It was June 13, 1923, that Paul Bjerke opened his watch store on Brugata in Oslo. More than 90 years later, the company owns four quality watch stores with addresses in both Oslo and Bergen, and the business is run by a descendant of founder Paul Bjerke.
By Britta Rossander
The start of the business didn’t turn out the way Paul Bjerke had planned. After his education, apprentice years and work in foreign countries, he wanted to open a distribution company in the watch business in Vikersund, a place known for ski jumping and other winter sports. But the plans took an unexpected turn.
One morning in 1923 Bjerke’s wife, Inger, told Andresens Bank that it was time to withdraw their savings in cash. The bank clerk asked if Inger wanted the money right that very minute. No thank you, she answered and said her husband would drop by later in the day to collect the cash. A few hours later the bank went bankrupt and the couple lost all their savings. They had to abandon the Vikersund project and instead opened a little store in central Oslo for pocket watches and wall clocks.
With his experiences from Germany and England, Bjerke took the chance to import a number of wristwatches since he was convinced that going with new trends and the latest technology would be the road to success.
Times were hard after World War One, but Paul Bjerke was keeping busy. He actively sought customers such as employees of big companies, offering watches on credit through agents.
In 1930, the store moved around the corner to an old leather tannery on Storgatan. The business was by now prosperous and in 1933 Bjerke managed to open a second store in a former fruit shop on Karl Johan, Oslo’s main parade street. They have kept the address ever since, except for a few years when the German occupying forces threw them out to open up a Nazi bookstore.
When Germany had lost the war and life in Norway started to return to normal, Urmaker Bjerke was in a strong position since turnover had been high before the war. Moreover, Paul’s sons, twins Erling and Ragnar, had gotten solid educations in both business and watchmaking. There was never any doubt that they would work in the family business, so the store in Karl Johan was renamed Bröder Bjerke.
Early in 1948, Paul Bjerke suddenly passed away at only 56 years of age. His 31-year-old twin sons had to share the responsibility for continuing the business. Erling took over the store at Karl Johan and Ragnar the one on Storgatan.
– We had some fun trying to compete with each other and compare results, Ragnar
said in an interview when he retired from work.
Until the 1970’s the Norwegian watch business was dominated by men in white coats, while eventual wives were given the job of customer relations. The brothers didn’t agree with this kind of structure as watches were becoming more and more accessible and standards of living were on the rise. When they bought the almost 200 years old Tannergården they could fill the space with table and floor clocks, a new range of products. During a 20-year period Urmaker Bjerke sold thousands of Danish, Swedish, English and Italian floor clocks to happy customers all over eastern Norway.
The Karl Johan store concentrated more and more on exclusive watch brands, and of course the most popular was Omega. One of the important factors was the decision to start retailing Rolex in the 1970’s. The family was hesitant about opening up for Rolex for quite some time, feeling the brand was setting extremely strict rules for their dealers. But curiosity and the wish to try something new took over, and Bjerke decided to become a Rolex dealer.
A new generation stepped into the business in the 1970’s and 80’s; Erling’s three sons. The brothers stayed true to their grandfather’s strategies and established Bjerke Engros for selling watches and presents to companies. In 1988 they were offered to take over the more traditional jewelry dealer Thune and quickly turned it into a nationwide chain of stores.
Urmaker Bjerke then opened up new stores at Prinsens Gate in Oslo, in Bergen and in Ålesund while simultaneously
becoming exclusive dealers for a number of quality brands like Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling, Cartier and Bvlgari. All of the brands made tough demands, and Bjerke remembers that “to be allowed to sell Bvlgari we almost had to rebuild the entire store”.
Today no one argues that the Bjerke name is associated with quality and watches in Haute Horlogerie from the leading Swiss brands and high levels of service, experience and professional knowledge.
– Sometimes there have been problems finding the most skilled watchmakers in Norway because so few study the profession. That’s why in the last 25 years we have employed skilled watchmakers from all over the world, who regularly travel to the Swiss factories for new educational courses, says Halvor Bjerke.
Urmaker Bjerke, Bjerke Engros and Thune were managed as a group for a while but in 2001 the brothers split up the company. Today, master watchmaker Halvor Bjerke manages Urmaker Bjerke’s four stores of which the shop at Karl Johan is the flagship store and definitely Norway’s most exclusive watch boutique.