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As far as interview subjects go, Jean-Claude Biver is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. With a frenetic energy that belies his 66-years, the CEO of TAG Heuer, President of LVMH’s Watches Division and CEO, board member and minority shareholder of Swiss watchmakers Hublot, is a towering figure not only in the rarefied world of luxury timepieces but in stature, reputation, energy, and charisma.
In Australia recently to support the unveiling of TAG Heuer’s newest brand ambassador, Chris Hemsworth, Biver spoke to GRAZIA about his storied career as the venerable godfather of luxury timepieces, why watched continue to matter in the era of the smartwatch, and why he wants Kimye for his next campaign.
What was your first significant timepiece? “When I was eight-years-old, my grandfather offered me my first watch for my first Catholic communion, an Omega Constellation. I lost it while I was skiing. My mother said, ‘You should not put your watch on when you ski,’ and I [ignored her]. When I came back, the watch was gone. Terrible. But I bought the same 1958 model back on the auction market because I was so desperate, but it’s not the same because it didn’t have my name on the back.”
Why do you think it is that people become so attached emotionally to their timepieces? “If your grandfather gives you a watch [you form] a great attachment. Before he died, my father gave me the watch his wife, my mother, offered him in 1947 and he said to me, ‘This is the watch your mother offered me. I give it to you.’ So the emotion of such a watch is unlimited, and that is the beauty of watches because it is something that is very close to you. If somebody offers you shoes, that’s okay, it’s a nice thing you might put on somewhere but cannot walk in the shoes of others. You can, however, wear the watch of your father. So that’s the magic of watches. There’s a lot of symbolism and it can transfer happiness or the wish of happiness from one wrist to another one. That’s their beauty. A watch is like a ring, it engages people or it [speaks] to people and only a watch can do that.”
Do you think that the heirloom quality of the watch is being lost as smartwatches become more prominent? “No, it has come back. The more people face what becomes obsolete, the more people they face what they have to throw away, the disaster of pollution and the disaster of plastic in the sea. People are becoming conscious of what should be eternal, what should last and what should have real authentic value. So it will come back.”
To reach the level in your career where you’re not only the CEO of TAG Heuer, the President of LVMH’s Watches Division and the CEO, board member, and a minority shareholder in Hublot, you must’ve taken some immense risks? What would you consider to be one gamble that you made but that didn’t necessarily pay off in a manner you would’ve considered to be successful? “There are little things that didn’t work, yes. There were some expectations when we relaunched products a long time ago that wasn’t performing the way I wanted. That was a flop even. So we created a few flops at both Hublot and at Omega.”
And what did those experiences teach you? “You learn that the product development is not easy. At the end of the day, the customer is king and even if you believe that the watch is great, and if everybody in the company says it’s fantastic, that doesn’t mean it will be a success. So when everybody agrees that it will be great, I always remember there’s [a benefit to having] doubts, because that’s the only way a flop can happen. So I’m always careful when everybody believes it will be good.”
So a level of skepticism is a healthy thing to have? “Yes. The doubt, I say, the doubt is your friend. Don’t kill the doubt. Let the doubt come and tell you. Don’t say to the doubt, ‘Hey doubt, go. I’ve already checked with my people, leave me alone.’
“Don’t do that. Let the doubt come. The doubt is your friend.”
What do you consider to be the greatest challenge facing your industry, and the generation who will inherit it? “Young people very often they don’t get the trust they deserve. The only challenge is to understand [the next] generation. The problem of the previous generation is that very often they [only] understand their generation but not the next. And why? Because they are stubborn and they don’t want to learn. They believe what they know is right. But you have to learn that what you know is probably wrong. You must constantly look, you must constantly listen and you must constantly learn. And if you do not learn why the young generation behaves like that, why the music of the young generation is that one, why they dress this way, why they spend so much money on certain shoes like the Yeezy shoes [then] you will fail. So first understand.
“I went to London and Tokyo with my youngest son who is 16-years-old, we went to London I took him shopping. I wanted him to show me what he loves: the Supreme shop, the Palace shop, the Off-White shop and all of that. Then he brought me to [tattoo artist] Maxime Buchi and now I’ve made a [Hublot] watch with him. [My son] brought me to [TAG ambassador] Cara Delevingne, so without him, I would just be an old man.”
“Never stop trying to understand the future.”
Do you think the concept of luxury is still relevant for his generation, and each successive one after that? “Of course. There are already mad about luxury. They queue up for Yeezy shoes and then they buy them for $1000 on the secondary market. I mean, it’s insane. In our days we would never have spent $1,000 on a sneaker. So the young generation is so close to luxury already that it’s frightening. They are much more conscious about luxury than any other generation.”
Who would be your dream TAG Heuer ambassador? Who exemplifies that spirit for the next generation? “Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. I would say to Kanye West, ‘Can you design me your TAG Heuer Connected watch? I want your input. I want to see what you can bring me.’ So he would be the designer I would like to have, and also the ambassador to help me promote it, that would be a dream. He is not an ambassador alone; he’s a designer too. And he has visions about what the new generation will want.”
What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered? “As the team manager who has created, around himself, the strongest teams in every watch brand he managed. And the day I retire, if I have five people in five brands who are the CEOs and can say “I worked with JC Biver for fifteen or twenty years’, then I’ll leave something behind that will survive after my death, and that’s what I want to do. To survive after I die through my job, through my people, through my five kids, and my love for my family. That is why I have to help young people, to push them to do that job after me.”
Have your children expressed any interest in inheriting that mantle? “Yes, of course. One is already in charge of Zenith, TAG and Hublot, for greater China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The other one is in product development for TAG Heuer, and the younger is helping me with Jay-Z, with Cara Delevingne, and with [Off-White’s] Virgil Abloh.”
You should collaborate with Virgil on a watch. “Yeah, I will ask him. I will ask him now. I am his mate. [Searches through phone] ‘Abloh, Virgil’. I only have his email address but I will ask him.
‘TAG Heuer watch by Virgil Abloh. Dear Virgil, [laughs] Shall we not make a TAG Heuer Connected watch designed by you? Would be great to partner.’ See? I do it immediately. And that’s also what I do. ‘See you soon, maybe in London with Maxime. Best regards from Sydney.’ Then I put Maxime Buchi and my son on ‘copy’. BOOM, gone. I’d prefer to pause the interview and do this. Other people would say, ‘Ah I’ll do it tonight’, but tonight is too late. Do it now.”
“See, this is the secret. Do everything immediately. Don’t wait. I’ve never waited.”