Jean-Claude Biver

He might describe himself as a whole grain rice kind of hippie, but it’s easier to imagine him in the pulpit.

Tall with broad shoulders, Jean-Claude Biver, the head of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s watch division, cuts an imposing figure. He is credited with rescuing the traditional watchmaking industry in the Eighties by reviving Blancpain, a brand laid to waste by competition from quartz technology. Biver also boosted the fortunes of Omega, ushering in the era of celebrity brand ambassadors with the recruitment of Cindy Crawford in the Nineties. Hublot was next, which Biver still oversees along with Tag Heuer, where he directed the launch of the first smartwatch from a luxury Swiss watch brand.

Biver’s recent focus has been the smallest of the LVMH watchmakers, Zenith. The 152-year-old luxury watch brand just developed a new oscillator to replace a system that uses dozens of components, challenging three centuries of tradition. The brand inserted it into a new model called Defy Lab, making only ten watches as it gears up for serial production of the monocrystalline silicon invention.

He spoke to WWD in his sparse modern office at the luxury behemoth’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters in Paris, stressing the importance of being disruptive, listening to younger generations and adhering to the existential philosophy of a brand. He also discussed influencers overtaking celebrities and explained why he’s wary when shopkeepers display their priciest timepieces in store windows.

With pointed hand raps and flashes of boyish enthusiasm, the watch industry maverick delivered his ideas in his signature style — that of a village wise man imposing order on a community’s disparate forces.

WWD: Can you explain your strategy for Zenith and talk about its challenges, starting with the name, which is associated with other companies?

Jean-Claude Biver: Having a name associated with other products is not a real problem in most countries but it remains an issue in the U.S. because Zenith was very well-known for electronic goods, radios and televisions.

Our heritage dates back to the 19th century when there was more of a regional outlook, and names weren’t protected in other countries. So it’s a problem, but not out of the ordinary and not too important.

On the other hand, the notoriety of the brand is weak, because it is a small brand. The smaller you are, the less well-known you are, in general. Take one of the best exceptions: Ferrari. It’s an example of a company with notoriety that is a thousand times more important than its sales.

With Zenith, we’re small and we don’t have much notoriety. Furthermore, its key product over the years, from the 20th century, was the El Primero. There are people who know the El Primero better than Zenith.

We are in the process of rebuilding and giving new impetus to Zenith. Little by little, as we add substance, creativity and innovation, we will compensate for shortfalls in notoriety.

Vision is very important for me, a vision that builds on the past. I don’t want a break from the past, I want continuity. Zenith will build on its history, but we will certainly not repeat it.

If you were to wake up, say, one of the greatest watchmakers in the world, Abraham-Louis Breguet and pull him out of his grave, do you think he would redo things as he did in 1795? Never! He would use the century he has woken up to. He would say, “Wow, you have microscopes! How extraordinary! You have new materials.” He would make use of everything our century has to offer to pursue his art. He would never repeat the past.

Here lies a great temptation: When you restructure a very old business, a very rich one, it’s tempting to redo the past.

WWD: How do the three different watch brands fit together at LVMH?

J.C.B.: Zenith is the future of traditional watchmaking. Accessible, which, in the watchmaking tradition means it’s already relatively expensive. The average price of a Zenith watch is 7,200 euros; Tag Heuer is around 2,800 euros, and Hublot is around 20,000 euros.

The three brands are extraordinarily different because they are positioned at completely different levels in terms of clientele, prices, distribution policies, marketing and message. Someone could do marketing for the three without getting it wrong because they are so different there will be no overlap.

If someone offers to make a connected watch for Zenith, it’s easy to say no because the message of Zenith is the future of tradition. This is not technology, because technology means obsolescence. Color televisions made black-and-white TV sets obsolete. Three-dimensional television will render today’s color television obsolete. Technology advances through what it kills off.

Art on the contrary, is eternal. Mozart’s art remains, Picasso’s art remains. Art brings eternity, technology brings obsolescence, Zenith is the future of tradition, so I won’t go for the connected watch model.

When each brand has defined its message, its existential philosophy, the reason why it exists, it becomes very easy to say yes that’s for me, or no, that’s not for me.

I believe that a brand, if it doesn’t have a message, it doesn’t have a reason to exist. If I say Hublot exists because it makes nice watches and good-quality watches, and because it’s Swiss, that’s not a reason. Anyone can say that.

Hublot exists because it’s the art of fusion. Fusion, which is the marriage of opposites. It’s Hublot that marries gold with rubber. That is disruptive. Before Hublot, rubber was never mixed with gold. In countries like Indonesia, India, or even China, they say what? I’m going to buy a watch that costs a million dollars and it has rubber straps, like a Swatch? No! That’s disruption.

WWD: Are you concerned that the middle-level price range might be challenging at a time when higher-end and lower-end goods seem to be performing better?

J.C.B.: No, thanks to Apple. Because people are wearing Apple, they have something on their wrists. Selling a watch to someone who already has a watch on their wrist, even if one might say it’s not a watch, it’s still a watch. Because you can’t say it’s a bracelet — it wouldn’t have any information.

WWD: What is the definition of a watch today?

J.C.B.: A watch is a tool that provides information that is worn on the wrist. There are two types: a pocket watch, which is a system of information that is kept in the pocket and a watch with a bracelet, that is worn on the wrist.

Whether the system of information gives time or the moon phases, or the day, the month, the date, or text messages, it’s the same thing, it’s just the information that’s different.

For me, an Apple watch is a watch.

As I understand it, Apple will sell 20 million Apple watches a year. They are promoting wearing something on the wrist. Perhaps one out of a hundred Apple consumers will say to themselves, I’d like a real watch, or I’d like an eternal watch, here, I’ve got technology, but perhaps for my 50th or 40th birthday, I’d like something I can wear, not every day, that could remain in my family, that I could give to the kids.

So indirectly, the watchmaker gets promoted through the Apple watch.

WWD: Two years after launching the Tag Heuer connected watch, can you say how it’s doing and share what you’ve learned from the project?

J.C.B.: The connected watch today sells well and has become a bestseller of the Tag Heuer collection. Not in terms of sales but in terms of quantity. It’s not the biggest in terms of sales because it’s a watch that’s not very expensive. It still costs around 1,600 euros, but, compared to the brand’s average price of 2,800 euros, it’s clearly entry price.

Given that it’s the watch we sell the most, I consider it a success.

It is also helped make the brand image younger, much more cool and geared toward technology. And this is as important as the sales.

WWD: How important was it for you to be the first watch brand to jump into smartwatches? Was it a risky move?

J.C.B.: I want to be the first, different and unique. Always. If I am the first, different and unique, in general, I won’t lose.

Of course, if I am not coherent, if I’m the first high-end, traditional brand, doing connected watches, for Zenith, for example, then there’s no point in being the first, different and unique.

If you were to do a connected watch for Hublot, the risk would be major. I would never have considered it, or even for Zenith. Never. It’s as if you offered me a pizza in a 3-star restaurant.

WWD: Is there anything you would have done differently?

J.C.B.: We underestimated the sales, so with the first watch, we missed the sales potential because we hadn’t prepared the right quantity. We had the music playing, lots of music, but then we couldn’t deliver. We got there when the music was over, the drumroll had ended. So we missed the synchronization between delivery and the launching, the advertising, and so forth.

WWD: What is your strategy for appealing to younger generations?

J.C.B.: Tag Heuer is enormously appealing to Millennials. This is why Tag Heuer teamed up with a street painter called Alec Monopoly; Cara Delevingne; Bella Hadid, and Martin Garrix, the DJ.

Zenith doesn’t speak to Millennials. Zenith speaks to young people, between 35 and 45 who are a bit fashionable, who like polished Berluti shoes, who perhaps like old motorcycles.

And then Hublot, it’s [Floyd] Mayweather who’s wearing a Hublot belt with his shorts. It’s soccer. Hublot is Ferrari, we have a big contract with Ferrari. Hublot speaks more to young millionaires.

We are looking for young people who represent the trends of today, but we are also looking for people who manage to influence young people today. The influencer is as important as an ambassador. The ideal is an ambassador that has a lot of notoriety and is very influential. There are ambassadors that have a lot of notoriety, that everyone knows but they influence no one.

So, 20 years ago, we looked especially for celebrities and today these influential people count more than the celebrities.

I listen to a sort of mini-advisory board with an average age of 16. And I have five children. I listen to my 17-year-old. And the 37-year-old, I don’t listen to anymore — well, not for this. Because he is already of a different generation, 20 years difference is the gap of a generation.

My son Pierre, who’s 17, he’s the one who told me Cara Delevingne, three years ago. She was sitting in the Nobu restaurant in London. I said, “Which one is she?” He had to tell me, “She’s the one all the way to the right.” I said, “Oh really? Why her?” “Because she’s influential.”

When you are 69, how do you expect to remain young? I cannot stay young myself, but I can remain young by what I learn.

You have to be humble, curious and listen. And learn. If you have that, you are young. That’s the recipe for youth. It’s not plastic surgery. It’s an attitude, worth all the surgery in the world, it costs less and it won’t disfigure you.

On the 22nd of December, I went to Tokyo with my son. My wife asked me, “what are you going to do, you’ve been going to Tokyo for 40 years? You know Tokyo.” I said, “no, I know my Tokyo.” It’s as if I said I know Paris because I go to the Place Vendôme, the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue Montaigne. But these young people, are they going to the Avenue Montaigne? Do they go to the Place Vendôme? If I want to know the Paris of the Millennials, I can’t know it myself so I have to take a young person and ask them.

So I discovered a new Tokyo. And I learned. We reversed our roles, and that’s completely normal.

WWD: Has the watch industry emerged from the crisis?

J.C.B.: Probably, at least it’s going to come out if it hasn’t already. The world economy is doing better and that clearly will have an effect on luxury.

There was the problem with China and the watch sector because of all the gifting. At first [anticorruption measures] caused a drop in sales but then it cleaned out the market. The market has become more real, healthier, more stable.

Lining up all of these elements, one after the other, means that today we can say the watch industry will, or has, exited the crisis.

WWD: What do you look at for signs of the industry’s health?

J.C.B.: When you’re in a town and you look at the store windows from the outside, you can immediately see the health of the brands. We were seeing watches of high value in the window. Well, normally when it comes to watches of high value, you’ve got one or two that you only show to special clients. That’s my indicator, the sell-out. When sell-out is not good, retailers try to show everything they have in the window. But when everything’s going well, they’ll say to the client: “I have something special for you, something very rare, look! I only have one. The next one I’ll have in four months.”

WWD: Did you have any memorable early jobs? Is it true that you were once a postal worker?

J.C.B.: I worked every night from eight at night until five in the morning. In the daytime I studied. I wanted independence. There were four of us living in an apartment, so I was living in a sort of mini-community and I adhered to the hippie philosophy. I never lost my hippie mentality, in fact. I lost my hair but I never lost my romanticism, my sense of sharing. I didn’t lose my respect for nature, we ate whole grain rice, I didn’t smoke weed, but being a hippie is not a question of drinking or smoking, it’s an existential philosophy.

I worked all night at the post office because I was sturdy and I earned money and that allowed me to be a student with money.

I didn’t want to stay with my parents. And if you’re not with your parents and your parents don’t give you money, well you have one possibility: you quit studying and work. Or you stay at home and study. I said: I’m leaving, I’m studying and I’m working.

I was as the post office at the train station and we had to pull out the postal bags from the trains and replace them with new bags. We worked at night because that’s when the freight trains circulated in Lausanne [Switzerland]. Paris Match came on Thursdays — those bags were heavy because the glossy paper weighed more than newspapers.

WWD: What professional accomplishment would you like people to remember the most?

J.C.B.: My contribution to the development of watchmaking. It would be a dream to be remembered for what I’ve done for my brands. For Blancpain, yes, that initiated the renaissance of the art of watchmaking.

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