On a sunny Friday morning in February, Raynald Aeschlimann, the President and CEO of Omega, opened his office to Made in Bienne. After a few moments on the terrace, where he gave an improvised masterclass on the watchmaking sites visible across the Jura hills facing us, we sat down to talk about the unique ties between Bienne and the brand that truly started the city’s amazing history in watchmaking 142 years ago, and continues to drive it today.
The grandson of a Swiss watchmaker from nearby town Saint-Imier, Raynald Aeschlimann has worked at Omega for over 25 years. In June 2016, he was appointed CEO, delivering since record results for the company. As comfortable speaking with brand ambassador George Clooney as he is with any assembly line employee, Mr. Aeschlimann lives, breathes and represents the brand in a unique way. His passion for Omega is highly communicative, perpetuating the legend of the company that, among other feats, produced both the first watch on the Moon and the one to go deepest under the ocean.
All photos courtesy of Omega
Since 1880, the histories of Bienne and of Omega are intrinsically linked. Can you tell us how they influenced each other over the years?
If there is one brand that most defines Bienne’s history, I would have to say it is Omega. Swatch, more recently, should also be mentioned.
At the turn of the 19th century, when the Brandt brothers came to Bienne, the city had a certain regional importance in terms of trade and industry, but its historical destiny in watchmaking had not yet come into being.
Bienne became a watchmaking town through its population--watchmakers but also industrial workers. We must remember that General Motors used to be a major player in Bienne as well. This contributed to the advent of micro-technical industrial skills at the beginning of the 20th century. The city developed considerably because of the ever-expanding offer for jobs.
Omega has always wanted to be at the heart of the city, including today. As a recent example, the city created a cycling path from the lake to Omega HQ. Omega is a key part of the development of Bienne.
Another aspect to note is that the watchmaking industry brought to Bienne a huge number of French speakers, truly reinforcing the city’s bilingual identity. This in itself has significantly impacted on the city’s values.
You grew up in Saint-Imier, about 30 minutes from here, and for the past 25 years, you have worked for Omega, in Bienne, including as President and CEO for the last 6 years. What does Bienne represent for you? How do you perceive the evolution of the city over this period of time?
I look at Bienne with a certain level of affection, of fondness. Coming from the Bern-Jura region, I’ve always been drawn to Bienne. For people like me, from the Saint-Imier valley, Bienne is the starting point of the “big city.” For stores, studies, going to doctors, it was always Bienne. Bienne has been like a “second step” for me. It’s a regional city.
I am very attached to my origins, and this region helps me keep them alive. I am very happy here. I am someone who likes living with their colleagues, the watchmakers, and I really like the mentality of Bienne, a real family mindset, where people still know one another.
You grew up in French-speaking Switzerland, and went to university in German-speaking St. Gallen. While the language in Swiss watchmaking is generally French, Bienne--Biel in German--is Switzerland’s largest bilingual city. What does this mean to you, and for Omega?
I am very lucky to be able to speak both languages. It’s an honor for me, and a true pleasure, to be able to talk with employees in a very personal way, in their mother tongue. At Omega, as generally in the Swatch Group, we embrace this. We like not having French as the only language. This was established from the very beginning, and from the very top, by the Hayek family.
Omega’s recent investments in Bienne are extremely significant. Can you tell us about the ambitions, the vision around the new production facility?
Ever since the Hayek family took over the brand, our vision has been the same. The Omega DNA is about precision, perfection, and values. Omega is not a brand for arrogant people, and this is reflected in how we operate. We are close to the customer. We are at their service. At the end of the day, it’s about their decision. The slogan of the famous campaign we started with Cindy Crawford, “My Choice,” sums up this approach very well.
We are the largest watchmaker operating its own boutiques--160 of them worldwide, with record revenue last year. We do this out of passion for our customers. Our investments here come from the same passion. Passion for precision, with the Master Chronometer. Passion for perfection, as illustrated by the building itself, bringing in Shigeru Ban to design it and to go beyond just industrial construction. And passion for values, with the working conditions of our employees, the ones who truly create our watches. I think our manufacture is the most modern and perfect you can find in the watch industry. All of this together has been our mission.
The investments made by Swatch Group and Omega in these buildings show a very clear set of values. It’s not just customer-facing, it’s also about our people. I am very proud of this because not only is it a pleasure to be able to show it, to prove that our vision is a reality, but it’s also something we can explain and demonstrate to our staff. We saw it during the Covid pandemic. The quality of the cohesion combined with that of our infrastructure enabled us to keep producing without any significant problem. I think this shows that having vision pays back, even during difficult times.
Two other investments are of particular interest to our readers, since they are open to the public: the Omega Museum, widely acclaimed for being state of the art, both rich in content and playful, and the boutique, where Omega enthusiasts can purchase a watch right where it was made, which is extremely rare in the watch industry. Considering that Bienne does not have the same organic tourist influx as Zurich, Geneva or, for instance Luzern, what motivated you to do this?
Omega was originally the first watch brand to have a museum. This again shows how we care about transparency, and have, historically, over the years. Master Chronometer does not just designate the most precise of watches, with 15000 Gauss resistance. Our movements are also about transparency, quite literally, with the exhibition casebacks on the vast majority of our watches.
Today, people talk about experience: shopping experience, sales experience, etc. But for me, the most beautiful experience is to give the opportunity to anyone, someone with 100, 20, or none of our watches to be able to visit our museum. We wanted a museum not just focused on the past, but also an interactive one, oriented towards the future. A real experience. It enabled us to make this part of Bienne a true place of discovery. It is why I like so much that we have a single museum building, shared with Swatch. Come and discover the past, the present, and also the future of Omega. Exhibits are built around our themes, with both very modern watches, and also watches that have made history. Swatch is different in many ways, but it shares with us that it has made, and continues to make, watchmaking history. Both museums offer fantastic experiences to visitors.
Regarding the boutique, we realized there was a large expectation. It was considered almost obvious, a logical continuity of our investment here. It was natural for people to be able to discover the contemporary collection in a true Omega environment, not just a corner. I insisted on this. And the space we have, in one of our most beautiful and historical buildings, does justice to this vision.
The boutique becomes, for all the region, and for all the tourists that we have had even with Covid (so imagine without!), a true destination. Of course, a watch I buy in Zurich, Geneva or Interlaken is exactly the same. But a watch is not just about the object, the status symbol. The feeling of knowing it was made where I bought it is something else, something special.
The ability for customers to stop here when they plan their European travels and benefit from what I could call a perfect experience for buying their first, second, tenth Omega where it was created, is unique. I really thank all of my colleagues, in particular our executives, who rapidly wanted us to create this boutique. It is a total experience, providing vibes that many customers love.
Despite it arguably being the true capital of the watch industry, historically Bienne has not been as prominently put forward by watchmaking brands as Geneva. In 2020, you launched the Seamaster Aqua Terra Worldtimer with Bienne on the dial as the GMT+1 reference city rather than Paris or Geneva, as on most watches with this complication. Where did this idea come from?
This was the result of a working session with Mr Kissling, who is our Head of Product Development. I am a big fan of world-timers. It’s a wonderful complication and one that is very much in line with Omega’s universality as a brand. Our four sub-lines [editor’s note: Speedmaster, Seamaster, Constellation and De Ville] are extremely strong. Who can claim to have as many watches this strong, and as famous as ours?
Universality in terms also of regions of the world. Of course we are very strong in China, but seeing how revenue has evolved across the world over the past years, we are truly universal. Another point is that we are not a brand mostly for men, or mostly for women. Our women’s watches are not just copies of the men’s watches. This also contributes to our universality.
The Seamaster Aqua Terra, both sporty but also very classic, was the perfect watch to bring this principle to life. And among all this universality, showing where we come from—Bienne--was important. It is on this watch, which is about the world, more than on any other that we had to talk about Bienne.
This subtle message is not something we proactively put forward in the marketing around this piece, but it was picked up on and greatly appreciated by all collectors. It’s one of the watches for which I have the highest regard, attachment, and pride. First, because it is very sought after, a true success, but also, because of the “Bienne” reference, which makes it intrinsically even more beautiful and significant.