Jean-Claude Biver turns 70 this year. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the fiery way he conducts himself, and the punishing schedule he subjects himself to, but this elder statesman of the Swiss watch industry is slowing down a little with age. Biver recognises it himself too, and he’s shifted his priorities accordingly: in lieu of operational or executive work, he’s transitioning towards an advisory role at LVMH. We picked his brains about his role in the greater scheme of things, and his thoughts on the evolving watchmaking landscape.
We get a sense that you are winding down your role in LVMH. That doesn’t mean that you will retire, right?
Yes, it means I will retire from operational duties. I will be more of an ambassador, an advisor, or a coach. Call it whatever you want, but my duty now is to transfer my knowledge, which includes my successes, strategy and vision, and even my failures. I wasn’t expecting to do it this soon, but I fell ill, and still haven’t recovered completely, so I’ve had to move my plans up by a year.
I will now focus on giving back to my people and my brands, because only then will my life have any meaning after it ends.
Have you identified any protégés that you want to groom specially, whether in LVMH or outside?
You know, I’ve already groomed [Ricardo] Guadalupe, who is the boss of Hublot. I also groomed Jean-Frederic Dufour, who’s now at Rolex. And I have a lot of admiration for [Zenith CEO] Julien Tornare – he will no doubt be one of my three favourite guys, along with Guadalupe and Jean-Fred. Julien, I will say, is my protégé, and the one I want to help most today.
Is it also because you believe that the rest of the LVMH brands are already established?
Yes. Hublot is established. It’s a successful brand and has a great structure, so for the moment it’s ok. In TAG Heuer, we have two very bright people. One is [CEO] Stéphane Bianchi, and I trust this guy. The other is [strategy and digital director] Frédéric Arnault. I’ve known him for the last 10 years, and he’s an extraordinary, bright young man. I will be there for them, but I think they can run things by themselves without me around, although I may give an idea or tip from time to time.
Which leaves Zenith. Was it a challenge to handle the brand?
Yes. That’s because it took so many tries, before we decided on its message and philosophy: Zenith is the future of traditional Swiss watchmaking.
What do you mean?
Let me give you an example. What was the future of the chronograph? Zenith answered in 1969 with the El Primero, which measured time down to 1/10th of a second.
But we’ve had this movement since 1969 – can we not have something different? If it was 1/10th of a second, then the future is 1/100th of a second! And then? In the coming year or two, it’ll be 1/1000th of a second. By moving down this path, Zenith is defining itself with accuracy, as the future of accuracy. Until I found this message, it was horrible at Zenith. Now, we know exactly what we must do.
What do you think about SIHH and Baselworld being held back to back from 2020?
It’s a half-measure. If you showcase 2020’s novelties at the end of April, you only have six to seven months until Christmas to deliver them. I would have tried for January, or better yet November in the previous year. I’m a bit astonished. They should not have done it in the same period too, because everyone will try to play it smart by going for the last two days of SIHH, then the first two days of Baselworld, to minimise travelling. What are we going to do with the rest of our time then? [Laughs] There is a lack of understanding of how things work. That is my belief.
Will you consider pulling the LVMH brands out from Baselworld?
Honestly, I do think that this option is open. You know, Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer were in Geneva at [Hotel] Kempinski during SIHH. We had the whole place to ourselves, with complete service like good Wi-Fi. We could just put all our people and customers in the Kempinski, so all they need to do is come down the elevator in the morning. It is possible.
What about the biggest challenge to luxury watchmaking as a whole?
My biggest concern is that millennials are not watch-conscious. We used to have Swatch. With this brand, every kid was wearing a watch, and we taught the generation born in the 1970s and 1980s to wear watches. Are millennials prepared in the same way to wear a watch, to buy a luxury watch when they have the money and opportunity to? I think not. That’s my concern: Are we capable of influencing the new generation to dream about watches, and to buy them? There should be a second Swatch now to do this.