Born on 20 September 1949, Jean-Claude Biver started his career at the World of Watches in Vallée de Joux at Audemars Piguet. In 2014, he was appointed as Head of the Watches Division at LVMH. Since then, he has been responsible for the brands Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. While Ricardo Guadalupe takes the lead at Hublot, Biver is actively involved in day-to-day business at TAG Heuer and Zenith. TAG Heuer sales have been magnificent ever since. There is still a lot of work to be done with Zenith, but we think it is safe to assume that Biver’s success will continue here. Julien Tornare, the new CEO of Zenith, has been working by his side for a few months now. Thanks to his charisma, Jean-Claude Biver is a sought-after speaker for various different events and conferences. He appeared most recently in April 2017 at the Entrepreneur Day in Vaduz, which was held under the slogan “Digitalisation, the entrepreneurial challenge”.
Mr Biver, after the quartz crisis, you emerged as one of the first to return to the mechanical wristwatch and went to great personal lengths and risk at the time to relaunch the Blancpain brand. People say this was the starting point for the renaissance of the mechanical watch. Looking back, what were the best and most exciting moments for you?
Jean-Claude Biver: The best and most exciting moment of my professional career was when I bought the Blancpain brand for 22,000 Swiss francs together with Jacques Piguet. We had nothing but the name and had to start again from scratch. Long after 1735, the year in which Blancpain was established, in 1982, we picked up from where the story of the venerable watchmaker left off. Believe me, that was an incredibly emotional, exciting and interesting moment.
Do you still believe in the future of the mechanical wristwatch as you did back then?
Yes, of course! The more smartwatches there are and the more millions of people wear them, the more interest in mechanical watches and traditional watchmaking will grow. I am convinced that the smartwatch has an important role to play here: after all, it is promoting the art and culture of the traditional, ticking timepiece on the wrist of every wearer.
Under the leadership of Guy Sémon, you built up an efficient and effective R&D team dedicated to the future of the mechanical wristwatch at LVMH. What kind of smart innovations is your team working on to ensure the mechanical wristwatch remains attractive?
We are working on two fronts at the moment. On the one hand, we are working on further developing our TAG Heuer Connected, while working on the future of tradition on the other. I believe that tradition has and needs a future. If you dedicate all of your efforts to reproducing tradition, you run the risk of becoming almost like a museum. That is why we continue to work hard on developing new materials and colours – in fact, we have just launched our revolutionary escapement and are now working towards the production of our own hairsprings and novel mechanical drives.
“We have just launched our revolutionary escapement and are now working towards the production of our own hairsprings and novel mechanical drives.”
The revolutionary escapement you just mentioned is actually a smart one. One single component replaces the 31 components of a conventional Swiss lever escapement. The escapement was first used in a Zenith wristwatch and is set to be incorporated in all Zenith collections. In the medium term, this great new escapement will be used by Hublot and TAG Heuer and may even be sold to third parties. This sounds like a little revolution is taking place in Switzerland; not a stone will be left standing.
Yes, it really is a revolution! It’s the first fundamentally new development since 1675, when Dutch mathematician Huygens invented the pendulum clock. All mechanical watches actually still operate on the basis of this centuries-old principle. Our new escapement, on the other hand, offers a whole host of advantages over the traditional version. We will have exclusive use of it for the time being, but in three to five years, we will be able to sell it to third parties.
Since you took over Hublot in 2004 and guided the company to new heights, Norman Huber has remained a loyal companion and partner of the brand. Hublot has always been a pioneer of innovative case materials in previous years. What kind of developments do you have in the pipeline today? Has the focus now moved to ultralight materials?
Yes, Norman Huber believed in the brand from the outset. Unusual, innovative materials and a striking design have always been the unique selling points of Hublot and remain a very important factor today. Hublot also develops many of its movements itself, the most recent included a new tourbillon and the Meca-10. Further new releases with updated features and a new look are set to follow.
“Unusual, innovative materials and a striking design have always been the unique selling points of Hublot and remain a very important factor today.”
TAG Heuer has been a permanent fixture at Huber Fine Watches & Jewellery since the 1980s. Since you took over responsibility for the brand, TAG Heuer has regained a firm foothold in the market and has established itself as a maker of exciting entry-level watches. You have revitalised the brand with interesting, reasonably priced products and also given it a lot of emotional appeal. Where do you see this road leading in the future?
What we are trying to do now is not only maintain TAG Heuer’s reputation as a pioneer of accessible luxury, but also increase that reputation. This is why we have developed a very competitively priced chronograph with tourbillon regulator. We are also currently developing a perpetual calendar, which we will combine with a chronograph and a tourbillon regulator. Thanks to groundbreaking development methods, we can keep unit costs very low, which in turn allows us to offer these watches to our customers at extremely attractive prices.
You are not just a doer and a visionary, but also a marketing genius. How do you plan to get the next generation of buyers, the digital natives, excited about the mechanical wristwatch? Will innovations be enough or are tangible emotions required?
Innovation and emotion go hand in hand. These days, innovations help us to create an emotionally charged design. For example, at our Hublot laboratory in Nyon, we are developing our own red ceramic and new, ultralight case materials that will reduce the weight of the entire watch to well below 25 grams. The term “superleggera” is set to become as important in the field of wristwear as it is in the automobile sector.
Do you also have something for traditional watch collectors – for old-school watch-lovers?
But of course! Models that spring to mind are the TAG Heuer Monaco V4, which Guy Sémon developed to the maturity phase for us, or the legendary Monaco, made famous by Steve McQueen, or the recently introduced TAG Heuer Autavia, which was once worn by Jochen Rindt. The great history of TAG Heuer and Zenith will continue to inspire us going forward. More classics are sure to follow.
“The great history of TAG Heuer and Zenith will continue to inspire us going forward. More classics are sure to follow.”
One last question for the cosmopolitan Jean-Claude Biver. As anyone who knows you would say, you are an adventurer – at home anywhere in the world and always on the move. What place or what city inspires you time after time?
The city that still fascinates me and surprises me every time is Tokyo. I also love Japan and its people.
Is there a bar or hotel that you would like to recommend to us?
Soho House Berlin. It’s my favourite city hotel.
Tell us something that you think should be on everyone’s bucket list to visit, see and experience.
The annual autumn “Alpabtrieb”, when farmers drive their cattle down from the Alpine mountains and into the stable, returning home from Alpine pasture after four months. Everyone should take part in the walk from the Alps to the stable in the valley at least once in their lives.