Jean-Claude Biver is still banging the table. Now 71, the man many credit with re-energizing the luxury watch industry over the last 30 years has lost little of his zeal, even if it’s no longer delivered with the same executive ferocity it once was.
In June 2018, he stepped down as head of LVMH’s watch division, leaving control of Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith to his successor Stéphane Bianchi. Now the division’s chairman, Biver has no operational responsibilities and no targets to hit. Unshackled, he can talk about the watch market with far greater freedom than before. Not that he was ever particularly tight-lipped.
“We have an extraordinary concentration of brands,” he says when prompted to assess the state of the industry he’s done so much to build. “The groups are becoming more and more powerful. Look at Tiffany [which was bought by LVMH in November]. Bulgari has already been bought. Harry Winston has been bought.
“And you have also a concentration of sales,’ he continues. ‘If you look at who is doing 60 to 70 percent of the turnover in independent luxury jewelers, you will always find Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Hublot and Richard Mille.
“Why? Because of people! We are in a concentration mood. We all want to be different, but we somehow all want to be connected to the same trends. People want their Rolex Daytona in steel. People want their Patek Nautilus in steel. That is a trend that I see getting stronger, not weaker.”
I put it to him that while this might be bad news for the rest, it seems to be opening doors for small independents, whose high-concept, low-volume pieces offer some kind of respite from the battle at the top.
“Yes, definitely,” he says, banging the table again. “Concentration is the best thing for the niche market.” He plucks a visual analogy out of thin air, showing how a machine cleaning the square table in front of us wouldn’t be able to clean into the corners, which it misses as it turns. “That’s how the market is with concentration,” he explains. “The concentration is an asset for small brands because it opens holes the big groups cannot fill. That is why people are looking for F.P. Journe or Max Büsser [of MB&F] or Rexhep [Rexhepi of Akrivia].”
Picking up on his corner idea, I wonder if this concentration isn’t also creating a space for pre-owned, an industry segment currently growing at pace. He agrees, but the thought sends him off on a tangent.
“The premiums of the secondary market are not sustainable,” he says dismissively, referring to the current premiums pre-owned retailers are commanding for high-demand pieces. “At a certain moment, as a customer, you will get more rational and ask why you should pay $10,000 for something that’s only worth $5,000? It can work as long as the buzz is there, but one day this buzz might end. The customer might become angry and say, ‘fuck you’. On the longer term, it doesn’t work.”
We return to LVMH. Part of the role was to take the reins at TAG Heuer, his dream brand. In 2014, when he became the company’s interim chief executive, it was trying to pivot to higher-end pieces with an aggressive movement manufacturing program that was pushing prices up. It wasn’t working, so he scrapped it and pivoted back to TAG Heuer’s tried-and-tested strategy, positioning it as an energetic, sporty, youthful brand at luxury’s entry point. A roster of brand ambassadors followed.
“If I had to start again, I would do the same again,” he says. “Considering the position the brands were in [when I joined], and the condition of the market, I would start again basically the same.”
During that period industry exports were hit hard, but he always claimed that TAG Heuer and Hublot were enjoying double-digit growth while admitting Zenith was tracking the market’s downward turn.
“Zenith had been a prisoner of its tradition by repeating it,” he says, before remembering his policy of ‘the future of tradition’, which basically meant reinventing Zenith’s heritage for today’s market. During his tenure, Zenith introduced the El Primero 21, a 1/100th of a second chronograph calibre that upgraded Zenith’s iconic El Primero of 1969. “It worked,” he says confidently. “Zenith is perceived very differently now, and is close to breaking even.”
Still yet to prove itself is TAG Heuer’s Connected, the modular luxury smartwatch he introduced in late 2015. The category hasn’t taken off, while sales of smartwatches made by electronics companies have soared. Last year, the Apple Watch was predicted to shift more units than the entire Swiss watch industry.
“We [Switzerland] can compete with any other brand or country that is making mechanical movements,” he says. “But to compete with somebody that is in the communication business, like Apple, we cannot.” He says Connected ‘worked’ because they brought in Intel and Google rather than trying to build chips and operating systems of their own, and because the ambition was to sell around 60,000 units a year ‘not 30 million’.
He says TAG Heuer could enter the market where other Swiss companies couldn’t because of its avant-garde footing; TAG stands for “Techniques d’Avant Garde.” Obsolescence is a problem, he admits, but then that is why the plan with Connected was always to keep numbers low, rather than to build a business around it.
As he enters the twilight of his career, Mr. Biver says his role has changed. “I help everybody who needs help,” he says, before correcting himself. “No. Not who needs help, but asks for help. I’m like a godfather.”