The OMEGA Factory
Arriving in Bienne was easy. A simple train ride from Geneva to Bienne takes about an hour and a half and cruises around beautiful Lake Geneva. Watching the countryside whiz by, with the Swiss Alps in the background, while drinking a delicious Americano, causes one to pause and simply appreciate the beauty of the world we live in. I guess it was just one of those moments.
Carl and I arrived at the Bienne train station around 8:30am. Our driver, Roy, picked us up at 8:45am sharp and had us over to the OMEGA Factory in short order to start our tour at 9:00am. The Swiss are known for being on time - the concept of "fashionably late" does not fly in that country. Pulling up to OMEGA's new factory, which opened in November of 2017, you can't help but gawk a little bit. At an impressive 170,000 square feet, the design of this building is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. Walking into the large waiting area, with windows that stretched from the ground to the ceiling, and the soft hum of robots moving around above was an unforgettable experience. Our tour guide, Loic, explained to us that the planning of this factory took around 12 years - the actual building took 3 years to construct from the time they broke ground to when they started producing watches.
Coffee is a big deal in Switzerland. They appreciate coffee seemingly a lot more than North American's do. This isn't to say that us North American's don't like good coffee, it is just to say that you can't seem to get a bad coffee in Switzerland. Even their McDonald's serve Americano's, cappuccino's, etc. and it would seem the idea of "drip coffee" doesn't exist out there. So when they offered me a cappuccino at the OMEGA Factory, I knew it would be well made. And much to my surprise, it actually came with the OMEGA logo sprinkled on top of the foam. The quality of this experience was clearly thought out to impress upon its visitors that OMEGA does everything to a level of excellence that you would expect from one of the world's top luxury watch brands.
Loic gave us a bit of background on the Factory. The world-famous architect, Shigeru Ban, designed the building using primarily four materials: steel, concrete, wood, and glass. The wood is the really interesting part. When you walk in, you can see the beautiful wood frame of the building, which was made from trees that were grown and harvested in Switzerland. Approximately 14,000 Swiss trees were used in the construction of the OMEGA Factory. OMEGA was very deliberate in choosing trees from Switzerland since they are one of the only countries in Europe that require a tree to be planted for every one cut down. During the design of the OMEGA Factory, environmental sustainability was high up on their list of priorities it seems. Could they have purchased trees from other countries without the hassle of replanting? For sure, but they didn't want that. Clearly, it was important to OMEGA to put back into the land what they took. Add in the solar panel array on the roof of the building which powers the entire building - minus all the machines they put into it - and you have one incredibly efficient and sustainable building.
The Factory itself employees approximately 350 people producing somewhere around 700,000 watches a year. In watchmaking lingo, there are 5 stages to making a watch, T0 - T4. Stages T0 and T1 for OMEGA are done elsewhere. These two stages are the actual manufacturing of the components that get put into their movements and then assembling the movements. T2, T3, and T4 are all handled by the OMEGA Factory; basically putting the dial and hands on the movement, housing the movement in its proper case, testing, certification, attaching the bracelet, packaging, and then shipping. This is all done in large working areas, on 4 floors that surround what is essentially a massive vault. The areas are probably cleaner than a hospital and you could literally eat off the floor if you were so inclined. Workers must go in and out of special airtight doors, wear special shoes so as not to bring in dirt and dust from the outside world, and wear special clothing. There is negative pressure in the working areas so that if a door opens, dust is pushed out rather than sucked into the room. All the air flows down from the ceiling to push any potential dust to the floor, and there is a specially designed system that pulls the air over the floor to take out any potential dust particles. The work desks themselves were designed to be ergonomically friendly to the worker, and have large air filters above the desks to potentially catch any dust particles that may come down from the ceiling and land on a workers desk area. As Loic put it, you could leave a black dial uncovered on one of the desks for weeks and not a speck of dust would ever find its way onto the dial.
The absolutely coolest part of the building, however, is its heart. The centre of the building, which is effectively a massive vault, houses rows upon rows of parts, all managed by 4 robotic machines. These machines zip up and down, moving specially designed boxes around, and getting whatever it is they are told to get. And they are always running, re-organizing, making retrieval of the parts called upon more efficient and quicker so that when called, they can deliver the parts as quick as possible. The room itself has only one entrance, which, as you can probably guess, you need special clearance to get through. Inside the actual room, the oxygen level is purposely kept lower at around 15% - normal air has about 22% O2. They do this for two reasons: to prevent oxidization of the parts, and to make the room more fire resistant. If a fire were to happen in that building it would be effectively impossible for the centre part to burn.
After our tour, Loic took us over to the OMEGA Museum. Here the history of OMEGA is on display, all the way back to the late 1800s, covering everything from how the game-changing movement calibre OMEGA eventually became the brand name of the company, to their role in the Olympics from 1932 to today, as well as their role with NASA and the moon missions. For me to talk about the history of OMEGA here would be to do it a great disservice so I will just say that if you have any interest in watch brands and the role they have played through the years, I would highly encourage you to look into how OMEGA has changed watchmaking over the past 160+ years. Following the tour we had an excellent lunch provided by OMEGA where I ate something I never thought I would eat: raw meat with a raw egg on top. It actually tasted quite wonderful, however, getting my mind around what I was eating was no simple task.
Getting a tour of a watchmaking facility was high up on my lists of things to do. And not a lot of brands even allow tours to begin with, so finding out that OMEGA actually offered and encouraged tours of their new facility was somewhat different and unexpected. Talking with my Canadian rep, she was able to secure Carl and I a tour of the facility while we were attending the Baselworld tradeshow. Tours are open to the public to some degree. Asking Loic how someone from the public would get in, he mentioned that they do public tours about once a month, but to most certainly call in advance. In other words, don't just show up and expect to get a tour.
As someone who is somewhat of a watch enthusiast and who is proud to own and wear OMEGA timepieces, I can honestly say that after seeing how much work goes into each timepiece and how much money has been invested into building these wrist machines, they are worth every dollar. Couple that with the history of the brand itself, you really can't go wrong with choosing OMEGA.