The storied industry titan weighs in on the history, spirit and DNA of watchmaking, and his newsmaking return to the industry with a brand he runs with his son, Pierre.
Was Jean-Claude Biver ever really going to stay in retirement? When he made his big announcement in 2018, few of us actually believed that he would remain in relative obscurity: after all, this is the titanic figure who revived Blancpain, transformed Omega and Hublot, and finally, headed LVMH’s watch and jewellery division. He was proud to retire at the age of 70 after one of the most enviably interesting careers in watchmaking, but as news broke of an eponymous new brand he was starting up his son Pierre earlier this year, it is now clear that this retirement business was not to be just yet.
“I thought I could retire. I did my job, but it turns out my job wasn’t finished,” Jean-Claude Biver said during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur. “I learned that you cannot retire from your passion. It is in your blood. It is in your heart. It is in your brain. A person without passion is like a person who is dead.” Serious stuff, but delivered with a mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes, his famously cheerful ear-to-ear smile on full display.
Despite a punishing travel schedule that has granted him precious little sleep, Jean-Claude looks as sprightly as ever. Watchmaking keeps him young, we are sure he would say, but his re-emergence into the scene is actually the result of an unfortunate bicycling accident that kept him off his feet for a full three months. The experience drove home the point that you shouldn’t ever need to give up something you love, so upon recovering he set out to establish Biver Watches with his son, Pierre.
In the spirit of the watchmaking genius that is Jean-Claude and the lover of historical watches that is Pierre, the Biver brand is starting out with a carillon minute repeater, one of the most challenging of complications. The 42mm Carillon Tourbillon Biver in titanium and 5N gold ticks to the tune of the automatic Calibre JCB-001, which powers the hours, minutes, tourbillon, carillon minute repeater and micro-rotor functions. In order to modernise this movement, father and son have introduced a number of clever innovations – for example, a third hammer to create a new sound and a titanium tourbillon cage for additional lightness.
This stunning display of modern micro-mechanics is fitted with a most unusual dial made of sodalite, which is mounted atop a gold plate. Crystal dials are notoriously difficult to work with, the prize being its unique colourways and therefore, its ability to make each timepiece unique. Although an enamel dial might have been the simpler route here, Jean-Claude is not interested in doing things the easy way. In fact, his approach to the brand, and the new watch, is steeped in something far more complex.
“A key element is the importance of spirituality and the role of the dial. The dial should not be just a colourful, pretty piece. It can be like that, but to us what is important is why the stone is chosen – it is for its properties, based on knowledge that goes back thousands of years. Sodalite puts you in a good mood, brings positivity – and that is extremely critical because I want the watch to be part of you,” he said beseechingly, extending his wizened hands.
“For me, there is a connection between the watch and the wearer. That spiritual connection is very important to me, for people who don’t believe in what I said, it will not be important and I accept that. These are my beliefs, but I understand why some will not believe in my theory. You must free the soul from the watch, because if it remains within, it is a prisoner. You must achieve such perfection that the soul is free from the watch. For that, you must respect the art, you must prepare every detail and when every little thing is mastered, the soul of the watch is truly free.”
Anyone who enjoys a strong connection with their timepiece will understand perfectly what Jean-Claude is saying – certain watches just call out to you – but this doesn’t happen by accident. It is a result of an unyielding commitment to innovation and craftsmanship, qualities that certainly define his career in watchmaking. In the new watch, even the smallest parts – including those that cannot be seen – have been decorated by hand according to the highest standards of artistry.
They have been polished, satin-finished, grained, and flame-blued: finishing touches that are a set to be a recognisably Biver signature. “We decided to decorate all the faces of all the components of the movement,” he said proudly. “To achieve this, we had to push our partners to find techniques for decorating certain parts of the pieces that were not originally designed to be decorated. The underside of the bridges, for example, are hand-pearled, which is very rarely done.”
Other interesting details of the Carillon Tourbillon Biver that indicate a marriage of past and present include the vintage-inspired domed shape of the dial, modern gold indices, dauphine hands with planed crests and a crown so intricately finished that its minutiae can only be seen with a magnifying glass: the teeth are polished on the surface, but the inside of each tooth is decorated. Although there is the option of a leather strap, we cannot recommend enough the specially designed five-link metal bracelet whose links appear to break away from each other, allowing the light to filter through.
“This is an everyday watch, but with some care. Do you need a minute repeater carillon to go to work every day? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot have one,” Jean-Claude laughed. “Of course, I would not recommend you go swimming with this watch, but it is built to keep up with most people’s everyday lifestyles. I think if the watch has all this spirit that I speak of, it must be worn every day! Why buy a watch you can only wear once a week to church? This is why it is water resistant and as comfortable as possible.”
The haute horlogerie industry is not easily penetrable by any means, but high barriers to entry are not really considerations when your family name is Biver. Father and son have have opted to establish themselves as an établisseur rather than a full-blown manufacture, choosing to work with partners to source their movements and parts. It’s a smart move, entrepreneurially speaking as well.
According to Jean-Claude, this business model was the norm at one point. “At the beginning, there were only watchmakers. For a long time, brands bought movements from Lémania, Valjoux , Frederic Piguet and LeCoultre. We source our basic movements where it suits us best, and where we find the best quality. And where we can adapt our innovation, technical improvements, special requirements as well as our exclusive and extreme high quality of decoration. We want to show that we can do great things thanks to a group of partners and skills that we bring together.”
Biver Watches has signed on Cercle des Horlogers, a movement manufacturer based in Les Hauts-Geneveys, for the engine that powers the watch, and tapped the expertise of designers Miodrag Mijatovich and Philippe Girard – a relationship that goes back to Jean-Claude’s Blancpain days – for its visually arresting style. Swiss ébauche movement and complication manufacturer Dubois Dépraz is also a partner, and is likely to provide the movements for the brand’s upcoming perpetual calendar and chronograph models.
The future of Biver Watches lies in the hands of Pierre Biver; Jean-Claude is very clear that this journey will continue with his son. “The big dream here is transmission,” he says fondly. “I want to pass on this baby to my baby. One day, he will take over alone and manage a family brand in the way he sees fit. I will eventually slow down and have him as the main piece of the puzzle. Right now, I play a major role, but soon, it must be Pierre doing this. The success of the brand is critical, but also, the success of Pierre.”
Jean-Claude is giving himself six years as head of Biver Watches before he steps back. Will he finally take on retirement then? Only time will tell.
The Hour Glass is proud to be the exclusive retail partner for 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.