PARIS — Jean-Claude Biver has put two major watch brands on the map: first Blancpain and now Hublot, where he is chief executive officer. Hublot is showing its latest collection at Baselworld, the timepiece trade show that began Thursday. One of the first people to predict the return of mechanical watches, Biver believes the industry is poised for continued growth.
WWD: You played an instrumental role in helping to spark the trend for mechanical watches when quartz movements seemed to be crushing the Swiss industry. To what do you attribute the continued success of mechanical watches today?
Jean-Claude Biver: The luxury watch is somehow a piece of art and art is not the result of an industrial process, but heritage and savoir faire. Therefore, we will never see a quartz watch keeping its price 100 years from now. And a mechanical watch, like the automat of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, can be repaired even after 300 years, while a quartz watch from the early Eighties is so obsolete that you can hardly repair it.
WWD: Hublot is another in your string of success stories in the industry. What are the most important factors in making a watch company fly?
J.B.: If there were only one factor it would be too easy. The most important are message of the brand, product, distribution, public relations, quality and finally pricing and charisma of the people representing the brand. All these factors need to be coherent in respect of the message of the brand. Everything starts with the message first and then all the other elements must be put into place with coherence to the message.
WWD: Has Hublot’s success exceeded your expectations?
J.B.: “Yes, and by far. I declared in 2004 that I wanted to achieve $100 million turnover by 2008, which was four times the 2004 turnover. We are now at $250 million.
WWD: Why would someone want to buy a Hublot watch?
J.B.: Because Big Bang [one of the brand’s newest, top-selling styles] connects you to the future and it represents a new vision of the traditional watch. If you want to be connected to the past, you won’t choose a Big Bang. But if you want to belong and be connected to the future, yes, then Big Bang is the only product for you.
WWD: How difficult is it to innovate in the tradition-bound Swiss watch industry?
J.B.: You need an innovative attitude. You need to be obsessed with trying never to repeat what’s been done already. It is not so difficult once you have this attitude, but I must admit very few people have such an attitude in our industry.
WWD: What are the real innovations today apart from cosmetic?
J.B.: Materials are a real innovation. Take ceramic. It’s totally antiscratch and antiallergic and 30 percent lighter than steel. Isn’t that a great and important asset for a watch? Then you have the same use of new materials inside the movement. Finally, a new way to design the movement, knowing that the indication of time doesn’t play an important role in a watch anymore.
WWD: What is your main strategy to continue to grow Hublot?
J.B.: Just pursue what we have been doing so far. Be innovative, never do anything that has already been done, be coherent with the message, maintain the best quality and don’t grow out of the market with your prices and, last but not least, keep the market short.
WWD: Which markets are most promising?
J.B.: India, Latin America and the United States.
WWD: Which have shown the greatest success?
J.B.: So far, the United States and the Middle East.
WWD: The world economy seems to be heading into a challenging moment. How do you see this affecting the Swiss watch industry?
J.B.: It will affect, eventually, the low-priced and middle-priced segment. But I believe we in the upper market will be protected. One big difference from the past is that the Swiss watch industry now depends on many more markets than in the past. We are less sensitive to a problem in one single country.
WWD: For a collector, what are the most important aspects to consider when starting a collection or buying a watch?
J.B.: First, buy with your eyes and with what you can spend. As you get stronger and stronger in the collection, you will slowly find your way and adapt your purchases to your concept and your collection.
WWD: Do you collect watches? How do you choose?
J.B.: I buy what I can afford and what I like. That’s it and that’s already a lot because it costs quite a lot.
WWD: What drives a collector?
J.B.: The passion.
WWD: Do you think women are becoming more interested in watches?
J.B.: Yes, why shouldn’t they? But they have their requirements, taste and representation of what a watch should be. In fact, we should adapt better to women and not the other way around. We have a smaller-size Big Bang [38mm] that we’re introducing at Basel. It’s more directed to women, not only because of the size but also because of the materials and colors.
WWD: How has the emergence of luxury groups influenced the watch market today?
J.B.: Big groups have helped considerably to promote our industry and have heavily contributed to make people watch-conscious.
WWD: How do you balance growth and exclusivity today?
J.B.: As long as you grow and produce less than demand, you are safe in the long term. And long term is the only goal that you can have when you are in the upper end.
WWD: What do you think will be the biggest challenges and changes to the fine watchmaking industry in the next few years?
J.B.: To maintain the offer in the quantity and the quality people are expecting.