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Jean-Claude Biver Discusses Life at the Forefront of Modern Horology

Jean-Claude Biver Horologist

Jean-Claude Biver, man, myth, legend. Other than maybe Swatch Group’s Nicolas Hayek, there’s no more influential figure in modern watchmaking. Hell, the man pretty much shaped the watch world as we know it and in some cases, loved it. But rather than simply pen a retrospective of Biver’s life, which still certainly makes for an epic yarn, we thought we’d talk to the man himself to get a first-person perspective on an unimaginable career – one that started, back in the 1970s. Having just finished a degree in economics at the University of Lausanne, in between bee-keeping and hiking Le Vallee Joux, he met a certain Georges Golay, who had a proposition for him: to join him at Audemars Piguet.

“When I joined AP in 1973 I had no idea about the watchmaking art,” Biver reminisces. “I’d just come out of university, I was 23, 24 years old. The boss told me, if you want to join us, the first thing you need to do is come every day to the factory. For one year you’ll have no office, no desk, no secretary, no travelling. The only thing you will do is to go see each watchmaker for a week and see what he is doing. This is how you will learn what watchmaking is about. Oh, and you’ll be on half salary as you’re still learning.”

Jean-Claude Biver Audemars Piguet 1970s

Jean-Claude Biver during his time at Audemars Piguet, 1970s

It definitely wasn’t what a guy like Biver would want for himself. He’s a man of action if ever there was one and sitting still, watching other people work must have sounded like torture. “I thought it was stupid! I didn’t want to sit next to people for a year, I wanted to work! Nevertheless I accepted because of the brand, the company. And over nine months I discovered the watchmakers’ mentality, their way of living, their friends, their families… I discovered cheese! I discovered the forest and the whole world that’s surrounding the watchmakers. I came to understand the art.”

It was that understanding that led to passion that led to one of the most effervescent advocates for fine watchmaking the world has ever seen. So when he was sent out on his first foray into selling watches in Germany, it wasn’t any surprise that he came back with more interest than ever before. How he did it however, was pure Biver.

Jean-Claude Biver Blancpain
Jean-Claude Biver Switzerland

“I said, ‘I will not come with a collection. I will just come and talk, to say to the people that I have nothing to show you. I will explain the concept of Audemars Piguet and if you understand, next time I’ll bring some actual product.’ They thought I was insane! This was in ’73 and it gave me the reputation of a passionate lunatic. I’ve never changed since!”

Biver quickly established himself a reputation for being the larger-than-life dose of charisma Audemars Piguet needed. And yet, that was just the start. Biver’s first major contribution to the watch industry happened when he and close friend and movement-maker Jacques Piguet hatched a plan to start their own watch brand. Or, that should be, restart, as in 1983 the pair paid 21,000 Swiss Francs for the name Blancpain.

“It came with no houses, no investment, nothing! Just the rights to the name. It was a lot of money for us, but we knew one important element that probably the sellers didn’t know: the brand was first registered in 1735, which means Blancpain is the oldest watch brand in the world! That’s what we bought, the date that watchmaking started in Switzerland. Because of that value we built a concept about 1735 – that we will never produce quartz that we will only stick to pieces of the watchmaking art.”

Blancpain Advert

Blancpain advert from the 1980s, image credit: Ad Patina

The campaign itself was a masterstroke: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” It was clear, succinct and spoke to the craft behind fine watchmaking that Biver was so in love with. It was also the clear antithesis to quartz, which at the time the industry was all over.

“People didn’t understand in the beginning,” says Biver of the wider watch industry. “Everyone was talking about the quartz revolution, about how mechanical watches were over and that technology was the future, batteries were the future. The whole industry was doing full speed to quartz and selling mechanical movements for nothing. They didn’t know the value of these movements.

“I have one of the first quartz Omegas from 1978. One day my son saw it, asked if he can wear it and I gave it to him but it didn’t work. I tried to change the battery, but it was impossible – the old ones had become obsolete and you can’t find them! Watchmaking on the other hand is an art.”

Jean Claude Blancpain 1984

Jean-Claude and his team at Blancpain, 1984

We wouldn’t be talking about this if the campaign wasn’t a success. In fact, the meteoric rise of Blancpain netted not only an incredible amount of growth, taking the brand from nothing to sales of over 55 million Swiss Francs in less than a decade, but Biver and Piguet also received a congratulatory letter from Thierry Stern. When Patek are saying well done, you’ve done something very, very right.

It was so right in fact that in 1992, after 11 years running Blancpain, Biver had turned it into a machine that was gaining some serious interest, particularly from one Nicolas Hayek, the aforementioned CEO of Swatch Group, who in 1992 bought the company – something Biver immediately regretted.

Michael Schumacher Omega
Cindy Crawford Omega

Michael Shumacher & Cindy Crawford, Omega’s first watch ambassadors

“My wife divorced me,” he says, getting the quietest he’s ever been during the course of the interview. “It was the first defeat in my life and I couldn’t cope with it. So, I took the sad position to sell. I was depressed and I sold. But it was also the best medicine I could have taken! I called Mr Hayek and said, I want to work! I wanted to go back to Blancpain. He took me on but told me that it wasn’t just for Blancpain… but for Omega. Omega!”

Could he make lightning strike twice at a brand that had crippled itself during the quartz crisis? Yes. Yes he could. In eight years, Biver took Omega to over one billion Swiss Francs in turnover. In the process, he brought on board Cindy Crawford and Michael Schumacher as two of the original watch ambassadors. He also took on Bond – though it wasn’t actually his idea.

Jean Claude Biver Hublot

Jean-Claude Biver during his time as Hublot CEO, 2000s

“It was actually a young assistant from Omega that told me to take on Bond. I didn’t think young people were interested, but he insisted we go to LA, to Universal Studios and EON. We took a plane out there and I realised we could be one of the main sponsors. That there was a real collaboration. We went around the world with the movie and had the rights to do an advertisement with an attractive picture of Pierce Brosnan. We got a lot out of mileage out of it!”

Of course, it couldn’t last forever and after a serious, near-death health scare and a new wife that was urging Biver to take things easier, in 2004 Biver left Swatch Group. But this being Jean-Claude Biver, it wasn’t long before he had the burning desire to get back to work once again in fine watchmaking – and then he joined Hublot. With a Big Bang.

Hublot Big Bang Original 44mm

Hublot Big Bang 44mm, originally released in 2005

“I was impressed by the fusion in Hublot watches. They mixed steel and rubber, gold and rubber, the style of the watch made me think, wow, that’s something I can develop. So, I bought some shares and took over the management. We worked on that principle of fusion, sour and sweet, hot and cold. Nobody had used this concept in watches before. I also brought out the Big Bang, with its phenomenal name! And in [2008], we sold for half a billion.”

So not only did Biver make lightning strike twice, he did so three times and at every step of the way changing the watch industry. He was instrumental in emphasising the artistry and prestige of mechanical watches; he began the ambassadorial relationships many brands rely on today and he developed one of the most important pieces in contemporary watchmaking in the Big Bang. And now, after all that time he finally has something to really show for it: his name on a dial: JC Biver watches.

Jean Claude and Pierre Biver

Jean-Claude Biver and his son, Pierre Biver

“It’s a great responsibility, a great emotion – but it’s not one that comes free of charge. If we do something wrong, it’s my name on the dial! I also have the privilege to work with my son. I will be 75 soon and it’s time for me to give back. I’m not ready to die but you never know! I might only have ten, 20 years to go and the idea of bringing my family on board is something that excites me.”

Given that his son worked at Phillips and has the kind of classical tastes that JC Biver watches is leaning towards, it turns out Pierre Biver was the perfect partner in the family business. And so far, the results have been impressive. JC Biver watches are up there with the serious independents, selling their initial prototype at auction for £1.3 million, from a retail price just over 500,000. That alone shows that there’s more than a name to love here.

Phillips JC Biver 0000 Prototype

Jean-Claude Biver’s 00/00 prototype which sold for £1.3 million at auction

“We master the parts of the watch that aren’t visible. There’s no reason screws and small, never seen components should be black polished. It takes time and cost. But we do! We made 15 watches this year, next year will be 30. We go to extremes to make our watches perfect!”

Biver’s certainly in good company. He’s a fan of those watchmakers in pursuit of perfection, your F.P. Journes and especially Rexhep Rexhepi – “he’s going to be huge! I don’t doubt it.” And with 15 watches built this year, an aim of 30 next year, you won’t be seeing a JC Biver watch on every wrist. Hell, you might never see one. Just like Biver himself, they’re obsessive, impressive and one in a million.

Biver Catharsis Only Watch 2023

Biver Catharsis for Only Watch 2023

With all that behind him, is there one lesson Biver has learned from all his time in the watch world? “Be patient! Take your time! It’s an important lesson to learn and one that I still have trouble learning, but I know I have to learn it!” As might you, if you actually want to own a JC Biver watch.

More details at Biver.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.