Rule Breakers: Max Büsser

Success is rarely a product of following a formula, and these leaders in business, fashion and the arts have certainly broken the mould.

Independent watchmakers are now an integral part of watch-collecting culture thanks in large part to Max Büsser. During his successful career working with established Swiss watch brands, a combination of good instincts and a strong sense of fairness prompted him to begin openly promoting the cadre of exceptionally talented individuals who had laboured anonymously at the leading houses for most of the 20th century. This campaign to give prominent billing to contributing watchmakers began with the series of Opus timepieces he created under Harry Winston and continues with more fantastical designs he has created under his own brand, MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends).

Independently driven

From the age of four to 18, I wanted to be a car designer. I was drawing cars every day of my life. I got into watchmaking by chance, working for Jaeger-LeCoultre. I was lucky I found a surrogate father in Henry-John Belmont (the one-time CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre). When he hired me, he asked me if I wanted to be one of 200,000 people working in a big corporation or one of the four or five of us that were going to save Jaeger-LeCoultre. I didn’t meet any independent watchmakers in those days. Henry-John kept us very tightly knit, and I had very few contacts outside. I remember the first time I saw a drawing of [independent watchmaker] Vianney Halter’s Antiqua in 1998. I was so shocked, I ran to Belmont’s office and asked him if he had seen it. He asked me why I was getting so excited and told me to go back to work. One of the first things I did when I started at Harry Winston was to get introduced to Vianney through a common friend of ours.

Magnum opus

Most people congratulate me with having some sort of a vision [for the Opus project]. I didn’t have any vision at all; I was just trying to help a friend named François-Paul Journe. I had the idea at the Basel fair in 2000 – the year he was exhibiting for the first time. He was telling me how tough it was, explaining what he was doing to everyone who was discovering his brand, because he had signed NDAs with every brand he’d worked for previously. I remember saying to him, “We should do something together with Harry Winston. I can tell the world what you’ve done!” The project started off like that. There wasn’t one every year. I just adored what François-Paul had done and loved that I had access to his movements. But the real game changer was Opus III with Vianney Halter. He showed me the design of Opus III, and my jaw dropped open. I didn’t know how I was going to convince Ronald Winston to do it at the time. The Opus III and the Opus V by Felix Baumgartner were for me the seminal pieces of my days at Harry Winston. They were pieces that were going to change watchmaking. There are others, like the Freak by Ulysse Nardin and Richard Mille’s RM 001 or the Urwerk 103. These were the five or six pieces that allowed us to dream. They allowed us to finally break free.

A very personal brand

I should have been imperially happy as managing director of the watch division at Harry Winston. But the more Harry Winston timepieces was growing, the less I was enjoying myself, and I didn’t really understand why. At one point I decided to go into therapy to deal with the death of my father. I thought that everyone was proud of me, but I realised I wasn’t proud of myself. As a creator, that little boy who was always drawing cars – who was dreaming of that next generation of supercars – had sold out. I’d spent seven years at Jaeger and seven more at Winston creating products for the market. What I really wanted to do was commercially non-viable and economically insane, but I had to do it. I left Harry Winston right after our biggest Basel fair to date, and the next day I incorporated MB&F. There have been tough times, but I’m always awed and surprised by what we manage to come up with. I’m even more amazed that people are buying what we’re doing. Our more conservative Legacy Machines are only 20 per cent of our business. It seems that now the crazier the product is, the more easily it sells.

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