Second, as a result, I fine-tuned my taste in watches. Having tried a couple dozens of brands, experimented with most complications, used pretty much every case, bracelet and strap material that exists, I ended up knowing what I really liked. This in turn has helped me advise people I know more wisely regarding their own watch purchases.
Getting closer to knowing what I wanted in a watch was a first step in settling down. Beyond that, I think I eventually got used to all the amazing “watch stuff” around me. Being used to it doesn’t mean that the passion is gone or that the magic disappears. Not at all. For me, it meant learning to not get hyper excited about each and every stimulus that would come my way. My friends who live here, work in watchmaking and love what they do, while still getting on with the rest of their lives, have been a great inspiration.
I have now become, I hope, closer to a true local and less of watch tourist on an extended honeymoon. My purchases have become rare and more thought through. I have reduced the quantity of watches I own to a small number, finally satisfying the minimalist in me. I take pleasure in telling people about Bienne, showing them around when they come here, and helping friends find the watch that is right for them. Converting some of my “watch energy” into this blog has actually helped me a lot in this respect. Yup, that means that by reading this, you are contributing to my watch therapy. I hope you don’t mind. I certainly am very grateful!