There are very few true watchmaking legends left amongst us. I mean the generation that through sheer visionary brilliance, testicular fortitude, entrepreneurial élan and pure omnipotence brought about the resurrection of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Amongst those who have now ascended to horology’s Valhalla are the incredible Nicolas G. Hayek, the extraordinary Günter Blümlein, the inimitable Patrick Heiniger and, one of my personal mentors, the unforgettable Rolf Schnyder. The heretofore unseen heights the watch industry has reached today stand entirely on the foundations built by these men. The last few of these individuals — the great horological immortals — still amongst us today are Philippe Stern, the legendary leader of Patek Philippe, and one of our industry’s most beloved figures, Jean-Claude Biver.
Who exactly is Jean-Claude Biver? To try to surmise that would be trying to contain the vastness of the ocean by cupping your hands in the tide. He is, as the poet Walt Whitman would say, a man who “contains multitudes.” Amongst the various roles in the colossal heroic arc of his life’s journey, it was as a resurrectionist that he has found his greatest success and fame — first with Blancpain, and then, in the beginning of this century, he took a failing obscure brand known for combining rubber and gold in watches, and turned Hublot into one of the new millennium’s greatest success stories. But Biver’s latest role and, as he puts it, “my final one,” is as co-creator of his eponymous brand, a project that has been the subject of personal rumination for the past three decades. It is as the patron of JC Biver that the great man has found himself in the most poignant adventure of his life. Because what he is engaged in is not the mere creation of timepieces, but also the forging of a legacy that he wants to endure beyond him and be passed on to his partner in this enterprise, his son Pierre Biver.
A Journey of Rediscovery
Indeed, the story of JC Biver is, in many ways, the story of the love between a father and son, who have both discovered the world through each other’s eyes. Says Jean-Claude Biver, “I’m 74 years old. People ask me sometimes where I get my energy and my enthusiasm from? I say it is because I never get tired of discovering the world. When Pierre was a teenager, he was passionate about streetwear culture. He told me that he would love to visit Tokyo, which is the capital of this movement. I told him that I wanted to go with him. I wanted to experience Tokyo through his eyes. So he set the agenda for our trip, and we went together. And though I had visited Tokyo hundreds of times before, I rediscovered this amazing city entirely thanks to Pierre.”
Pierre shares, “From an early age, I was conscious of my father’s role in the Swiss watch industry. When I wanted to find my own path in this world, he suggested that I work at Phillips [auction house] with his friend Aurel Bacs and with a man who would become my mentor, James Marks. I fell in love with watches first through vintage timepieces, which would then give me an appreciation for modern watches as well. I loved how in this world knowledge and research are all empowering.” As it happened, Jean-Claude Biver is not only a legendary leader in the Swiss watch industry, but also one of the world’s most astute and passionate collectors of vintage timepieces focused primarily on Patek Philippe. Together, father and son would forge an extraordinary bond over the curation and refinement of their collection.
Says Jean-Claude Biver, “Pierre is modest so he will never say it, but he quickly became one of the sharpest minds in vintage collecting and really helped me to refocus on only the very best pieces. At the same time, we also both fell in love with many of the modern timepieces from brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille.”
“What was really nice was to experience this evolution as collectors together,” Pierre adds. “I remember as we became more and more infatuated with independent watchmaking, we would go to visit the legends of this world such as Philippe Dufour and François-Paul Journe together.” Soon, it became apparent that their minds and hearts were inextricably linked around their taste in watches. Says Pierre, “It became second nature for us to talk about ‘What if we were to design our own watches? What would they look like, and feel like? What complications would we love to feature? How could we bring technical innovation based on our experiences as collectors that would make better, more reliable, easier to use timepieces?’” Indeed, it seems inevitable that the father and son would eventually create their own brand.
Says Jean-Claude Biver, “Normally, it is the father that pushes the son to become part of his legacy. But with Pierre, it was the opposite way. He would ask, ‘OK, when are we going to start our brand?’ He was always quietly confident about this. It was me that struggled at some moments. I initially wanted to buy a brand and resurrect it or bring it to the next level, something that is as familiar to me as breathing. I will admit that the idea of putting my name on the dial was, in some ways, intimidating. I asked myself, ‘What was my legitimacy? What would be my core values?’ For me to build another brand is easy. But to build my own brand, to expose my soul in this way, was a totally different challenge. Then, I had an accident and I realized that time is finite and precious. I had one opportunity left. I had maybe another decade where I could work at the level I expected of myself. I could not waste this chance. I had to create my own brand together with my son. And so I told him, ‘Yes, Pierre it is time.’ And with that, we took the first irreversible step forward into the unknown.”
Lessons of the Past
The first thing that father and son immediately shared was that their brand would be an expression of neoclassical watchmaking. In many ways, the project would transport Jean-Claude Biver 40 years into the past, when he first embarked on the resurrection of Blancpain in partnership with the legendary Jacques Piguet. What they would achieve between 1983 and 1992 was unprecedented in horology. Within just nine years, they would have a massive role in the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking. But then, in 1992, Biver would sell the brand to the Swatch Group.
He admits, “I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly before, but I have always regretted selling Blancpain. So why did I do it? I was going through my divorce of my first wife. It was the first time I had ever failed at anything. Before that, I had always had success. Success in sports, in business and even with women. But this was truly demoralizing. Just a few years before, I felt I had been on top of the world.
“Probably, for me, the high point was when I closed my factory and took all of my employees on a trip to Naples. There, we went to look at the micro-mosaics at the National Archaeological Museum to understand that from the beginning of time, man was able to express such incredible beauty through his mind and his hands. This was the beauty that we transmitted to our watches. When I came back, I received a long scroll signed by every one of my employees that pledged to work five Sundays in return for the seven days that I had given them for the trip. I was immensely touched by this. But, in sharp contrast, a few years later, while going through my divorce, I fell into a depression and I stopped going to the office. One day, my friend who sat on my board of directors, said to me, ‘Either you snap out of it and you come back to this office or you should sell the company, because there are some people interested to purchase it.’ Before I knew it, I instinctively said, ‘Go ahead and sell it.’ A few days later, he called me up and told me that he had organized the sale to Mr. Hayek of the Swatch Group. It didn’t take me long to realize that this would become one of my greatest regrets.
Blancpain was the brand in the ’80s that revived mechanical and complicated watchmaking. In less than a decade, we had mastered every known complication, and some of the movements we made, such as the ultra thin column wheel, vertical clutch caliber 1185, are still amongst the best today. I would sometimes wonder what would life be like if I had never sold and continued in the tradition of classical watchmaking, which is truly where my heart lies.”
Reframing the Art of Classical Watchmaking
So when it came time to create his eponymous brand, Jean-Claude Biver already had over 30 years of thinking about the type of watches he wanted to create.
He explains, “One of the greatest things that happened to me when I was at Blancpain was my partnership with Jacques Piguet. It was because of him that we were able to create any complication we imagined. One of the chapters we had always planned, but never had the opportunity to implement, was to pay tribute to the person we considered to have been the greatest movement maker of the Vallée de Joux in the 19th century and that was Louis-Elisée Piguet. When I was thinking of the type of watchmaking I wanted to create together with Pierre, we discussed it with Jacques who sits on our board of directors. I said, ‘Do you remember we used to always discuss your great-grandfather’s movements?’ He replied, of course he remembered. I said, what if we use him as a source of inspiration for JC Biver because, in many ways, this is the type of watchmaking I had always wanted to do as a continuation of our work together. Jacques smiled and said he loved this idea — to celebrate the culture and legacy of this legend of Vallée de Joux watchmaking. You will see this more and more as we develop the brand.”
If the name Louis-Elisée Piguet sounds familiar, that’s because he was one of the most famous movement makers specializing in complications and, in particular, the grande et petite sonnerie. Indeed, a vintage Louis-Elisée Piguet movement was used as the base of Parmigiani Fleurier’s La Rose Carrée Grande et Petite Sonnerie, a masterpiece overseen by Michel Parmigiani and his daughter Anne- Laure. Another reason you may have heard of the name is that a Louis-Elisée Piguet movement was also used by Franck Muller and later Paul Gerber as the base of the mega collector Lord Arran’s famous Superbia Humanitatis, which, in 1992, was the world’s most complicated wristwatch. Based on a 32mm in diameter and 8mm in height ladies’ grande sonnerie pocket watch movement, this was modified by Muller in 1992 to also incorporate a perpetual calendar with thermometer, and then by Gerber to feature a flying tourbillon and later a split seconds chronograph with precise jumping minute counter.
But what about JC Biver’s first watch? Well, this has now been unveiled to the world as a beautiful, classical micro-rotor automatic tourbillon with minute repeater. It is sized at 42mm in diameter and features a spectacular integrated bracelet.
It is also a very beautifully finished timepiece. Says Pierre Biver, “We recognize that the most sophisticated collectors’ tastes have evolved to focus on three things: truly beautiful neoclassical design, incredible technical innovation but in smaller wearable sizes, and sublime hand finishing. As these are also our primary considerations as collectors, we understood very well the desirability of these values.”
Says Jean-Claude Biver, “Having owned all of the most iconic vintage watches over the years, I have acquired a sense of what creates enduring beauty. There is a certain sensitivity in the details, the contrast between the shape of the lugs where it joins the mid-case. At the same time, because of our collection and because of the invaluable time he spent at Phillips, Pierre has acquired a similar sensitivity. It was a real pleasure to define our aesthetic spirit. We both arrived at the idea of a bracelet because many of our favorite watches, especially the more rare Patek Philippes, come on these ‘beads of rice’ or brick-style bracelets. But we wanted a truly unique decorative pattern in the shape of the links.”
Building a Brand for the Future
Another major priority for both father and son was that the movement’s finish should take its prospective owners’ breath away. In order to achieve that, they brought in some of the industry’s most experienced artisans in hand finishing. Says Jean-Claude Biver, “We need to let our head of development and head of finishing work together at the start of every project so that technical innovation is always matched by aesthetic beauty.”
Pierre explains, “One thing we want to be clear about is that we are not just a manufacture, in that we do not make necessarily all the components of our movement in-house. Instead, we are an établisseur [a watchmaker that also buys ébauches and parts, and then assembles them]. Until the late 20th century, this was the way that watches were made by even the biggest names, such as those comprising horology’s holy trinity. Établisseurs would create a design, then they would source the movement, often in ébauche form, and they would decorate it to the highest level, they would assemble it and place it in a case and mate it to the dial, which they would order from the best suppliers. Actually it was really only in the ’80s and ’90s that the terms ‘manufacture’ and ‘in-house’ became known. Much of this has to do with my father and the strategy he implemented at Blancpain with Jacques Piguet as his partner.”
Says Jean-Claude Biver with a laugh, “Yes, I was amongst the first to use this concept of things created under one roof. Because, in those early years, during the revival of mechanical watchmaking, we needed strong storytelling and this was one thing that really resonated with collectors. Later, when brands and movement makers were purchased by big groups, it became popular to call something in-house. One of the most brilliant men to use this as a marketing strategy was Günter Blümlein, who oversaw the creation of A. Lange & Söhne using this blueprint.”
Over the last two years, the father-and-son pair scoured the landscape of haute de gamme horlogerie for the right partners. Jean-Claude Biver reveals, “We searched all over Switzerland. Finally, it was two important and long-time friends that suggested Alain Schiesser of Le Cercle des Horlogers. They had all worked together at BNB Concept, along with people like Rexhep Rexhepi, in the mid 2000s. So we went to visit him and were truly impressed with what we saw.”
Says Alain Schiesser, “Of course, the pressure is great when you are given the opportunity to work with one of the true legends of the watch industry. It was an immense honor to be selected by Jean-Claude and Pierre to create the movements for their first watch in collaboration.”
Pierre adds, “Together with our head of development François Perez [formerly of Concepto] who oversees all the technical development of our watches, we have created a plan well into the foreseeable future. I don’t want to reveal too much, but we are working on timepieces with proportions that make them incredibly wearable and elegant.”
Says Jean-Claude Biver, “One thing that Pierre and I decided was to make our headquarters in a farm in Givrins an incubator for the next generation of independent watchmakers and artisans looking to elevate the culture of hand finishing and craft. It is wonderful to see so many young people interested in the very same thing that drove me 40 years ago to create a brand. We want to give back to this incredible culture by transmitting skills from one generation to the next.”
With that, it seems that Jean-Claude Biver has cemented his legacy as one of the last and greatest living watchmaking legends. His brand, as such, resonates with this sense of gravitas and importance. Lastly, it seems impossible to end this story without asking the younger Biver what it’s been like to work side by side with his father. Their manner with each other can be charmingly cacophonous, characterized by good-natured arguing that belies a profound and touching sense of mutual love. Says Pierre in response, “Look, it is very clear to me that I am not my father and will never be my father. Because he is one of the greatest geniuses of our industry. It has never been my intention to emulate my father, but to learn from him and to bring my own passion and my own perspective to the project that we are embarked on together, which is a dream come true for me.”
Says Jean-Claude Biver, “This might be my last adventure in this industry I love so much, but it is the one I am the most excited about. I feel like I did in 1983 when I was just starting out. But better because I have had a whole lifetime of experience to learn from. And most importantly, I get to experience every moment of my adventure with my son, who is also my partner and my best friend.”
Carillon Tourbillon Biver
Movement: Self-winding caliber JCB-001;72-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes, tourbillon, carillon minute repeater, micro-rotor
Case: 42mm; titanium or 5N gold; water resistant to 50m
Strap: 5N gold or titanium, exclusive five-link BIVER design
Price: Starting from CHF 520,000 / EUR 520,000 / USD 550,000