As Jean-Claude Biver takes a smaller role as adviser at LVMH, the icon muses about the state of the watchmaking industry and his own plans

SINGAPORE (Feb 4): We are at lunch at the one-Michelin-starred Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine restaurant, and Jean-Claude Biver pops a spoonful of chilli padi (chopped red chilli) into his mouth. “I love chilli,” he exclaims without skipping a beat. We could delve into the parallels, about him being a risk-taker, an adventurous soul and a feisty character himself. But we are not going to indulge in that lazy trope. We will simply say this: You never know what to expect from Biver.

As we grow older, many of us become set in our ways — we find ourselves using the phrase “this is how things were done, and will be done” a little too often, and minor aches and pains give us any excuse to slow down. For Biver, it took major health issues to prompt him to take a much-needed break and step down from his operational duties as president of the LVMH watch division. He now advises the three brands under the LVMH umbrella — Zenith, TAG Heuer and Hublot — in his capacity as non-executive president. But even as he nears his 70th birthday, Biver is still as youthful as ever — his brain is sharp, his ideas revolutionary and his spirit undaunted.

Following a year of recovery, Biver is slowly getting back into action: In the month before he came to Singapore, he was back to travelling weekly, each time for one night only to avoid jet lag. We had the opportunity to chat with the man himself in late December when he made a pit stop in Singapore, a Christmas gift to any watch nerd who has followed his astounding trajectory. He bangs his hand on the table to emphasise his views, and while he goes off on long tangents before coming to the point, he never loses his train of thought. He remains one of the most admired men in the horological industry, and for good reason.

While many credit Nicolas Hayek, co--founder of The Swatch Group, for saving the Swiss industry from the quartz crisis, Biver was also an instrumental player then. When the Japanese discovered a more efficient and cost-effective way of powering watches, the Swiss industry jumped on the quartz bandwagon and even brands such as Rolex released non-mechanical watches. During that period, Biver bought over the Blancpain brand for CHF22,000 in 1982 and penned its motto: “Since 1735, there are no Blancpain quartz watches. And there never will be.” The risk paid off. About 11 years later, Biver would go on to sell the brand for CHF60 million to the Swatch Group. During his tenure at Swatch, he worked his magic on Omega as well, and was the man responsible for starting the brand’s partnership with James Bond.

Bringing mechanical watches back from the dead and driving up demand by making them exclusive was his first achievement. His second would be reviving Hublot and using its brand equity to dismiss the notion that watchmaking was a fusty industry.

“The Art of Fusion” motto would steer Biver and his protégé, now Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe, into previously unchartered territories in watchmaking, metallurgy and even marketing blowouts, shaking the competition out of its traditional mindset. His efforts — and, of course, the rest of the industry’s — would set the watchmaking industry on a path of success, with some watches fetching millions of dollars.

New decade, new challenge

According to Biver, however, the industry is facing yet another great challenge: “A few years ago, we had one enormous, colossal, phenomenal asset: Swatch. From 1980 onwards, Swatch put on every child aged five to 15 at least one watch on their wrist. In history, we’d never seen five-year-old kids wearing a watch — they had to be at least 15 [to] 20 years old. We had taught the young generation born in the 1970s and 1980s that watches are fun, they’re fashion and you can own more than one. When you’re watch-conscious as a child, when you become 28 to 30 years old, when you get engaged or married, it’s natural that you buy a watch. The huge development that we had in the 1990s and 2000s is due to the fact that this young generation had been prepared to wear a watch one day. Are the youngsters [today] prepared to wear watches one day? No! They don’t wear watches, and kids aged 14 to 16 don’t even wear Apple watches. How do we prepare this generation to become watch conscious, so that when they have the money or opportunity to buy a watch, they will?

“This is my concern. Are we capable of influencing the next generation to buy watches and dream about watches? And which brand is doing this job? None, as we are all in the luxury business, and we all sell to people who are 30-plus,” he says.

Model Cara Delevingne

Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer are not affordable, child-friendly timepieces, but Biver has astutely amped up marketing efforts to target the next generation. His most successful endeavour is arguably Hublot’s sponsorship of the World Cup. “Who do we conquer in football? Our wealthy customers, whether they’re players, managers, owners of the club, or own a box in the stadium. But we also speak to the young generation who are watching the game and starting to become conscious about Hublot. They may be [just] 16 years old, but they watch football on TV and see Hublot everywhere.”

His advice? Invest a portion of your budget in those who cannot afford to buy luxury now. “Save your money for tomorrow,” he exclaims, banging his fist on the table.

Perhaps Biver’s greatest asset has been his desire to be around young people and learn from them. He muses, “You know my products are not made in the price range for the young generation, but I am the one the young generation likes the most in the industry.” His 184,000 followers on Instagram would attest to that. In 2018, he initiated a partnership between TAG Heuer and king of streetwear Hiroshi Fujiwara of Fragment. The 500-piece limited-edition series was sold out within a few hours.

It was Biver’s son who told him about Fujiwara, in the same way he pointed Cara Delevingne out to his father when dining at a restaurant in London. Today, the young model and “it” girl is one of the ambassadors for TAG Heuer, along with the likes of street artist Alec Mono-poly and Thor actor Chris Hemsworth.

Actor Chris Hemsworth

Biver has always had his finger on the pulse of the industry. His decisions have been controversial, for sure, but he has remained steadfast in his own convictions.

Interestingly, Biver is not Swiss. Born in Luxembourg, he moved to Switzerland with his family when he was 10. He never truly intended to enter the world of watchmaking, but a chance encounter with the late chairman of Audemars Piguet, Georges Golay, catapulted him into the industry. Today, Biver is so ingrained in the Swiss lifestyle that he even makes his own artisanal, not-for-sale, cheese.

He has always claimed not to be motivated by money, but is instead driven by his desire to keep moving forward. “I believe that once you reach the top of the mountain, [you must] keep climbing. Don’t look for money, it’ll come if you behave,” he advises.

It is for these reasons and more that Biver has been called a legend in the industry, and when we ask him if he is ever daunted by the description, he shakes his head, almost incredulous that we would ask the question. “I don’t believe that I am 70, and I don’t believe that I am a legend. It’s something that pleases me for the minute that they tell me, and then I don’t realise it. And somehow I don’t behave like it. I swear on my son that telling me that I am a legend doesn’t put any pressure on me. The worst pressure I have is what I put on myself — I am always the one putting the highest pressure on myself to perform.”

Street artist Alec Mono-poly

Nurturing talent

As Biver steps away from his operational duties at LVMH, he is pondering the next step of his life. For now, he continues to be at LVMH, as ambassador, adviser and coach. “My duty is to transmit to others my knowledge,” he says. “I will transfer my successes, my ways, my strategies, my visions and my failures also. If I’d been in good health, I’d have retired by the end of 2019, and would devote the last 20 years of my life to giving back. I quit one year ahead of the normal timing that I had thought about.

“You can only die rich if you have given back when you’re alive. If you die and you have forgotten, or had no time to give back, then you die poor. I will give back to my people, to my brands. I say that because we will see if that’s enough for me — maybe I would like to give back to others also. I have invested in a company that supports and helps young entrepreneurs. The future is for young people, and to help young people conquer and shape their future with success is a great challenge for me.”

In 2016, Biver was the subject of a two-part case study by Harvard. He even launched a book, The Wizard of Watchmaking, with Gérard Lelarge to help young entrepreneurs. He teaches at Harvard every year so he can shape the minds of young people.

Does Biver have another trump card up his sleeve, and will he be the one to launch the next affordable Swatch-simile for the upcoming generation? With Biver, you simply never know. But one thing’s for sure: He remains committed to sharing and transmitting his knowledge to the next generation. So, the executives who are now heading the brands under LVMH, Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer are following broadly in his footsteps — to always question the status quo, be true to the brand identity, and never, ever get stuck in a rut.

Formerly a deputy editor at a local magazine, Karishma Tulsidas is deeply entrenched in the worlds of watches and jewellery, but loves the thrill of diving deep into and writing about hitherto unknown subjects