Jean-Claude Biver: INTERVIEWWritten by Alvin Wong
"The watch is a blessed thing, almost like a religious artefact."
At 68 years old, Jean-Claude Biver still has it in him to stay ahead of the game. His mind is filled with thoughts of what young people wear, the music they listen to, and their social habits. He says that it is his “responsibility” to think those thoughts, which really, isn’t an unfair statement to make. Biver is, after all, among the few venerated authorities that the centuries-old watch business looks to for answers at a time where the young are ditching wristwatches for mobile phones.
Holding court at Baselworld 2018, as he always does with his trademark pounding of fist to make a point, Biver shows no sign of fatigue or waning of passion. As the CEO of TAG Heuer and in his broader role as president of the LVMH conglomerate’s watch division, which includes brands like Hublot and Zenith, Biver may wear many hats and direct myriad strategies, but ultimately it all comes down to one thing for him. “Does the product have a soul?” he asks rhetorically.
“A watch, because of its combination of art, science, engineering and philosophy, belongs to that category of products with soul. And that is why I still believe and am passionate about the business,” he says.
TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 16 Chronograph
The TAG Heuer Carrera collection celebrates its 55th anniversary. How do you make young watch collectors care about a collection that existed way before they were born?
This is the secret of the Swiss watch industry, isn't it? How do you sell a Submariner, a Speedmaster, Royal Oak, or Nautilus? This is the magic of the watch business. It is the only business I know that can sell products that were created a long time ago and are still relevant today. Now, there are brands that try to veer away from classic icons, like Richard Mille and Hublot. It is entirely possible, of course, but these brands will be niche brands. But as long as a brand isn't part of the niche market, it cannot be disruptive – it must get back to the classics.
Some people think that the classic or retro trend is a bit too much.
To be honest, I thought that the demand for classic, iconic models may stop eventually, that people will one day be fed up with them. That is why we inject a sense of disruption without upsetting the balance. You can see it in TAG Heuer’s watches. The TAG Heuer Monaco Bamford is an example of bringing modernity to the collection. The Monaco 1969 is a clear reference to the classic. We are ready when the trend goes either way.
Biver with George Bamford (left), TAG Heuer Monaco ‘Bamford’ automatic chronograph
Does a 30-year-old today appreciate watches the same way as his peers from a generation ago?
I think the 30-year-old of today appreciates watches even more if they 'get' the culture and acquire knowledge. We are surrounded by products that are short-lived: mobile phones, pictures in Snapchat that last 24 hours. Today, everything is for the short-term, for the moment. People see them, and they react, and they forget. When society is living on short-term gratification, there is a need for something that lasts.
How do you keep up with the times?
I stay active because I have a passion for what I do. I have a responsibility to be connected to the future and not to the past. How do you stay connected? By listening to, and learning from the kids. Old people in their 50s and 60s cannot help me. I already know what they know and how they think. If you are 15, then you can help me - because I wouldn't know what these kids know. I not only listen, I learn. And after I learn, I remember.
TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45 (left) and 41
Millennials like to say they value an experience over an actual product. What is your opinion on this?
I agree totally. Back in 1983, I said, "We need to sell an experience to whoever buys a Blancpain watch." People ask, "What experience?" Well, this ‘experience’ is to give customers the feeling that they are buying something that is handmade in little farms in Switzerland. Anything that is handmade has a soul, and a product with soul will bring you happiness. It is a blessed thing, almost like a religious artefact. The watch's only 'religion' is love. This love has been put into your watch by people with passion. That was the 'experience' I was telling my sales people about back in the 1980s.
Read the full interview in the June 2018 issue of CROWN magazine. Subscribe here.
Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.