When one thinks Bienne and OMEGA, images of the large facilities by the Suze river come to mind. Combining historical buildings and recent additions by the famous Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, they are among the most notorious and beautiful parts of the city's landscape. This year, OMEGA will be celebrating its 140th anniversary on the current premises. But that is not where it all started.
Louis-Paul and César Brandt first moved to Bienne from La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1880, the year following the death of their father Louis who had founded the company in 1848. A few years before occupying the now legendary site on 96, rue Jakob-Stämpfli, the brothers established their production in another building, about a 10 minute walk away. As indicated on OMEGA's website, the address was 119 Route de Boujean.
Where it gets a bit tricky is that while the street still exists, it has not only slightly changed names (from "Route" to "Rue" de Boujean) but also has radically changed numbering systems. That is why, when, naively, I initially went to take pictures of the current 119 Rue de Boujean, the house in question did not quite look the part. Don't get me wrong, it is lovely. Just not what I expected for one of the first truly industrial production sites in the history of watchmaking!
The search was made more challenging by the fact that the original building does not give directly onto the street, hidden by a more recent extension. It is only when my dear friend Alex (a serious OMEGA collector, as you can tell from his Instagram) put me on the right track that things started to make sense. As he found in the most renowned book on the brand's history, "OMEGA, A Journey through Time", what was before number 119 is now number 31. While renovated on several occasions, the main building has kept its original structure to date, as you can tell by comparing the two images above.
Now that we know where it took place, let's go back to 1880. Things went well and fast for the rapidly expanding watch company. The Brandt brothers initially only rented a floor, in January, of what was then the Schneider & Perret-Gentil factory. By April, they had taken over the entire building. Finally in November, they purchased it.
In 1882, the company needed to expand further. That is when they rented a section of the former Bloesch-Neuhaus textile spinning site, near the Suze river. In June of that year, the brothers purchased the entire factory. The company has been established there ever since.
The original building on rue de Boujean has kept close ties with watchmaking even after the Brandt brothers left. It became an independent company in 1896, "Fabrique de boîtes La Centrale SA", producing watch cases. It eventually ceased its activities in 1977 but the name "La Centrale" remained. As of 1983, the building hosted the Bern canton's micro-mechanics training school, with, again, a strong focus on watchmaking. The school moved to a different facility in 2011.
The building was recently overhauled, while keeping its core structure. It now mainly comprises apartments, as you can see on this website. That's right, in Bienne, you can choose to live in a former OMEGA facility, or a former Rolex site, on Haute-Route 85 (more on that here). While this article is, as always, 100% independent and unaffiliated, I would like to thank the teams from the OMEGA Boutique and the Archives, who provided key historical insights, as well as the Aberimo agency for being very helpful when I reached out for information.