uropa Star: In 1975, after completing an Economics degree at the University of Lausanne and having settled in the countryside, in the Joux Valley, you joined Audemars Piguet and were appointed sales manager for the European countries, mainly Germany. The watch manufacturer had just released the Royal Oak and some strategic decisions had to be taken that will have a decisive impact on the brand’s future orientation…
Jean-Claude Biver: Georges Golay, the charismatic boss of Audemars Piguet back then, had the courage to launch the Royal Oak designed by the brilliant Gérald Genta. One day, he summoned us. He was worried: this first steel watch, which was totally innovative back then – you could even see the screws on the bezel – had been rejected by most of the markets, except Italy. And on the other hand, he’d noted that Patek Philippe was buying back its old timepieces.
What were we to do? The young generation, of which I was a part, wanted to invest to conquer the future, not bolster up the past. Mr Golay replied: “Ok, but be careful, the Royal Oak must not cannibalise the collection!” We thought that would never happen; at that time sales stood at around a hundred items. But Mr Golay had sensed the risk and today it has to be admitted that in launching its Code 11.59 Audemars Piguet is trying to get out of a situation he anticipated a few decades ago.
“Georges Golay told us: “Ok, but be careful, the Royal Oak must not cannibalise the collection!” He was right.”
That said, the incredible good fortune of the Royal Oak perfectly demonstrates that the greatest watchmaking successes are achieved by immediately recognisable watches. It’s the end customer who feels the need to have their watch recognised by society. That’s a lesson you should never forget.
J-Cl. B.: Omega put me in charge of developing sales of gold watches. At that time, Omega was selling lots of gold-plated products and the danger was that they risked killing off the actual gold products. Gold watches target another type of customer, so they had to be different, truly distinct. So I created a specific department to develop a gold collection.
- An Omega DeVille quartz gold watch, without a crown.
But from 1980 on, the production portfolio was made up basically of quartz watches. At that time, the prestige, the supreme value, was in precision. That was avantgarde! To visually suggest that the precision of quartz was indeed present and no adjustment was needed, we launched a De Ville collection without a crown, a very special watch. That brief period with Omega lasted until 1981, when the “Hayek plan” to restructure the watchmaking industry began. Fritz Ammann, the boss of Omega, resigned and I didn’t get on with the new boss, Peter Gross, who came from the bank UBS. So, I resigned along with the “Ammann bunch” and left without a new job to go to.
And shortly after that the venture with Blancpain begins…
J-Cl. B.: I was frustrated with my time at Omega and quartz watches had little appeal for me, but I was impressed by Lemania, which made the mechanical chronograph Calibre 321, for example – which Omega has just re-launched, incidentally! I also knew that the SSIH had in its portfolio several brands it wanted to get rid of, including Blancpain, which it had bought from Villeret in 1963.
I was friendly with Jacques Piguet, who worked in the mechanical movement workshop belonging to his father, Frédéric Piguet. I phoned him and talked about Blancpain, founded in 1735, which had tiny movements.
- Europa Star 3/1983
Why not purchase the brand? We decided to give it a try, against all current trends. SSIH sold it to us for CHF 21,500. But it came with nothing, all the archives had been destroyed. We set up business in the Joux Valley, on the historic farm of Louis-Elisée Piguet adjacent to the Frédéric Piguet workshop.
At that time, they supplied the ultra-thin Calibre 21 to Patek Philippe, to Corum for its Dollar watches, and to Vacheron Constantin; to Audemars Piguet they supplied mainly the ultra-thin Calibre 71P with a decentralised rotor. At the same time, Frédéric Piguet had signed a contract with Ebel. Pierre-Alain Blum wanted a special quartz movement for Cartier, a better-finished quartz, dressier than current trends.
By accepting that contract, Frédéric Piguet had to lay off watchmakers, but he knew very well that for him, the future did not lie in quartz and that it was impossible for him to compete over any distance with the industrial watchmakers. With the creation of Blancpain, new synergies were able to emerge between Frédéric Piguet and ourselves. Blancpain had to be successful.
And in the context of the times, nothing was less sure…
J-Cl. B.: Indeed, but in 1982 the post-1968 generation was coming into economic power, 30-35-year-olds who’d been influenced by the hippie generation, with strong intellectual propensities, an awareness of values, of the fact that the future is built on and with tradition…
We transformed the discourse of the time, turning communications upside down by talking about “miracle hands”, suggesting that ultimately, quartz had neither a soul nor a future because unlike mechanical watches, it was doomed to obsolescence. With our slogan “Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain. And there never will be,” we were talking about credibility, patriarchal wisdom.
"The new rise of mechanical watches happened in just a couple of years. Judging by the growing success of Blancpain, mechanical watches came back in force from as early in 1982."
Philippe Stern wrote, to congratulate us. That famous quartz precision became of secondary importance. Who cares about ultra-precision to a quarter of a second in everyday life? As a famous Italian retailer explained to his customers: you’re a lord, and a lord doesn’t need the exact time!
But it wasn’t easy. One day, I received a letter from the Fédération Horlogère reproaching me for having said at a Credit Suisse meeting that quartz was carcinogenic, dangerous because of its batteries – it’s true that I’d invented the story of a Zurich doctor who forbade his patients to keep their quartz watch on their wrist and offered them a mechanical watch in exchange (laughs).
And beyond the communications, what was your idea for Blancpain itself, as a product?
J-Cl. B.: I didn’t want to relaunch Blancpain solely with hours and minutes watches. They had to have the traditional sobriety, beautiful finishes, but also additional features. A moon phase was an ideal indicator to our minds, infused with nostalgia and poetry. In the attic at Frédéric Piguet, we found all the tools we needed, unused since the 1940s, to make a day, month, date and moon phase movement. We got to work right away and modified it so that the month changed automatically every 31.
"With our slogan “Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain. And there never will be,” we were talking about credibility, patriarchal wisdom."
Browsing through our own archives, which we’ve just digitised (click here to get access), we’ve realised that the renaissance of the mechanical watch actually happened very fast. Quartz did plenty of damage, profoundly transforming the structure of Swiss watchmaking, but it didn’t reign supreme for long.
J-Cl. B.: The new rise of mechanical watches happened in just a couple of years. Judging by the growing success of Blancpain, mechanical watches came back in force from as early in 1982. Franck Muller was one of the first. Günter Blümlein, who headed up IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre at the time, played a major role, along with others… But it should be pointed out that during this whole time, apart from the Oysterquartz – highly sought-after today, by the way – Rolex, unlike others, never stopped producing mechanical watches.
- Sale of Blancpain to the SMH Group. Europa Star 4/1992
Yet in 1992 you sold Blancpain to Nicolas Hayek…
J-Cl. B.: Yes, I sold Blancpain to Nicolas Hayek at a difficult time for me, a divorce that I was having a tough time going through. The sale took place on 7 July 1992 for 60 million Swiss francs, while Blancpain was making profits of 12 million. A glass of port and the deed was done. The next day, 8 July, I got the whole staff together and announced it.
But three weeks later I was already calling Hayek. I was depressed, I’d lost my love, I’d lost my passion. I asked him to hire me again. Which he did, but he warned me: “You’re going to be frustrated: I’m giving you a challenge, to get Omega back on its feet again.”
At the time, Omega was a destructured brand moving in all directions at once, with obsolete marketing. People’s tongues wagged, they said he’d bought me. But Hayek jumped at the opportunity, because he wanted to hire an entrepreneur. From 1992 to 2001, we had an outstanding relationship, strong and direct. I’d say to him “Let’s take Cindy Crawford” and he’d say “ok” right away. Today, lots of brands are led by technocrats who talk about emotion, but know nothing about the real trade.
"Three weeks after selling Blancpain, I was already calling Hayek. I was depressed, I’d lost my love, I’d lost my passion. I asked him to hire me again. Which he did, but he warned me: “You’re going to be frustrated: I’m giving you a challenge, to get Omega back on its feet again.”
During those years, Omega seemed to grow spectacularly.
J-Cl. B.: At Omega, I was in charge of marketing and products. But otherwise I was still CEO of Blancpain and in charge of SMH (not yet called the Swatch Group) for Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Between 1972 and 2001 Omega increased its turnover from CHF 370 million to 1 billion.
One of the key reasons for this success was the openingup of China from 1993, to which we gave proper status. Until then, all the watchmakers had regarded China as a dumping-ground, but I introduced quite a different policy: in China we delivered the same products as in Europe and the United States. We not only took Cindy Crawford, but James Bond, NASA and Michael Schumacher as well. At the same time as to all the other markets.
But why and how did this extraordinary venture end?
J-Cl. B.: In 1999 I caught Legionnaire’s disease which floored me and in 2001, worn out, I quit my responsibilities at Omega, keeping the others. I became a free agent. But I was no longer a money-spinner; people more or less forgot about me. So two years later, at the end of 2003, I left the Swatch Group completely. But my passion for entrepreneurship was undiminished, and in 2004 I approached Hublot and its boss and owner, Carlo Crocco.
- Drawing by Jean-Claude Biver, 16.01.2019
I knew him because he was the distributor of Blancpain in Italy. He was intending to step down from the operational side of the business a little and devote himself to his major philanthropic projects, especially in India. During our interview I asked him: “What is your message with your brand?” Carlo Crocco replied: “We’ve made a gold watch and for the first time we’ve mounted it on a rubber strap. Its design, that resembles a porthole, is reminiscent of the yachting world, the sea….”
I said to him: “But what you’re telling me there is the product description, that’s not a message!” And I made a drawing for him that any child could understand.
I explained to him that the most important thing was the concept. I drew the sky, and there’s the Earth. On this Earth there are trees, underground there are treasures, oil, uranium, gold. But gold and rubber have never been associated, because gold is underground and rubber in the trees. But they were together once upon a time, before the Big Bang, and when the Big Bang happened, the gold said “I’m going underground” and the rubber said “I’m off to the trees”.
And since the Big Bang they’ve never been together, but you, Mr Crocco, you have brought the gold back from underground, and you’ve brought the rubber down from the tree and you’ve fused them together. And you’ve created the first fusion in the art of watchmaking. And so I’m going to call the brand’s message the “Art of Fusion” and I’m going to call the watch Big Bang.
A child of five can understand it, repeat it, and make the same drawing. That’s the strength of the message, the simplicity of the concept.
And this simple concept of fusion applies to the product, but to more than that…
J-Cl. B.: It applies to everything. You find this duality everywhere: hot/cold; day/night; yin/yang. Always contrasts: Hublot is always about contrasts. Moreover it applies even to life itself: only living things can connect yesterday and tomorrow. Dead things can only connect yesterday and now. So this concept of fusion is the concept of life. When you have a concept which is that of life and what’s more you can draw it for kids, how can you lose! Even footballers can understand it (laughs). Few brands have such a clear concept and that explains the success of Hublot, which is probably the brand with the strongest growth over the past 15 years.
"When you have a concept which is that of life and what’s more you can draw it for kids, how can you lose! Even footballers can understand it (laughs)."
But like with Blancpain before and more recently Hublot, you act by breaking with the past. Yet today, one gets the impression that the watchmaking industry is looking to its past rather than to its future.
J-Cl. B.: That’s because of the millennials. Those who haven’t known the past want to rediscover it. They drive their parents’ 1950s Vespas, they search for photos of Brigitte Bardot…
J-Cl. B.: The oscillator dreamed up by Guy Sémon and his research teams was a real thunderbolt, a whole new direction. For the first time we bypassed Huygens; watchmaking walked straight into the future while remaining in the mechanical sphere. Because the property peculiar to mechanical watches, unlike all the other products, is that its technology may be obsolete, but the product itself is not affected by obsolescence. Mechanical watches are the only objects that come from the past but connect you with the future, with eternity. That said, given smartwatches, there’s no longer any reason to buy a mechanical watch costing CHF 500 that only shows you the hours and the minutes. But for CHF 50, there is. Or for several thousand francs. It’s the whole middle range that’s in danger.
J-Cl. B.: I’ve always invested huge amounts in R&D. I’ve always believed in R&D and I’ve always said: if you do lots of marketing, you have to always bear in mind that marketing is air, it has no substance. Sooner or later, a ball pumped full of air will deflate and fall. So let’s build substance and credibility with R&D, that way the ball will be bolstered up, it won’t fall. As an entrepreneur I think I’m one of the only people who have always thought and said that investment in R&D has to be proportional not to turnover, but to the investment in marketing. But R&D demands patience.
"If you do lots of marketing, you have to always bear in mind that marketing is air, it has no substance. Investment in R&D has to be proportional not to turnover, but to the investment in marketing."
There’s always waste in basic research, you’re never sure of succeeding and quite often, when you’re looking for this you find that. You shouldn’t look solely at the figures. You have to move forwards, sometimes in the dark. And financiers don’t understand that very well, they get impatient, they want immediate results. Without Guy Sémon, a physicist, mathematician and researcher, I would never have succeeded in doing what we did at TAG Heuer, whether the smartwatch or any of the mechanical innovations. He advised me, guided me, right from the first day we met.
Now you’ve arrived at the end of a cycle. Are you ready to embark on new adventures.
J-Cl. B.: Quite honestly, I don’t know what to do with myself (laughs). It’s possible that one day, I’ll have an idea and start off again. But until I’ve had some thunderbolt of an idea, I won’t embark on anything. I still have a little “buffer” of around ten years, and no one’s waiting for me to turn out an extra-flat automatic watch. I don’t want to play that one game too many. OK, I could have gone to see Mr Arnault and told him we were splitting it fifty-fifty and that we were going to launch Guy Sémon’s oscillator under my name. That would have made a sensation, I can tell you! But now it’s Zenith who’s taking care of it and that’s fine. Having said that, if one day you have a really good idea, feel free to come and see me. But I’ll only make a move for something really exceptional.
"If one day you have a really good idea, feel free to come and see me. But I’ll only make a move for something really exceptional."