Interview: Jean-Claude Biver
In an industry which is typically resistant to dramatic change, Jean-Claude Biver has been on a mission to build brands that embrace change and disruption. Beginning his career with Audemars Piguet, Mr. Biver went onto develop brands like Blancpain, Hublot and Tag Heuer, earning him a level of insight like no other. We flew to Zurich, Switzerland to sit and chat with Mr. Biver about his prolific career.
We would be remiss not to begin with asking you about the recent interview you did with the Wall Street Journal, which has gotten a lot of the watch industry talking…
Yes, I saw it only this morning. Not many people in Switzerland have talked about it, because we don’t read the Wall Street Journal here… [Laughs]
No, I’m only kidding. Honestly, nobody said a word to me except Anton Bally, the former boss of ETA, who sent it to me this morning. I knew it was coming out because the journalist had interviewed me three or four months ago for a few hours.
So, let's talk about what you raised in the interview: the Swiss watch industry is under threat, why is this?
Well, let’s start with luxury. For most people, luxury means tradition, it means culture, art and heritage. People want to understand what the heritage and culture of a brand is. There is another mentality coming in, which is through hip-hop culture and streetwear, which many people wouldn’t consider to be ‘luxury’, but it can also be and it can influence luxury. Today, there’s a new generation of millennials who feel much closer to Hiroshi Fujiwara in Tokyo, than to what we have considered ‘luxury’ in the 18th or 19th century.
So, would you say that the modern definition of luxury is in a period of transformation?
It’s definitely changing, of course. With every new generation, there comes a new perception of luxury. We cannot impose our definition on them because then we are in conflict. The younger generation doesn’t want to look like mama and papa [laughs].
Millennials have innumerable reasons to reject our perceptions of luxury, but understanding this is part of the reason Hublot became so successful. In 2004, Hublot was the first watch brand to bring luxury down the street, telling the younger generation that watches didn’t have to be boring. Most of the people who are managing luxury brands are from the older generation. It would be interesting to know the average age of CEOs in the luxury watch industry, I’m probably the oldest [laughs].
How do you overcome that problem of remaining relevant to younger generations, being somewhat disconnected from it?
Well, the difference between other CEOs and I, is that I believe I’m old, and because I know that I’m old, I do my best to stay young. There is only one solution to remaining young, and that’s to listen and learn from young people. There is no positive to thinking young people don’t understand, trying to tell them what they want. I learn a lot from my 18 year old son, who has been teaching me since 2010 or 2011. I had been to Tokyo 114 times, and when he took me around the city, I saw a completely different side to it.
It’s incredible to think of all the things that are hiding in plain sight in cities around the world…
My wife said to me, “Why do you go to Tokyo for Christmas with our son, you’ve been there 114 times?” and I told her, “I go to Tokyo with our son to get to know the millennials’ Tokyo.” We did the same in London, he brought me to all of these places that I wouldn’t have previously known about, like Supreme, Dover Street Market, etc...
He did the same with Cara Delevingne, because we were sitting in a restaurant and he pointed her out, telling me all about her. I made a note in my little notepad, made a phone call the following Monday and we brought her into Tag Heuer.
Is this what lead you to developing the youth advisory board?
Yes, we test everything with them, products, advertisements. This has helped us a lot, and is why we are so advanced on social media, I mean, Hublot is number one on Facebook with two million followers, because we’ve been there since 2004.
Let’s talk about smartwatches and the challenges brands are facing…
"So, if Apple sells 30 million watches, they have just told 30 million people, “Hey guys, there’s something you can wear on your wrist that gives you information.” When they do that, it makes our job much easier to sell to those 30 million consumers, a quality Swiss-made watch."
Are the problems you faced with Blancpain during the quartz revolution in the late 1970s comparable to the issues brands are battling with smartwatches today?
Not exactly. In those days, the battle between quartz and mechanical was quite different because a lot of people believed that quartz would entirely replace mechanical. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the criteria which determined the quality of a watch was largely down to its accuracy, so when this incredibly accurate technology came along, which mechanical could never compete with, it shook things up. Today, the smart watch and the mechanical watch can coexist.
Well, they aren’t competing because one is technology, the other is mechanical. Technology means obsolescence and the other means eternity. Obsolescence can never compete with eternity… [laughs]
Are they really not in direct competition with one another?
No, in fact, I said to a Swiss journalist this morning as a joke, that we should pay Apple $1 for each watch that we sell, because Apple is doing such a huge job in promoting watches [laughs]. A lot of people say that its not a watch, but to them I say, “As long as you wear it on your wrist and it has information on it, it’s a watch.” A watch is just a bracelet with information, It started with just hours and minutes, and now its your heartbeat, messages, everything.
So, if Apple sells 30 million watches, they have just told 30 million people, “Hey guys, there’s something you can wear on your wrist that gives you information.” When they do that, it makes our job much easier to tell those 30 million consumers, “Hey, you can also buy a quality, Swiss-made watch which has information on it; simple information, but crafted with soul.”
There is something quite soulless about the device itself, when you consider laptops, iPhones and Apple Watches…
Definitely, but take this as a comparison. How do you sell a beautiful pair of Berluti shoes to someone who has never worn a pair of shoes in their life? It’s nearly impossible. Now, consider selling those same shoes to someone who has worn Nike shoes their whole life, it’s much easier. You’d say, “Listen, you had great Nike shoes, but now we have leather. Smell, look, feel, try.”
So, you see Apple and their smart-watch as a means of introducing new generations to watches…
Yes, it makes people conscious. Who did this before Apple? Barely anyone talks about this in Switzerland, but it was Swatch. In the 1980s, Swatch put a watch on the wrist of every child, with some even owning three or four. A Swatch could be blue, green, yellow, whatever, it represented the joy of life. Swatch made these watches fashionable and then when they were 30 or 40 years old, it was an easy decision for them to by an Hublot, TAGHeuer or Rolex, because watches had been in their consciousness since they were ten years old.
Given that Swatch is a brand who lead the way as far as collaboration goes, how important is collaboration and customisation to the consumer of today?
Is there a risk with brands doing too many collaborations and customisations that it could dilute the brand’s identity?
No, I don’t think it’s a risk. The dilution comes when partnerships are not in coherence with the overall brand message.
"We like to be considered as our own person and not just one of the masses, so consumers look for products that speak to that."
So they just have to make sense…
As long as you have a common message and as long as there is coherence, you can have ten partnerships, it doesn’t matter. How many partnerships has Nike made, how many outlets do they have, how many sports are they involved with; they’re even branching-out into other areas outside of sport.
So the challenge is in making sure you, as the brand owner, understand the DNA of your brand before making these partnerships…
What do you make of things like Nike iD, where the brand allows you to configure and make your own?
It’s the future, because consumers are looking to show their individualism. We like to be considered as our own person and not just one of the masses, so consumers look for products that speak to that. You buy a car and you get to choose the leather, the stitching, the colour. Nike gave people the opportunity to do this en-masse online, why couldn’t you do that in luxury; the luxury industry should have been the first to give people options to individualise their products in this way.
When you took over Zenith at the start of 2017, what was going wrong with the brand?
There was no real innovation. Zenith in 2016 were promoting a movement called El Primero, which was designed 50 odd years ago. El Primero means first, if you were first in 1960 and you’re still promoting the same thing, are you still first now?
[Laughs] Good point…
So, they got stuck repeating themselves, they were repeating their own history over and over. This information should be available to you in the museum, where you can learn about the history of the brand. The museum is never the one to produce innovation, they do not make the future. Some museums are beginning to connect with the future, presenting new artists alongside the classics, which is absolutely great. To promote the past and the future simultaneously under one roof is everything.
Is this what you set about introducing to Zenith?
Yes, because Zenith were a prisoner of their own history; they didn’t want to open the windows and let some fresh air in. We set about understanding the brand’s core values and we decided that the only way to bring Zenith back was through innovation. Our way of encapsulating the past and the future together was to create a new El Primero with true innovation. We did this by introducing an entirely new oscillator in an completely new case. They asked me, “So what’s the message Mr. Biver?” I said, “The message is easy, you were the repetition of tradition, I am the innovation of tradition, so we will innovate within it, not destroy it.”
How was the development of the new oscillator, we must admit that the physical mechanics are near impossible to understand…
It was easy to do. I mean, [laughs] it was maybe not so easy to do, but for me it looked quite straight forward. I obviously have the advantage of a large R&D team in my watch division though. I said to my team, “Ok, let’s give something from our files to Zenith.” And with that, it was done.
Do you think there are more brands which are suffering the same problem?
I think so, especially when a brand has enjoyed a brilliant past, because it makes them stick to the comfort of history.
With that in mind, do you see ‘Swiss made’ as still being relevant to today’s millennials?
If it isn’t relevant to the new generation, then we should educate them as to why it is. If you buy a Ferrari, you can go to Maranello and see how the stitching of the leather in your seats is done. If you buy an Aston Martin you can go to Birmingham to see all manner of processes. It’s a question of education, as long as you know how to educate properly, you can stir-up the same feelings and interests. Not everyone has a high level of sensitivity to the differences between the quality of two pieces of leather, quality of stitching, that kind of thing.
There’s quite a big difference between low and high quality materials and processes…
It’s a question of culture, it’s important to maintain what Swiss made means.
Speaking of Swiss made, tell us about your cheese farm…
I bought it in 2003 and began making cheese in 2005. It was a decision I made out of nostalgia for my first days in the watch business. When I started working with Audemars Piguet in 1975, I was told to spend a year learning. I was learning about the brand, about the history of watchmaking, taking half a salary, buffeting about the building from department to department. I learned a great deal from the watchmakers while playing football with them; I learned a lot about their mentality. I was also in the Skiing team of Audemars Piguet; of all the marketing team, I seemed to be the only one getting involved.
These guys taught me about their lives in the Vallée de Joux, where they came from. They taught me about cheese too, because they told me, “You know, in this valley, we were all making cheese before we were making watches.”
Yeah, I mean, this was news to me at the time. They showed me all the chalets where cheese is made and I decided that I would one day own a farm and produce cheese.
"They approached cheese farmers and said, “In winter, you don’t have a lot to do, so if I give you some wheels, can you polish them?”
So, where do the two industries connect?
Well, the French came to Switzerland because they were chased-out in the 16th century; an easy choice of where to go because of the shared language. These horologists discovered that there were no watchmakers to work with them locally, so they set about training people. The challenge was to find the right people for the job, so they looked at local industries for a mentality which would be ready to welcome their art. They needed people who had a hands on approach and patience; people who had a certain genius about them.
They needed to get this type of brain from people who, in those day, were poor, who were cut-off from the world and concentrated solely on their craft in isolation.
So, they approached cheese farmers and said, “In winter, you don’t have a lot to do, so if I give you some wheels, can you polish them?” These farmers were so patient that they did it to absolute perfection and when the horologists returned in Spring they said, “Ok, you’ve polished 500 wheels, here’s 500 cents.” Slowly, these families of farmers were producing more and more, and because it was financially advantageous they began working through their busy period too.
And it unfolded from there…
Exactly, then you have individuals in the family going it alone, making that their sole source of income. That farmer’s son would then become a full watchmaker and so on…
So, your famous cheese-cutting ceremony is paying homage to the industry that pre-dates all of what we know today…
100%, it’s not a silly gimmick. It’s to educate people about where we come from. During Christmas time, we send out 5,000 kilos of cheese to our VIP clients, journalists and customers. You get a wheel of cheese, and the story of watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux.
It’s a very novel way to educate people. On a final note, you’ve become a very well known, influential and disruptive figure to the Swiss watch industry, we’re curious if there is anything left on your list of challenges to take on?
Of course. The most important thing that is left for me to do is to give back. Until now, I have built brands, but the final challenge is to teach people how to build when you are no longer there.
If all that I have achieved has only helped me, then it isn’t so important, but if it can help others on their way to success, then my role is complete. My role will very likely be done in the next six to ten years, when I leave each brand in the hands of people that can run it better than I can.
So, Jean-Claude Biver’s legacy to the Swiss watch industry is building a foundation of understanding based on the lessons you’ve learned over the years, passing it onto the next generation of CEOs…
Yes, that will be my last professional duty.
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