To enumerate the many achievements of Jean-Claude Biver would warrant more real estate than our magazine can provide, but we’ll attempt a quick recap. Back when the Swiss watch industry was on the verge of retirement at the mercy of quartz technology, Biver bought over Blancpain at a measly sum and penned its motto: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
The counterintuitive move would prove to be a marketing coup and he’d later sell the brand for more than 3,000 times the price he had initially bought it for to the Swatch Group. He would then go on to rejuvenate Omega by aligning the brand with James Bond and Cindy Crawford, but his crowning achievement would be at Hublot, where he brought the brand back from the dead and transformed it into a global powerhouse.
He took on the role of president of LVMH’s watch department, and led the revival of not just Hublot, but also Zenith and TAG Heuer. In 2018, Biver suffered a major health setback that saw him retire from his operational duties and take on a non-executive portfolio. As he recovers, he is slowly resuming his travelling commitments; his mind is as sharp as ever and his ideas fresher than any of the young ‘uns in the industry. We pick his brain on topics as diverse as his own future in the industry and the state of watchmaking today.
About his role post-illness
I will be more of an ambassador for the brands [under the LVMH umbrella, including Zenith, Hublot and TAG Heuer]. I’ll be an adviser, a coach—name it as you want, but my duty is to transmit and to transfer to others my knowledge.
I always said that the day I retire from my operational duties— which I expected to do later at the end of 2019, but I had to earlier because I fell ill—I would devote the last 20 years of my life to giving back.
You can only die rich if you have given back when you’re alive. If you die and you have forgotten or had no time to give back, you die poor. You die like a stone, with no use.
I want to give back to my people, to my brands. We will see. I say that because we will see if that’s enough for me. Maybe I would like to give back to others also. I have invested in a company that supports and helps young entrepreneurs; I wrote a book for young entrepreneurs at Harvard, where I give lessons every year. The future is about the young people, and to help young people conquer and shape their future with success is a great challenge for me.
About the state of the watch industry
A few years ago, we had a colossal asset: Swatch. From 1980 onwards, Swatch has put at least one watch on the wrist of every child aged five to 15. We taught the young generation born in the 1970s and 1980s that the watch is fun, it’s fashion and you can own more than one. They became watch conscious as a child, and when they turned 28 or 30 years old, when they got engaged or married, it was natural to buy a watch.
But what about the next generation? Are they prepared to wear watches every day? No! They don’t wear watches. Apple watches are hugely successful, but 14- to 16-year-olds don’t buy Apple watches. This is my biggest concern. How do we prep this
generation to become watch conscious? If they have never bought a watch before, how will we convince them to buy a watch later? And who is doing this job? Which brand? No one. We are all in luxury and selling to people who are 30 plus.
About keeping older collectors happy while attracting the new generation
It’s tough because you speak two languages. You speak to collectors and to the next generation. The problem is that very often, brands say that “we do not have enough budget for our customers who can buy, why spend on customers who can’t buy? Let’s wait until they have buying power, then speak to them.” They ask me, how come you speak to people who don’t have the buying power? How come you spend money on football [Hublot is a sponsor of the World Cup] to so many people who can’t buy? I say yes, they cannot buy, but they can buy tomorrow. So I am spending money for tomorrow.
About what the next generation wants
They don’t care about movements or grand complications. When a customer buys a watch, do they really care about the movement? Will they ask how many jewels are in the movement? Or the frequency?
No, the movement is not essential for them.
They don’t have the culture or the education—we [the watch industry] don’t speak to them so they don’t know. It’s good to have an in-house, quality movement, with five years guarantee. But it’s not relevant! Professionals might know, but the general customer doesn’t.
About the biggest lessons learnt
Never be arrogant. Complacency makes people become arrogant. We must never forget the saying from Tibet: when you have reached the top of the mountain, go on climbing because there’s no top.
Never change your personality. Many people change their friends when they’re successful—they dress, live differently. Stay who you are and remember where you came from.
Stay honest. Don’t look for money, it will come if you behave!
About merging the dates for the two watch fairs, Baselworld and Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie, in 2020
To announce that the fairs will be one after the other in April 2020 is a half measure. Number one, the fair is late. If you celebrate novelties for the year 2020 and you show them at the end of April, you only have six to seven months left until Christmas, which means brands have seven months to deliver novelties before the end of the year.
Second, the fairs are not on the same dates. If you want to travel clever, you will go to the last two days of the Geneva fair and the first two days to Basel. But everyone will be clever and everyone will do that—so what are we going to do for the rest of the time? My belief is that there is a lack of understanding.
I don’t know about the future of LVMH at the fair, but I will say to them what I have just said to you.
For big brands, fairs are not necessary. For smaller brands, yes. They save the travel cost and four days in Basel puts you in contact with people. Bigger brands have subsidiaries in most countries and are in daily contact with the customer, so they don’t need to wait for Basel.
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