Newly Swissed Online Magazine

Tales from the Armoire – A Multi-Part Series on Finding Identity through Family History (Part 1)

We here at Newly Swissed are very excited to introduce you to Jean-Francois' exclusive series! Based in the SF Bay area, Jean-Francois has explored his Swiss roots extensively and is now letting us join him on this fascinating journey. You might have heard of French King Louis XVI, right? Read on...


As others looked up, I looked down. I was looking at the pews intently, I was looking for "our" seats. Knowing something of Bernese family heraldry, I saw many crests carved into the church pews that I recognized, von Tscharner, von Graffenried, von Erlach, and then I found what I was looking for. Three bee hives on a red field, the von Büren family crest.

Tales from the Armoire - Bern

I stopped and absorbed the moment. I continued to look, could there be others? To my delight, I found other examples of the crest in pews, in stain glass windows and under the altar. My discoveries left me thoroughly energized. Was I having a religious experience or was this overactive family pride?

Later that day, along with my parents, I visited cousin Claire von Büren. From a patrician family herself, she was the last of the family in Bern. She was the widow of Eugene, head of the von Büren Bank and a real gentleman. The home that she and Eugene shared was lovely and adorned with a cultural patrimony that enthralled me long after I returned home. Claire was getting on in years but was still mentally sharp and adept in multiple languages. Adept in many languages, so very Swiss.

I still feel sheepish when I tell my fellow Swiss friends that I am only bilingual.

Tales from the Armoire - Bürenstock

In subsequent years when I visited Switzerland on summer holiday, I always paid Claire a visit. I was a receptive audience during our meetings and walks in the Altstadt as she regaled me with wonderful family stories. After she passed, I was told that the last time she ventured into town was with me.

My first trip to Bern almost 30 years ago left a distinct impression. Its memory plays a large part in my interest of my own family heritage as well as Swiss history and culture generally. While that trip was a beginning for me, it was certainly not the beginning of my family tale. The von Büren family story in Bern is a long and interesting one, with roots in rural Switzerland of the 12th century.

Tales from the Armoire - 14th Century Bern

Arnold is the first bearer of my family name as is said to have lived in the small town of Büren an der Aare near Biel from where our name originates. His descendants played a role in Büren and later served the Counts of Kyburg whose power was on the wane.

In 1342, Rudolf von Büren feeling his future was elsewhere, left Büren and moved to Bern. For the next six centuries his descendants would play important roles in the Bernese city-state. Ludwig von Büren fought in the Burgundian wars and is buried under the altar of the Berner Münster. Mayor Otto von Büren was instrumental in securing a cease-fire for Strasbourg during the Frano-Prussian war, saving countless lives. Louis von Büren served French King Louis XVI in Corsica and while there helped promote a young soldier by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon would later return Louis' kindness by routing Bernese forces at the start of the 19th century and ending the Ancien Regime.

Louis von BürenThe von Büren's served and fought for Holland, France, Austria and England. They were Bernese Governors in the cantons of Vaud and Aargau, and served countless times as members of local government. They gave liberally to the church and many became men and women of the cloth.

In spite of all the heritage that draws me to Bern, I have certainly had my share of "Lost in Translation" moments.

The distance I felt was initially linguistic, as I grew up speaking French, not German, and certainly not Bärndeutsch, but it was also cultural. There was something else however, a certain Swiss coolness that I was unaccustomed to growing up in San Francisco. I felt the same reserve when I lived in central Switzerland in my mid-20s. I moved from California to Luzern to work as a graphic designer when I was 25 and arrived in a January snow storm to cold un-smiling faces and thought to myself, "What have I done?"

As I have aged and spent more time in Bern I have gained necessary perspective. I want to appreciate Bern for what it is, the jewel on the Aare, a city that has become more dear to me with each passing visit. The last two times I returned, I felt energized as I did the first time. Perhaps I am channeling relatives, but when I visit now it is not as a Swiss-American visiting a place heard about, I am going home.

For more in-depth coverage on my family heritage, please visit my family blog.


Jean-François is a dual Swiss and American national who is passionate about his own family roots as well as the preservation of Swiss cultural traditions in the US. He is an active writer, blogger, and strategic partner to Swiss cultural organizations in the United States and abroad. Jean-François lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he heads a small design and branding consultancy.

Add comment


Download our e-book: 77 Facts about Switzerland