Face to Face with Omega: A Tour Revealing the Past, Present and Future of the Company – Part 1
Baselworld is complete madness. It’s difficult to comprehend the sheer size of the fair when you hear it from someone, and it’s a totally different thing to experience it personally. This year the Monochrome team cunningly decided to split forces and covered almost everything with battle hardened Frank accompanied by Brice and Robin. My role was to dig a little deeper. Taking advantage of my free role assigned by the Mono-HQ I decided to cover one of the most important players in the Swiss horological industry, Omega. Sure, it’s very nice to cover the new releases and the hottest offerings in Baselworld but it’s also extremely satisfactory to be able to lay back and visit key installations that reveal to me the past, present and a glimpse of the near future. So, sit back and enjoy the tour.
Ω The Brand
A Few Words About Its Course Through Time
Many and rightly so, consider Omega one of the most important players in the industry. During the 20th Century many important people from all sorts of professions wore an Omega on their wrist. Omega’s corporate ethos is almost always dominated by their pursuit of excellence in various areas, but most importantly it is expressed through technical innovations, which sum up in order to create a beautifully crafted and in parallel an accurate and dependable wristwatch that will not disappoint its owner in any way.
The origins of the brand go back to the Comptoir d´établissage Louis Brandt that he opened in 1848, at the young age of only 23 years, in La Chaux-de-Fonds. With the entry of his sons, Louis-Paul and César Brandt, the company name changed to Louis Brandt & Fils. After the death of their father in 1879, the sons moved to Biel, where they acquired a factory building in which they gradually build the means for modern production. In 1894 a new 19-lignes pocket watch movement was developed and their banker Henri Riekel suggested calling it “Omega”, after the last letter of the Greek alphabet, to represent the final stage of possible perfection (“Alpha to Omega”) and the rest is, as they say, history. The quality of the aforementioned pocket watch also corresponded to the awards it reaped. For instance in 1896 it received the gold medal at the Geneva exhibition.
When both business owners died in 1903, the company was renamed to S.A. Louis Brandt & Frère, Omega Watch Co. and managed by six of their direct descendants. Omega, from that point onward, was at the forefront of wristwatch production. Due to the outstanding technical production equipment they had and because they employed some of the finest watchmakers and engineers they managed to keep pace and even top the competition. The company always -even today- had a remarkable variety in its products. They constructed with ease wristwatches, sports watches, military watches, pilot’s watches, naval chronometers, dashboard clocks, ladies watches and many complications.
The year 1930 marked a major milestone not only for Omega, but also for the history of watchmaking, as the company, at the initiative of Paul Tissot (who was also Managing Director at Omega) merged with the watch company Tissot, forming the S.S.I.H. (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère). Two years later, in 1932, a well-known ebauche manufacturer, the manufacture Lémania, also joined the consortium. The next milestone for Omega came some time after the catastrophic ‘Quartz Crisis’. In 1983 S.S.I.H. merged with the ASUAG (Allgemeine Gesellschaft Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG). After that, the soon to be highly regarded Hayek Study recommended a number of measures designed to enable the survival and ultimate recovery of the Swiss watchmaking companies. The first step was the launching of a low-cost, high-tech, artistic and emotional «second watch» – the Swatch. Finally in 1998 SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries Ltd.), founded by Nicolas G. Hayek in 1983 through the merging of ASUAG and SSIH, was renamed to SWATCH GROUP.
The Tour Part 1 – Present & Future
An hour away by train from Zurich is the town of Biel/Bienne which to this day is still the home of Omega Watches. Biel/Bienne is on the language boundary between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, and is throughout bilingual. Biel is the German name for the town, Bienne its French counterpart. The town is often referred to in both languages simultaneously. Since January 1, 2005, the official name has been “Biel/Bienne”. Until then, the city was officially named Biel. The city lies at the foot of the first mountain range of the Jura Mountains area. Neuchâtel, Solothurn, and Berne (the capital of Switzerland) lie west, east and southeast of Biel/Bienne. They all can be reached in about 30 minutes, either by train or by car.
From the train station we were picked up by a small bus and following a 30 minute drive through the snow covered passes and breath-taking mountains we reached our destination, the village of Villeret, a mythical place for those who love and understand Swiss watches. Villeret is a municipality in the Jura Bernois administrative district in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. It is located in the French-speaking Bernese Jura (Jura Bernois). In 1725, the watch industry first entered the village with craftsmen beginning to produce watch parts. Starting in 1735, watchmaking nobles such as the Blancpain family built houses, infrastructure, factories and public areas to attract skilled craftsmen to Villeret. Legendary Minerva (now part of Montblanc) had its factory here, and Pierre Jaquet-Droz was born here as well.
We reached the factory with me still being in awe of where I had arrived, and gentlemen from Omega and ETA greeted us. I will give you my personal thoughts since a wonderful article from Peter (click here to read it) already covers most of the factory and its operation. First and foremost the assembly line is classified as a T1. What this means is that only one procedure is being made here and that is the assembly of the movements, nothing else. T2 for example has to do with encasing of the movements and it is completed in another facility. Also, it is important to notice that the assembly here, is only for the calibre 8500/8501 and 8520/8521.
Here, the operation is a mix of man and machine. Skilled workers and machines do delicate procedures and each is checked vise-versa; man checks machine and machine checks man. As the people of Omega told us: ‘this is the optimum way to assemble these calibers’. The mix of tradition with technology when both work in unison with one another will in my opinion produce great results. Omega does not produce watches completely devoid of the human touch, quite the opposite as I found out, something I would not have believed previously. Therefore the movement baseplates and their jewels are set in the same building before they arrive in the clean room that is the assembly line proper, where components are assembled, mostly by hand. The “line” itself is a model of lean manufacturing. The baseplates are loaded into special transport trays, each with its own identification chip, which automatically route the part to a free workstation for the relevant assembly stage to be carried out. Traffic lights in red, green and blue show the operators at a glance where work needs to be done and where there are bottlenecks.
At the end of the assembly line, a white working dial for the COSC test is fitted and the height of the hands checked before the movement is cleared for rating and then sent off for COSC certification without its oscillating mass. Here it is important to notice one thing. COSC is an independent organization and checks movements without knowing the origin of the movement, hence the reason for placing a white working dial in each movement; equality and transparency in the procedure. Only once the movement returns with its COSC certificate is the oscillating mass added and the finishing touch applied: That distinctive red colour on all the text and number inscriptions is applied by hand using a pedal-operated syringe filled with red paint.
I was quietly impressed by the surgical cleanness of the assembly line and the facility in general and also from the fusion of man and machine for the production of these calibres I heard the nice people of omega telling us that they have a surprise for us. This was a special interactive room with screens all around and special exhibition cases where most of the new technologies that the company uses for its watches were presented. The monitors showed a small presentation video as our tour leader guided us thoroughly through each case. Each and every one of the components that an Omega watch comprised of was presented. How the 8900 calibre is made, what materials are integrated in its components, how the cases are made, cases of ceramic, cases of steel displayed in different forms of the manufacturing procedure. Hands, dials, crystals all were displayed while there was a special case for the presentation of Sedna gold a patented alloy blending gold, copper and palladium, which has been created to ensure that the unique rose gold lustre of the watch case will be especially long-lasting.
Last but not least our guide presented us with a unique machine created to show how impervious to magnetism the new Omega watches are. He proceeded to demonstrate by placing a regular quartz watch into a magnet (like the one our refrigerators in our homes have) and we witnessed the watch stopping. He did that with a regular mechanic wristwatch with the same result, he then demonstrated with the use of a Globemaster and the watch kept running perfectly. In addition this machine shows the deviation of each watch before and after the effects of magnetism takes place. What I have learned is that even after someone de-magnetizes a magnetized watch there is a small amount of magnetism that stays inside the case disrupting still the balance of its movement. Omega decided through the METAS tests to deal with this issue as well by constantly fine-tuning the watch in order for the deviation to be within their strict specified criteria.
Upon leaving the Villeret facility, and after witnessing all this, I was blown away by so many things. Yes I was expecting cleanness, but not to this exhaustive degree. I was expecting a fully automated procedure, however instead I found a fusion of man and machine. I was impressed by the presentation room. It’s like visiting all the factories of the company and seeing all the procedures in a very confined space. Technology and thorough tests (under METAS) are the tools that Omega uses to stay on top of the fierce competition by other brands. Of course all this is good for the consumer, since competition, constant improvement, and R&D, create better final products. As we were told: “Omega is planning, through its manufacturing process, and through the painstakingly tests, to create a mechanical wristwatch that is as reliable and precise as a quartz watch.” That means the best of both worlds. Precision and reliability fused with technology and above all the beauty of the Swiss tradition of a good mechanical calibre.
The next step was returning to Bienne/Biel, where we visited the METAS labs, and after that the Omega Museum. I will keep the visit to the labs short, since Peter has written a wonderful article covering the labs and the whole procedure. Keep in mind that there’s a difference between COSC and METAS. Both are independent institutions, however COSC tests only the movement while METAS tests the whole watch (with the already COSC certified movement encased). Secondly the ‘Master Chronometer’ classification can be given to any watch from any independent manufacturer that chooses to send its watches to the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS) for further tests and fine-tuning. It is not a privilege or only limited to Omega watches. From what we have been told by the METAS guide, there are some Swiss companies that are seriously considering using METAS as well. For more information about the testing procedures, please click here and read our article Omega and METAS – The start of a new era. Remember that all this is done in order to ensure that the final product that will reach our wrist, will be dependable and above all accurate, and able to withstand the rigors of our everyday life.
The tour came to an end and I found myself looking across the road at the Omega museum. After all that is where my heart is, looking at all these iconic watches of the past, proper tools that were used by the heroes of my childhood. I will cover the museum extensively in the next article.
Technology and new materials are utilized now in most areas of the manufactured goods that we are using today. Technology makes products better, and the production process more efficient and more accurate. This trip made me realize that even in a highly traditional manufacturing sector, such as watchmaking, it is possible to create products that fuse time-honoured methods and skills with avant-garde manufacturing processes and space age materials. What Omega and every other Swiss company must understand is not to solely reply on the technical merits of its products, and leave the aesthetics underdeveloped. Balance between these two is critical. Yes exceptional watches require exceptional testing, however as consumers we need something more than that. We need watches that are beautiful and gracious as well. Something that I personally found in abundance, in the Omega Museum across the road.
More about that next week in part 2!
Thanks for the insights. Feels like being there myself.
Saw an Omega Museum Collection watch for sale in the US. and a few minutes later I get your excellent article on Omega in general. Two good ways to start the day.
I don’t think the use of the word “gracious” when describing a machine is appropriate, in the second to last sentence.