An Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

The CEO of TAG Heuer, chairman of Hublot and president of LVMH Watches, Jean-Claude Biver, talks new and vintage with Aaron Sigmond.

 

If you’ve bought a fine watch in the past 20 years (and if you’re reading this, the odds of that are good), then one man has influenced that purchase, either directly or indirectly: Jean-Claude Biver.

I’ve interviewed Mr. Biver a number of times over the last decade, and for good reason: Few executives in the conservative Swiss watch industry give sound bites as unabashedly and directly as he does. He’s a force of nature, so ubiquitous that many refer to him simply as “JCB” — a one-man juggernaut renowned for his clever marketing and strategic partnerships.

 We recently exchanged e-mails in which we delve into his thoughts on TAG Heuer’s new (and controversial) releases, the skyrocketing market for vintage Heuers and his state of mind in general. Never short on answers, the lad from Luxembourg, now “JCB”, watch-industry icon and cheesemaker extraordinaire, had this to say.

 

THE NEW

At Baselworld this year, TAG Heuer caused a stir by releasing the Carrera Heuer 02T, a house-produced Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC)-certified flying Tourbillon chronograph priced at CHF 15,000 (typically Tourbillons start around CHF 60,000). Thierry Stern, chairman of Patek Philippe, was scandalized. “This is nearly a joke to me,” he told Bloomberg, charging TAG Heuer with having sacrificed “sophisticated craftsmanship for a rush for sales.” Counters JCB, himself a Patek Philippe collector: “Never did I receive such a compliment during [Baselworld] as the one Thierry Stern made, telling the whole world that our Tourbillon is too cheap, or that we should have sold the watch for much more money. It gave our Tourbillon acclaim, and the best PR campaign.”

“Honestly,” he adds of the naysayers, “I don’t understand their point. When we sell our in-house skeleton chronograph movement for $4,900 and theirs are sold for $30,000, they don’t react. We wanted to have a perceived value between 40,000 and 60,000 Swiss francs, which would have a retail price between 10,000 and 15,000.”

One Luxembourg-born executive and watch enthusiast who attended BaselWorld — which allows consumers to attend — put things neatly into perspective, though. “Take a Ferrari with a V12,” he told Bloomberg. “If [Audi] would come out with a V12 at half the price, I believe a Ferrari will still sell.”

 

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

Over the decades of the Heuer and TAG Heuer “Big Three,” Carrera and Monaco have taken center stage, while Autavia has waited in the shadows for its moment. Considering record-breaking vintage-Autavia auction prices and its forthcoming reissue, in March 2017, that moment seems to have arrived. To what does JCB attribute the increase in interest? “The resurgence of Autavia is clearly linked to the general resurgence of interest in TAG Heuer,” he says. “During the more difficult periods for the watch industry, TAG Heuer has been active and dynamic, both in marketing and product creativity. All this has awoken new interest in the brand. As the Autavia has always been one of the most legendary products of the brand, it’s normal that interest in it has gained momentum.”

It’s an understatement that vintage Heuers — some of which are increasing in value by 50 percent a quarter — are red-hot.

Does he think that, say, the Heuer Camaro will ever make a similar comeback, given that its vintages prices are also on the rise? “It’s not our goal to bring back the past, although the past has been exceptionally successful and rich,” he says. “It is nevertheless obvious that we’re going to build the future on — and with — the past. Concerning the re-edition of the Camaro, it is not for the moment in our plans, but who knows if in the coming 10 or 20 years we won’t start a re-edition of this legendary piece?”

 

THE VINTAGE

It’s an understatement that vintage Heuers — some of which are increasing in value by 50 percent a quarter — are red-hot. What are the vintage market’s ancillary benefits to TAG Heuer, beyond opening potential market space for further reissues? “As the brand is quite hot again — cool, young, dynamic and extremely active — it’s just a logical consequence that the vintage pieces of the brand are totally benefitting from the status and activity of the brand itself,” JCB says. “Especially as collectors start to look for alternatives to the two leading classic-watch brands, Patek Philippe and Rolex.”

 

The Swiss watch world closes all its factory doors for three weeks every summer in order to give everyone — watchmakers and executives alike — time to decompress and enjoy family and friends. As he signed off from our correspondence, Biver noted that he was looking forward to a “staycation” at his home in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland. “My home is the place where I feel that in one day I recover as much as in one week anyplace else in the world,” he mused. Even JCB, it seems, needs downtime.

 


Aaron Sigmond is the author of DRIVE TIME: Watches Inspired by Automobiles, Motorcycles and Racing, with a foreword by Jay Leno and a Rolex Daytona Chapter by Ariel Adams of aBlogtoWatch.