In the shadow of the Jura Mountains and on the northeastern shore of Lake Biel, the small medieval city of Biel (or Bienne, if you prefer the French name) is home to several watchmakers and the worldwide headquarters of the Swatch Group. On a Saturday morning a few months ago, I walked from my hotel along the canal and through the City Park towards the suburbs to arrive at a two-story building with a buttermilk yellow façade and white columns.
In the small garden outside, a sign read “Musée Omega” and a lunar rover played peekaboo through a corner window. I entered through the open doors and was greeted at the reception desk on the first floor by a friendly lady who encouraged me to look around as I pleased. I was the only visitor at the time, and I decided to follow the natural light.
As one ascends the spiral steps up to the first floor and location of the museum’s collection, one finds three possibilities beyond the reception desk. To the left is a narrow but finely appointed room with light polished wood and cognac leather furniture, display cases and television screens with promotional films. This room is reserved for dignitaries and guests of the brand. To the right is a dimly spot lit square room with a central glass column housing movements and loupes. More on that later.
I went ahead and walked into the largest room, straight ahead, with open windows bringing in a light breeze through their louvered shutters. The lower-case r-shaped room is home to some of Omega’s proudest achievements.
In the back is a mock lunar landscape with Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit on display near a real NASA console used in the Apollo missions. I started my self-guided tour with the ‘Omega in the Movies.’ Here, one can see examples of props used for multiple James Bond films, including the Seamaster 300M Diver from “Tomorrow Never Dies,” complete with light-up dial, and Daniel Craig’s “Quantum of Solace” Planet Ocean 600.
There is also an entire wall-display dedicated to Omega’s Olympic involvement, with examples of pocket stopwatches and chronographs to today’s most modern electronic timing equipment. A short walk then found me in the military and jewelry area. There are examples of wristwatches supplied to, and subsequently the property of, the British Ministry of Defense.
I found Elvis Presley’s diamond-encrusted showstopper displayed among them, along with ultra-thin men’s dress watches and miniature high jewelry women’s watches.
Going back to the main part of the room, around a radial display in a central column, Omega shows its Seamaster history. A watch representing each era shows how the collection evolved, from humble beginnings culminating in Cousteau’s PloProf, all radially aligned around a bronze diver’s helmet.
A dedicated column to John F. Kennedy houses a hand-written note from his wife, a cast of his bust, and his ultra-thin Omega gifted to him by his friend. The watch is displayed to show the engraving on the caseback.
The last part of the room is everything Speedmaster, from pre-moon broad arrow hands and symmetrical cases to Professional models that have been to the moon and back.
As I circled around and walked back to the first room, I see that it may have been the most important of them all. Dominated by a central glass column, it displays nearly every Omega caliber from its first, modular, mass-produced movement to its latest METAS-certified chronometer. One can observe through loupes the award-winning movements that have advanced our understanding and measure of time. Overlooking them all is Louis Brandt’s actual watchmaking bench and tools, the founder’s legacy thriving in the beautiful watches that the company produces today.
When I exited the building, I realized that the museum is actually a stone’s throw away from Omega’s headquarters and factory. It dominates the suburb, and the local bus stop. As I walked away to find a good Rösti, I delighted in the knowledge that I, too, was wearing a piece of Omega’s history. To view it, I simply had to glance down at my wrist.
Saad Chaudhry lives in Munich and enjoys shifting gears in his sports car.