Minutes & Seconds

'Only dead fish go with the flow', says legend of watchmaking world

Despite his already-illustrious career, horology trailblazer Jean-Claude Biver continues to seek to make a difference in the watchmaking industry and the lives of others

Mr Jean-Claude Biver believes a person's life is useless if he does not give back.

"Life has a value only if you give to others," says the 69-year-old, one of the living legends in the watchmaking world.

"I have given back to my family, but I also want to give back to my business. You cannot bring your knowledge, vision and experience with you when you die, so everything must be given back when you're alive. Only then would you have played a role in life," says the voluble man who, among other achievements, rebuilt Blancpain and gave new life to Omega and Hublot.

In Singapore recently for a flying visit, he created shock waves in the industry late last year when he announced that he was giving up operational duties as president of LVMH Watch division (Hublot, Zenith and Tag Heuer).

It was a reluctant decision, one forced upon him by poor health.

"I always thought I was invincible. But my doctor told me, 'What has happened to you is a signal. Your body has talked. If you cannot understand what your body has told you, you may have a problem in a few years. Your body may switch off'," he says.

"I've not been the most respectful guy with my body. But my doctor has been instrumental in helping me understand that I need to slow down," says Mr Biver, who nearly died in 1996 when he was diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia.

Stepping down, however, does not mean resting on his laurels.

"My mission will be to transmit knowledge, experience, vision and success. The success you give to another person is bigger than the success you have with a brand," says the head honcho who gave a dying Hublot - with a turnover of 25 million Swiss francs - such a wondrous kiss of life that LVMH paid almost half a billion Swiss francs for it in 2008.

Mr Jean-Claude Biver (left) turned watch brands Blancpain, Omega and Hublot around, and also mentored top guys in the watchmaking world, including Mr Jean-Frederic Dufour of Rolex; and Mr Ricardo Guadalupe of Hublot. His career is chronicled in The W
Mr Jean-Claude Biver turned watch brands Blancpain, Omega and Hublot around, and also mentored top guys in the watchmaking world, including Mr Jean-Frederic Dufour of Rolex; and Mr Ricardo Guadalupe of Hublot. His career is chronicled in The Wizard Of Swiss Watchmaking: Interviews With Gerard LeLarge (above).

In the river, only the dead fish swim with the current, in the direction of the current and at the speed of the current. A fish that is alive goes to the left and the right of the current, and against the current. I don't want to be a dead fish, I don't want to do what others are doing. All my life, I've always wanted to be first, different and unique.

MR JEAN-CLAUDE BIVER

Known for his ability to spot and develop talent, he has many proteges who occupy top posts in the watchmaking world. Among them are Mr Jean-Frederic Dufour, chief executive of Rolex; and Mr Ricardo Guadalupe, who steers Hublot.

"The success of Ricardo doesn't bring me money, the success of Hublot does. But what I get from the success of my people has a lot more value," says Mr Biver.

The University of Lausanne economics graduate cut his teeth in the watchmaking world doing sales for Audemars Piguet in the 1970s before moving on to Omega.

He sealed his place in watchmaking history when he and Jacques Piguet bought Blancpain in 1981, then languishing in obscurity because of the onslaught of quartz watches.

Naysayers said they were foolhardy, but the duo resuscitated the brand with the catchphrase: "Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be." The brand gained not just new respectability as a traditional watchmaker, but also went from zero to hero, netting a turnover of more than 55 million Swiss francs in just one decade.

In 1992, the brand was sold to SMH Group (now known as Swatch Group) for 60 million Swiss francs.

It was, says Mr Biver, a decision he regretted for some time.

"When I sold Blancpain, I felt that I sold my passion and my people. Of course, it wasn't really true because by selling to the Swatch group, our people had more job security and a better future."

To get his passion back, he approached Swatch for a job. The late Nicolas G. Hayek, who was the group's chairman, agreed, but also wanted him to help run Omega, a brand weakened by the quartz crisis.

"I regretted selling Blancpain, but thanks to this mistake, it opened so many new doors. Selling Blancpain was the biggest emotional event, but it was also the biggest opportunity for me," he says.

Indeed it was. Mr Biver was made international marketing director and put on Swatch's executive group management board.

The maverick more than turned the brand around with some shrewd moves, which included appointing supermodel Cindy Crawford as and turning James Bond into Omega ambassadors.

Against much tongue-wagging, he also led the charge into China.

In just 10 years, sales tripled for the brand. Both Crawford (and now her children Presley and Kaia) and Bond are still successfully selling Omega. The brand is still a favourite in China.

A few years later, he also gave Hublot a new lease of life.

With his track record, it is not hard to understand why, in 2016, Harvard Business School decided to devote a two-part case study to his horological career.

Last year, a Swiss publisher also published a book, The Wizard Of Swiss Watchmaking: Interviews With Gerard LeLarge, chronicling his career.

A charismatic man with the gift of the gab, Mr Biver - who is also famous for making gruyere cheese on his farm in the Swiss Alps - firmly believes that "only dead fish go with the flow".

"In the river, only the dead fish swim with the current, in the direction of the current and at the speed of the current. A fish that is alive goes to the left and the right of the current, and against the current.

"I don't want to be a dead fish, I don't want to do what others are doing. All my life, I've always wanted to be first, different and unique."

Despite the advent of technology and the arrival of smart watches, he believes the luxury watchmaking industry still has a future filled with hope.

"The more advanced technology becomes, the more we will be surrounded by objects that will go obsolete quickly. When that happens, the more we want to be connected with things that are lasting in our life: love and art. Art, including watchmaking, will play a far bigger role than ever before."

Asked how he would sum up his half-century in watchmaking, he says: "I think I did well. I was honest, direct and authentic and I had a certain generosity towards my people. I think mine was a job well done."