A handmade watch is a ‘piece of eternity’ Biver tells iW, and as such it will never die.
Last November, Jean-Claude Biver received the 2018 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Special Prize of the Jury for his more than four decades as a leader in the watch industry. While he stepped down from an operational role within LVMH late last year, Biver does still advise the luxury group’s watch brands. He remains President non-executive of the LVMH Group Watch division, and the Chairman of Hublot, TAG Heuer & Zenith.
Biver’s influence on the watch industry is immense. Starting with Audemars Piguet in 1975, Biver then re-founded Blancpain (in 1983) and went on to work at Blancpain, Omega, Hublot and most recently the entire LVMH Group (including Zenith and TAG Heuer). Every brand he has worked with has enjoyed a higher industry standing, greater consumer awareness and stronger sales as a result of his leadership. His well-known love of the industry and of watchmaking has over the years been recognized as instrumental in the growth of fine watch demand across the globe.
International Watch sat down with Biver earlier this year to speak with him about the state of today’s watch industry, about his passion for watchmaking and about his plans at LVMH and beyond.
What is next for Jean-Claude Biver?
I have a contract with LVMH and I’m staying here. I’m chairman of Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. I don’t know when, or if, something will change. For the time being until my contract ends nothing will change.
Do you have any plans to start your own watch brand?
There are rumors that I will start the watch brand, but these rumors have been around for forty years, ever since I sold Blancpain. People might not know that in nine years I will be eighty years old. Is it reasonable to start a new brand when in nine years you will be eighty? When you are twenty-five years old, you have fifty more years to succeed. If you are seventy-one, how many years do you have?
So I don’t think I will start a brand because it would not be reasonable. Once you have succeeded with five brands, and have been in the business for 45 years, you can leave with success. I don’t need it for me. If LVMH wants to start a brand, it’s different.
Your passion for watchmaking is clear. How has it served you?
It’s a big asset. It is a privilege. I wish everybody would have the same passion. The Swiss watch industry is my home. It is where I have succeeded and failed, where I have friends and enemies.
Are you at all worried about the Swiss watch industry?
Not at all. The industry has never been so successful financially. We have seen a lot of restructuring. All the major brands are extremely healthy. I see a lot of great plans and great shops, wonderful distribution networks, and many young people involved. I don’t think I have seen the industry as strong as it is today.
The watch industry has an enormous advantage over others because everybody else today is surrounded by products that will become obsolete – your car, your washing machine – everything will become obsolete. Everything you have will have to be thrown away. But the watch is eternal. It will work for hundreds of years.
The watch is a piece of eternity. And it is also a piece of art. And art is eternal, by definition. We all want to be linked to eternity, and the watch is an extraordinary product because it will never die. There are not many such products, but a watch is one. This is why we call watchmaking an art. An Apple watch, a Samsung TV, these will die.
Does the grey market concern you?
There have always been people who want to sell things cheaply. There is nothing new about this. But who is responsible for the gray market? Look to the consumers, like with the drug market. Look to those who delivered too many watches to the consumers in order to get a bonus, to show they can sell more watches. It’s done by the brands themselves. If you sell to somebody more pieces then they can absorb, you don’t respect your brand.
Will you begin a foundation or charity or a school?
Not the watchmaking school, because I am not a watchmaker. I would prefer a marketing or a commercial school. Or a charity.
How do see the watch industry in five years?
It will fly. The art of watchmaking is eternal. That is why in a watch there is something mystical. It has a soul because it is made by hand. It is made by hands and fingers backed by 300 years of tradition,
Our challenges are the need to teach the young people to wear a watch. But if they have never worn a watch, or don’t you know anything about watches, have never dreamt about a watch, and they don’t know one brand that makes watches, how can you sell them a watch when they are thirty-five years old? So it is important to educate them when they are young. Maybe we’ll do the Biver education center for Millennials…we teach them to wear watches, and then one day teach them to wear two.
Vasken Chokarian is director of iW Middle East