Known as the man who saved the mechanical watch, Jean-Claude Biver’s philosophical imprint on the Swiss watch industry has been as profound as his business success through the years
Very few individuals can be said to have truly conquered their chosen arena, and fewer still can boast of having saved it from the brink of collapse and transformed it into an intractable industry, come rain or recession. For these reasons, and many more, Jean-Claude Biver is a living legend, so much so that his name has become synonymous with haute horlogerie. Although in his mid-sixties, and rumoured to have considered retirement a couple of years ago, Biver is as prolific as ever; his voice in the market for Swiss watches remains prominent and powerful, perhaps more so than ever before. “His impact on the industry has no limit. He is a big reason why we currently have such a successful industry at all. Without his intervention at that critical crossroads, I would not like to think of where we would be”, said Stephan Heller, CEO and founder of Watchmaster.com, a leading online retailer for Swiss watches.
Biver’s enthusiasm for the art of Swiss watches is as famous as his intuitive marketing talent and tendency towards the unconventional. As such, after pioneering the incredible success of Blancpain, Omega and Hublot, Biver was named the new president of the watch division for LVMH in 2014. This focal position within the industry sees Biver oversee Hublot and Zenith, while also acting as CEO of TAG Heuer.
Jean-Claude Biver CV
Business, University of Lausanne
1981: Despite the business having lain dormant for two decades, Biver and his friend Jacques Piguet bought the rights to Blancpain for 22,000 Swiss francs.
1992: After selling Blancpain to the Swatch Group for 60m Swiss francs (around $43m), Biver joined its management team, which was led by Nicolas G Hayek at the time
2008: Following his success at Hublot, which entailed a fivefold increase in sales, Biver sold the brand to luxury goods group LVMH for over €300m
2014: Biver was appointed as President of the Watch Division for LVMH; he now oversees marketing and sales for TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith
Following the completion of a business degree at the University of Lausanne, it was the time that Luxembourg-born Biver spent in Joux Valley, a small town known as the ‘cradle of watchmaking’, that had the most pivotal impact on his life. Indeed, this period saw the beginning of his career-long love affair with the art. In 1975, Biver started training under the guidance of Audemars Piguet, during which time he gained a deep understanding about watchmaking, as well as various aspects of sales and marketing in the industry. After rising through the ranks to become the company’s sales manager for the European market, Biver moved on to Omega, where he held the role of gold products manager.
Although Biver’s time at Omega was instrumental for his future success as the head of an international corporation, his nostalgia for Joux Valley was too great a draw. So, in 1982, Biver bought the name Blancpain, together with his friend Jacques Piguet. Although it is the industry’s oldest brand, Blancpain had been dormant since the 1960s as a result of the quartz revolution, which had threatened to eradicate the tradition of mechanical watches completely.
To many, it would have seemed peculiar for Biver to abandon a sure thing with Omega for such a gamble – not only had Blancpain been relegated to the pages of history, but the art of mechanical movements and the centuries-old industry which surrounded them was on course to follow the same fate. However, Biver had an inkling that a revival was possible, and there was still a large space in the market for the beauty and precision of traditionally made Swiss timepieces.
Moreover, bringing life back to Blancpain did not have to involve bowing to the trend of the day. As Biver himself put it: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” This has since become a motto for the company. To say that Biver turned Blancpain around is something of an understatement – under his and Piguet’s leadership, the firm’s turnover exploded to €46m and the brand once again competed with the industry’s most illustrious names.
In 1992, Biver sold Blancpain to the Swatch Group (then called SMH Group), which paved the way for a position on the group’s board. While at the Swatch Group, Biver returned to Omega to undertake the task of turning business around for the brand, which was also failing to hit the mark at the time. Biver once again put his marketing genius to work, reviving sales by using the likes of Cindy Crawford and Michael Schumacher for celebrity endorsements, as well as product placements, both of which were still novel at the time. One notable example is his idea for Omega’s now-famous James Bond campaign – a marketing technique that captivated the sophistication of Omega timepieces, and elevated the brand to a new status around the world.
Not satisfied with riding the wave once success had been earned, Biver turned his sights to the then-ailing Hublot. He again worked his magic, and between 2004 and 2007, he increased sales fivefold. His strategy came in the form of creating exclusivity, something that had also worked with Blancpain, whereby he restricted supply in order to create an allure for the timepieces, which in turn increased demand substantially.
With Hublot, Biver created a new concept, known as the ‘art of fusion’, producing the first watch that merged different materials through a unique fusion of gold and rubber. Then in 2005, at BaselWorld, the world’s leading trade show for the watch and jewellery industry, he unveiled Hublot’s iconic Big Bang range. The unconventional design and a completely new type of case construction sent shockwaves through the industry, creating a buzz around the collection that cemented Hublot’s brand revitalisation. A decade on, the Big Bang collection is still a huge success, selling around 44,000 pieces in 2014.
Biver also used the sports industry to successfully carve a new young and global fan base for Hublot through sponsorships with Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and the LA Lakers, among others. Hublot has also been the official watchmaker for Formula One, and was official timekeeper for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, enabling it to broadcast the brand to a worldwide audience. Hublot’s sponsorship of Ferrari, its latest and biggest by far, has already been hugely successful, enabling the two brands to work closely together to reach new markets.
TAG Heuer in numbers:
LVMH 2014 Revenue
With TAG Heuer, Biver may not have the task of brand resuscitation, but along with increasing sales within an ever-competitive industry, this time there is a new challenge on his hands – that of smart watches, a new technology that once again threatens to bring the Swiss watch industry to its knees. Yet, with Biver at the helm, such an outcome does not seem likely. “The Swiss have maintained quality, service, innovation, R&D, investments, and strong distribution and marketing networks. Thanks to these cumulative efforts, they have been able to increase the importance and dominance of the ‘Swiss Made’ label in the upper price segments”, Biver noted.
“They don’t have to worry as long as their products are made for eternity, which means that the watch will be repairable forever”, he added.
Biver wrote in his recent autobiography, The Man Who Saved the Mechanical Watch: “When you produce technology, you are producing obsolescence. Technology is necessarily overtaken every year as new inventions appear. Unlike technology, art never becomes obsolete. A painting by Matisse or Renoir may not be liked by the new generation but it can never be obsolete.” Biver’s point alludes to the very appeal of Swiss watches: although expensive and reliant on old technology, they are still as desirable as ever, if not more so.
“I think that again we have reached a moment where watches are no longer just a commodity, but are something to be cherished and appreciated, but at the same time very functional with a strong connection to their wearer. In addition, over the past years we have all seen that the world is getting smaller, borders and oceans no longer divide us”, Heller explained. “Not only has the world become smaller, but the luxury market for watches is now obtainable for all. It is no longer for a few well-placed shops, but for aficionados around the world.”
Only when reviewing Biver’s career in detail can one can truly understand the impact he has had on the Swiss watch industry. Not only did he save the traditional art from the quartz movement, an incredible feat in itself, but he has also directly shaped some of the biggest names around today. One by one, he breathed life back into Blancpain, Omega and Hublot, forging in them all a solid foundation and making their products hugely desirable once more. “He is the Midas of the luxury watch market”, Heller claimed. “The mark he has made, well, we cannot pay him back, we can only thank him.”
Biver has achieved the incredible, and what was at times deemed the impossible, through an undeniable passion for his industry and a natural affinity for marketing. His success can also be attributed to his deep understanding of the relevance of tradition, while simultaneously appreciating the necessity of change and of reinvention – a successful juxtaposition of old and new that is almost unheard of in most industries. Biver used techniques such as celebrity endorsements, exclusivity and product placement to make people want his products. But along with this, he understood the significance of quality over profit margins when it comes to luxury goods. Maintaining the element of art and finesse, while also responding to novel trends and the desires of new generations, is a rare talent, and one that could be applied elsewhere, should Biver ever decide to turn his attention away from Swiss watches and towards selling the artisan cheese he produces each year.