The former head of LVMH’s watchmaking division has never seemed the retiring type. News of his move into a non-exec role leaves a gaping hole in the watch industry
Despite last week’s announcement, Jean-Claude Biver does not want to retire. That at least would be the conclusion if you listen to what the watch industry giant has said over the last few years.
Now 69, the once ageless Mr Biver has said in the past he’d happily go on well into his next decade. Some interviews have quoted him saying 75. But now time seems to have caught up with him.
Last week, LVMH announced he was stepping back from the operational duties involved in being head of its watchmaking division (TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith) to become its non-executive chairman. No official explanation has been given, but there are rumours Mr Biver’s health rather than his appetite is behind the decision. Stéphane Bianchi, formerly of Yves Rocher, takes the reins.
As Mr Bianchi will know, he has enormous shoes to fill. Mr Biver has been a, some would say the driving force of the watch industry for almost 40 years. In the early 1980s after a short period at Audemars Piguet, he picked up the then defunct Blancpain from the ashes of the Quartz Crisis and reversed its fortunes, famously pitching: ‘Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.’ Said to have bought it for CHF 22,000, he sold Blancpain to what would become the Swatch Group in 1992 for a reported CHF 60 million, making him a very wealthy man.
Next, while on the Swatch Group board, he turned his attentions to Omega, where mid-decade he signed Cindy Crawford and James Bond, both of whom the brand relies on to carry its story to this day.
Then in 2004, he moved to Hublot where he transformed a staid, unfashionable brand into the Swiss watch industry’s glitziest export. Without Mr Biver, there would be no Big Bang, no FIFA World Cup sponsorship, no cosying up to stars of the sport and music worlds. He made Hublot sexy, catapulting it onto catwalks and red carpets.
“His passion and his (booming) voice, say nothing of his unique ability to tell the world the story of Swiss watchmaking.”
LVMH bought Hublot in 2008 after Mr Biver had multiplied its sales many times over, later appointing him as president of the conglomerate’s watch division. Under LVMH, in 2014 he was made CEO of the brand he had always dreamed of working on – TAG Heuer. There, he brought back the iconic 1980s slogan ‘Don’t Crack Under Pressure’, realigning the brand with its youthful heritage. Out went the plan to rethink TAG as a fine watchmaker and in came a strategy to reposition it as the watch every young man aspires to. He always claimed TAG grew during the industry’s recent downturn, thanks in part to sales of its Connected Watch.
His most recent project has been Zenith, where, despite not being a perfect fit in the minds of many observers, he has injected some much-needed dynamism. He officially took over as interim CEO in early 2017, installing Julien Tonare into the permanent position in April the same year, and green-lit a series of innovations that have successfully punctuated the industry narrative. Zenith’s 1/100th of a second El Primero 21 calibre and the Defy Lab, the world’s most accurate mechanical watch, may yet be remembered as Mr Biver’s crowning achievements.
But it’s not the watches or even the brands he led that he’ll be remembered for first. More than anything, Jean-Claude Biver has restored pride and relevance to the Swiss watch industry. He has been its lead visionary, bouncing energetically from project to project with a Midas Touch. He’s not been universally popular (TAG Heuer’s marketing director left after they fell out over the appointment of street artist Alec Monopoly as a brand ambassador, and Hublot has more detractors than any other Swiss brand), and there are many stories of his teams being worked to breaking point.
But his passion and his (booming) voice, to say nothing of his unique ability to tell the world the story of Swiss watchmaking, have been at the heart of the industry’s boom years.
Jean-Claude Biver never seemed the retiring type, and the industry will not be the same without him. At Dubai Watch Week, we’d like to take a moment to recognise and celebrate his immeasurable contribution to watchmaking and to wish him well in his new role. Hopefully, there’ll be more to come from him yet.