The 2006 TimeZone Tour Visits Omega

& the WOSTEP School at Neuchatel 

by James Dowling

September, 2006

 

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.

 

Jean-Claude Monachon, head of product development for the company was awaiting us and 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 market.

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 from Omega...

...almost all 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 rotate. Read 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 anti-static filaments.

 

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.

 What impressed 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).

 

This image 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 programme.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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