Watches are very much about provenance. Where a timepiece was made is a key part of its history, its quality and, well, its value. Many studies have shown, for instance, the impact the words “Swiss Made” have on the perceived value of a watch.
Displayed provenance most often stops at the country level. Outside of Switzerland, perhaps Japan is the most prominent example. Seiko and Citizen typically write “Japan” on the watch dial, referring either to just the movement or the entire watch, depending on the model.
The most notorious example of an actual city inscribed on watch dials comes from Germany: Glashütte. The nest of German watchmaking is proudly displayed on the dials of Lange & Söhne and Nomos watches. Swatch Group’s Union Glashütte and Glashütte Original even have the town as part of their name.
When it comes to Switzerland, the vast majority of well known brands don’t typically mention their specific location on the dial. Rolex, Omega, Swatch, Audemars Piguet, Hamilton, Rado, to name a few, will simply say “Swiss Made”. There are some notable exceptions, of course, in particular when it comes to Geneva: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Tudor are good examples. Tissot is also worth mentioning: while all of their watches bear the brand’s birth year, 1853, its very popular Le Locle line pays visible tribute to the company’s home town.
So… what about Bienne? Let’s be honest: Bienne has historically had the reputation of a labor intensive industrial town, far from the romantic vision of an independent watchmaker gently adjusting a balance spring in the natural light of his Jura hill house surrounded by yellow flowers and cows. Bienne is where watches are designed and made, not where they are sold, and certainly not part of the marketing narrative. At least, that’s how things used to be…
While Bienne still, proudly, has a strong industrial heritage and present, there is a lot more to the city than most visitors imagine. I often hear surprised comments about how lovely the lake is, the charm of the old town, or the beauty of the nature that surrounds pretty much every neighborhood and the numerous hiking trails departing from the city. Independent watchmaking has also become much more prominent, alongside the more industrial productions, with watchmakers such as Armin Strom, Urban Jürgenssen and, more recently, Hervé Schlüchter establishing themselves here. Major investments from the larger brands, such as Omega and Swatch for their new campus, or Rolex’s ever-expanding movement production site, have also contributed to giving the city a more glamorous image in the world of watchmaking than before.
For all those reasons perhaps, the trend of “Bienne” on dials seems to be slowly, but surely, emerging. However, before we discuss it further, I want to call out the brand which, since its very early days, has consistently displayed its origins on its dials: Glycine. Founded in 1914, Glycine is well known among watch enthusiasts for its Vacuum technology and Airman models, among others. There are countless references of its watches with “Bienne” on the dial, often alongside Geneva, its city of trade. Another exception that comes to mind is Union Horlogère, whose dials show “Bienne – Genève”, but the brand, recently revamped, has had a more discrete, and inconsistent, history as a watchmaker than Glycine.
More recently, a local brand has started to display Biel/Bienne on all of its dials: Horage. “Biel/Bienne is the center of the watchmaking world”, its co-founder Andreas Felsl explained when I visited them last month. To my knowledge, of the more than twenty Bienne-based watch brands (full list here), Horage is the only one to systematically display Bienne on the dial. That said, while still an exception in their lineup, one other brand did something in 2020 that caught the watch world’s attention.
The Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra WorldTimer does not have Geneva or Paris as the GMT+1 reference city as do most watches with the complication. Rather, it shows Bienne. Raynald Aeschlimann, the brand’s CEO explained, in the interview he gave Made in Bienne earlier this year: “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.”
I sincerely hope that this trend will greatly expand. Not only does Bienne deserve to be further known and recognized as the epicenter of Swiss watchmaking, but watch owners also deserve to know that their watch was made here. A watch made in Bienne is a watch that will have benefited from the best skillset, processes and equipment that Swiss watchmaking has to offer. It is for this unique combination of added value that so many leading watch brands establish themselves here, and that even international ones, such as Citizen, Fossil Group or Movado, also have divisions in our town.
Personally, I don’t know what my next watch will be. But I know it will be made in Bienne. And I really hope it says so on the dial!