The Jewelry District, Episode 117: Guest Jean-Claude Biver


JCK editor-in-chief Victoria Gomelsky and news director Rob Bates speak with Jean-Claude Biver, a living legend of the watch world. He regales the hosts with stories of his introduction to the industry 50 years ago, his time at Audemars Piguet, bringing back the historic brand Blancpain, heading up Hublot, and how he brought pizzazz to Omega with help from Cindy Crawford and James Bond. He also reflects on how all those experiences are shaping what he and his son are doing at his new venture, the luxury watch brand JC Biver.

Presenting sponsor: De Beers (institute.debeers.com)
Sponsor: Nivoda (nivoda.com/jdpodcast)

Show notes
02:30 50 years in the Swiss watch business
06:30 Industry versus artistry
09:30 Reviving a historic brand
12:40 Aspirations to acquire Hublot
14:20 Looking back to look forward
19:20 Marketing success at Omega
21:25 Biver and his future

Episode credits
Hosts: Rob Bates and Victoria Gomelsky
Producer and engineer: Natalie Chomet
Editor: Riley McCaskill
Plugs: @jckmagazineinstitute.debeers.com; nivoda.com/jdpodcast

Show recap
50 years in the Swiss watch business
Victoria asks about Jean-Claude’s 50 years in the watch business. He notes that there are many young people in the Swiss watch industry now, and he is grateful to be surrounded  “the people of tomorrow,” as he calls them, instead of “the people of yesterday.”

As a university student, Jean-Claude was a self-described hippie who lived on a commune. He recalls when he and his friends first heard the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” The idea expressed in the song became his guiding principle: to love one another, to love his passion and his job, and to be honest. But he didn’t know what his passion was yet.

Jean-Claude’s friend Frédéric Piguet invited Jean-Claude to his father’s 70th birthday, where Jean-Claude met Georges Golay, who was then the managing director of Audemars Piguet. Biver asked Golay for a job, and Golay told him to come to the Audemars Piguet office the next day.

Jean-Claude showed up at the office, but wasn’t offered a job—more of an apprenticeship at half salary. (The other half was “to pay for his training.”) Despite some reservations, he accepted—and never left the business.

Industry versus artistry
“We are not in the watch industry,” Jean-Claude says. “We are in the watchmaking art. And art is different from industry.”

To illustrate the difference, Jean-Claude describes polishing parts of a watch movement so they perfectly match the screws—even though nobody will see them except the watchmaker. “That doesn’t change the quality, but it gives the soul,” Jean-Claude says.

Reviving a historic brand
In 1979, Jean-Claude left Audemars Piguet after four years and went to work for Omega. Two years later, he realized he wanted to get back to the emotions and art of watches. So, together with his friend Frédéric Piguet, Biver proceeded to purchase a brand that had been defunct for 22 years: Blancpain, the oldest watch company in Switzerland.

“There was no house, there was no factory, there was nothing. There was just the name,” recalls Jean-Claude. He considers reviving this historic brand as his first big success. But with that triumph, Jean-Claude also acknowledges a personal defeat: the dissolution of his first marriage.

He was so desperate to make a change, he sold Blancpain to Swatch Group—but quickly realized the enormity of his mistake. “‘What have you done?” he remembers thinking. “You have sold your soul!’”

Biver contacted Nicolas Hayek, then the CEO of Swatch Group. to help restructure Omega, which was now owned by Swatch. He stayed at Swatch Group for 12 years, working with Omega and Blancpain.

Aspirations to acquire Hublot
Jean-Claude eventually left Omega and sought to buy Hublot. The brand was doing so well, though, he wasn’t able to acquire it all at once: He could purchase only 20% at first, and he gradually increased his stake from there. Then a majority shareholder, who’d been diagnosed with cancer, decided to sell Hublot to LVMH, rather than to Biver, because it made a better offer. Jean-Claude sold his Hublot shares and went on with the company under LVMH ownership through 2008.

Looking back to look forward
When Rob asks Jean-Claude to explain how Blancpain’s revival became a success, Jean-Claude notes that at the time, quartz watches were incredibly popular. But he saw a drawback to them: the battery, which puts an expiration date on the watch’s life. He believed the future of watches lay in going back to the past—mechanical watches.

Victoria asks how he convinced people he was right about mechanical watches. Biver says that when he went to the bank to ask for a loan to start producing them, he held up a Montblanc fountain pen and explained that even if it’s not practical, it shows your personality. He drew a comparison to the mechanical watch, in how links its wearer to history.

This positioning appealed to the hippie generation. “Once they made money, they started wearing watches again,” Jean-Claude says. He sees continuing interest today in mechanical watches.

Biver also shares an anecdote about his father handing down his watch to him, and how that made the piece meaningful. “I still have the watch, and it still works. That is a piece of eternity. Nobody can compete with eternity,” he exclaims.

Marketing success at Omega
Upon joining Omega, Biver told the other executives: “The industry doesn’t need more art. It needs people.” So he worked to develop a “people’s brand” using celebrities in advertising. He recruited supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1993, and she’s still a spokesperson for Omega.

For the men’s collection, Biver brought in James Bond, partnering with the movie franchise. Jean-Claude believes these campaigns he initiated succeeded because Crawford is a woman whom women like and James Bond is a character men admire. (The brand was also helped by its Speedmaster’s journey to the moon, worn by Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969.)

Biver and his future
Jean-Claude’s new watch company is JC Biver, which he started with his son Pierre in 2023. How does he define this luxury brand? “We are trying to be first, different, and unique.” It’s all about taking the time and care to pay attention to every detail. JC Biver made 11 watches last year, and plans to produce 15 this year. “The luxury is in what you cannot see,” Jean-Claude says. “You need perfection. Without perfection, the soul of the watch will never come out.”

Any views expressed in this podcast do not reflect the opinion of JCK, its management, or its advertisers.

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By: Natalie Chomet

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