Interviews • 13 Oct 2018

Maximilian Büsser on Watches, Tattoos & Creativity


Max Büsser recently flew down to Singapore for the launch of the HM9 (click here for an explanation of the HM9 from Max himself). Speaking to a group of MB&F collectors he shared that due to the complexity of the HM9’s case, it wouldn’t have been possible without the technical and creative know-how MB&F has developed over the past 13 years. In the run up to the launch, we sat down with Max to talk about his inspirations, MB&F’s collaborations and his love for machines.  

[THG] How did MB&F begin?

[Max] When I started MB&F I put all my savings into the company, SGD 1.2 million, which is a lot of money for a mere mortal. But, you want to create a mechanical watch brand? You better have 10 times as much and even then you’re probably going to fail. So, I put everything into the company, worked from my little flat and very quickly I realised, by far I don’t have enough. So instead of trying to go and find an investor – I thought just maybe I could convince my retailers to pay me in advance. Two years before I deliver the first piece. So I went around the world for three weeks and went to go and see my very good Harry Winston retailers and explained my new concept. All I had was a drawing and a piece of plastic which looked like the watch and I said, “this is my HM1, this is the whole concept, would you like to order a certain number of pieces”. And if they said yes, then I’d just ask you to pay one third now and I’ll deliver the pieces in two years if everything goes well. And I actually managed to convince six retailers. One of the two who immediately said “no-brainer, we’re there for you” was Michael Tay and The Hour Glass.  I arrived in Singapore, I showed the drawings and told him my idea and he said “OK, what’s your bank account number?”. Those are things I will never ever forget in my life. You know when I call the brand “…and Friends” I never imagined it would go that far. Its gone way further since. And this journey, this MB&F journey is about stories like that. I have dozens of stories like that about people who’ve been there for us when I never even expected them to be.

And before MB&F…

I’d already been working with The Hour Glass for seven years. At the beginning of my time at Harry Winston, I went to see Dr. Henry Tay and Michael – who had just joined the company – with what was Harry Winston’s timepieces. And honestly in those days it was not much, but Dr. Henry Tay saw something in me and said “OK we’ll take it as an exclusive for South East Asia” and we built an incredible business together. I think the Tay family knows that when I say something I always do it, or at least I’ll die trying and so that’s why when I came with my idea of MB&F, that earlier relationship probably influenced Michael in saying “OK let’s try this”.

How has the journey been so far?

MB&F is a life decision. It’s not a business decision. It’s a decision that I initially made unconsciously and then consciously when at Harry Winston I realised I was a creative who had basically sold out, I’d become a Marketer. I basically spent my whole professional life creating products for the market. And I realised if I don’t want to have any regrets at the end of my life I have to create for myself. I have to create all my crazy ideas which I’m refraining because they’re not ‘commercially viable’. I actually created the company to be proud of myself. And it was very difficult initially to create for myself because nobody teaches you. You’re always taught how to create for the market. As a designer, your job is to create a product which is better for the consumer, which will sell better. I’m not a designer I’m an engineer by training and the first drawings of HM1 I think I spent over 300 hours, every single detail, it was torture because I had to ask myself is this me instead of asking myself will this sell. So, it’s a completely different way of creating. It was torture and it was bliss.

The 2nd piece and 3rd piece were easier and then you get into a roll and it just comes naturally. And the more you create, the more you want to create. Initially, you don’t know why then you analyse it and then you stop analysing. The ideas just start flowing, and then maybe two years later you realise “oh I probably did that because of that” but you didn’t realise it [at the time]. Now it’s just a flow. I just go with the flow, sometimes I stop it. Because we’ve got too many projects in the pipeline now.

What are Horological Machines to you?

Horological machines are my therapy. With therapy you try and go further, you try and go deeper. And you do not know where you are going, that’s the whole point of it. If you really knew you don’t need therapy. And so, from there onwards, I know what’s coming out in the next 4 years because that’s what we do, it takes 3 or 4 years to R&D and engineer a movement. But then after that, I don’t know. It’s super interesting because not knowing what I’m going to have as an idea, makes it that much more enticing.

Most business owners want certainty and want plans. As a creator its exactly the contrary, you want to let yourself free of not knowing what’s going to happen. With the Aquapod which is inspired by something that happened to me wife and I on holiday when she got stung by a jellyfish, it’s the first piece I’ve created which is not related to my childhood. Maybe the therapy is coming to an end. But I don’t know. Maybe there will be something coming back because we always, well I’m always analysing, what happened. It’s all about not knowing.

HM7 Aquapod Ti Green

So the uncertainty is necessary to be truly creative?

The uncertainty of what we do is part of the pleasure. If there’s certainty, as a creator there’s not much pleasure. What I’ve learnt over the years is that to be a creative who’s creating for himself, you must stop the whole cerebral thing. We’re taught from a young age to be cerebral. With the HM1 when I created it was an incredibly difficult product. Because at that time I was going to create for myself, including every single detail from the shape of the lugs to the bezel to the crown. The real question is, is this me? It’s not about is this nice and will people like it. Is this me?

The font! We tried over 300 fonts, putting it on the dial. No that doesn’t work. And I didn’t know why. It just didn’t click. And then the font you know today from our brand, we put it on it and I thought that’s not bad. And I asked Eric, I said, “what’s the name of that one?” and he said “Star Trek” and I’m like “are you joking, that font is called Star Trek, that’s it!” So it was a sign. And I never looked back. It’s the font. I’ve learnt over the years I only work with my guts. And my whole team and Eric knows, that if my gut feeling tells me this is not yet right and I don’t exactly know why, we’re blocked. And it happens. I’m like this is not right, it’s just not right. And we get blocked and we leave the project on the side and we work on another project, and then maybe 3 months, 6 months or even a year later we’ll go back to it and say you know what now I know. But there’s no rationale to now I know. It’s just now I know. So that uncertainty is part of the creative process.

Change is always interesting

I’m looking forward to getting older. Not physically {laughs}, but I see where I’ve come from and I’m like “wow it’s incredible I’m actually where I am today, I’m so blessed and so grateful to the life I’ve had”. Going forward, not knowing what’s going to come, I’m going to be more and more amazed by what we’re going to create. That uncertainty is an enormous part of the pleasure.

Where else do you find inspiration?

HM’s are very much inspired by my childhood. And anything which has seeped into me. I don’t know what’s going to come out. And I’d love to give you an answer but I actually don’t know. It just doesn’t seem feasible that I’d be inspired by something which hasn’t interested me. Today I’m very much interested in ideas that were clearly a passion for me when I was a kid or growing up. Maybe in the future it’ll be more whimsical, maybe it’ll be about exploring new territories. But whatever happens, there will be 50 or 60 years of inspiration that will come into that and as usual, I’ll only discover afterwards why I did what I did.

Sherman

And those inspirations must have taken many forms

We are the products of our era. You can’t escape that. I often quote, which at least attributed to Coco Chanel who said “only those with no memory insist on their originality.” because whatever we create it’s seeped through decades and decades and come back up to us. And it’s true that if you look at our Legacy Machines which are a much more cerebral project, it’s going back into an era which I didn’t live in. But through reading books and seeing the old photos, the engravings of what life seemed to be, I imagine that is what I would be creating. But whatever happens, whatever I’ve done on Legacy Machines is inspiring me today on Horological Machines. And its maybe possible that one day we’ll start having a hybrid because I’ve gone so deep into that Legacy Machine era that now when I’m creating Horological Machines I can actually see elements of Legacy’s coming into it because I went into it. So, whatever happens, there is a product of your era and there’s the product of your ancestry.

Look at the HM5, ‘On the Road Again’. The very first influence of that is the Amida Digitrend For those who don’t know the Amida, the Amida was a mechanical watch with one jewel which had a little plexiglass prism that was sending the information and displaying it vertically.  And it had this very 70’s design. The first time I saw that, which was more than a decade ago, I was like wow I didn’t even know someone had created something like that. And from there, I tried to do something different. We tried working with parabolic mirrors and it didn’t work so we went back to prisms. But I don’t know if the guys who created the Amida got their idea from [someone else]. But if there is one ground-breaking idea, it is them to attribute it to. I was inspired by them.

What about Architecture, furniture design? 

Architecture, design, furniture design. I’m absolutely sure that it has had an influence but I have the feeling that the biggest influence is machines themselves. It’ll be engines, it’ll be vintage cars. Not because they’re cars but because of the way they’re put together. It’ll be locomotives, steam engines. When I look at a beautiful old machine that immediately resonates with me. When I look at a beautiful piece of furniture I will love it, but, I don’t immediately think therefore I could create something which is inspired by it. But all the inspirations come, and I am absolutely sure from everywhere. We were talking about Mies Van Der Rohe, clearly, I hadn’t thought that the Barcelona chair had an influence on the HM8 but now that you mention it I’m thinking wow yes it probably did. But it wasn’t blatant for me.

Starfleet Machine and Octopod pictured in M.A.D (Mechanical Art Devices) Gallery Taiwan

It’s a very natural thing to be interested in the mechanics of a watch then. It’s mechanical art.

The movement is probably the most beautiful part of the watch. And for centuries, we’ve not shown it, except if you had a tourbillion. And I’ve always worshipped mechanical movements. So, with the Legacy Machine, it was an old dream of mine to see the most beautiful part of the movement which is the balance wheel and the escapement at all times. And therefore the idea of this flying balance wheel came about and it had been with me for years and it is exactly what I wanted.

It was interesting that once we’d done the Legacy Machine, we had clients telling us “oh it’s beautiful, the balance wheel and the escapement, but I don’t see anything on the back” and I’m like “what!” {laughs}. So that’s why we did the Split Escapement which came out at the end of last year, now you’ve got the balance wheel on the top and you’ve got the escapement on the back. So wherever you look, you’ve got something living and can see the heartbeat on both sides. But initially I was bit taken aback when I started with the first Legacy Machines where people started going “yes but now it’s a pity we don’t see it on the back” and I thought you can’t have it on both sides, well now we can!

What was working with Kari Voutilainen like?

Working together with great talent, unknown or not, is always a great win-win. Be it with Kari Voutilainen or L’Epée, when we team up I believe everybody wins. Why? Because the product is extraordinary. And if a product is extraordinary, it’s one more way to get your message out there. Working with Kari has been incredible and working with L’Epée has been incredible. I’m always looking forward to creating things with super talented people.

When I was creating the LM1, the engineering was going to be done by Jean-François Mojon. But I also needed somebody who was going to give us the 19th-century knowledge and design that we needed. And it had to be Kari. Kari was a good friend, so we all went up to Kari’s workshop in Môtiersand sat down with him and said “you’ve seen my Horological Machines, but now I’m working on a classic piece which is a tribute to the 19th century and I’d really need you to work on this. Would you agree to work with us on this?” And very politely he declined. Not having seen the product, but as he said: “I’ve just got so much work, I would love to but I just don’t have the time”. And I was like oh my gosh now what do I do. So, once he’d said no I said you know what I’ll show you the drawing, I’ve got the drawing of the product, and maybe you could just give me a few pointers. And I came out with the piece, explained what it was doing. He looked at it, he didn’t say anything for a long moment and then he started going “well I would do the bridge rather like this, make the screws like that and uh”….and he’s taken out a pencil and is drawing and he went on alone like this for 5 minutes, giving advice. And then he looked up and I looked at him. You know there are moments in your life, defining moments, it’s now or never type moments, and I looked at him and said “Kari does that mean you’re going to do the project?” and he started smiling and went “this piece, definitely!” And that’s how it all started. I mean I still have goosebumps remembering that moment.

Kari Voutilainen, Maximilian Büsser & Jean-François Mojon

There was another great moment in the story of Legacy 1, there’s many, and that was when Kari saw the final piece. Of course, he worked on the movement but he hadn’t yet seen the watch cased. In Basel fair 2011, in our little booth, he comes in, I close the door, take out the tray and show him the Legacy 1. And he takes the watch – and Kari even in those days, now he’s much more expansive but he was very very discreet, he wouldn’t show a lot of enthusiasm – and he put the watch on his wrist and was like “Woah this is amazing!”. Suddenly he looks up at me again and he goes “would you agree to swap?” I said “sorry, what do you mean?” he said, “if I can have one of these, you can have any of my pieces”. You don’t know what that means for someone like me, that one of the greatest master watchmakers, in my opinion, tells you, “do you want to exchange pieces?” that’s one of the moments which really counted for me.

Speaking of defining moments. What key moments have shaped you to be who you are today?

There are many defining moments. Of course, the first one was with Henry-Jean Belmont, saying “come and join us at Jaeger”. He saw in me things that I didn’t see in myself, I was not a very self-asserted youngster. I was doubting a lot about myself, he actually believed in me way more than I believed in myself. I owe him so much. He mentored me at Jaeger-LeCoultre, he helped me, he tutored me, he treated me like his son, it was incredible. He basically gave me a meaning. Then, of course, seven years later, Ronald Winston and Robert Benvenuto (who was then CEO of Harry Winston), we’re completely insane to give me the job of managing director of Harry Winston timepieces when I was 31. They gave this youngster with virtually no experience of managing a company the keys of the company, which was in a really dire situation, that I didn’t know. And that was a completely incredible turn in my life, to be head of Harry Winston timepieces, to manage to save it and to then grow it. Therefore to allow me to understand that I was capable of doing this, and to allow me to learn that it was actually not my way, and therefore to choose my way, my own path and create MB&F. Without Jaeger, without Harry Winston, there would never have been MB&F. Those two times of 7 years have shaped the man I was. If one missed, if one was not there, there would never be a brand.

Heard you had a tattoo

I’d never even thought of getting a tattoo. And what actually sparked it was meeting Mo Coppoletta, one of the great tattoo artists based out of London. Who’s also a great watch collector, he has a lot of independent beautiful pieces. And we became friends. And when I saw his work, when I saw how he works, I was blown away. And therefore, it started in my head that one day I would like to [get a tattoo]. But if you’re going to tattoo something on your skin, something that you’re going to keep your whole life, it better not be something you’re going to get bored of or be embarrassed by in the next couple of years.

My Dad’s dream was to work in an elephant reserve in Africa. He worshipped Elephants. My mother was Indian. And the elephant, of course, is very important, you’ve got Ganesh. So I went back to Mo and said look I would like something based on an elephant or Ganesh which is more of a graphic representation, not something which you immediately see as an elephant. And he sent me sketches one after the other until I was like “that’s it!”  And therefore, one day I’m in his tattoo parlour in London and we’ve got the drawing and he says “ok now what size?”.  I’m like “what do you mean what size, I hadn’t thought of that”. Are we gonna do it this big or this big and he started drawing on me,  like what do you think of that, what do you think of this until finally, I was like “OK let’s do this”. And he did It. It was a couple of years ago. I have zero regrets, I’m so happy.  It’s a tribute to my parents, it’s a tribute to the people who made me who I am. I owe so much to them and instead of just thinking it, I’ve got a representation of that on myself. And I know that I will never have any regrets of that.

Balthazar and Arachnophobia

Where did the naming for Melchoir and Balthazar come from?

In the Büsser family since 1400 – my Dad had traced back to then – the Büssers were a family from the German part of Switzerland. From father to eldest son, my ancestors were always called Balthazar, Melchior Balthazar Melchoir….for 500 years. My Granddad was Melchoir Büsser, and he actually hated people calling him Melchoir. So, he had everybody call him Max. Hence when I was born, in tribute to my grandfather, I was called Max. Well, actually Maxmillian in this case. But I love the name Melchior so I was trying to persuade my wife that if we had a son – we have two daughters – I would like to call him Melchoir. And she told me – I’ll give you the polite version – “over my dead body” so I clearly thought that’s not going to happen. And so I said, “you’re ok then that I give the name Melchior to my 10th-anniversary robot?” And she’s like “you do whatever you want with your robot!” And so that’s how, for my 10th anniversary, the robot for MB&F was called Melchior. He’s a bit like my son and so that’s why my 2nd son was Balthazar. There is always a part of me and my family in what I do.

One last question, what are you most fearful of in watchmaking. And what gives you hope?

I’m afraid that in our industry, there are not enough people who actually like watchmaking. That is my biggest fear today, it’s that people in the industry, actually a lot, are not interested in watchmaking. And that can lead on to many different consequences that I don’t even want to think of. What gives me hope, is that I am seeing a resurgence of interest in small artisan creative watchmakers. People who put their humanity and the people in front, and not as a brand. I see great innovation. I see great ideas. I see beautiful works, beautiful artisan work. And luckily some consumers who are used to buying the big brands are starting to come to us, and they’re starting to understand that soul and that incredible artisanship is meaningful. So, in one way I am always very thankful for the big brands because they are the people who educate the consumer into coming into high-end watchmaking. We don’t have the means, the money, the loudspeaker and the amplifier…..they do. Once you’ve got those beautiful products that they’ve created, then you can come to our super artisanal, super creative products.

Minor edits have been made for clarity 



Related Reading

Related Videos

Subscribe to The Hour Glass

And stay up to date with the watchmaking world

Sign in

We’re here to help


Change Country

Select your country:

Share

Share via:

Collector’s Guide

Select your collectors guide:

Step 1 of 2

50%