Journal
THE LEADING MAN: Jean-Claude Biver
Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of TAG Heuer and Hublot
31.05.2019
Hiroshi Fujiwara and Jean-Claude Biver
Jean-Claude Biver and Cara Delevingne
Jean-Claude Biver and Cristiano Ronaldo
(From left) Jean-Claude Biver, Jose Mourinho, and Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe
Jean-Claude Biver and Bella Hadid
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There’s practically nothing that’s not been said or written about Jean-Claude Biver. To those in the wristwatch industry, this 69-year-old veteran is practically a demigod who turned struggling brands into billion-dollar empires. Fresh from the news last September that he is stepping down from day-to-day operations as the head of LVMH’s watch division, he lifts the lid on his and watchmaking’s future as well as whose idea it really was for placing a wristwatch on James Bond.

 

MANIFESTO: You’re finally calling it a day.

JEAN-CLAUDE BIVER: I’m finally taking a break. My biggest regret is that I’ve never really seen many countries. I travel a lot but for holidays I usually stay at home. One day I will have to really see a country.

M: Are you surprised by all the flattering tributes after making the announcement that you’re stepping down from the operational side of the business?

JCB: I was surprised. I never expected it. That’s because a lot of these people have also been my competitors for the last 44 years. So it’s been quite rare to get so many compliments from your competition. If they’re from friends and family, I would understand so this tells me that I did a good job. (Laughs) I’m still surprised today. I only have one explanation: it is what you get back when you have behaved morally, ethically, and passionately in this business. It is the lesson I want to give to younger people; that when you behave in such a manner the rewards will come at the end of your career. If you don’t, you might just be a lonely person at the end. Never forget to behave like a gentleman.

M: Any regrets in this business?

JCB: I don’t look too far back because when you look back you get old. Nevertheless, if I had a choice to live a second time I hope to be given the same life, with the same doubts, the same failures, the same betrayals as my first try. That’s because everything that has happened has led me to this very day. There is no defeat that I would like to undo as it helped me overcome obstacles.

M: What is your motivation?

JCB: It’s just passion. When I work, it feels like play. If you asked The Beatles if they were working, they would have told you that they were just playing music. Work is only a term you use if it isn’t your passion because maybe you need to bring back food and money to the family.

M: Are you optimistic about the future of watchmaking in the post-Biver era?

JCB: I am. Because the art of watchmaking will develop with more technology we have. I saw a smartphone three weeks ago that allowed you to take a three-dimensional selfie. I was like, “Woah!” The day this technology comes out, the rest of the others will be obsolete because now there is a new demand for this feature. But art will never be wiped out by technology as technology changes very often. We have perpetual calendars and many other complications that are still working well centuries on.

M: Have you mapped out a blueprint for some continuity to help the LVMH watch brands?

JCB: I used to do five-year plans that we usually revise every year. That was what I did and will still continue to do. But there is nothing particular I would change. I’m devoting more time to people, to coach young people and to transfer my experience to them.

M: There is an attraction from the younger crowd with the labels you handled. What is the secret in making it such an attractive proposition to this generation?

JCB: The secret is you must be curious when you see a new trend. You cannot judge it with just your eyes like “Why wear jeans with holes?” or “Why do you want a tattoo?” Just try to learn, listen, and be curious. The characteristics of older people are not to listen and not to learn because they already believe they know. Once you believe that you know better, then you and the products are old.

M: Your son helped you a lot in understanding what works as well. He introduced names like Cara Delevingne, Hiroshi Fujiwara…

JCB: Without him, I wouldn’t know Hiroshi Fujiwara (of Fragment Design). Now we’re good friends. My son told me that Fujiwara is a leader in the streetwear scene. So I had to Google him and I wanted to know more so I made an appointment with him. If I didn’t open my mind, I would have missed it and so would everyone else.

M: Has there been a moment in your career that confirmed you got the management and creative formulas right?

JCB: It was in 1994. There was a young marketing assistant who came to me and said that we should have Omega watches in a James Bond movie. The Broccoli family (the late Cubby Broccoli owned the screen rights to Ian Fleming’s novels) just finished their feud and there was going to be a new James Bond movie with an actor named Pierce Brosnan. It was a new opportunity, she said, to put the watch on his wrist. I said, “Come on! That’s not for us.” I remembered the last brilliant Bond was Sean Connery and no one can replace him. She said I was wrong. She tried three times to convince me and by the third try I said that it might be time to listen. I told her to come to my office and explain to me again why we should do it. I was wowed by her presentation and from then on, any time a young person presents me with a project or an idea, I would listen.

M: Have you ever been starstruck?

JCB: The one who impressed me the most was Cindy Crawford. It wasn’t just because of her beauty; she was extremely professional, simple, humble, and accessible. I always thought that the more celebrity you are, the harder it is to approach and the more arrogant you become. Cindy is the opposite of that. This was my biggest surprise.

M: High-end smartwatches were something that you brought onto the table a few years ago when TAG Heuer launched the Connected. Did that meet with a lot of criticism especially since you have always been advocating for mechanical watches?

JCB: It was a difficult and unusual project. And when I brought it on for TAG Heuer, you needed everyone internally to be on your side. I was lucky enough that most people were in favour of launching the smartwatch for the brand. In our minds, we were all convinced that TAG Heuer should be on that path. Criticism, however, came from the Swiss watch industry. They feel that the Connected watch is not a watch. I somehow agree that it is more than a watch as it gives you a lot of information. A grande complication also gives you a lot of information but you still label it as a watch. So, I think as long as you wear it on your wrist, it is a watch. The second point is that the Swiss watch industry thinks this technology will not last and that we’re only in it for one or two years. I think they are wrong. The Connected watch is part of the future and it has a huge future. But this watch also has huge limits. Its limit is about obsolescence. After three to five years, you have to adapt to a new one. On the other hand, the Connected watch that millions are wearing today doesn’t necessarily give you status symbol. It gives you rational info but not offer the irrationality that a mechanical watch can provide. They have different roles.

M: You commended Apple for giving the industry a watch that people want to wear thus giving a chance for those who have never owned one to start putting something onto their wrist.

JCB: It makes a lot of sense. It is easier to sell a pair of shoes to people who have already worn shoes. The fact that many people will wear a smartwatch – thanks to them – is a big help for everyone. To sell them a real status symbol later would be easier.

M: What would you like to be remembered for?

JCB: To have helped people grow in their roles. When I see how many of them are now in the industry – whether in my brands or with others – it gives me the biggest pleasure.

www.lvmh.com

 

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