TimeZone Tour Visits Omega
WOSTEP School at Neuchatel
by James Dowling
After an ungodly
early start, we piled on our bus for the 1 hour drive to Bienne & our
visit to Omega; Nick Lerescu (our tour director & esteemed leader) kept us well
entertained with facts, anecdotes & downright lies about Switzerland on
the journey. OK, I made up the bit about ‘lies’; sorry Nick. Ironically
the first thing we saw on entering Bienne was one of the three Rolex
factories in the town, but before long we were at the complex of buildings
which make up the Omega factories; there is a beautiful turn of the
century structure, an imposing 1950s edifice and across the road the two
story building housing the Omega Museum and their staff canteen.
We entered the
1950s building where we were greeted by several of their PR staff who I
have known for a few years. We all admired the
amazing mosaic zodiac floor and the wonderful spiral staircase above it,
but before we had much chance to enjoy these sights we were whisked into
their display rooms where coffee & biscuits (cookies) awaited us.
Monachon, head of product development for the company was awaiting us
had something rather special for us to see. From his jacket pocket he
produced two small plastic movement boxes; contained inside each of them
was a pre-production prototype of the company’s new in-house movement, the
85XX. We were specifically asked NOT to take pictures, but I did ask
Jean-Claude if I could take notes; and so I did. The decision to produce a
completely in-house movement was taken in 2001 and the result was a
contest between three of the Swatch Group’s companies, Omega themselves,
F. Piguet & ETA. J-C did not say who was the winner of the ‘contest’ but
he did say that the design was heavily inspired by movements from Omega’s
history, this is most evident in the calibre 8501 which has the classic
rose finish seen on many Omega movements up until the 1960s. He emphasised
that whilst the movement is as modern as it is possible to be, every part
of it draws heavily on the company’s DNA. And the movement IS very modern,
like many of the more recent introductions, it eschews the traditional
balance cock & stick regulator in favour of a balance bridge and a free
sprung balance. The hairspring looked conventional enough to me, but as
the Swatch Group is massively involved in the research into new materials
for hairsprings, it may well have one of the new non metallic hairsprings
before it is introduced. But that is speculation on my part; what is known
fact is that the movement itself measures 30mm diameter; it will be
available in two finishes, the previously mentioned Rose as well as a more
conventional rhodium finish; it will be introduced in an all new watch
early next year (I think we can safely assume at the Basel Show) and that
this new model will have a diameter of 42mm. The movement will be specific
to Omega alone & will not appear in other watches from the Swatch Group.
I do not know
if our admiration for the new movement lulled him into a false sense of
security, but over the next few minutes he answered questions about the
company which I have never previously been able to obtain answers. He
stated that the company produced approximately 750,000 watches last year
and that they represent about 25% of the total Swatch group turnover but
about 30% of the cashflow of the group; he also said that the average
price of an Omega watch has risen by between 10 and 15% over the last
year, as they deleted lower priced items from their catalogue. He told us
that Omega intend to have the co-axial escapement in all their product
lines within the next year or two but most controversially he stated that
Omega plan to significantly reduce the number of retailers in the US so as
to counter the discounting that the brand has been suffering from in this
It took some
time for me to absorb all this information but soon we were out the front
door, over the road and into the small building which houses the company
museum; our guide was Peter Schneider who has been the curator of the
museum for many years. It was first started 23 years ago in 1983, when the
company was really in the doldrums following the apocalypse that quartz
had brought upon the Swiss watch industry. The museum has around 6,300
items with 1,800 of them on display and the other 4,500 in the adjacent
store rooms. We first sat down to watch an Omega produced film on the
history of the company and its products, and whilst it was entertaining it
was obviously made for retailers not collectors but once the film was over
we got down to the real part of the visit, looking at the exhibits.
Starting with Louis Brandt’s early pocket watches, the displays trace the
history of the company in a magnificent manner, focussing on the areas
that Omega is best known for, sports timing, space exploration & military
watches. I loved the ‘Rube Goldberg’ nature of Omega’s first electronic
sports timer; shown here.
Until the 1950s
most events, even the Olympics were timed using mechanical stop watches,
so all that was needed for a complete Olympic Games were a hundred or so
chronographs; in contrast Omega will be shipping several hundred TONS of
timing equipment to the Peking games.
I had long
known that during WWII the British armed forces bought 110,000 watches
of them powered by the 30t2 movement, what I did not know was that after
the war Omega UK bought many of them back from the British government and
they were then sold through the normal distribution chain.
We then had a
delightful lunch with several members of the Omega management team and
after lunch it was back over to the 1950s building where we were whisked
up to the top floor (interestingly the 7 floors are split with the bottom
4 belonging to Swatch and the top 3 for Omega) where their Haute
Horlogerie operation is based. But not before I took a moment to look
closely at the ‘coffee table’ in the foyer, suspended above it a large
golden orb and this in turn is suspended from the very top of the building
and runs down the centre of the spiral staircase.
This is the
first ‘Foucault Pendulum’ I have seen in a watch company, the initial one
was developed over 150 years ago to demonstrate that the earth does
here if you would like
more information. This explained the signs of the zodiac on the mosaic
floor to me, as I had been confused all during lunch as to what
timekeeping and astrology had in common. Once on the top floor we became
acquainted once again with the labcoats containing the thin black check
In the Haute
Horlogerie division they concentrate of the central tourbillion but they
also operate as the ‘special projects’ unit of the company; so if a
limited edition needs 250 special backs and 250 specially engraved rotors,
they will be done in this department which is fully equipped with even
their own spark erosion machines for tasks such as described. As the
central tourbillion is the top of the line watch for Omega and the main
product for the department, it was obvious that the discussion was
focussed on this one piece.
me most about the whole operation was the amazing miniaturisation involved
in the production of the watch. The photograph here shows the screws used
for timing, there are 600 of them to a gram (or 17,000 to the ounce), to
give you some idea of the scale the coin shown next to them is a 20cent
Swiss coin with a diameter of 21mm (about 0.8 of an inch).
shows the different jewel sizes used for the tiny balance staff, note that
they vary in size from 0.590mm to 0.6mm (or between 23.2 and 23.6 THOUSANDTHS
of an inch).
Then we were
back on the bus and off to WOSTEP and to meet Tony Simonez who used to be
the director and is now the ambassador for WOSTEP all over the world. He
also consults for the 5 Rolex Technium training schools outside
Switzerland (3 in US; Tokyo, Japan and Mumbai, India) as well as being
responsible for the operation of the newly founded Fleurier Seal
He took us on a
guided tour of the facility, which was most impressive, but as they were
between courses the place was empty & it was like a tour of the Marie
Celeste; during our tour I noticed that there were two different central
clock systems; one from both Patek and Rolex; these drive ‘slave’ clocks
in many rooms of the school. These are the same type of clock used to
drive airport clocks.
We retired to a
lecture room so that Tony could show us some of the watches from his
collection; his collection is focussed on ‘School watches’; these are not
the faltering steps of trainee watchmakers, rather they are the pieces
made when a watchmaker graduates from the final stage of the old style 4
year watch making school and are genuine ‘masterpieces’ (in other words,
when one has made one of these, you are considered a master watchmaker).
If you look
closely at the above image of Tony, you will see that he is wearing a
vintage looking watch, here it is in closeup...
Made using a
hundred year old minute repeater movement and a modern enamel dial from
Donzai, it has been modified so that the repeater is actuated by rotating
the milled bezel rather then a conventional side slide.
After a most
pleasurable couple of hours we were invited to a wooden cabin behind the
school where he sells watch and clock books both old & new (as well as a
few watches). It was a veritable ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of horology and I could
gladly have spent a couple of days there (and several thousand on books)
but I restrained myself to one purchase, a 1953 Dictionary of Watch
movements in 5 languages.
I would have
bought it anyway, but the pleasure of the purchase was enhanced by seeing
the name of the original owner inscribed inside the front cover.
As we left the
building, with its perfect views over Lake Neuchatel I noticed this most
amazing rabbit ear cloud formation over the lake.
It was but a 10
minute drive back to our lakeside hotel, here is our bus parked in front
of the hotel as we unloaded our luggage.
And here is the
view from my hotel room later that night after dinner.