Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Big Bang Theory: Wisdom from Watchmaking’s Most Influential Man, Jean Claude Biver

With close to half a century in the watchmaking industry, Jean-Claude Biver, widely recognised as a peerless marketer and guerrilla tactician, shares his insight and wisdom

Apr 02, 2019 | By Jonathan Ho

Jean-Claude Biver may be a Luxembourger by birth, but inside the man beats a heart that is very much Swiss. Moving there with his family when he was just 10, he first knew he belonged in Switzerland during his collegiate years at the University of Lausanne. Economics trained, he fell in love with the Vallée de Joux. Though the Jura Mountains are something of a mecca to watch aficionados, all he was interested in was a lifestyle in keeping with the largely agrarian nature of the region. He went so far at the “farm life” as making forays into beekeeping and cheese-making. Nevertheless, it’s one of watchmaking’s most cherished “holy grounds”, and a betting man wouldn’t place odds against the wannabe apiarist’s eventual conversion.

What man proposes, God disposes. Indeed, thanks to a friend, the young Biver would eventually meet the chairman of a historic watchmaker in Le Brassus. His reasons for being in the valley might have been the fresh air and green pastures, but where he would end up, would be far removed from his horticultural aspirations.

The farmhouse is still in use today and houses the Blancpain’s enamelling and engraving artisans

After four years at Audemars Piguet, the impatient but respectful young executive developed a growing perception of its chairman holding him back. This drove him to Omega. Joining the Bienne manufacture in 1979, it was thought that he and the other “Young Turks” led by vice president Fritz Ammann would hold the brand steady through the tempest of the Quartz Crisis. But it was not to be; the corporate politics of the day would conspire, driving Ammann out, and with that, the young Biver joined his friend Jacques Piguet, descendant and owner of Frédéric Piguet, into possibly one of the most “hare-brained” (his words) schemes of the “sunset mechanical watchmaking” era.

“I loved nature. I dreamt of a farm in the Vallée, and I got one too.
But that year, I met Georges Golay (former chairman of Audemars Piguet).”

Jacques Piguet owned Frédéric Piguet, a famed if fading mechanical movement maker founded in 1858 by his great-grandfather. Inheriting the firm in 1977, he felt that he could deal with the Quartz Crisis better if he had a brand of his own to showcase his calibres. The solution was Blancpain.

A classical watchmaker, Blancpain shot to mass recognition after inventing the world’s first diver’s watch in the 1950s. Despite the popularity of the Fifty Fathoms, it fell on hard times in the 1960s, and then, as with brands that fell, it was slowly forgotten. That’s when Piguet and Biver realised that if they bought the historical but almost unknown brand, they wouldn’t have to pay too much for it. Purchasing the enterprise for CHF22,000 in 1981, Biver became a significant shareholder. More importantly, his re-imaging of the mechanical watch as artistic rather than mere functional objects would pave the way for a new golden age in horology.

For obvious reasons, Piguet took care of manufacturing while Biver helmed marketing and sales. Together, in a small Le Brassus farmhouse, they would make highly exclusive mechanical watches. Industry insiders thought they were a joke.

“Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
– the tagline that Biver dreamt up for the resurgent brand

“For BaselWorld 1984, we didn’t even have watches to show!”

Blancpain was a dream given form. Six masterpieces defined the rising phoenix – the ultra-thin, the moon phase, the perpetual calendar, the split-seconds chronograph, the tourbillon, and the minute repeater. With little more than a handful of what Biver called “universal watchmakers” (watchmakers who could do A to Z rather than most modern watchmakers who were specialised by their task) producing a small production run of highly complex timepieces, he gambled on a strategic risk, taken in an exercise of “provocative authenticity” – Blancpain decided not to show watches but highlight their message instead.

“We didn’t even have watches to show, but the retailers were sold on the dream. That’s when I realised the power of that dream,” recounts Biver. It was disruptive, to say the least, and fearing that other brands would pull this marketing stunt, BaselWorld management made Biver undertake a promise never to repeat this exercise. In true Biver style, he did something else. Taking the “FULL” sign from a restaurant, he displayed it at the entrance of their BaselWorld booth and took in visitors exclusively. Everyone was dying to know what novelties they had that year. Success bred more success.

By 1992, Nicolas Hayek (and SMH group) came knocking, turning his initial capital outlay into a 3,000 per cent return on investment. Suddenly, the insiders weren’t laughing anymore, and it is here that his story truly begins.

They say you learn more from failures than successes, are there any decisions made that, in hindsight, you wish you would have taken a different path?

Not really because whatever the decision, they all ended up positively. You know, this is something that I also know how to do – transform a bad decision into a good one. How to transform a failure into a success.

Is this something you can learn or is it a talent?

I think it’s a talent because, in every failure and defeat, there is energy; just like in success, there is positive energy. To be able to take that energy from failure and turn it around is a talent, it then can be used to help you. When I sold Blancpain, I felt it was a mistake. Instead of being a mistake and crying about it, I decided to go back to the brand. Although I had sold the brand, I came back as an employee. It’s not the easiest thing to do, because suddenly, you’re not the boss anymore and just an employee. For almost 10 years, I regretted my decision because I did not see how I could ever do something as exciting as Blancpain. I called Mr Hayek and asked for a job. Mr Hayek asked why I didn’t wish to rest with my millions, and I told him that I would go crazy. He insisted that if I were to return, I would have to be responsible for Omega in addition to Blancpain. I agreed. I managed to turn this defeat into a 12-year working experience with Mr Hayek in the world’s largest watchmaking group, and while I was directing the success of Omega, I learnt a lot.

“I didn’t have a special watch prepared for James Bond! But I had the quartz Seamaster with a unique helium escape valve. I told the director that he could pretend that this second “crown” had special functions.”

Harvard Business School associate professor Ryan Raffaelli once opined, “Biver enlisted outsiders to communicate and refresh Omega’s relevance.” But the story is really more complicated. How does one choose an outsider to communicate a brand’s values? Enter James Bond.

After a six-year gap, James Bond would be returning to the big screen in Goldeneye, and the producers approached Biver with a product placement proposal. “For $10,000, you get your watch onto James Bond’s wrist.” Biver countered, “How much would I get for a million dollars?” (Editor’s note: That wasn’t the eventual amount paid, but it conveyed the seriousness of Biver’s intentions). The producers returned with a plethora of options including things never-before-done in the industry – access to actual movie sets (during filming) to do advertising photoshoots, the making of brand-oriented short films with the movie’s actors and actresses for 15, 30, and 45 seconds, and the rights to advertise the actor with his Omega for six months before and after the movie’s release.

Additionally, Omega would get to participate in film launch events with all the actors around the world. The public would get to learn of “Bond’s choice”, a Seamaster 007 even before they saw Q issue the diver’s watch to Bond on-screen. This wasn’t even the kicker. Biver had forgotten all about the deal until producers came knocking because they were about to begin principal photography.

At the time, the Seamaster 300m wasn’t exactly the best-seller. By the time Goldeneye debuted on screens, with grappling hook and laser beam functionality no less, it was selling for four times more, to the tune of 40,000 pieces per year. One year after, that number doubled again, but James Bond was not the only coup.

How does one grow the ladies’ watch segment with a female ambassador that women wouldn’t be jealous of? By choosing a face that they respect but do not feel threatened by. Biver chose a retired supermodel. “Cindy Crawford had retired by then, but she was still undeniably beautiful. When picking a female ambassador, one also had to be cautious in that you wouldn’t want the husbands to be too attracted to her!” he jokes. 

It was also revolutionary for an ambassador to give her input into the design process for specific models. In that sense, the authenticity of “her choice” resonated in China. The brand was no longer “Bond’s choice” or “her choice” but “my choice”, so much so that Omega started to take the lion’s share of the luxury watch segment in that market. It is a time that Biver credits for his stratospheric career path.

“12 years at the Swatch Group led to the skills that allowed me to take over Hublot and I eventually found myself at LVMH. What I thought was a mistake in selling Blancpain ended up positive in so many ways. If I had sold Blancpain and did nothing but wallow in my misery and just sleep on my millions, it would have been a bad decision and remained one. Selling Blancpain was a bad decision, but the consequences were positive,” he shares.

“Today, I can say that if I had not sold Blancpain, I would not have known Zenith, TAG Heuer or Hublot. All these experiences I have today, I would not have. I would have just been the boss of a little Blancpain. I might not have been unhappy with such a life, but if I look back, this journey has been immensely positive.”

Pictured here with Cara Delevigne, Biver is one of the few personalities in the watch industry who’s more content in letting someone else take the limelight. He might be in the fore to get something started, but he prefers to remain in the shadows

To what do you owe your success?

First, I owe my success to my team. They have been the same. The first member joined in 1979, and the latest joined in 1995. This bunch of people have helped me from brand to brand. This is why I could move from brand to brand. I was never moving alone; I was moving with the same people. I never had to recruit a marketing director at Hublot, TAG or Zenith because he was always the same. I also had a similar person in product design. When you have the same team in five brands, you have to admit that the team is key. I had a strategy: choose someone better than yourself. If you pick someone who knows less than you, why would you recruit him? If you work with people better than yourself, it’s much easier to conduct them like an orchestra. The conductor is not the best piano player, he directs the best piano player and violinist, but he knows how to put them in harmony and how to manage them.

Second element is respect. I respect brands; I don’t build a new brand. I build the brand upon its DNA, philosophy, and message. You must respect it because the brand will outlive you. You are just a servant of the brand; you cannot put your signature on the brand. This is a big difference with many other CEOs because they are always driven to leave their mark. I even try to disappear. I can be in the front to promote, but at the end of the day, the brand is the boss, and in the relative scheme of things, I will serve the brand until I die or disappear. My time is limited, but the brand is eternal. If you do this, you get success quickly because you are using the strength from the roots of the brand. If you ignore the roots and try to grow the brand somewhere else, it’s much more difficult, and you usually get nothing. I believe this is why I’m successful.

For your core team to work with you at five brands over decades, there must be a draw for them…

It is my philosophy in my professional life and personal life. First, I share everything I have except the failures. I own the failures because it is my responsibility alone; I protect the team. I’m strong enough, and my shoulders are large enough, so I take it on. When the team knows that, they can run. I will share my thoughts, ideas, opinions, and victories but never the failures of the team. I will share personal failures because they can learn from them, but failures of the team are my responsibility. Second, I forgive mistakes. If you forgive mistakes, then your team will be very dynamic and dare to take risks and make mistakes but also reap the rewards. If you are able to forgive mistakes, you encourage the team. Finally, I respect the people. I respect that they have families, need holidays, and I respect that they cannot work as many hours as I can. If you share, forgive, and respect, nobody wants to quit.

Ever astute, Biver followed the smartwatch trend and then disrupted it by offering the TAG Heuer Connected watch that you can “upgrade” into a mechanical timepiece. Pictured here is the full kit for the Only Watch auction

There have been reports that children today don’t know how to read analogue watches. How would you woo the next generation of consumers?

This might become a problem if kids do not wear watches anymore. If they don’t wear watches when they’re young, it would be harder to convince them to wear a watch when they’re older. Children who have a Swatch on their wrists since eight years old become used to changing watches according to their style and mood, making them “watch conscious”. If they have never worn a watch, it would never occur to them to get one when they graduate or celebrate a milestone. This generation has to be taught that a watch can be a status symbol, a thing of beauty, a work of art, and even a celebration of life’s milestones. The Apple Watch is not popular with the millennials even if they sell millions. Millennials have other status symbols thanks to Yeezys, Supreme, and Off-White; the watch has not entered their lexicon as a status symbol.

How do we solve this issue then?

Truth be told, I don’t know. It’s too early now. The generation is now 18 years old, and we haven’t felt the effects of their apathy towards timepieces yet. You are going to feel it in 10 years or so when they’re not buying when they turn 30. The industry will then have to make an effort to target them unless it finds a way to do so now, but it’s difficult now because nobody speaks their language. For the moment, Hublot is doing a good job.

HyperFocal: 0

On the subject of Hublot, do you consider sponsoring the World Cup a marketing coup on the level of the relationship between Omega and James Bond? Do you feel you have the same mileage with the referees?

Same. Not only the referees, the whole concept. When you are the timekeeper of the World Cup, and the referees, players, coaches, and managers are wearing Casios, Seikos, and others, there is a lack of marketing coherence. So, for the World Cup, as long as you were on the field, you had a Hublot because we were the timekeepers. Because we had total coherence, we were strong. If we had only had the sponsorship, then it would have been weak. If James Bond had only worn the watch, and we did not capitalise on assets and marketing collaterals surrounding the movie and its utility six months before and after, we would not have had the same impact. This made people aware that Omega was James Bond’s watch. The World Cup made people aware that these legendary coaches and soccer stars were wearing Hublot. We were everywhere, and we got a lot of mileage as a result. Three billion people saw the Hublot brand. It was giant.

Was the Hublot effect similar to what you saw with Omega where you went from 10,000 to 40,000?

Well, Hublot doesn’t make 40,000 watches, but we had the same result proportionally. Hublot has more than 20 per cent growth this year.

Were there similar campaigns for Zenith or TAG Heuer?

This effect is unique because the World Cup is the most popular event in the world, second to the Olympics. It would be hard to achieve a similar effect for another brand. We got a lot of coverage for TAG Heuer in New York for the Connected Watch. Though it was huge, it was a one-time event. Hublot has been World Cup sponsors since 2006. Every four years, Hublot has a big marketing push until 2022. We are also in the European Cup and Champion’s league; it’s a steady flow and repetition that puts the knowledge of the brand into social and cultural awareness for the young generation, and we’ve been repeating it for the last four World Cups. It gets into the brain. Hublot will become one of the biggest watch brands in the world. We’re the 10th biggest in terms of turnover.

By the time Biver returned to Omega the second time around, the brand wasn’t doing much with the Speedmaster’s legacy. He kickstarted a communications platform, which reminded the next generation of the brand’s provenance with mankind’s journey to the Moon

Authentic Provocation

What Biver does is not so much witchcraft but rather a very astute understanding of consumer psychology. There must be substance behind the provocation because to provoke for provocation’s sake is to be sterile. The approach was to make people focus on what the object was and the very essence of the brand.

The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch, a potent symbol of mankind’s hopeful period of space exploration, was sorely neglected. “We had this amazing history with the Moonwatch, we had the best ambassador in the world, and we weren’t even using him,” recalls Biver. Indeed, the space legacy was a fantastic confluence of history. Originally designed for motor racing, the robust Speedmaster was the sole survivor of strenuous testing by NASA. The Speedmaster not only went to the Moon but also onboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. For the latter, a system crash left the astronauts with only their Speedmasters to manually time their retro rockets to fire them for 12 seconds and 12 seconds only. That the Omega chronograph played such a crucial role in the success of space missions and was not leveraged upon, was bonkers to him.

In a conversation with Neil Armstrong about the watch, Biver remembers Armstrong ‘s feelings: the watch was not just the only instrument to overcome the technical failure of computers but also the only thing that linked him to planet Earth while he explored the extra-terrestrial vastness of a strange new world. Biver took that element and exaggerated it, executing marketing stunts by driving the moon buggy in the streets of New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai – provocation of the best kind.

Taking the reigns at TAG Heuer, Biver too analysed the brand’s authentic associations with disruptors like Steve McQueen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tiger Woods, and Maria Sharapova. By 2015, he had found the brand’s contemporary celebrity rebel – a brashful, youthful “it girl” named Cara Delevinge. On the product side, Biver re-positioned TAG Heuer away from the heyday of ultra-luxury and re-focused the brand to more affordable price points. It was back to the roots of the brand as everyone’s first aspirational luxury watch, introducing the brand’s first manufacture chronograph (with column wheel and vertical clutch) for $5,000, and later, the industry’s first Swiss-made tourbillon chronograph, for slightly more than $10,000. It was insane, it was disruptive, but it was effective.

Not many are aware, but Biver also mentored the current head of Rolex, Jean-Frédéric Dufour; and if anything, Dufour has definitely taken Biver’s lessons to heart. While he was the CEO of Zenith, Dufour reversed his predecessor Thierry Nataf’s outrageous brand-defying (pun intended) Defy range and designs, refocusing the brand on its core provenance – accuracy and chronometry. The return of the world’s most historically important chronograph, the El Primero, to modest (by big watch standards) 38mm to 40mm proportions for $7,000 was another important point in re-invigorating the brand.

While Biver is tight-lipped about subsequent Zenith CEO Aldo Magada’s departure, the reversal of decision to use Sellita calibres and continue manufacture movements at value-for-money prices is indicative of his maxim: “To be first, different, and unique is idiotic if there’s no consistency with your DNA.” Indeed, when Biver assumed a temporary position before Julien Tornare’s arrival at Zenith, he refocused the brand’s DNA. “Zenith is traditional watchmaking, but with the El Primero, it was also very future forward. It became clear that Zenith is the future of tradition,” answers Biver when queried about the brand’s problematic perception. He clarifies, “When Zenith invented a chronograph measuring 1/10th of a second in 1969, this means that by 2019, we should be moving to 1/100th of a second, and by 2069, 1/1,000th of a second. This is the future.”

Sports sponsorship is not a new concept, and Biver is not a follower in this area as well, eking out a new path, not traditionally associated with high luxury – the sport of soccer. On this, Biver is unequivocal. “Everyone was into racing, golf, tennis, and horse riding. I don’t want to be a follower. I chose football.” Such is his belief in this strategy that he personally negotiated unprecedented partnership deals for European football leagues, key teams in the English Premier League, and the World Cup. He then parlayed this experience into US professional basketball and famous classical musicians in addition to your more tried and true sponsorship avenues of Olympians and Formula One racing teams. Each deal was matched with its own limited-edition collection.

Today, the Zenith El Primero is offered to people wanting to a slice of the brand’s heritage alongside the Defy 21 collection, which offers a vision of “the future of tradition”

“You cannot also sponsor losers, which is why we rarely sponsor current players. We stick to legends like Pelé and Maradona,” advises Biver. This has led Hublot from a position of an unheard-of niche brand to global top 10 in terms of revenue. However, not everything Biver does is universally celebrated (even if it is commercially successful), to wit, @ShameOnWrist.

I have been chosen by God to be lucky and to promote optimism and happiness in the world.”

Do you feel all the “Hublot hate” from @ShameOnWrist is unwarranted?

It’s good to have this. You cannot take it seriously. He has nothing against Hublot. It’s fun, it’s clever, and it’s a joke with a bit of truth.

Even when it’s against Alec Monopoly?

Well, you cannot have 100 per cent of people for Alec Monopoly; there will definitely be some against. It’s very normal and logical. Many people were against Andy Warhol in the beginning. Even Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, many people were against them. I prefer this to fake news. @ShameOnWrist is such an exaggeration; you either laugh or get a good lesson.

Now that you’re about to take a backseat from watchmaking, do you think you will miss the energy of the watch world?

I hope not. If I miss it, I will have to find a way to transform that energy. I would have to react and turn it into something positive. I might have to transform that energy into making sure kids around the world get proper water, because every three seconds, a child is dying because of polluted water or not enough water in Africa. When you realise this, you ask yourself why, and in my last few years on Earth, I would like to do something about this.

In all your decades, how much of your career would you say is personal control, and how much of it is fate or destiny?

[Exhales] I want to say, all my life is luck. I want to say that all my life, I have been chosen by God to be lucky and to promote optimism and happiness in the world, but you must be a believer. I am such a lucky man my whole life. I’m surrounded by it. Perhaps it’s my character because I’m very positive and I’m skilled at turning the negative into something else. I really am a privileged man – privileged with my kids, wife, family, friends, and business. What else could I want? I have gotten so much that it also poses a problem to me – what should I give back and how? Do I give back by joining Lang Lang to save elephants? Will I go to water for kids? I don’t know. I will have to find a solution if I miss the watch business.

What do you foresee in the watch industry?

I see huge potential in watches that are eternal. Art is eternal. It is built on that foundation because it comes from centuries ago and it’s still alive. I have watch collections and masterpieces from the 1800s that are still alive; they have eternity. It’s like the Patek Philippe advertisements; we need to be connected to eternity because everything today is so short-lived. In the past, we took photographs and put them in albums. Today, we take millions of pictures, but we don’t put them in albums. We might share some on social media, but we forget the majority. We take a lot of pictures, but we never look at them. If and when I die, my smartphone, locked with my password, will go away with me, and no one else will ever see them. In a world that is totally short-term and everything goes obsolete so quickly, everything disappears. We need something that is eternal. Therefore, watchmaking has a long future.

There’s been a growing number of voices that claim that watch prices have outpaced their consumers. A growing minority of CEOs have also said that rising income inequality has also meant that the market of consumers is becoming smaller. Do you see a threat where eventually, there isn’t a big enough market because not enough consumers can afford them?

Yes. The problem is that the watches are made in Switzerland, and the Swiss Franc is getting stronger and stronger. When one converts GBP and US dollars to Swiss Francs, every year, you get less and less. When I started in the business in 1974, US$1 will get you CHF5. Today, US$1 will get you CHF0.99. We lost 500 per cent in 44 years. This is not nothing; it means that prices have to increase 500 per cent just to keep the same margin. The Royal Oak came out in 1972, and you have to ask yourself if it has increased its price by 500 per cent since then? It was priced CHF8,000 and the price today is multiplied by three times, but today, the brand is making less money when it sells in dollars because you cannot adjust pricing.

Do you consider the rise of Kickstarter watch brands, which claim to democratise watchmaking, a threat?

I’m not familiar with Kickstarter brands, but every watch brand that promotes watchmaking is an advertisement for the industry, which in turn, promotes all other brands. Everyone who promotes helps the community.

Is it a danger for the community if big conglomerates can force retailers not to carry smaller brands?

Yes, it’s a danger for the smaller players because big groups have several brands. Previously, Vacheron, Piaget, Lange, and Panerai were all independent brands, and they were individually much weaker because everyone was just protecting themselves. A group provides a lot of leverage. Today, it’s very difficult to take a good position, and it’s just much harder for a new brand to survive.

Is this our future? Every brand in a big group?

The biggest turnover will belong to five groups: Swatch, Richemont, LVMH, Patek Philippe, and Rolex. The last two are not groups, but they have the power and revenue of a group. [Laughs] Rolex has the power of two groups. This is a lot of power in the market.

In your opinion, do you feel that you have left a “Biver legacy” for your family?

I have left my kids with a good education, good morals, knowledge, and a lot of love. This is my legacy, but there is no brand for a Biver to take over unless I do one now. But I think 70 years old is too late to do a brand, no? My wife thinks it’s not too late. [Laughs]

Perhaps a holding company?

Small plus small plus small doesn’t make you strong. Weak plus weak plus weak doesn’t make you strong. [Laughs] I make no reference to the family, but one strong brand and two small brands allow you to leverage a big brand to help grow the other two. Three small brands only make you three times small.

Do you see relatively new watchmakers like Chanel making GPHG winning watches merely a reflection of a group’s ability to buy talent or are we experiencing real creativity?

If you look at GPHG winners, add them all up and compare them to the total revenues of the Swiss watch industry, they might make up only two per cent of the turnover. That’s the problem with GPHG; the big groups don’t take part. Too many brands don’t participate, especially the important brands – Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Rolex. I don’t want to criticise GPHG, but all the combined turnover of the winners represent only two per cent of Swiss exports. Thus, I don’t think they’re very relevant.

Are watch fairs still relevant?

For big brands, it’s less important. For small brands, it’s important because it allows them to see all the customers in four days. It also allows them to leverage off the big brands because customers wouldn’t come without Swatch Group, Rolex, Patek or LVMH. For small brands, it’s great. For big brands, it wouldn’t be worth coming. I still support BaselWorld because I don’t want to be known as the brand that killed it. It needs to find new ideas. It either reinvents itself, or it disappears. To present novelties at the end of April, leaving only seven months at the year, there’s not a lot of time. Novelties should be presented at the start of the year or the end. I would have chosen to have the fairs as soon as possible. It’s only a two-hour train ride; everyone can commute two days in Basel, two days in Geneva, and be done. Four days and four days make eight days. What did they think retailers from the Far East would do? Stay eight days plus the weekend in between? No, he will come for the two last days of the SIHH and the two first days of BaselWorld.

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