Top Swatch Group exec to work with watchmaker Franck Muller

A top executive of the Swatch Group, the world’s largest watch producer and distributor, has taken a leave of absence to work with luxury watchmaker Franck Muller, whose dispute with his own former company has generated much interest within the Swiss watch industry.

Jean-Claude Biver, a member of the Executive Group Management Board of the Swatch Group, is taking a year-long sabbatical to “help a watchmaker colleague, Mr. Franck Muller, in various activities,” said a Jan. 7 announcement issued by the Swatch Group, headquartered in Biel, Switzerland.

According to the statement, the leave of absence was at Biver’s request, and “agreed with” by the conglomerate’s management.

Biver, a Swiss watch industry veteran, in 1983 relaunched the 269-year-old Swiss luxury watch brand Blancpain (later purchased by the Swatch Group) and successfully reestablished it in the very high-end watch market. He was president of Blancpain until January 2002, and also CEO of Omega for a while. In addition to serving on the board of the Swatch Group, he has been co-responsible for Swatch Group Japan, Swatch Group South Korea, Swatch Group Singapore, and Swatch Group Malaysia. During his sabbatical, he won’t be involved in any functions of the Swatch Group, but will resume his activities when he returns to the Swatch Group.

Franck Muller, a well-known, innovative luxury watchmaker, last year left Franck Muller Watchland—the company in Genthod, Switzerland, that he co-founded with former partner Vartan Sirmakes—following disputes between the two. Muller subsequently set up a new office in Geneva, Switzerland. He and his former company and Sirmakes remain at odds.

The Swatch Group claimed about 25% of world watch production sales in 2001, producing some 114 million watches, movements, and stepping motors. It offers watches in all price and market categories, from mass market, fashion, and private label to high-end luxury, with 17 different brands.