Interviews • 10 Mar 2023
In Conversation: Jean-Claude Biver and Michael Tay
Watch industry legend, Jean-Claude Biver, sits down with Michael Tay, The Hour Glass’ Group Managing Director, discussing their long-standing relationship that goes back almost 50 years – there is a cow involved, by the way – and indulge in a bit of industry chit-chat.
How far back does the relationship between the two of you go?
Jean-Claude Biver (JCB): It goes back to when Mike was just born. I came to Singapore for the first time with Omega in 1979. I have known Mike since he was a young child! But before the relationship with Mike, I was friends with his father, Henry. Henry and I learnt how to play golf at the same time. I even became a member of golf clubs in Singapore and Phuket, as I was crazy about the game back then! So yes, it is a long-standing relationship.
Was the relationship with Jean-Claude unique in any way?
MT: There would be many friends of my parents who came home for dinners, people from the watch industry, but Jean-Claude always stood out. I was incredibly young, but he was the only person out of all my parents’ friends who took the time to ask my opinion on a given issue, why I thought certain things were interesting. He was always curious about what young people were thinking. And that is a very important lesson I learnt from him – that there should be no barrier to one’s desire and curiosity to understand what young people were interested in.
JCB: When you understand the new generation, that means you understand the future – but you cannot understand the future if you do not understand its architects! These are the people you need to know, to understand. I am obsessed with learning from the young. A certain number of young people, especially the ones with diplomas, think that they know everything. I tell them ‘no, you are starting to study now! The degree you got is a piece of paper – now you have to learn, to listen, to remember, to analyse!’
What is the nature of your relationship with Jean-Claude Biver today?
MT: Jean-Claude is a mentor. Him, Philip Stern, Rolf Schnyder and my father are some of the four people who have had the most significant impact on my career. In Jean-Claude’s case, it is because he’s taught me so much, and I share his values. After a 50-year career in the industry, this is a man you can admire, respect and wish to emulate. Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate that we have had this mentor-protegee relationship – and today, I consider him a friend too!
And then there’s the cheese thing too, isn’t there? And wasn’t there a cow that The Hour Glass gave you?
MT: Haha, that is correct. We gave Jean-Claude a cow for his 60th birthday.
JCB: It is a very good cow too, it’s the type that can fight. Did you know, 100,000 people in Switzerland watch these cows fight, and the farmers train with the animals every day by running with them by the river. The first fights of the year take place in April, actually. They didn’t know how precious the cow is that they bought, but I did.
Their taste in quality cattle notwithstanding, how did The Hour Glass stand out to you as a retailer?
JCB: They got involved in the brands. Very often, retailers have no influence over the brands – or do not want any – and simply sell watches. That’s too easy! The Hour Glass was the first retailer I knew of that got involved in the development of the brand. They also pushed me to develop a brand that has rules and concepts, and that must be organised. The Hour Glass has influence – they have a big role to play, and people are listening to them! I had, and still have, the privilege to be close to The Hour Glass, which means I can be close to watchmaking. I would say that The Hour Glass is an important retailer to be with if you want to develop watches.
Do you think The Hour Glass’ brands a good representation of haute horlogerie?
JCB: It’s not good, its excellent! Of all the successful brands in the industry, I would say 90% are in the hands of The Hour Glass. This makes them very influential, and very important.
The Swiss watch industry has seen a lot of concentration of brands in recent times – brands are merging or being acquired by larger groups, for example. Is this a good thing, do you think?
JCB: That’s an easy question to answer. If you look at the industry now, and how successful it is, watchmaking has never been so powerful so this means we’ve done something right. But whatever has been right till now – will it be right tomorrow? This, nobody knows. I hear very often that watch brands are booming. But in reality, maybe 10 brands are booming and the rest are developing like before! Not all brands are at the same pace of growth. The present growth makes watchmakers richer, and they will invest more in the brand, and that I think is important because it grows the economy. We have now a very good situation, but we must be careful to remember it is not happening for everybody.
MT: I think having independent watchmakers have benefitted retailers. The most successful brands are all independently owned – Patek Philippe, Rolex, Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet. The groups all have their own strategies and they are doing well, which is great to see – but as Jean-Claude mentioned, let’s see what the future brings. From a distribution standpoint, there is a rising desire for younger brands to go direct to consumers, and there are others where there is an equal desire to work with partners. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, there is space for everyone to grow. Jean-Claude, for example, has decided that he is going down the partnership route with watch specialists.
Talk to us about the second-hand watch market – Rolex has gone into this in a big way, Audemars Piguet and also Jaeger-LeCoultre. What is your take on this?
JCB: Everybody will start with this soon, because the customer who has bought a watch, when he wants another, knows that somebody in the world will take his old one. In watches, this trend is new; a decade ago few people might consider a second-hand watch. But you see, people now realise that watchmaking is marked by eternity. If you buy a Nautilus that’s 25 years old, it is not old – it looks the same, the movement can be readjusted, it can be polished. Tada, it is new again! People are also aware that art does not lose value, it is eternal. All these factors have made the second-hand market very successful. Projections have indicated that by 2030, the second-hand market will be bigger! But they are always wrong. (laughs)
MT: All this is easy to make projections about, but frankly speaking, it is difficult to predict the second-hand market because so much of it takes place outside of formal distribution channels.
How does The Hour Glass define its brand representation strategy, and how do you keep existing relationships going?
MT: Many of the partnerships that we have in place today are historic partnerships. My grandfather’s watch business started with Rolex in 1950 when it appointed a distributor for this part of the world – this is a relationship that transcends generations. Our family started with Patek Philippe in 1968, and that’s also lasted decades. We started with Hublot in 1980 when the brand was first founded, and at that time, my parents also decided to embark on a journey of representing independent, artisanal watchmakers. Gerald Genta was an artisan they collaborated with and launched in 1980. And then of course, we’ve worked with Jean-Claude and Blancpain right from the beginning.
We don’t take on new brands for the sake of enlarging the portfolio. Looking at the artisanal independent space, we consider very carefully the arc of horological history, which Jean-Claude has also spoken of before. Only by looking at this arc can we understand what has come before, and only then do we decide and determine if a watchmaker is introducing innovations that’s truly here to stay. I think like a collector when I consider new partners and watchmakers in that if I were to teleport myself 100 years in the future, would I be proud of having that vision to determine if a given brand has that century long staying power? Brands with staying power are in the minority, brands that were successful 100 years ago are not the same brands that we celebrate today. You must have the ability to understand what is to come, and that governs and guides how we choose our partners.
Read more: Jean-Claude Biver launches his eponymous new brand, Biver Watches.
About the author:
A lifestyle writer based in Malaysia, Anandhi Gopinath writes primarily on watches, wheels, and whiskies, but will never say no to a good story.