As you may know if you’ve been here before, I love buying pre-owned watches. The variety, the serendipity, and the story behind each piece are a lot more magical to me than a thick carpet, engineered lighting and unscratched, shiny cases. For that reason, you’re more likely to find me sniffing around the shelves at Dario’s, Charles-Louis Muri’s or the Bienne Cash Converters than sipping champagne to celebrate a purchase at an authorized dealer.
That being said, I have also purchased a decent amount of new watches over the years. And even when I get it pre-owned, I like to take it back to the mothership for service. It’s always good to have those who made it look at everything inside, put in all the right pieces, and give you some paperwork at the end.
In either case, buying new or coming for service, dealing with Bienne brands in Bienne has often added a meaningful touch to the experience. As a result, my relationship with the watch and more generally the brand was augmented. At the suggestion of my friend Alex, I will share a few such anecdotes today.
There are countless stories that come to mind if I look back at my 5 years in Bienne. For them to be truly representative, I chose here some where no personal connection came into play. No friendship, no purchase history, no link to this blog. That will hopefully illustrate how even if you live on the other side of the planet, you can come here and experience something similar yourself.
Ha, I got your attention now, didn’t I? Something about the Rolex brand, it just grabs our mind share. Before anyone gets too excited: the story is not about how I bought a brand new Daytona with the employee discount from a guy I met grocery shopping at the Coop opposite the Rolex movement production site.
Buying a brand new Rolex in Bienne still remains impossible at the moment ever since Villiger was no longer a Rolex AD. That being said, as many people in the city are unofficially aware, positive updates are expected on that front relatively soon. Watch this space!
Back to my anecdote. It has to do with a relatively humble, far from new, fairly beaten Rolex watch. I wanted to get it serviced but, in the absence of an AD here, wasn’t sure where to go.
That’s when I learned that in Bienne, as in Geneva, you can simply bring your watch to the manufacture. There is a dedicated after-sales section, right near the main entrance. It’s typically used by employees but also open to the public.
The service ended up being faster and I believe cheaper than if I had gone through an AD. More importantly, they were all super nice. Far from the Bahnhofstrasse atmosphere that is personally not my cup of tea, everyone was friendly and polite in a very simple, matter-of-fact way. You could tell you were where the watches are made, not where they are sold.
I was hoping to get the watch back for a particular event, but the service took a few days longer than planned. I called in to check on the status, explaining the situation. They said they would see what they could do. I got a phone call the next day, 30 minutes before closing time. My event was the next morning but there was no way I could make it over while they were still open.
The lady, whom I had never met, said: “No problem. I still have work to do, so will be around. If you can come within the next hour or so, we’ll let you in”. I was thinking: Rolex? Fort-Knox-AD-sales-rep-laughing-at-me-Rolex just said I could casually come into their largest production site after closing time?
I of course rushed over as soon as I could. A perfect experience once more, with everyone from the entrance to the after-sales unit being super friendly. As the bracelet needed resizing, I asked the lady where I could get it done properly nearby, in the absence of an AD. She said: “Oh no problem, we’ll do it right here”.
She sat at her desk and made a few phone calls until she could find a watchmaker still on the premises. 5 minutes later, after having adjusted the size, the watchmaker came over to bring the watch back. In his immaculate Rolex gown, he shared some technical facts I didn’t know about their bracelet techniques while making sure the fit was right on my wrist.
Doxa’s HQ is actually right next to the Rolex movement site. The brand moved from Neuchâtel to Bienne in 1997. Its CEO, Jan Edöcs, whom I had the pleasure to interview last year, is a pure product of the city. Inspired in his childhood by the international aura of the Bienne brands he would walk past every day, he dedicated his career to watchmaking.
My friend Luigi wanted to get a Doxa Sub for a significant birthday but was unsure of which model specifically. In the absence of a Doxa AD in Switzerland (the brand sells a lot online), he simply called them up directly. They offered to have him over at HQ. Luigi took the train from Zurich, and I met him inside the Doxa building.
While everyone there was busy with their daily tasks, one of the staff has set us aside in a salon. With the help of a colleague, he brought out every Doxa model you could possibly imagine, and even showed us some amazing vintage pieces.
While Luigi, who usually knows more about brands than those who work there, asked endless questions, he also tried on the different flavors of Sub 300 and Sub 300T before making his final choice: the ultimate classic Doxa Sub 300 with its legendary orange dial. You can see it on his wrist just above.
I could talk about the simple pleasure of exploring the Drive-Thru boutique after visiting the museum a few meters away, strolling under Shigeru Ban’s absorbing wooden arch. That alone is worth a trip to Bienne for any Swatch fan. But I must say that my most memorable experiences here took place around MoonSwatch launches, and later also when the Blancpain collab was released.
I already wrote here last year about my time waiting in line for the very first MoonSwatch. Last month, I published another article after queuing for the MoonSwatch Neptune Moonshine edition. As a side-note, that watch (above) is up for auction now to the benefit of Terre des hommes, the leading Swiss children’s humanitarian aid organization. The auction ends on October 24 and you can bid by following this link.
We’ve all seen the headlines of waiting lines around the world outside Swatch boutiques, with hundreds of people uncomfortably crammed, sometimes with such stress and hostility that the police had to intervene. Even the Geneva experience, not that far away, was hectic.
Meanwhile, in Bienne, on a pedestrian plaza, between award-winning Japanese architecture, the historical Omega headquarters, a full size Lunar Module replica and green Jura hills, we were being handed chocolate and water bottles by the security and store staff.
Swatch group executives would swing by in the early morning, chatting with people in the queue, sometimes their own employees. I even remember, during one of the launches, a senior manager offering raclette and wine to everyone while he was himself waiting to purchase the watch he had worked on!
My friends find it hard to believe, but every time, I was glad I had waited for hours outside not for the watches I got but for the atmosphere and the people I met. The proof is, as someone who does not enjoy owning too many watches at a time, I never ended up keeping what I bought. The great memories though are with me forever.
The anecdotes above are just some out of many of my own or people I know. As I mentioned above, I left out any example where previous personal connections made things happen in a special way. My point is that if you live in Bienne, or make the effort to come out here, you are likely to interact with a watch brand in a way you just cannot get at one of their traditional retail spots.
Of course, you have to keep realistic expectations and can’t fully improvise. Rolex does not sell watches directly to consumers in Bienne. Watch production sites are closed on the weekend, so don’t come hoping you’ll be greeted at the door and get an impromptu tour if you show up without notice on a Sunday. More generally, stating the obvious, we always need to remember that people are busy working, and be respectful of that.
My general advice is to reach out to the brand you’re interested in. Ask if it’s possible to pick up or try on a watch onsite. Or maybe get a manufacture visit. They’ll usually respond, and the more you plan ahead, the better. Feel free also to ask me for advice, either in the comments section below, or by sending me a direct message.