Peter Howarth meets Swiss watchmaking legend Jean-Claude Biver to talk tradition, technology and the shock of the new...
Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH watches and the CEO of Tag Heuer, is something of a legend in horological circles. Originally from Luxembourg, he cut his teeth at Audemars Piguet, Blancpain and Omega, but really made his name taking Hublot from a niche enterprise in 2004 to a real contender. He did this by championing the idea of blending contemporary design with traditional watchmaking, at the time something of a bold move for a Swiss watchmaker.
“When you fuse two contrasted elements, when you mix tradition and future – that’s already disruptive,” explains Biver. He says that at Hublot he wanted to give a new generation something different: “A young man in 2005 – what could he buy as a luxury watch that didn’t look like his father’s watch?” He even christened his key piece to express his philosophy: “Big Bang! Because big bang is a creation and a destruction. It’s both – it’s fusion!”
By education an economist, Biver found his way to watches through a childhood passion for toy “steam machines”. In searching for an adult equivalent with which he could play, he discovered watchmaking. Now in his sixties, he is a ball of charismatic energy.
His conversation ranges from how watches were once made by Swiss farmers in the winter months to how he persuaded Luca di Montezemolo, then chairman of Ferrari, to make a watch with Hublot – “I said: ‘You are building engines for the road, but we are building engines for the wrist!’” – to how the introduction of Japanese fusion food by “Nobu” Matsuhisa was symbolic of a wind of change. He is someone who fizzes with ideas and enjoys shaking things up.
Which is exactly what he’s now doing. Though still chairman of Hublot, his new “steam machine” is Tag Heuer, where he is causing waves by suggesting that Swiss horologists need to acknowledge how the world is changing and not bury themselves in the past. “A Swiss watch always had a status,” he says – it tells others about you and serves “as a picture of yourself”. But now, he says, it has competition from “an instrument that tells others not who I am, but tells me what is happening! And that’s the connected smartwatch. It doesn’t talk to others, it talks to me”.
And so Biver has developed a parallel line of cheaper, technological smart watches for Tag Heuer to sell alongside its range of mechanical timepieces. This has led to accusations that he is turning his back on the Swiss-made luxury orthodoxy of his industry. Though everything else in a Tag Heuer Connected watch is made in Switzerland, the microprocessor is not, and so it cannot be sold as Swiss-made. Biver is challenging this technicality with the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry at present. But for Biver, you sense that provenance is not the point. Behaviour is.
“So, what do I want? Do I want something that talks to me or something that talks to others?” he asks. “It depends on the occasion. Maybe in my office I need a watch to tell me what is happening, but tonight, at a restaurant or the opera, I want my watch to tell others who I am. Which means, both [types] can live together. Both are complementary.”
Developed with Intel and Google, the Tag Heuer Connected watch has a host of exclusive features (directional wind and weather monitoring, motor racing, golf and trail walking apps), while Android Wear enables you to access thousands of other apps that you can tailor as you wish. Already the official timekeeper of numerous global football leagues, including the UK’s Premiership, Tag Heuer now kits out all Premier League referees with Connected watches and has even developed a refereeing app for the timepiece.
But, interestingly, when it comes to obsolescence Biver is clear that it’s not the classics such as Tag Heuer’s mechanical Monaco or Carrera that are at risk, but instead it is his new toys that are inevitably destined for the scrap heap: “The Connected watch is due to become obsolete. When? Three years, five maximum. What do I do after that? I buy another one.” By contrast, a mechanical watch “has a life cycle that is close to eternity because it is art. And art will never die”.
It’s a reflection that leads this engaging provocateur to a thought-provoking insight into the age we live in: “Art that is mechanical – like your old Ferrari – can be repaired after 100 years. But a new Ferrari, with microprocessors inside and complex electronics, cannot be repaired – because in 100 years, this technology will not exist anymore.”
Biver’s message would seem to be to enjoy your toys for what they are and what they can do. And embrace change for the opportunities it provides – but with your eyes open.