Maximilian Büsser talks about the new Aquapod, his ‘super-selfish creative process’ and antithetical business approach, and MB&F being his ‘autobiography’

Some newsmakers give you the same old spiel while others give you a glimpse into their soul. Sitting in The Hour Glass headquarters in Tong Building on Orchard Road, I had the privilege of a front-seat look into the fascinating mind (and spirit) of Maximilian Büsser. The former managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces is perhaps most cele brated for transforming the jeweller into a well-respected haute horlogerie brand. Inducted into the role at 31, Büsser spearheaded Harry Winston’s partnership with talented independent watchmakers to develop its revolutionary Opus series. The result was a spectacular 900% increase in turnover, which positioned the brand as one of the leaders in a very competitive segment.

It was this experience that inspired Büsser to break out of the confines of corporate watchmaking 11 years ago to create his own brand, Maximilian Büsser & Friends (MB&F), as an artistic concept lab of sorts to experiment with ideas that push the technical limits of watchmaking.

The friends in question? Hyper-creative, independent watchmaking wunderkinds who lend their technical prowess to co- create MB&F’s insanely avant-garde horological machines that never ever tell the time in a straightforward fashion. Early collaborators include watch makers Peter Speake- Marin and Kari Voutilainen, from the UK and Finland, respectively, both active members of the MB&F tribe.

One by one, MB&F’s unconventional creations — inspired by spaceships, more often than not — have stunned the watchmaking fraternity with their ingenuity. But instead of outer space, its latest creation, Aquapod, also known as Horological Machine No 7 (HM7), is inspired by the ocean — the jellyfish to be precise. This is the first time the brand is drawing inspiration from the deep blue sea.

Inspired by nature
“At MB&F, the journey is as important as, or even more important than, the creations,” Büsser says. “The creations are just the corol lary consequence of the story, and our story isn’t just 11 years old but 50 — because most of the inspiration for the horological machines comes from my childhood.” The Aquapod, however, is different; its inspiration comes from a holiday Büsser took with his wife in the United Arab Emirates four years ago.

“When we Swiss go to the sea, we run into it because we are so sea-deprived. I saw my wife running into the water, and then I saw her running out even faster because it was full of jellyfish!” shares Milan-born Büsser, who grew up in a multicultural family in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a Swiss diplomat father and an Indian mother.

“Jellyfish are very fascinating creatures, so I started wondering... Could we make a mecha nical jellyfish?” he recalls.

Büsser picks up an Aquapod on the table and starts schooling me in its technical intricacies. I take one look at the watch’s spherical, high-domed case and tell him it looks like another spaceship. Apparently, I’m not the first person to say that.

“Even when I try to escape it, I create a spaceship. It really looks like a 1950s’ spaceship,” he acknowledges with a laugh.

But upon closer inspection of the Aquapod’s profile, the jellyfish begins to take form: The dome is the head, with the rubber straps, moulded in aircraft-grade fluorocarbon, looking like a cascade of tentacles.

The similarities do not stop there; they are evident in both the aesthetics and engineering. Büsser flips the Aquapod over to show me a tentacle-like automatic winding rotor carved from a solid block of titanium that feeds power to the concentric vertical movement architecture above it — just like how the jellyfish generates power from food caught in its tentacles.

From bottom to top, the winding rotor, mainspring barrel and hour and minute indications are all concentrically mounted around the central axis, which is crowned with a flying tourbillon that glows mesmerisingly in the dark (the way its marine inspiration does), illuminated by ambient glow technology. Energy travels from the rotor at the very bottom of the movement to the flying tourbillon regulator at the very top via gearing that acts like a series of stairs, allowing power to transition from one level to the next.

And where jellyfish have a radially symmetric ring of neurons for a brain, the Aquapod has radially symmetric rings displaying the hours and minutes. Reminiscent of a roulette table, the hours and minutes are displayed around the periphery of the movement, with the minute disk sitting atop the hour disk.

Time-telling in this fashion presented a great technical challenge: How could such large- diameter time-display rings, “probably a thousand times heavier than a hand”, be supported without slipping, while ensuring the mathematical precision of timekeeping?

The solution was to develop extra-large- diameter ceramic ball bearings to support the spherical segment hour and minute displays and rotate with a very low coefficient of friction. The spherical segment discs are crafted in aluminium and titanium for minimum mass and maximum rigidity.

And then there is the scratch-proof ceramic bezel that is not attached to the case but floats apart like a lifebuoy. While the Aquapod is technically not a dive watch, it flaunts a unidirection rotating bezel — a hallmark of all serious aquatic watches — that gives the Aquapod a sizeable diameter of 53.8mm.

Attention to detail
So why did Büsser stop short of making a watch one can dive with? Ever the aesthete, he explains that to do so, the Aquapod would need a screwdown crown instead, which would have added another 2mm to its diameter, making it “unwearable and ugly”.

So meticulous is Büsser that six months into the development of the watch, he pressed the reset button on the entire project. The team had to go back to the drawing board because he decided that the Aquapod needed to have two crowns for symmetry, as everything else on this horolo gical incarnation of the jellyfish was symmetrical.

“I’ll always remember the look on their faces. They were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, right?’ Because that [would] change everything and suddenly you have to rearrange everything in the movement to accommodate it,” he explains.

Referencing the late Steve Jobs, who was notorious for going to extreme lengths to get the aesthetic and technical details right in his quest to perfect Apple products, Büsser says with a touch of self-deprecating humour: “It’s funny because I was reading his biography and he was completely fanatical about details. I hope I’m not as horrible!”

Büsser then shares with me his philosophy and approach to the creative process: “There is no watch I’ve ever created in which you don’t see the balance wheel, because the balance wheel is the most hypnotic part — it’s the heart of the movement, the same as in human beings. Too many brands approach watchmaking like cosme tic surgery, like, it’s great to be handsome or beautiful but who cares if the inside is dead, boring and shallow? I’m not a designer; I’m an engineer and I create mechanical art. It’s the mechanical art that’s important and what goes around the heart is just there to magnify the beautiful movement.”

Altogether, the 303-component Aquapod took four years to develop in-house by the MB&F team plus “friends”, at a cost of millions of Swiss francs. Büsser says the R&D budget is spread across the four to six movements the company has in dev elopment at any given time. The investment in R&D, he adds, is fixed at 27% of annual revenue.

Up until this point, I was engaged in a delightful conversation with Büsser the creator. Then, effortlessly, he switches gear and Büsser the entrepreneur emerges. But he is far from your typical businessman.

“I forgot to mention that I don’t want my company to grow. Because I’ve reached… the point of happiness. Some people have the breakeven point. For me it’s the point of happiness,” he says philosophically.

Büsser, who runs MB&F with business partner Serge Kriknoff, put a lid on growth and expan sion when the company achieved its annual revenue target of CHF15 million in 2013. In fact, he has also reduced the number of retailers for the brand, worldwide, from 41 in 2015 to 27 currently.

“Money has never been the goal of this project; it’s been pride,” says Büsser. “We make no profit. In 2015, we made a 1.3% profit. My salary is half of what it used to be in my previous [corporate] life, but I’m happy. I’m happy because I have a company that is very small but big enough to fund my crazy dreams.

“We have 21 employees and there’s no middle management; I don’t ever want to have any middle management. Every person in the team is empowered — they arrive in the morning and do their work, and in the evening they see what they have brought to the company. Therefore, you’re giving meaning, you’re empowering staff, you’re giving them a reason to be proud. And pride is what dictates everything I do in life.”

Growing MB&F, Büsser believes, will put it in “economic jeopardy”. The company currently produces 280 watches a year and increasing production would mean that he has to find more customers to buy the additional pieces. “And then I would [have to] tone down my creativity because I’d be scared [of not being able to sell the watches],” he says candidly.

Maintaining MB&F at this “sweet spot” en ables him to experiment freely. “We’re not unconventional because we think it’s cool to be unconventional. It’s just that I’ve decided to go down a different creative path [from my colleagues in the industry]. As a creator, I continuously want to get out of my comfort zone. I want to break through boundaries and that’s what makes us who we are,” he says, explaining the brand philosophy.

“The fact that we have taken enormous creative risks has resulted in a very polarising brand; a lot of people hate what we do, and a lot of people love and worship what we do. By not diluting what we’ve done and by keeping our ethics and integrity completely pristine, we have generated an extremely strong community.”

Expounding on his “super-selfish creative process”, Büsser adds: “I don’t give a damn about watch trends. Maybe I’m influenced by them. But I don’t care what the market or industry does. I create these pieces for myself.”

It sounds a tad egotistical but the words are not delivered arrogantly. Rather, they are dispensed with the zen-like quality of a man whose self-awareness and self-assuredness stem from being humbled after stumbling, I soon learn.

Learning from the past
Part of Büsser’s creative process involves sitting in his garden in Dubai, where he lives with his wife and four-year-old daughter, to “just think” for half an hour each day. “I let my mind wander… it can be interesting giving yourself the luxury of following your thoughts,” says Büsser, who regards MB&F as his “autobiography” and part of his “psychotherapy”.

He then tells me about the four chapters in MB&F’s 11-year history that brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy. In 2007, the company’s prime supplier was sold to a brand, thereby creating production, logistics and other major problems. Two years later, it was hit by the global financial crisis. In 2012, issues related to “opportunistic” retailers (one of the reasons for his no-growth mandate) surfaced. Then, in 2014, Büsser was struck by “god complex” and decided to create two new movements a year. “Revenue and sales were great but our cash flow was a nightmare. It was, financially, absolutely impossible for us to do that,” he recalls.

“It’s a great thing that we had those four years because now, at 50, I have never been as serene because I know I’ve overcome those tough [times],” says Büsser. “There will be more tough years; I may not know where the missile will come from, but I know it’s going to [strike].” Like a judoka, he knows he will fall because somebody is going to push him. “But the point is, how do you fall down without hurting yourself? And how do you get back on your feet as fast as possible?”

And what might the next 10 years be like for MB&F? “I haven’t got a clue. And that’s fantastic,” Büsser adds with a smile.

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle writer who specialises in luxury watches, wellness and wanderlust

This article appeared in Issue 777 (May 1) of The Edge Singapore.