Erich Fehr has been the mayor of Bienne since 2011. Bienne, Biel in German, is a city of 55,000 people and the largest bilingual city in Switzerland. As you know if you are reading this blog, it is also widely recognised as the capital of Swiss watchmaking. Among many others, it is the home of Omega, Swatch, Rolex’s largest production site and the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
Ever since I started “Made in Bienne” I was hoping to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Fehr. What I love in watches, more than any object, is the human touch behind them, the expertise and care that go into the making. In Bienne, you see those “makers” in motion, day in, day out. When you live here, you don’t look at Rolex or Omega as luxury or status symbols, you see them as what drives everyday life for the people around you.
In this interview, Erich Fehr shares his unique perspective on topics including the role of watchmaking in the local economy, his childhood during the "quartz crisis" and watch tourism in the city. The insights and analysis he provides bring Bienne watchmaking to life with a different and complementary angle to what we have previously heard on this blog from watch brands and collectors.
Please note the interview was translated from our conversation in French.
What does watchmaking mean for Bienne, both historically and today?
It is with the industrialisation of watchmaking, starting in the 1850s, that Bienne truly became a significant city. That is why, our beautiful old town aside, the urban areas are very recent, mostly dating from the XXth century.
The same can be said of bilingualism. Bienne used to be German-speaking. With watchmaking, we brought in workers who came mostly from the Jura (in the broad sense, not just the canton). They would be guaranteed tax exemption for 5 years, and schooling in French for their children. That is the origin of the French-speaking community here. And today, we are close to reaching parity between the two languages among the Bienne population.
Nowadays, watchmaking in Bienne also includes urban landmarks. This was not the case before. The Swatch / Omega campus obviously comes to mind, but the Rolex site, by its size alone, is also impressive. That said, we are less dependent on watchmaking than in the past. This is the result of a deliberate policy following some bad experiences, such as the quartz crisis. Still, all of the industry in Bienne and its surroundings follows the same logic as watchmaking: miniaturisation, precision and high quality. In that sense, watchmaking is still very present.
And what about the future?
For the future, the biggest challenge, in my opinion, will be to reassure the industrial base. Swiss watch exports are performing well in value but dropping in volume. This erosion of the industrial base is concerning. But obviously the government is not going to solve this, it’s for the industry to do it itself.
Smartwatches are also a topic for Swiss watchmaking. The industry should, I think, respond to the trend. Many young people will have their first watch experience with one of those devices. Later in their life, to celebrate milestones for instance, they will perhaps choose beautiful traditional mechanical watches.
Finally, education and training are also very important. It is essential that we maintain the duality that characterizes the Swiss system, with practical apprenticeship and professional schools. We must have all levels: superior schools, HES (literally “high specialized schools”) and universities. In Bienne, there is a microcosm that enables us to reach the diversity in skills we need. The HES campus currently in construction and the innovation park next to it, already running, are a good illustration.
You were born in Bienne, in 1968, just as the quartz crisis was about to begin. What are your childhood memories from this period? Can you tell us about its impact on the city, and how the city fought back?
As children, we didn’t quite realize that quartz was the root cause of the situation. But we did see that businesses were closing. I remember Bulova, in particular. Also, with no connection to watchmaking, the General Motors factory in Bienne was shut down during the same period. All that put together gave the clear impression that a serious crisis was taking place.
Back then, Switzerland exported its unemployment so to speak. Many workers had returned to their home country, in particular Italy. We could feel the many empty apartments.
One of the origins of the crisis was, I think, a certain arrogance in the Swiss watchmaking industry. It was hard to imagine that competitors in other countries could produce as good quality watches. There was also a structural factor, at the Swiss government level: to develop a new watch movement, an authorization from the Confederation was required. This totally slowed down innovation.
During the quartz crisis, the city administration worked with watch industry leaders, in particular Mister Hayek, to create the conditions needed for renewal. But the city could not make the important decisions.
My other major childhood memory associated with watches is from a few years later. After the merger of ASUAG and SSIH groups, the Swatch watch was created. Suddenly, we saw that Swiss watchmaking could, once more, be successful.
When I was a child, Rolex, in Bienne, was marginal. Despite the iconic building, here, at the bottom of the Jura, the manufacture was small. And the brand was much less a topic of public debate in watchmaking than today. Bulova still played a major role. And Omega, of course. Back then, Omega was much more present in the mind of the Bienne population than Rolex. Today, there is a balance, especially that Rolex is the largest employer in Bienne.
What is the relationship between the city administration and watch brands? Do you work on projects together? Are there sometimes sources of tension?
There are not really projects together given that at the city council, we don’t produce watches, and watch brands should not get into politics! [laughs] Then, of course, we know each other. If there is a problem, we meet very quickly. But the discussion is always focused on the interface between their needs and the framework the city makes available to them.
There is a relationship of trust but no material collaboration. Topics such as working conditions or export matters are within the scope of federal or canton authorities, not ours. And questions around the housing of watch industry workers, which were central in the past, are no longer a topic today, at least not in a way specific to watchmaking.
You have been the Bienne mayor for over 11 years now. Since I moved here 4 years ago, people often tell me the city has changed a lot over the past decade. How would you describe those changes? And what in the Bienne spirit has remained the same?
The answer is mostly pragmatic. We have had an excellent economic decade from 2010 to 2020. Rolex has invested, in two steps, in a huge manufacturing capability. Swatch built its “snake”, Omega its new production site. Other companies in the Champs-de-Boujean have grown very strongly.
Then, what people often refer to in everyday conversations has more to do with societal change. Over the past decade, Switzerland has seen strong demographic growth. Many new constructions have appeared, including in Bienne. Change happened across Switzerland but it is visible here too, and I think that is what people mean when they say Bienne has changed a lot.
The Bienne spirit, which I would define as a big openness to new arrivals, has not changed. If you come to Bienne and you open up to the people already here, you are immediately given access to the local social life. Much more than in other Swiss cities. My parents who arrived from eastern Switzerland 60 years ago say this, and those arriving today still say the same thing.
Watchmaking tourism has a lot to offer in Bienne, although many still may not know about it. The Swatch and Omega museums, the Nouveau Musée de Bienne, the old Rolex sites… Do you think this sector has a future for the city? Are there initiatives to further develop it?
It is definitely a growing area. The Jura-3-Lacs entity is active on this topic, among others, even if it goes beyond the city of Bienne itself. Then, to go really further, the problem will be the openness of watch brands. The Rolex manufacture is not open to the public. The Cité du Temps has excellent museums (Omega and Swatch), but it is not possible to visit the “snake”, which hosts offices. The Omega manufacture can be visited, but on special request. There is still a certain level of secrecy around watchmaking making difficult a deep experience of watchmaking tourism.
Another factor is the region. As beautiful as it is, it will not attract international tourists in the same way as Luzern, Interlaken and the Jungfrau. For many, buying their watch in those places is enough. They do not need to go see exactly where and how it was made. So the potential is there, but I also think there are certain natural limitations.
Finally, a personal question if I may. What is your connection to watches? Are you into watchmaking? What does watchmaking represent in your personal history?
As a child, I had a practical approach to watches. When I grew up, during the quartz crisis, it was a particular period, and as a result we were a bit less interested in watchmaking. I mostly learned about watchmaking since I became mayor. I have close and regular interactions with the leadership of Rolex, Swatch or Omega, for instance, and through that one definitely learns a lot.
I also learned to know brands that are sometimes a bit in the shadow of those icons, as well as the very rich industrial web, the many suppliers and “private labels”. The number of watchmaking suppliers in the Bern canton is impressive. Often, they develop the ability to also serve other industrial sectors. Advanced techniques in precision and technology are easily declined.