Watch industry legend Jean-Claude Biver teams up with son to unveil namesake watch

He shows no signs of slowing down despite announcing his retirement in 2018.

Biver played a pivotal role in resurrecting the Swiss classical (Photo: Shahrill Basri/The Edge Malaysia)

The major lesson of a crisis is after the storm, the sun comes up and that’s okay as long as it comes with no major damage like the loss of a life. Then, it’s a different story,” declares Jean-Claude Biver, a Swiss watch industry legend who has helmed Blancpain, Omega, Hublot and TAG Heuer. Before announcing his retirement in 2018, the position he last held was head of the watches and jewellery division of the LVMH conglomerate.

It was early February and the heavy clouds in the city were threatening to rain. From the hotel lounge window where we were seated, we could see the traffic building up along Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. It was my first meeting with the man often hailed as the saviour of the Quartz crisis. He was in town for one night only. The 73-year-old sure has the energy and fire to keep going, come what may.

“When crisis looms, one must already be prepared for the good days that are coming. People often rubbish it but it is my guiding light, although sometimes I just don’t have the strength,” admits the man who often turns to the Bible for God’s promises and guidance.

Biver played a pivotal role in resurrecting the Swiss classical, handmade mechanical watchmaking tradition when he and Jacques Piguet purchased the rights to Blancpain, Switzerland’s (and the world’s) oldest watchmaker brand. With the rise and rise of quartz watches in the 1970s, Blancpain and everything it stood for was rendered obsolete, but a revival by Biver and Piguet in the 1980s gave it — and the Swiss watchmaking industry — a new lease of life.

Given his watchmaking lineage, Piguet was focused on manufacturing while Biver took care of sales and marketing. The company was sold to what is now known as the Swatch Group for US$43 million in 1992, a far cry from the US$16,000 they paid to purchase the bankrupt brand a decade earlier. Biver cemented his reputation as the man with the Midas touch. Another case in point: the revolution of Hublot from a virtually unknown brand.


Coming out of retirement


Biver and his 22-year-old son Pierre (Photo: Jean-Claude Biver)

Biver shares that upon his retirement, he was starting to miss the meetings and work trips. “I had time to do nothing but was regretting the non-activity. I was not bored because I was travelling, did some sports and found activities to occupy my time but felt something was missing. I learnt very quickly that you cannot retire from your passion.”

He has been in the watch industry for almost 50 years and feels “I have been protected by God to not fail”. It is time to take in young people and educate and help them to find their way around the industry. His young person of choice was none other than his 22-year-old son Pierre. “We started this together in 2021, but the idea had been on my mind for over two years.”

They roped in the best of the best from the industry, who are masters of making the finest dials, hands, bracelets, cases and more to create what they call “museum-quality pieces of great prestige”. Before there was the manufacture as we know it today, there were independent watchmakers. Biver and his son are going back to the roots of watchmaking, inadvertently reviving the établissage, the practice of outsourcing components and assembling them centrally.


Making his mark


The Carillon Tourbillon Biver in titanium with sodalite dial (Photo: Biver)

What better way to mark Biver’s big comeback than with a complication that is very close to his heart — a minute repeater — the cornerstone of the JC Biver brand? The Carillon Tourbillon Biver in titanium with sodalite dial, or in 5N gold with silver obsidian dial, is a beautiful legacy he is creating for watch collectors. Contemporary yet steeped in heritage, the watch neatly encapsulates the brand personality of both father and son.

They have made the minute repeater contemporary by adding a third hammer to create a sound unlike anything collectors would have heard before. Opting for a tourbillon with a titanium cage proved to be a real challenge to decorate, even though it is lighter. It is no different for the domed stone dial in sodalite, which is difficult to make due to its wafer-thin material.

Even the smallest parts are finished off with the highest standard of artistry — all in the pursuit of perfection and the painstaking process of watchmaking.

“We challenged our partners to develop techniques for decorating certain parts that were originally not designed to be decorated like the underside of the bridges, for example. It is carefully hand-grained, which is very rarely done,” he reveals. Having said that, the watch is designed to be worn every day.

At the heart of it all, Biver’s intention was to attach spirituality to the brand. “I want it to have a soul. And who gives this soul to a watch? Definitely not a machine but a human being who is working with his eyes, fingers, hands and skills. You can’t work without leaving invisible traces on the product. You can see the soul and you can feel it.”

Hence, the selection of natural headstones he has incorporated into the watches. Biver wants this age-old belief to live on among his collectors. “For thousands of years, people carried gemstones to ward off bad luck and to heal. The sodalite offers emotional balance, courage and clarity, while silver obsidian is comforting, very stimulating and promotes optimism.”

JC Biver watches will retail at The Hour Glass, the primary port of call for all watch enthusiasts and collectors alike.


The great awakening


Silver obsidian hardstone dial is paired with 5N gold in one iteration of the watch (Photo: Biver)

In recent years, Biver admits to having become more spiritual. “I have developed, with my age, a certain view of life. I have always been sensitive to spirituality but not in my job. Now, spirituality and work are one because when you’re 70, you have different perspectives than when you were in your 40s.”

And because spirituality and product are intertwined, the watch is more than a watch. “The soul of the watch was always present but I didn’t have the sensitivity to feel it because I was attracted more by what you see rather than what’s not visible. It is only in recent times that I have realised the belief is stronger than what one can see.”

Even his way of working has changed. “Before this, I had to master rationality. That was the name of the game. Be rational, they say. Follow the goals. But now, I want to master the irrational elements. Spirituality is not rational because rationality is easier to explain,” he preaches.

He has also learnt to get rid of arrogance because one never knows what tomorrow will bring.

“Being arrogant is the beginning of decline,” he states matter-of-factly. “I have learnt to be humble, to respect people who contribute, that suppliers are an asset not the enemy, and to trust and don’t doubt,” he says. He has just given his son the task to organise their first brand launch.


Father + son


A skeletonised iteration of the Carillon Tourbillon Biver, in titanium and 5N gold (Photo: Biver)

The partnership between Biver and Pierre hinges strongly on three pillars: love, memory and evolution. “It’s wonderful working with my son because it creates additional complexity, or complicity,” he laughs. It has been an adventure so far, as the duo share the same passion, problems, doubts and hopes. Biver says their relationship now has a certain depth and strength too.

“I am learning so much from him — dynamism, optimism and innocence. These are typical attributes of the young. It’s so important to always be in the company of the young, it will keep you from getting old!” While working with his son has enriched him greatly, he too gets to add to Pierre’s journey by teaching him the ropes of navigating the industry. Despite appearing to be opposing forces, they complement each other.

“The future belongs to my son. It is my dream that by 2030, he will be running the business on his own with the people he wants to work with. In other words, that will be the end of my active involvement. After that, I want to have a more spiritual involvement,” he remarks.


The big cheese


Biver’s farm in the Swiss Alps produces 5 tonnes of cheese each year but none of it is for sale (Photo: LVMH)

Besides his watch marketing prowess, Biver is also a seasoned cheese producer with an output of five tonnes per year from his farm near Montreux, Switzerland. “I have never sold them because it’s what I call money-can’t-buy-cheese.” But how does one get one’s hands on the precious cargo? “Ask and you shall receive,” he states.

He gives out the cheese as a gesture to promote the region, for charity and as a way to connect with people. Random strangers Biver met has been blessed with the famous cheese appearing at the doorstep of their hotels. According to him, the cheese from his farm is really soft, the melt-in-your-mouth kind and perfect for fondues.

“You cannot appreciate the cheese if you don’t appreciate where it comes from. The people who lived here were farmers first before they became watchmakers. Due to their hardworking and honest nature, the fleeing French Protestants who found refuge in this region started giving them tasks, like polishing watch parts in exchange for little money,” he shares the history of the region.

What are the similarities between making cheese and watches? “These cheesemakers, they do everything slowly and never get excited or angry when doing what they love. They are close to nature and always calm. Watchmakers are the same in many ways. They are patient and take their time.”

As we wrap up the interview, the pouring rain has brought the traffic to a standstill and it is time for Biver to head to the airport to catch his flight back to Geneva. He reminds me of the importance of being in a constant gratitude state of mind.

“I am my own lucky charm. I am lucky to be alive and to have a wife, children, friends and a passion that keeps me going. And I thank God for all that I have. I wish there will be many people who are as lucky as me.”

In any case, what is rain for a man who has walked through the storm?

This article first appeared on Apr 3, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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