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High-end independents are changing the watch world

Chris Hall
July 4, 2024
10 min

The pandemic turbocharged interest in watches. And while the years since have seen a natural drop-off in interest for hyped-up status pieces, the horological world is still feeling the effect of that interest. Collectors acquired knowledge faster than ever. The appetite for high-end, hard-to-get timepieces grew. And it has now become normal for new brands to debut with eye-watering price tags on limited runs that, nevertheless, are spoken for on day one. With demand – and consequently waiting lists ­­– off the scale, has there never been a better time to run an indie watch brand? Or does the increase in attention, influx of outside investors and inevitable question of growth threaten to spoil the point of declaring independence?

Arguably the most hotly-awaited – and also mysterious – arrival on the high-end indie watch scene in 2023 was that of Biver, the eponymous brand founded by father Jean-Claude, (erstwhile former CEO of Blancpain, Hublot, TAG Heuer and managing director of LVMH’s watchmaking division), and son Pierre. Debuting on the eve of Watches and Wonders in Geneva, the brand announced itself with a volume befitting its senior partner. Not many brands would lead out with a minute repeater carillon tourbillon, nor with a watch that would leave no change from half a million euros. In fact, the cheapest version cost €520,000. If it had been anyone else, the audacity might have seemed misplaced, but reactions were rapturous. One question only remained: why a man with so little left to prove, would make such a watch without the backing he has been used to.

“To be independent teaches me responsibility,” says Mr Biver. “I don't say the employees have no sense of responsibility. But the responsibility is never the same as when it belongs to you. When you are independent, you are also alone. You really have no way to hide, you have no way to cheat, you have no way to lie. It’s the (contradiction) of being in a big group. Depending on your character, it can be negative, or it can be positive. So many people feel more comfortable to be a member of a group than to be alone. And I must say now that I'm again, independent – because I was before, with my first brand Blancpain – I can feel what loneliness means.” 

Explaining that he loves the thrill of making live-or-die decisions in the context of running his own business, he continues. “To be independent is an extraordinary advantage. If you are in a big group, you are a little bit outside the reality, because you are protected by the power of the group. When you are alone, nobody protects you. What was important for me as an independent, was that I could not repeat what I did before. There is no creativity! It's like repeating a lesson. I never did a brand that would produce 15 watches in one year. Never did a brand where the entry price was half a million! What I do today is extremely exciting for me, because it's the first time: if it had been the 65th time that I did it, I would not be excited!”

As convincing as that may sound, nobody is going to confuse one of the most respected and experienced executives in the business with a total newcomer. The Biver name, while not yet a byword for haute horlogerie finishing or artisanal purity, carries a lot of weight. Surely, I suggest, this also softened the ground a little.

“It's like if you're a football player, and you get the highest salary and you join Manchester United. I have to show that I was worth the money”, says Biver, adding however that “fifty years ago it was impossible to sell a million-pound watch! It didn’t exist. We have undergone a huge inflation: the watch has taken up a new position among society and among collectors.” It’s a theme taken up by Max Büsser, founder of MB&F, as he reflects on nearly twenty years at the helm of his brand. “It has never been easier. The first 15 years and the last three years? It’s a complete change of paradigm. Since late 2020, early 2021, we have seen 10 times more clients coming up to us saying they want to buy a piece. And I'm like: ‘where were you guys?’”

MB&F founder Max Büsser

Büsser has the balanced perspective of one who knows the current purple patch may not last forever, but is very happy not to be on the back foot. Citing the many changes that have aided the would-be indie watchmaker since he began on his own in 2007, he hones in on a crucial point: what was once niche and hidden can now enjoy visibility on a par with far bigger brands. Where retailers previously had to be strenuously courted, and customers might discover the watches only in increments, social media and e-commerce has removed many of those barriers. “This new generation doesn't have set retailers, they just put a photo of a prototype online on social media, and everybody goes, ‘Wow, take my money!’” he laughs.

Popularity has brought its own challenges, however. “In the last two years, our suppliers had so much work. Some of our artisans would deliver a part in three months. Now it's 12. So that becomes complicated,” says Büsser. “So whereas it's been much easier on one side, it's become dramatically more difficult on the other. And, of course, maintaining quality when you have so much work [causes] stress and pressure. Most artisans or suppliers, they rarely know how to say no, because they've all had such tough times that they will take on any order, and try and please everybody. That's not possible.”

It would seem, to anyone active in the watch world for the last decade or more, that complaints about the current situation are hard to swallow, especially when we saw so many indie brands struggle to the point of bankruptcy and even extinction between 2015-2019 when conditions were not so buoyant. But the problems are real, especially when small delays can start a domino effect. Büsser mentions a number of watches whose production was delayed for the lack of a single component. Besides, in this corner of the market, it really is a community, and the last thing anyone wants is to develop a reputation for exhausting customers’ patience. It has provided a whole new learning curve, as Büsser explains.

“I never had a waiting list in my life. At Jaeger-LeCoultre? No. Harry Winston? No. MB&F? No. It started happening for the first time in early 2021. We've had to completely shift the way we saw our whole world. How do we deal with the fact that we've got waiting lists in the multiple years, and at the same time remain the nice people we've always tried to be to the customer?”

Faced with record demand, the economic responses are obvious: increase price, or increase supply. Neither is a welcome option for artisanal watchmakers. The first, while a fact of life, must be handled delicately to avoid the impression of greed; the second is often simply impossible. “By definition, we shouldn't be scaling. That's it. That's the end of discussion,” says Büsser. “In 2013, we produced and delivered 284 watches, and that was the year I decided my company wouldn't grow anymore. And in 2021, we delivered 278. For nine years, we stayed at the same level of production. Now, with the demand going ballistic in the last two years, we had to start wondering, are we going to stay at that level, or are we going to increase? This year, we've managed to scale up by about 50 more watches per year; but in the meantime, we've gone from 31 to 52 employees in the same time.”

Also scaling up is Greubel Forsey, which is undergoing arguably the largest overhaul in its 19-year history with a view to securing its long-term future. In 2022 the founders, together with CEO and shareholder Antonio Calce, bought back the 20 per cent that was previously owned by Richemont, and have begun a ten-year plan that will see the manufacture expand significantly, and production with it. “Such a creative and innovative brand like Greubel Forsey requires a lot of agility and speed of action to take strong strategic decisions. Our independence is crucial”, explains Calce. “The expansion of our Atelier is a big step in that evolution.” The brand has already grown from 100 to 140 employees, is training teams up to cater to the increase in production, and has more growth in its sights. “Just in hand finishing, it can take 3 years to have all the competences to decorate our components,” says Calce, “and we’re still looking for new people. We already went from 95 timepieces a year to 230 as planned for 2023.”

The overall goal is to reach a production capacity of 500 watches a year, but Calce sees that as a firm limit. “Exceeding this quantity is intrinsically impossible, except if you review the finishing of the timepieces, which is out of question at Greubel Forsey.” It’s the salient question, when you tell people one of the best finishers in the business intends to produce five times as many watches as it used to, but Calce is under no illusions as to what brings customers to Greubel Forsey. And they are coming in their droves: he says the customer base has multiplied more than fivefold since he started. Waiting lists can reach a year, but only for the most labour-intensive pieces such as the Hand Made 1, and as volumes have gone up, the brand has been able to drop its average price by half.

There is little suggestion that the complexity of the watches has been compromised either; earlier in the autumn it released the Tourbillon Cardan, a gyroscopic marvel along lines that the brand’s adherents know and love, and Calce confirms that part of his ten-year strategy is a commitment to continuously introducing new calibres. Movements will only be produced for five years, introducing a model of exclusivity that distances itself from endless limited editions. Further, he reveals that in the coming years the brand will debut its first ever chronographs. “We will embody years of research and development into energy-saving so-called nano techniques with a chronograph function,” says Calce. “Our tenth invention, a convex-cased constant force chronograph, is already in the making.”

Pierre Jacques, CEO of De Bethune

The picture is similar at De Bethune, where with an annual production of around 300 watches (roughly double its reported pre-pandemic levels), CEO Pierre Jacques also draws attention to the sheer volume of new watchmaking that passes through his doors. “Over the last 21 years, De Bethune has presented 31 calibres. We master the production of all horological complications with the exception of chimes and automatons which our R&D lab is working on to master in-house in the future.” Jacques said that, like his peers, waiting lists have risen and demand has never been stronger. “Delivery times have increased from 6 to 8 months to almost 2 years in general. This new record of demand mainly comes from an increase in demand for exclusive products and in independent brands. We’ve noticed a shift in our customers’ collecting behaviour, with many of them becoming more research-focused. Collectors really immerse themselves in learning about mechanical ingenuity.”

In that regard at least, little seems to have changed. Collectors may have graduated from Patek Philippe and Rolex to high-end indies faster than ever, but there are few signs that the post-pandemic bubble for those brands – now bursting – is a phenomenon that will spill over into the independent market. Time will tell, but we may have just seen the start of a prolonged boom era for artisan watchmaking.