Time well spent: Jean-Claude Biver on a career in watches
After four decades in the industry, the head honcho of high-end horology says he has no intention of slowing down
When I was a child, my passion was steam machines. However, I quickly realised I couldn't work in a steam-machine factory and my fascination with machinery, gears and mechanical power transformed into a love of watches. When you aren't in the field of your passion, you work. That's why you need weekends and holidays, because those are the only moments you reconnect with what you like. But I don't work – I play.
I got my first job in watchmaking in 1975, as Audemars Piguet's sales manager for Europe. I remained close to the product throughout – for the first nine months, I had no office, no secretary, nor name card. Instead, I spent all my time sitting with the production people, moving from one workshop to another. When you're in sales or marketing, you often miss a lot of information about the history and tradition of your product but here, I immediately got an invaluable insight into the craftsmanship, which made me very conscious of the skill of the people behind it.
After having bought Blancpain in 1981 and sold it to Swatch Group in 1992, then from 1993 managed marketing and sales of Omega as a member of the Board of Directors of Swatch Group, I finally invested in Hublot in June 2004 and joined the company as the CEO. At the time, it was a small company and I was attracted to the family spirit and the freedom to take big decisions. It went from a £20m turnover to the nearly half-billion we do today. We'd never seen a brand grow at that speed, coming from nowhere to be one of the trendsetters in the luxury Swiss-watch industry.
Hublot's success was in creating a fusion of tradition and modernity. This kind of disruptive thinking was very much in the air with the coming of the 21st century. Before then, where could a young man buy himself a timepiece that didn't look like his father's? When we launched the Big Bang in 2005, it created a lot of noise – the name was very appropriate!
I gave up the role of chief executive in 2011 because I thought I would be ready to retire. But I wasn't. Instead, I said to myself: "Why should I retire? I'm having fun, it keeps me alert and connected, and I'm still learning. Why should I stop?" I was offered the position of head of the watch division of LVMH so now, in addition to Hublot, I look after Tag Heuer and Zenith.
Timepieces, especially those that are Swiss-made, have a certain status. They serve as a symbol of yourself and tell people who you are. Nowadays, there's competition from smartwatches – they don't just tell others who you are, they tell you what's happening. I wanted to achieve both with the Tag Heuer Connected – the brand's first timepiece incorporating digital technology.
As the chief executive, I had a choice: do I stick with the old way of making watches or do I add technology? We see this happening in the motoring industry, with brands such as BMW, Porsche, Audi and others creating electric cars. They have diesel, they have petrol and now they have electric models – and why not? The Connected will not have the same life cycle as our mechanical watches because eventually, the technology will become obsolete. That means there's a certain price limit – it costs around £1,000, which is a lot of money, but still less than our other designs. The fact there's someone buying one every half an hour shows people are interested.
Some Swiss watch brands seem to have stopped connecting to tomorrow; they mostly connect to today and yesterday. For me, connecting to tomorrow means I'm alive – in fact, it's the very definition of life.
JEAN-CLAUDE BIVER is one of the leading figures of the Swiss watch industry. As the head of watchmaking at luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, he oversees the brands Tag Heuer, Hublot and Zenith; tagheuer.co.uk; hublot.com; zenith-watches.com