TimeZone Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

by Michael Friedberg

November, 1999

MF:  Michael Friedberg – TimeZone.com
JCB:  Jean-Claude Biver

Jean-Claude Biver

MF:   Everyone knows you as the founder of the reborn company. What is your role today within Blancpain and the Swatch Group? How are you currently focusing your time and energies?

JCB:   My role within Blancpain is the role of a managing director. I am involved in the entire process of the company. This includes responsibilities at the board level of Frédéric Piguet (movements) and of Favre & Perret (cases).

Those two companies closely related to Blancpain ensure to Blancpain its independence and autonomy. It is certainly one of the major asset of Blancpain and no doubt that a great part of Blancpain developments has been achieved at those levels thanks to the relation to and with Frédéric Piguet and Favre & Perret. I am also on the board of Omega where I set together with Mr Hayek and Mr Steve Urquhart (President of Omega) the Omega marketing strategy. I am also on the board of Breguet and share the responsibilies with Mr Edgar Geiser (CFO of Swatch Group) of the Swatch Group activities in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.

I am focusing my time and my energies as follows :

  • 55% devoted to Blancpain
  • 15% devoted to Frédéric Piguet and Favre & Perret
  • 20% devoted to Omega
  • 10% devoted to Swatch Group and Asia

MF:   I would like to go back for a moment to the early 1980s. While with hindsight your move was brilliant, did you ever think, “this is a huge gamble breaking away from quartz watchmaking in favor of fine mechanical watches?”

JCB:   We wanted to establish the old name as a reference in the art of traditional watchmaking, at a time when the whole Swiss watch industry, luxury segment included, was switching to the quartz technology. Entire workshops and tooling for mechanical movements were destroyed during these dark years.

Our idea was to save, or more precisely to rescue and to redevelop the traditional watchmaking, in dedicating a manufacture entirely to the mechanical watch and only to this.

To demonstrate our ability to become a reference in the art of mechanical watchmaking, we asked some of the best master watchmakers in the “Vallee de Joux” to produce the six masterpieces of mechanical movement one by one and then all together.

In the early 80’s, the giant technological step of the quartz was bringing accuracy for a very low price. Quality of the timepiece was banalized.

But you cannot erase 400 years of the art of traditional watchmaking.

Our mission was at that time to keep alive and to redevelop the art of watchmaking, and the Art of Blancpain based on the following philosophy :

  1. To produce each and every of the six masterpieces of traditional watchmaking Art :

    • the ultra-slim
    • the moon phases
    • the perpetual calendar
    • the split-seconds chronograph
    • the tourbillon
    • the minute repeater

  2. To focus exclusivity on those movements, excluding for ever the quartz technology, because it comes from a technology and will die with the technology while the mechanical masterpiece is the heritage of a culture, is a patrimony of the Swiss art.

  3. To focus on the basic shape of a watch. A shape that will never be in or out of fashion. The shape every child designs when asked to design a watch, the shape you can see in each church tower if there is a clock: the round face.

  4. Never to repeat history, but to take the tradition, rules, values, of the past and to reintegrate them today in order to bring them to the next millennium.

  5. To assemble, finish each watch only by one watchmaker and to keep the production limited and hand-made.

  6. To have a selective and confidential distribution which should be capable to sell the invisible: the soul of our watches, which is the culture, art, love and perfection of its movement.

MF:   Blancpain in the mid-1980s seemed to have an absolute purity of its line and perhaps a narrow focus. Was this an essential element of your strategy?

JCB:   Absolutely, purity is playing the key role.

The traditional art of watchmaking was always very pure. For centuries, a watch was round, because the movement was round, and every aspect of the time is round : planets, the movement of the planets, the universe itself. The round shape is out of time : it is the time itself.

With Blancpain we wanted to be out of the trends and in the center of the trend. This is why we never had a conventional factory, but an old farmhouse converted into workshops instead.

We wanted only the round shape, and the simplicity of just one model of watchcase to give to the essence of the watch, the movement, the first role. This was the only way to leave the beauty and the force of the mechanism to communicate the measurement of time.

One case, but a complete choice of classical mechanical movements, all providing one or more extra functions in an extra-thin configuration. In every brand, the shapes are giving birth to the collection. At Blancpain it is not the shape that is giving birth to the choice, to the collection, but the variety of the art (the variety of the movements). No concept could be purer than this one!

And every watch is made from start to finish by the same watchmaker.

MF:   In what way has the growth of Blancpain exceeded your expectations ? To what would you attribute Blancpain’s success?

JCB:   Considering today the reasons why one could buy a Blancpain, which are :

  • The oldest watch brand in the world.
  • The only one that makes all the six masterpieces, the reference for traditional watchmaking Art.
  • The only one that makes only round watches, the reference for round watches.
  • The only one that has never made a quartz watch and never will make one.
  • Every Blancpain is still assembled, finalized by hand by one watchmaker at the time.
  • The brand that has made the most complicated watch in the world (1735).
  • The brand that controls its own movements and cases through two of the most famous and well-known suppliers: Frédéric Piguet, Favre & Perret.
  • The brand where the real value is invisible because it is to be found in the soul of the watch: the culture, the art, the love, the perfection of its movement.

I am not surprised of our success. Who can list as many of that selling propositions?

Clearly we will find in those unique selling propositions the Blancpain philosophy to which I attribute the success. Beside the work, the luck and the graceful help got from our retailers, end-customers, watchmakers, suppliers and the little help from God: luck.

MF:   In a sense, your business legacy is allied with the finest traditions of mechanical watchmaking. With the judgment of time you, perhaps more than anyone else, may be responsible for the renaissance of interest in fine mechanical watches. How would you want your role in the Swiss watch industry defined?

JCB:   In the past, there were no plans of technical drawings for the complicated watch movements.

The master watchmakers were transmitting their skills and knowledge only by showing and telling their “novices” what to do and how to do it.

For instance Piguet, at the Vallee de Joux, had plenty of old and very interesting movements, but no technical drawings of them. At Blancpain, we have drawn these plans for the first time, and have been able to gather a very unique collection of “secrets” of the art of traditional watchmaking.

This is why we may consider Blancpain today as the “guardian”, the curator of the most marvelous culture, a true Swiss patrimony: the Art of traditional watchmaking.

Our aim is to maintain the memory living forever, and to give the example of the multiple talents of the Jurassien watchmakers to new generations of watchmakers.

MF:   How has Blancpain been able to reflect the illustrious history of Swiss watchmaking and to innovate at the same time?

JCB:   The best way to respect an art, a culture, is to open it to the world of today and of tomorrow.

The master watchmakers always had to be willing to improve, to innovate, wherever it was possible.

They are still the same today.

In addition to that, Blancpain is not a copy of the past, and it would have been useless to have rescued an entire culture just to freeze it.

On the contrary, we want to give life to the fabulous heritage of the art of traditional watchmaking, to enlarge it thanks to the possibility of today and of tomorrow.

And if, sometimes, a machine tool is better than a man is, it would be a waste of human talent to create a competition between the watchmaker and the very modern equipment.

We must never forget not to repeat the past but to reintegrate it. Only that way can any Art survive. How could anyone copy Mozart or Matisse ? What would then be the contribution: nothing, just a brave copy.

So we are working today with the culture of yesterday, the history of the watchmaking Art of tomorrow.

MF:   Where is the Swiss watch industry heading, in your opinion, as it enters the next century? Do you perceive major growth? New technical developments? Even more of a homage to tradition?

JCB:   Three directions…

  • Tradition – culture
    No major growth, but youth

  • Electronics – features – high tech
    Great potential

  • Fashion industry
    Good potential.

The Swiss watch industry will need a solid industrial base which is provided and granted through the Swatch Group which is also the only Group that can master the three directions.

MF:   After the reacquisition by the Swatch Group, new Blancpain lines were introduced, including the 2100 series and the Trilogy series. What are your views on this evolution and were you instrumental in these changes? Do you anticipate greater breadth in the future?

JCB:   Again, we have to preserve an art, and in the same time we want to keep alive the heritage of this art of traditional watchmaking.

We want to bring new ideas, new ways of sharing the “Blancpain culture” with amateurs of fine mechanical watches. We have developed a clear vision of the future of Blancpain.

The 2100 series is an important step in our willing to open the Blancpain world to people convinced by our cultural approach and having an active life-style.

To combine contemporary values with our respect for tradition, we have blended our typically simplicity of design with strong water resistance to 100 meters as well as a power reserve of 100 hours (8 days for the tourbillon).

The Trilogy, and especially in its “Concept 2000″ version, can be seen as a milestone, a “concept watch” indicating the vision of Blancpain at a time.

These types of models will always be produced in limited numbers.

The core of our production still is and always will be the six masterpieces.

MF:   I would like to continue with the idea that there is a fine line between tradition and innovation. In the contemporary art world, museum curators look for artists breaking out into new art forms, venues and materials. You are know internationally as a connoisseur of fine art and fine watches? Do you consider a fine watch to be a true work of art ?

JCB:   Absolutely.

A Blancpain watch is “passing” a culture, a memory, a part of an époque, like any painting or sculpture, to a spectator, to its owner.

In addition to that, a Blancpain watch is a sign, the contrary of a status symbol.

This sign means that the real beauty is inside. You may not see it, but you have access to it.

The simplicity of the outside is in proportion to the force of the beauty of the movement.

A Blancpain watch is a piece of living culture, a real object of art.

This is also one of the reasons for Blancpain to develop from time to time a “Concept Watch”, a milestone to remember that at a certain period, Blancpain had this step to make to progress.

MF:   Your wine collection is also legendary. Undoubtedly, it reflects a desire to collect something of world class excellence that reflects a long tradition. Is there even a parallel to this and fine watchmaking ?

JCB:   Yes, the parallel with fine wine or better with Yquem is :

  • The memory of time
  • The Art and Culture
  • The Love
  • God

When you drink a wine that is 100 years old, you are drinking the memory of time:

  • How was the political situation of the world at that moment?
  • How was the economy?
  • What were the major events, the major inventions?
  • How was spring, autumn?
  • How did the people make the wine, what were the methods?

MF:   Let me turn to the subject of collecting, which interests many of our readers. You have targeted objects of great beauty and tried to understand them thoroughly. Obviously, you have invested intellectually in your search to own what you admire. What advice would you offer the novice watch collector?

JCB:   Focus on the invisible part of the watch:

  • the Art }
  • the Culture } How was the movement made ?
  • the Love } Who made the movement ?
  • The Soul }

MF:   Do you consider yourself a watch collector as well ?

JCB:   Yes, I love the watchmaking Art in general and I also love the watch industry. I collect Patek Philippe, Blancpain, Omega. I have also some Swatches.

MF:   Perhaps the technical innovation that generated the most press interest at Basel this year was Omega’s production of Daniels Co-Axial Escapement. I would think that the decision could have been made within the Swatch Group to have Blancpain produce it. What factors were involved in the decision-making process? Might Blancpain offer this technology?

JCB:   Patek Philippe had worked with Daniels on the project before it landed at Omega. I think that tells you why Blancpain could not have developed it.

Now that Omega has made the last and perhaps the most important innovation in the traditional watchmaking Art, there is no doubt that this revolutionary escapement will also be offered to Breguet, Blancpain and other prestigious names.

MF:   The other significant press news this year has been the Swatch Group’s acquisition of Breguet and Lemania.

How does this “fit” relative to Blancpain’s and Frédéric Piguet’s positioning within the Swatch Group ? Are there more similarities between Blancpain and Breguet, and between Frédéric Piguet and Lemania, than there are complementary differences ?

JCB:   Blancpain and Breguet have both a very strong and unique philosophy which you can also clearly differentiate both in the prices and in the design of the watch. The complementarity of both brands is clear.

Lemania which has always been more focused on Omega, as it used to be Omega’s manufacture, is also very complementary to Piguet. From the product as well as from the pricing.

MF:   One last question, if you will forgive me. But as watch aficionados, we always ask each other – what watch are you wearing today?

JCB:   Today is Sunday, there is wind, it is cold, the lake is blue, the sky is blue, the land is white with snow, and I will go sailing with my wife and I already wear my flyback in steel on a rubber bracelet.

MF:   Thank you very much.

Copyright 1999
Michael Friedberg
All rights reserved