WatchGecko meets Jean-Claude Biver
 

WatchGecko meets Jean-Claude Biver

7 min read
Anthony Peacock

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Anthony Peacock

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They say you should never meet your heroes. But there and again, only a few hundred years ago (and still now, in certain corners of the world) they were also saying that the earth was flat. So that school of thought, to put it succinctly, is clearly balls.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

However, a meeting with Jean-Claude Biver is full of dichotomies, so you certainly won’t get all the answers in one go. There’s so much that you expect about him but also plenty that you don’t. The farmhouse in Givrins – around half an hour outside Geneva – that is now the home of Biver watches is beautiful and immaculate, but also reasonably modest and unassuming. This is no glass and chrome palace, or imposing monument to the greatest living watchmaker on earth.

Instead, it’s a place that’s quite similar to many others in its quietly prosperous way: a historic chalet farmhouse in archetypal Swiss style, located in the midst of rolling green fields with Lake Geneva visible in the far distance. What you don’t necessarily expect to see is a railway line running straight through the middle of the garden, although the bright red electric trains are so quiet and clean that they glide past you almost before you realise they are there. The farmhouse even has its own level crossing, located next to a painted wooden cow.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

As a result, the whole idyllic scene looks like a bit an oversized train set – which only adds to the excitement. Appropriate enough, when you consider that the country’s renowned watch industry, as well as its railway service, mark the epitome of Swiss precision.

But despite this quintessential backdrop, nothing quite prepares you for meeting Jean-Claude Biver himself. You hear him long before you see him, then he bowls into the room like a meteorite, talking faster and louder than the speed of sound.

He almost generates his own sonic boom as he comes in, and every staccato sentence is a perfect soundbite; declaimed loudly with a voice that sounds like his own personal megaphone. “I am coming!” he announces unnecessarily, as this human cannonball unleashes his unique force of nature at you.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

“Welcome to our manufacture!” he bellows, and the show – because there’s really no other way to describe this interview – begins.

He has to be in France in half an hour, he apologises, before proceeding to talk animatedly and engagingly for the next 40 minutes. For a man who has built his life around time, he is remarkably generous and easy-going with it – but this is all part of the charm of his unique personality.

Like all ultra-successful people, he radiates energy, and you don’t actually need to understand anything about the watch industry at all to see just how he has been able to breathe new life into a succession of moribund brands over all these years. He basically wills them all to live and doesn’t take no for an answer.

The 74-year-old Biver has just celebrated 50 spectacular years in the watch industry (with some bottles of 1973 Chateau Petrus that he’s been keeping to mark the occasion) but he’s far more interested in the future than the past.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

Further, higher, better, is his core motto, and of course, like a true performer, he’s saved his biggest and most daring adventure for last. If watchmaking is like mountain-climbing, he wants to conquer the world’s seven greatest peaks with the new brand that bears his own name – and he’s starting off with the Everest of watch complications. The complexity and nobility of the new Biver Carillon Tourbillon is evident from the aristocratic luxury of its name, combining some of the most sophisticated complications in watchmaking into one breath-taking package.

It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt almost intimated by a watch. Of course, J-C B laughs at that “Pah!” he explains. He wears his prototype all the time – although not the one that was sold for more than a million Swiss Francs to an American collector, who Jean-Claude knows only as ‘Joe’. We’re assuming it’s not Joe Biden: although it might possibly be, simply on the grounds that the collector called Joe seems to have forgotten to send in his address, which means that that Jean-Claude is struggling to honour the other part of the bargain, as the sale of the watch also comes complete with an industrial quantity of cheese. Only Biver could do this.

Cheese-making is another of his esoteric passions, which even pre-dates the passion for watchmaking, but just when you think our hero couldn’t be more Swiss if he tried, you have to remember that he was actually born in Luxembourg. This is yet another of the contradictions that somehow define Jean-Claude Biver (I never expected him to be such a fan of the Apple Watch that he has about seven of them, for example – but he doesn’t understand what Blancpain is doing with Swatch).

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

Yet Biver’s core philosophy is all about expecting the unexpected, so this sort of thing doesn’t come as such a seismic surprise after all. And that’s the spirit in which he’s created his watch brand, with the help of some of the leading luminaries in the industry. He wanted his brand to be his legacy, giving something back to the wider industry and involving his 23-year-old son Pierre, who probably has a good idea by now about how it feels to be someone like Brooklyn Beckham or Enrique Iglesias.

The atmosphere at Givrins is very much that of a family business, with everything under one roof and an open-door policy where everyone knows everyone else. There’s even an ordinary kitchen, just like you’d find in a normal house, where the employees actually make (delicious-smelling) raclette for lunch; just to underline the point that the culture of cheese is almost as strong – and certainly more pungent – than that of watches around here.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

There’s a strong sense of hand-crafted Swiss tradition running throughout the farmhouse; not just because of the Biver name itself and all the associated history that comes with it, but also because the place actually used to be a movement factory many years ago, before Jean-Claude took the building on and sympathetically refurbished it.

The watchmaking benches are state-of-the-art, but Jean-Claude has also amassed all sorts of tools and souvenirs of how things used to be done in the past, and these are now artfully scattered over the farmhouse in what is almost a shabby-chic museum of watchmaking. He says he’ll get round to organising it all properly one day, but for now it’s full steam ahead with making watches; only 12 or so per year at the moment, but production will undoubtedly subtly increase as Biver grows its profile as an elite watch brand.

 
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Yet as the man himself points out, success isn’t necessarily a given: the higher you fly, the further you can fall, and even in the genteel world of Swiss watchmaking, there are still people out there who would not be displeased to see him fail. With his name, prices, and perfectionism, getting it wrong is simply not an option. You feel that through the utter silence born out of painstaking concentration in the watch assembly room, where each piece is made from start to finish by an individual watchmaker. There, the calm precision of an operating theatre feels at odds with the constant hurry that Jean-Claude himself is always in. The story goes that he announced his watch brand earlier this year with such haste that his lawyers didn’t even have time to trademark the name in advance (which is now done).

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

But that’s just symptomatic of a visionary mind that operates at a much faster pace than most people can keep up with. The very essence of his vitality is the fact that nothing and nobody will ever slow him down or tell him it can’t be done. That concept just doesn’t exist in Biver world.

Some people are such big personalities that they have simply transcended their industries, and Jean-Claude is a perfect example. By his own admission, though, his barriers are blurred: he definitely doesn’t count this as “work”; instead, simply an extension of his lifelong passion. Or even, as he puts it, his own brand of religion: the deeply personal way that he has somehow found to capture eternal life through measuring and celebrating the inexorable passage of time.

And he talks about all this so animatedly, so engagingly, that he could make even an alarm clock sound interesting. Which, in a way, is sort of what his new chiming watch is: although with a degree of mind-bending technical sophistication that you’re unlikely to appreciate fully when you’re just waking up.

Jean-Claude BiverJean-Claude Biver - Credit WatchGecko

Jean-Claude has breath-taking skill and technical knowledge, but what sells the Biver vision is his unstoppable charisma. All too soon our interview is over, and Jean-Claude quickly sweeps into the homely inner sanctum of his office ­– inviting us to join him and take a look – to sign a few things at breakneck speed. Then he bustles out of the front door, where his black Maybach limo sits ready to depart for that much-delayed appointment in France: rear door open to welcome its famous passenger into acres of leather and mahogany.

But no sign yet of the driver. “Just one more minute and if not, I’ll drive myself!” says a grinning Jean-Claude, the owner of quite a few nice cars. He’s only half joking. Then the driver duly appears, and with a wave and a final flash of the incredible Carillon Tourbillon, Biver gets into the car and hurtles towards his next engagement, leaving us digesting a fine plume of dust in his wake.

Which is rather what he’s done over all these years with the entire Swiss watch industry as a whole…

You can see the full interview here:

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Anthony Peacock

About the Author: Anthony Peacock

I’m passionate about a lot of things but especially cars, food, wine, film – and watches.

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