Jean Claude Biver on Zenith, New Regulator and the Future of Tradition
The head of LVMH Watches was in town to host a private dinner when he discussed Zenith and its new mandate as the future of tradition and its revolutionary new silicon based regulator.
Jean Claude Biver, Head of LVMH Watch & Jewellery was in Singapore yesterday 13 June for a private dinner with collectors and we thought that we might take the opportunity to chat with “the Fixer” (an internal for Biver’s unbelievable ability to take struggling brands and return them to glory) on the new direction of Zenith and the future of tradition when he surprised us with announcement of a new type of regulator in Zenith’s future.
Jean Claude Biver on Zenith, New Regulator and the Future of Tradition
On July 1, 2014, Aldo Magada was appointed CEO of Zenith replacing Jean-Frédéric Dufour who joined Rolex. Unfortunately, Zenith never quite found firm footing as Biver cemented Hublot’s foundations and then embarked on a regeneration and renewal project with TAG Heuer, re-orienting the brand and bringing the heritage brand back to its roots as “your first luxury swiss timepiece” at all new aggressive price points. Today, Tornare has joined Zenith from Vacheron Constantin and Biver is on his last LVMH battlefront – shaping Zenith into the future of tradition.
We have noticed that skeletonising appears to be a common theme across all LVMH watch brands now…
Yes, it’s because of me. I think it’s a catastrophe to put a dial on a watch. A Renault wheel is beautiful because they put something on top of it. Take that away and you see the nuts and bolts. But on a Ferrari, it’s made in such a way that even the wheel is beautiful, you can have it in your living room like a sculpture. You can’t do the same with a wheel from Toyota. Likewise, it’s a shame to have a dial hide the beauty of a movement. True beauty of the watch for me lies in the movement but if you feel that beauty lies in the dial, I respect that. Some enamel dials are truly remarkable. In general, 60% of the time, I prefer a movement instead of a dial. Thus, the movement has to be built in a manner that is attractive. This is why I introduce this artfrom to all my brands including Zenith.
Increasingly, chronographs from Zenith measure 10th of a second increments, some even 100th of a second, is accuracy still relevant in the context of modern watchmaking? Or are these PR value accomplishments?
Nobody cares about accuracy. We only care because it is part of Zenith’s philosophy and the reason we exist. Zenith has specialised in extremely high accuracy since 1865, winning 2322 grand prix awards for accuracy. Zenith’s raison d’etre was to produce the most accurate watches ever. It is part of our history and we should continue with it. Zenith is the future of tradition and if tradition was a chronograph which could display 1/10th of a second, then the future of tradition is a chronograph which can display 1/100th of a second. This is to maintain our heritage and not to repeat heritage. Zenith’s direction today is accuracy and chronographs because that was the message of the brand. Is accuracy important to me? No. But neither do you need a Ferrari with 1000 horsepower.
Would you say the emotional appeal on what you have on the wrist is more important than accuracy and what indication of time?
What is important is the emotion, the quality and the soul. Every watch made by hand has a certain soul, it is a signature of handcrafted objects. A machine made object only has perfection but no soul. A robot does a better job than a human, I would prefer a robot to operate on me with high accuracy. For luxury products, perfection might not be 100% but I would prefer it handmade because it is transmitted by fingers and they leave traces. These traces like the soul, like emotions, like love, are not visible. The invisible is more important than what is invisible. When I was at Blancpain, I used to refer to the “invisible visibility” – what you don’t see can be felt and thus you “see”. In the Little Prince, it was said that the essential things cannot be seen with the eyes. I still believe in this.
What was the last revolutionary innovation from Zenith? El Primero 1969. And then? 1969. And then? 1969. Come on guys, this is 2017. – Biver, on the last time Zenith made something truly innovative
There’s a lot of love for Zenith and a lot of collectors will tell you that they love Zenith but ask if they own one, the usual answer is “no”…
They don’t because Zenith hasn’t been very active in the last 20 years. If you are not active today, people will forget that you exist because there’s so much information and a constant stream of marketing communication which take your attention. So yes, people love Zenith but when if why they don’t know one, they don’t really know. But I know why, it’s usually because they didn’t have the occasion to buy, never saw a Zenith pop-up store before, never saw a big Zenith advertisement, never been invited to a Zenith exhibition. Inactive, the brand will not get a bad reputation but it will stagnate. Not moving means nobody buys. But this is not bad in the sense that brand reputation has not been destroyed. It’s good to have a clean name, bringing Zenith back is then not handicapped by reputation.
So then your solution is to have more communication for the brand?
Yes and innovation. What was the last revolutionary innovation from Zenith? El Primero 1969. And then? 1969. And then? 1969. Come on guys, this is 2017. If Porsche would try to sell the same car that they made in 1969, they would not be successful. Sure, a few would like the 1969 Porsche because it’s a classic car now, the construction may be similar, the engine is still in the back but it’s totally different from a modern Porsche. Zenith has remained in 69 and in life, you cannot survive by staying in 1969, you will end up in a museum!
Taking into context the brand’s performance as far as sales are concerned, is this something you worry that collectors and consumers take that into account?
No. The collector doesn’t really care about what is happening with the brand in terms of sales, they care about the beauty, exclusivity and the history of the brand. Collectors at the auction buy yesterday, not tomorrow. The consumer on the other hand, wants to buy the future, they don’t want to buy yesterday. He wants to have the most up to date. Zenith is the future of tradition and I want to deliver Zenith innovations to my consumers today. When more consumers want to buy today, more collectors want to buy tomorrow because they want to be more exclusive.
Zenith: The Future of Tradition – the Defy 21, new regulator and beyond
Speaking of “now”, there is the Defy 21 with carbon-nano tubes, is it a challenge to communicate to people how these materials are a vital improvement to the pieces?
First, all the mechanical watches are nonsense from the rationality. But is art nonsense? No, art is necessary, I wish there would be more museums and art galleries because we need art. Rationally, we can live without a painting on the wall. For me, I see watches as art. Second, in this art, you still have constraints, it must still be a watch and if you want to make it watchmaking art, it must be fit within certain rules, namely accuracy and power reserve.
All materials which help in accuracy and power reserve and supporting essential elements of a watch because those are the primary concerns of a watch. Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube gives extraordinary accuracy and provides better power reserve because the material is 100% anti-magnetic and 100% anti-thermic. It goes from -50 degrees to 100 degrees with no variation. When it gets very cold, power reserve is consumed quicker and thus, the new material helps with power reserve and accuracy.
Living in the 21st century and if these new materials are available, why should we not use it? If you wake Mr. Breguet from the grave, you told him that in this 21st century, these new materials exist today, he would be very excited and say, “I want to use them!” because he was avant garde. Breguet alive today would not want to use the materials from 1801, he would want to use the materials now. This is why we use Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube.
An Explainer: Zenith Defy El Primero 21 with Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube
The last time a Zenith El Primero started a conversation in the world of horology, it was 1969. In 2016, a new Defy El Primero 21, housed in a 44mm case reminiscent of the original El Primero, in titanium and in ceramised aluminum got the industry talking again. Finally, a new El Primero 21 calibre (named for the 21st century) with COSC certification.
Featuring two separate escapements, one for regular time indication, the other for ultra high frequency chronograph timing, each used a balance spring made of a new material, Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube. Anti-magnetic and anti-thermic, Zenith’s new patented material provided the beating heart for a 36,000 vph balance for normal time indication while the chronograph utilised its own 360,000 vph balance for timing 1/100th of a second intervals. Essentially, the gentle sweep of the big chronograph completing a rotation in 60 seconds as per regular chronographs completes one rotation on a Defy El Primero 21 in a single second. However, the immense power requirements of powering a 360,000 vph chronograph meant that you could only run the chronograph function for a maximum of 50 minutes. But the future of tradition isn’t a balance with carbon-matrix carbon nanotube hairspring either, it’s something else, it’s a heretofore unseen regulator.
Zenith’s revolutionary new regulator to be officially unveiled in September 2017
Official information is still scant but from what we learned is that the new silicon-based regulator will operate at a potentially super high frequency of 15 Hz (comparatively, a traditional El Primero is 5 Hz and quartz operates at 32,768 Hz). More importantly, the Zenith’s new regulator would no longer resemble traditional hairspring with balance wheel constructs. Instead, it would require no oil, create no friction and provide chronometric accuracy of 1 variation a day, making it the most accurate mechanical watch today.
While it is true that a higher frequency movement tends to keep more accurate time, the truth is, like the spinning top example, speed is but one factor – stability is the another contributing factor – the more stable the regulating, the more accurate as well. Today, a watchmaker has to find solutions which compensate for temperature, power, friction, gravity and shock. Theoretically, if one could keep power constant, prevent variations in temperature, operate without gravity, shocks and magnetism, a frictionless mechanical calibre could give a quartz movement a run for accuracy.
That said, Biver claims that Zenith’s new silicon-based regulator solves the issue of “constant force” by having 100% amplitude at full power and 100% amplitude near entropy (close to zero power reserve). Slated for an exclusive September 2017 launch in Germany, 10 unique pieces dubbed “Defy Laboratory” (since they are experimental) with Zenith’s new regulator will go to market before the official launch of the series production model at Baselworld 2018. Expect to pay around CHF30,000 (inclusive first class airfare and personal delivery by Biver) for the privilege. The series production model is expected to cost similar to the current Zenith Defy 21 range.
[DISCLOSURE: our interview with Biver followed after SJX’s. We overheard him speaking about the regulator and pursued the information. SJX has more information on his site. Go check it out.]
Interview with Biver continues…
If a customer would not buy a Patek Philippe tourbillon at US$120,000 because there’s a TAG Heuer tourbillon at US$20,000, then he should go to hell. How can you hesitate? If a customer would not buy an advanced Hublot carbon tourbillon at $80,000 because there’s a TAG Heuer for $20,000. He should also go to hell. – Biver on understanding a brand’s message and its customer
Taking the Heuer 02T tourbillon in context of other LVMH brands which produce tourbillons – are there any cross-brand impacts as a result of TAG Heuer’s aggressive pricing and positioning?
No, it has no diminished the number of tourbillons that Patek Philippe has sold and I can provide personal testimony that it has not impacted number of tourbillons that Hublot has sold. If a customer would not buy a Patek Philippe tourbillon at US$120,000 because there’s a TAG Heuer tourbillon at US$20,000, then he should go to hell. How can you hesitate? If a customer would not buy an advanced Hublot carbon tourbillon at $80,000 because there’s a TAG Heuer for $20,000. He should also go to hell. It’s not the same business nor the same customer, we are not selling prices. Whoever shops with that mentality, I would thank God that he didn’t buy. That said, there are a huge number of people who cannot afford a Patek Philippe but why should they be punished? If it’s in the concept of the brand, as in the case of TAG Heuer, the accessible luxury swiss watchmaking brand, we should have a tourbillon which addresses that market gap.
We accomplished this at TAG Heuer by designing the tourbillon so that even a blind watchmaker can put one together; A blind watchmaker can only put together a tourbillon if it is built like a Lego because a child can build a Lego. A child can feel when the right pieces are supposed to fit. Before, a tourbillon can only be made by master watchmakers, he had to adjust everything. The construction and simplicity of a TAG Heuer tourbillon saves time for our watchmakers and this lowers our costs. The more you prepare in production in terms of precision and ease of assembly, the better efficiencies then allow us to offer you a tourbillon for $20,000. But just because we have new production processes for a TAG Heuer tourbillon doesn’t mean that we have condemned Patek Philippe or Hublot to selling zero tourbillons, it’s a different customer base. Brands have different customers, philosophies, messages and perceptions.
Some Group CEOs have expressed distaste for watch collectors since they over-examine each new novelty, in pursuing a commercial direction, do you feel that opinions of watch collectors must be considered in designing new products?
Yes, it matters and it’s important because they are very neutral. A collector sees every watch with the same eye. Journalists can sometimes see the watch through the eyes of their friends because they might like the CEO, or they get invited to Switzerland on a trip and they decide to write nice things, it’s only natural, it’s human. But a collector doesn’t care, he sees everything neutral. Thus, the collector’s opinion, his eyes and his knowledge are very important to me because they are very neutral. But this isn’t always the case with a retailer or journalists.
But then if you always listened to them, you would have a lot of watches without date complications…
Again, this is dependent on the brand. When I was at Omega, I didn’t do many complications. When I was at Blancpain, I made many complications because that was our message. It’s very important that brands know their message and what they’re supposed to do. The message of Zenith is the future of tradition. If Zenith makes a connected watch, is that the future of tradition? No, it’s only the future, it has nothing to do with tradition. If we a Zenith chronograph measures 1/100th of a second, that is the future of tradition, this is the future of the 1969 El Primero with 1/10th of a second. If we do a new hairspring with carbon-nano tubes with anti-magnetic and anti-thermic properties because everyone uses radiating cellphones, this too is the future of tradition, this is also an evolution of a hairspring that was steel, silinvar and today, silicon or carbon-nano.
Thus, TAG Heuer is the swiss avant garde accessible watch brand; Hublot is the unaffordable, disruptive watch brand and Zenith is the future of tradition. When this is clear then everybody knows what to do. No confusion possible. Ask another brand what they’re message is and I doubt they can communicate it in 5 words.
Biver’s Secret to getting many things done
We hear you only sleep 3 hours a night, is that true?
No it’s not true. Sometimes I sleep 0 hours and sometimes I sleep 6. I never sleep more than 5 or 6. I flew into Singapore today at 4pm and will head to Hong Kong for a meeting and I will leave Hong Kong that evening. I was in Sao Paulo before where I flew in during the day and out again that evening. If you need sleep, it would very difficult to do same day flights, you’d be too tired. I never get tired.
Is this the secret getting so many things done?
Yes. But it’s two secrets. First, sleeping is like being dead, you are completely inactive. Second, have good help, you cannot build success alone, you need good people. You need people because you need love. Love brings harmony and equilibrium and help comes from love, it gives you support, hope, optimism, colour, strength and joy. My two recommendations: Don’t sleep and always have help.