There’s one thing I personally don’t like about the world of watches. It’s when watches are about everything but actual watchmaking: watches as status, watches as an asset class, watches as an accessory part of a Devil Wears Prada ensemble, watches as a lifestyle prop, etc. You get it.
My goal today is not to focus on what I don’t like, or point fingers at specific places or people where the bling side of watchmaking is most prevalent. Rather, I want to focus on why Bienne is so different, and how much I appreciate it.
Usually, in places where many high-end watches are found, the full lifestyle suite comes along: a high street, a department store, a watch fair, an auction weekend… Even when the focus is on the watches, they are inevitably showcased as a link part of a greater luxury chain of goods and experiences.
Bienne has many architecturally beautiful areas, ranging from medieval to Bauhaus and now Shigeru Ban. It is surrounded on all sides by luxuriant nature in all seasons. Still, it remains, and proudly so, an industrial city. Not industrial in the sense of factory chimneys emitting toxic chemicals. Rather, industrial as in using highly sophisticated human skills and machinery to produce complex components and finished products. People are busy at work, and when they’re not working, they generally like to enjoy their loved ones, the city and the region in an often casual, friendly, atmosphere.
The consequence of this setting is that when you see on someone’s wrist here, as you often do, a rose gold Sky-Dweller, an Ed White 321 Speedmaster, or an Armin Strom Mirrored Force Resonance, well, it really stands out. It stands out precisely because it’s not just an accessory to the Bugatti and the Berluti. The casual environment that characterizes the city outside of the amazing watches you so frequently encounter puts those watches in the spotlight.
And yet, this is just the optics. What is truly fantastic in my opinion is not how the watches somewhat stand out, but rather how they are typically perceived by the people in the city. To summarize, I would describe it as the watchmaker’s eye. Of course, not everyone here works in the watch industry. And among those who do, only a minority are actual watchmakers, in the strict sense. Still, there is a profound, widespread culture of watchmaking. A deep understanding of what goes into a watch, whether it’s a Swatch or a chronograph minute repeater. The movement, the metals, the crystal, all are seen as the result of human work.
Ultimately, it is this human connection to how watches are made that creates the unique watch vibe in this city. Knowing that this watch was made by such and such around the corner, with spare parts supplied by the factory where a cousin used to work, based on a design that a bunch of cheerful, loud, possibly drunk young men and women were debating at the bar after hours on Thursday… You don’t need eight figure marketing campaigns to love watches when the best ambassadors, those who actually make them, are around you every day.
Of course, there are other watch towns in Switzerland. Ones where the culture of watchmaking is at the center of everyday life, defining how watches are appreciated. I also love hanging around in those places. La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle, Neuchatel, Grenchen, Saint-Imier, La Vallée de Joux. This is not exclusive to Bienne. But the scale at which Bienne operates, hosting arguably the 3 most famous watch brands in the world and the largest watch group in the world, among many other key players in the industry, makes it particularly unique. If you love watches and haven’t already experienced this atmosphere for yourself, well, as you may have guessed, I highly recommend it.