Interview: LVMH chief Jean-Claude Biver

Tag Heuer had no choice but to enter the smart watch sector – and its boss Jean-Claude Biver tells Bani McSpedden he’s glad it did.

The conservative taste of luxury consumers from China is partly to blame for Swiss watchmakers looking backwards when they should be looking forwards says one of the most influential men in the Swiss watch industry, Jean-Claude Biver.

And the future they should be focused on, says the president of LVMH’s watch division, is the connected watch.

“I’m in favour of respecting the past, learning from the past, taking rules from the past but always interpreting with an eye to the future,” Mr Biver told The Australian Financial Review. “So why do we see all these watches that are a revival of the past? I think, but I’m not sure, it’s the influence of the Chinese. The Chinese are very conservative at the moment when they buy; they want to buy what is well-known.

biver“They want to buy references of the past, because they don’t trust enough themselves. To buy something of the future you have to have a lot of trust in yourself. To buy something that has been successful yesterday you don’t need a lot of courage.”

In a career spanning some 40 years, Geneva-based Mr Biver has been at the helm of a raft of prestigious brands including Tag Heuer, Omega, Hublot and Blancpain. As president of the LVMH watch division he is today in charge of the Tag, Hublot and Zenith brands.

Speaking ahead of an intimate lunch for watch aficionados to be held in Sydney on Friday, hosted by Tag Heuer and The Australian Financial Review Magazine, Mr Biver suggested that he’d sounded out Apple about doing a connected watch together before each company launched their own. The Apple Watch premiered with much fanfare last April, with Tag launching its Tag Connected watch, a joint venture with Intel and Google, in December. The Tag Connected is due in Australia in April.

“They wanted to do their own. As they were not ready we said we had to be with the best – for the micro-processor, Intel, for the software, Google,” Mr Biver said.

“I don’t regret we couldn’t do it with Apple – it gives us greater possibilities to develop our own connected watches.”

He said Tag Heuer had “no choice” but to introduce its own smart watch as a way of resisting inroads from Apple, adding that the brand would continue it’s two pillars policy of making avant-garde connected timepieces on the one hand, and affordable luxury mechanical wrist-wear on the other.

Mr Biver called the connected watch “a time-changer” for the Swiss industry.

“The very high-end brands specialising in the real art of making watches will not suffer so much from the connected watch because art is eternal and there are always mechanical watches that are a piece of art,” he said. “But beside the art, there’s the industry, and the industry will be influenced by the connected watch because of the new generation. Why should they buy a watch for a thousand dollars that tells them the hour, minute, second and the date when they can have for the same price – or even half – a connected watch that connects them to all their universe?”

Biver believes the young generation will opt for a connected watch, and if that if that is the case, “we have a problem in Switzerland to sell watches in the middle [price] range.”

That said, he thinks the connected watch is still “in the Stone Age” and will likely look very different in five years. “There will be developments that will be incredible, and take a huge part of the Swiss industry.”

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