If you want to see a municipal representation of how modern watchmaking intersects with its historical representation, take a trip to Biel in Switzerland. The town's residents speak French as well as Belgian, a duality that extends into its very makeup. Modern high-rises sit at lake level, but a short walk takes you into a charmingly gothic old town with a 15th-century city church. Take a trip to the new town, however, and you'll find perfectly preserved modernist buildings dating back to the Social Democratic era of the 1930s.
Biel is the gateway to the sub-alpine Jura Mountains, the verdant, picturesque birthplace of Swiss watchmaking. It's also home to industrial glass-and-steel monoliths occupied by Rolex, Mido and Omega; this is a place where this industry's past and present truly bump up against itself.
Until recently, Omega's branch of operations here was as nondescript as its contemporaries: a vast box identifiable only by its name at the top of the building. Then, in 2016, the company decided it needed more space - and something a little less pedestrian.
Enter Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, one of the most innovative designers working today. In 2014, he was named the 37th laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. Ban previously worked with the Swatch Group on its Nicolas G Hayek Center in Ginza, Tokyo. Inspired by Ginza itself, the building is breathtaking. Its exterior is covered with four-storey glass shutters that, when open, create a street through which pedestrians and shoppers can walk. The interior walls of its large atrium are lined with vegetation converting the shops and offices into a vertical park.
This use of natural forms and fabrics is characteristic of Ban's style. He is sometimes described as an ecological architect due to his love of building houses from paper and cardboard tubing - a technique he has deployed to great effect in Japan, Turkey and India following earthquakes in 1995, 1999 and 2001 respectively. He even built an entire cathedral out of cardboard in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2013 after the 2011 earthquake there destroyed the city's 19th-century Anglican church.
For the Omega project, Ban looked to Biel itself for inspiration. The town is renowned for its timber technology; it houses the Institute for Timber Construction, Structures and Architecture - a centre dedicated to, among other things, research into new technologies to help create innovative, sustainable and energy-efficient construction methods. The first thing you notice when you walk into the reception area of Omega's new building are the monumental struts of wood rising up out of a smooth concrete floor that stretch into the distance. Trees in vast planters are dotted around the campus, while light floods in through tall and impeccably clean windows.
A model of a Saturn rocket sits next to a vintage Nasa control desk in the Omega museum
"This is the most innovative building in the watch world, and five times bigger than its predecessor," explains WIRED's guide. "The wood that makes up the framework comes only from Swiss trees, which is great for the Swiss economy and the environment because, by law, if you cut down a tree another has to be planted within seven hours of the previous one being felled. This is the only country where the forests are actually getting bigger."
Employing an architect with a passion for using natural materials has its challenges, however. "Wood isn't actually great for a watch production facility where dust is the enemy," says our guide.
Being a Ban building, everything is considered from an ecological perspective. The roof contains 900m2 of photovoltaic panels, with 12kw of installed power, which generates 118mWh - enough energy to power the entire building. At night, an external source is also required but that source is compensated for by the solar power generated during the day.
Heating and cooling of the building is done using the regenerative energy of groundwater from rain. This is collected and sourced via several underground wells, or "pools", on site. The pumped groundwater runs via a heat exchange to directly cool and warm individual rooms, and the campus's grass helps the wells to filter and clean rainwater when it seeps into the water table.
While this building's exterior is shot through with natural references, at its heart is pure machine. At the centre, rising 14 metres high and occupying a space 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, is Omega's new stock-delivery system. Every watch that leaves the building starts its life in this mechanised core.
Thirty-thousand boxes are distributed over four aisles containing everything from movements to hands and cases to dials, all tracked by barcode and moved around by a robotic device resembling Wall·E on a slow-moving bungee. Only two qualified humans are allowed to enter this space, which has its oxygen levels reduced to 15 per cent to prevent fires breaking out. It's the equivalent to being at 4,000 metres above sea level; not quite Everest Base Camp (which sits at 5,545 metres), but enough to make your lungs feel like they are doing extra work.
Omega estimates that this central stock tower allows it to process 3,000 watches per week. However, it has the capacity to increase production to six times that within three years.
The company has taken this relocation as an opportunity to move towards a paper-free working environment, with everything now done on screen. To track workflow, on the left and right of every bench is a scanner to clock the entry and exit of each piece. Boxes from the central stock go to the picking zone, which are then prepped according to fabrication orders. The watchmakers don't really move anywhere; the bustle and noise present in other factories is replaced here with an eerie stillness; something that's exacerbated by Omega's decision to keep visitors at a remove in a central area, voyeuristically peering through glass at the workers within.
The stock delivery system can perform 1,400 operations per hour, and any part can be picked up within two minutes
On the third floor is Omega's Master Chronometer certification area. Launched in 2015, the certification process comprises a system of tests for anti-magnetism, accuracy and water resistance on which the company had worked with the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS). It was, and still is, open to other brands to use.
First, the movement is exposed to 15,000 gauss in two positions with the movement's functions checked using a microphone. The reason for choosing 15,000 gauss as a barometer is because, although this sort of magnetic magnitude is the type of onslaught you'd get only if you were having an MRI, anything from a fridge magnet to an iPad can stop a watch - so Omega thought it would prepare for the worst in order to make daily life easier. In fact, the watch can withstand even higher magnetic forces, but, thanks to human frailty, the person wearing it cannot.
The next step in the METAS process is testing the assembled watch. Following exposure, the chronometric precision is calculated at 24 hours. The watch is then demagnetised and tested again after another 24 hours and the minimal deviation recorded. It is then put in six different positions and subjected to two alternative temperatures over four days while being exposed to 15,000 gauss, with results being taken daily and an average taken over the four days. Power reserve is tested with the watch being placed in six positions when it is at both 100 per cent and 33 per cent, and the deviation between the two power levels recorded. Water resistance is also tested.
Once METAS testing is complete, two Omega testers check the results by selecting 30 timepieces at random every couple of days. It is the only space in the building Omega doesn't have access to, as it can't be seen to be influencing the results of an independent testing body. This may smack of "going the extra mile" a bit far on Omega's part, but these days, with competition so fierce, watch connoisseurs want reassurances that their timepiece is as anti-magnetic, water resistant and accurate as the brands claim, so Omega felt that the only way to do that was by getting an independent body to verify it.
The use of future technology to bolster the claims of the brand's past is an ethos that seems to be wound into the fibre of this new Omega building. However, this isn't where this development ends. Popping up around it in the next few years will be a sort of horological Disneyland. There will be a campus and visitor's centre, and snaking through the middle of it will be the undulating curved timber form of the new Swatch headquarters. Watch enthusiasts will be able to embark on hiking trails, giving them the perfect start to their pilgrimage to the cradle of watchmaking, taking in the delights of Neuchâtel and the Jura beyond. As transformations go, it's a long way from a glass box in a car park.