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Jean Clade Biver: the Van Gogh of Veritas?

I’ve sometimes wondered if my understanding regarding the watch industry would be any different if I spoke and read the “native tongue” of horology. Of course, defining that native tongue is, itself, very difficult. For me, the language that most comes to mind is French. I spent quite a few years studying Spanish and was somewhat decent at it earlier in my life, but I’m just not sure French is in the cards for me at this point, although I wish it were.

A photo I took of a display at Phillips' auction house in NYC during a retrospective of M. Biver's career and collection.
Fortunately, we live in an era populated by a wide array of translation tools. Periodically I use these to “peak behind the curtain” of French dialogue regarding the watch industry. In my most recent effort, I used some online services to translate a recording of an interview that Jean Claude Biver gave to a Swiss radio station. Biver doesn’t need an introduction, but I’ll just offer a few key points from his long career in watchmaking, not necessarily in chronological order. He worked for and lead Omega, bought and “resurrected” Blancpain (subsequently he sold it to the Swatch Group) and he also lead Hublot. He is a top-tier watch collector and an extremely telegenic presence.

After reviewing a translation of Biver’s interview, I’m a bit more convinced that, for me, language has limited my access to some important information regarding the watch industry. In order to illustrate, I’ll share some of the most surprising things that came across in the interview translation and a few reasons for why I found them surprising. One of the main points of the interview was that Biver is launching an eponymous watch brand with his family. I will basically ignore that announcement in my discussion here because it has been extensively and effectively covered elsewhere. I do think it is important and I’m looking forward to seeing what Biver has up his sleeve.

Without further ado, “hot takes” from a translation of M. Biver:

1. The “Watchmaking Crisis”

Godwin’s Law is: “an Internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1” (source). For horology, I’d say that as a conversation about watches grows longer, the probability that someone will mention the “Quartz Crisis” approaches 1. Sure enough, at some point Biver's interview turned to the so-called “Quartz Crisis.”

A portion of M. Biver's collection on display at the Phillips' retrospective in New York City. Decidedly not quartz, as expected.
Swiss watchmaking did certainly face an existential calamity during the 1970s. Nobody disputes that many brands folded and many people lost their jobs. The 70s were definitely a period of stressful and traumatic upheaval. What surprised me was that Biver referred to this episode as “the watchmaking crisis” rather than using the habitual “Quartz Crisis” label for this. I have argued, as have others, that quartz did not precipitate the crisis. Instead, rapid appreciation in the Swiss franc harmed export competitiveness and earnings. I just found it interesting that M. Biver chose to avoid the "Quartz Crisis” label and, to be honest, I was glad he did. I don’t know if that is something typifying French language conversations about this topic but I thought it was worth noting.

2. A Media Personality

I thought this part of the interview was fascinating. The interviewer and Biver seemed to concur that Biver almost performs an act for media. The two talked about various aspects of that performance. They seemed to agree that the performance wasn’t something you could necessarily teach. I will come back to some details Biver shared about his “performance” strategy a bit later.

Various surveys suggest that the youngest generation places a very high value on authenticity. If it is a fact that watch industry executives have consciously “performed” in public, that may be an approach that has less traction as time progresses.

3. The Biverphone

Biver shared that he set up an automated system at Hublot so that he would get a text message every time an “end consumer” made a purchase. This reminded me of the Batphone from the 1970s Batman television series.

An example Batphone, this under glass. Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.
The technical details were fuzzy, but it might have involved registrations for warranties. Biver said he received something like 20-30,000 SMS messages through this system. He suggested that this was emblematic of a very important point for watch brands: they must stay engaged with actual collectors and consumers. I’ve discussed elsewhere that brands are actually fairly upstream from collectors, with authorized dealers serving as downstream intermediaries. There are all kinds of benefits from this, but it also means that dealers may possess more information about collectors than brands. Biver reiterated how important it was that brands not operate in a vacuum when it comes to collectors and that they maintain a robust channel providing information directly from consumers. He also said that he, now and then, liked to send a piece of the cheese that he makes to his brands’ clients (there is at least one other podcast in which Biver discussed “unothordox” methods for getting his cheese into other countries).

4. Dealing with Journalists

I was most surprised by how frank Biver seemed in this section of the interview. The discussion had something of a split personality. Biver acknowledged that he respected journalists and that he may have never turned down an interview. It is impressive that he granted this level of access. He also said that it was important to approach journalists with sincerity, truth and humility.

Biver also acknowledged that there were certain strategies which were effective at gathering journalistic attention and engagement. In particular, journalists are drawn to “storytellers” in his experience, and they also want to feel honesty in the discussion. At one point he seemed to describe himself as a “priest” and he indicated that he “feeds” or “passes on truth” to journalists. For me, this evoked the Catholic tradition of communion, in which a priest will give parishioners the “eucharist” during a service (it is a thin wafer meant to embody “the body of Christ”). This interpretation may be a stretch, but characterizing a watch industry CEO as someone who “feeds truth” to journalists was definitely not something I had ever imagined before.

5. Van Gogh of Veritas

This was also a really fascinating part of the interview. Biver indicated that he was an “Impressionist of the truth.” Impressionism was a school of visual arts in which an object’s actual details were not necessarily perfectly captured in a work. Instead, the artist interpreted imagery and presented it in a stylized fashion which allowed the viewer to understand the reality underpinning the work of art while also seeing it in a very different way.

Biver gave an example of how an Impressionist might not actually paint evergreen trees as they really look. The interviewer said something like “well, you can’t say the trees are red when they’re green” and Biver demurred. His response went along the lines of “well, you can say things like the setting of the sun gave me the impression that they were becoming red and it reminded me of death, which I associate with red.” I’ll admit I didn’t exactly follow this part, but I think I could see where he was going with this.

I’m just not certain if I can accept the idea of an “Impressionist of the truth.” Biver insisted this approach was different from being a liar or lying, but I really tend to have a binary view of the truth: either you are speaking it or you aren’t. I’m sure there is a whole epistemiology on this kind of thing, but I just like to keep the truth and the false black and white. An other approach means exchanging information is just too tricky. For example, how much of this interview was an Impressionistic portrayal of Biver’s industry leadership that he painted for the interviewer and his listeners? Did Biver actually get SMS messages about Hublot sales or did someone tell him that he could have received those SMS messages? It is definitely a tangled web we weave when we aim to deceive.

In summary, this 30 minute interview was, as in most things Biver, extremely fascinating. I feel encouraged to continue translating and reviewing Franch-language coverage of the watch industry. I do believe it provides otherwise unavailable insights. However, significnat caution must be exercised in using these software-derived translations. A lot of nuance and innuendo just can’t be conveyed by algorithms and AI, at least for the next few years.

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