Time. The fourth dimension. There has never been a more intricate notion in the conscious human experience than the passing of time and our desire to gain more of it. Life itself can be characterized as the fleeting passage of moments, which, for hundreds of years, we have tried to quantify with man-made tools. The modern clock remains our barometer of human existence. The measurement of time has become so accurate in how we calculate it, yet so abstract in how we understand it.
Most importantly, short of all the philosophical mumbo jumbo (at least for us motorsport obsessed humanoids), time is a main component, if not the main component, behind velocity- whose absolute scalar value is speed.
It is for this reason that there is such an incredible bond between motorsports and watches. Marketing ties set aside, there is an underlying scientific bond that unites both of these worlds.
The synergy between watch brands and Formula One is impossible to ignore. Today’s major players in watchmaking are obsessed with placing their instruments of time on the wrists of F1 drivers, and their logos on the liveries of these mechanical beasts of speed.
Jack Heuer, (great-grandson of Edouard, founder of his namesake watch company), pioneered the entry of watch brands into the world of Formula One. Mr. Heuer did so from a technical standpoint- becoming the official timekeeper of Scuderia Ferrari and F1. He achieved this pioneership from a marketing standpoint as well, by having the Heuer logo on race overalls (Jo Siffert) and car liveries (Scuderia Ferrari), respectively.
While Swiss racers Jo Siffert and Clay Regazzoni were out conquering the streets of Monaco, Mr. Heuer’s heir, Jean-Claude Biver, was somewhat of a self-proclaimed hippie. He preferred to observe his idols from a distance.
“I was an enormous fan of Jo Siffert, more than Regazzoni,” exclaims Jean-Claude Biver, former head of Omega, Hublot, and Tag Heuer. “I liked Regazzoni because he was Swiss, but I liked Jo Siffert because he was living close to my home.”
“I cried when he [Siffert] died; he was a great great hero of mine in my time.”
Biver attended many races in Monaco, a four-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Switzerland. “It was the closest Grand Prix, and it was a Grand Prix which was always taking place in spring,” he recalls. “It was also a great moment to go to the Côte D’Azur, to see the sun, to go to the beach, and to see our friend Jo Siffert.”
This young hippie, spending spring days commuting from Switzerland to Monaco, turned out to be one of the most transformative figures in the world of watchmaking. His life’s work is a testament to the notion that sometimes in life, seemingly ordinary situations can lead to unexpected paths to greatness. “We were going to Monaco and sleeping on the beach in a sleeping bag,” recalls Biver.
“Sometimes the police was coming at three o’clock in the morning- ‘come on get out, get out!’”
Jean-Claude Biver, at 69-years-old, exudes the energy and joie de vivre of a revved-up teenage boy. He does not simply speak wisdom – he shouts it, not in an arrogant way but more so in a way that captivates and enthralls. His vocal cords are overcompensating, trying to level out the excitement of sharing an anecdote, a remark, a piece of advice.
When asked about the formula behind his many successes, he is not shy to point out that it is his loyal team who are the real catalyst of his accomplishments.
“It’s many things together [success], the first thing is my people,” he says. “That is the magic thing, that I am capable of bringing people together and take the best out of the team because each person is at the right place, each person has a lot of freedom, has a lot of responsibility, and I trust people, and I forgive mistakes.”
One of the most influential people in the Biver Dream Team is Valérie Servageon Grande. She can only be described as Mr. Biver’s Marketing Jedi for Omega, Hublot, and Tag Heuer.
After graduating from the University of Lausanne, her hometown in Switzerland, Grande started her career in the press office of the International Olympic Committee. She caught the attention of then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Grande worked alongside Samaranch as a press officer during the Barcelona and Albertville Olympic games. She then moved to Monaco for six years.
While in Monaco, Grande had the desire to return to her native Switzerland. A contact set up a meeting with Mr. Nicolas Hayek, Swatch Group’s then president. Mr. Hayek hired Grande on the spot as the PR director for Omega, despite her claim of not knowing anything about watches. There, she met Jean-Claude Biver, who sat on the board of the Swatch Group. As she started to work alongside Biver on marketing initiatives for Omega, magic began to happen. Their first marketing coup was with two young F1 drivers’ called Ralph and Michael.
“We had the two [Schumacher] brothers,” exclaims Biver. “We took Michael when he was at Benetton… we had made a bet that he would win, and that he would go to Ferrari, so we got him at a very interesting point… because as soon as he was with Ferrari, the price and the value of Michael was five times more.”
Biver and Grande wanted to explore new methods of working with ambassadors; they did not want to stick solely with advertisement with the Schumacher brothers because they felt it was the old way to market products. “We wanted to activate the ambassadors, we wanted the ambassadors to be a real ambassador,” says Biver.
“Michael Schumacher was calling me from time to time telling me I’m in town, could I come and have a tea with you,” recalls Biver. “There was a relationship, not just business- at the end of the relationship, there was business, but at the beginning of the relationship, there was a human relation.”
In 2004, Grande received a call from an enthusiastic Jean-Claude Biver asking if she would join him in relaunching a failing Swiss brand, Hublot. Grande accepted the offer and took on the role of Marketing Director for the brand, overseeing sponsorships and negotiating all commercial contracts. What they would achieve over the next decade would be monumental- transforming Hublot into one of the most recognizable luxury brands in the world.
“I always say or like to think that he’s [Biver] the one who had the ideas, and I’m his hands… I’m the one concretizing his ideas,” says Grande, who was responsible for making Hublot the official watch of Formula One for three years. It was a unique working relationship with Bernie Ecclestone that allowed Hublot to take on this prestigious role, despite being a very small player in the industry compared to the Rolex’ of the world.
Their next objective in motorsports involved the most respected brand in racing: Ferrari. Their approach was more of a marriage than a sponsorship deal- the Italian brand had never dealt with anything similar in the past.
“We said to Ferrari, we don’t want to just make a watch with a Ferrari logo on it, we want to have a 360-degree relationship,” explains Biver. “We said, we want a relationship with Ferrari cars, with Ferrari racing cars, with Ferrari subsidiaries, with Ferrari dealerships, with Ferrari clubs… with anything you do, we must be involved.”
After considering this radical proposal, the Italian brand agreed. “Ferrari said wow, and then finally they understood that it would be a totally different engagement and a different concept that they never had before.” Today, the partnership is stronger than ever.
The third and final act of the Biver/Grande F1 spectacular was with Tag Heuer, a sister brand of Hublot, under the LVMH conglomerate. Biver credits Grande for placing the Tag Heuer brand on the engine of the Red Bull F1 car. “At the beginning, I said we are not the engine, but she said we can have the name of the engine- and that was extraordinary,” says Biver. “It was also a nice parallel between the engine of the watch and the engine of the car because a watch without engine and a car without an engine cannot work,” says Grande.
Their desire to work with Red Bull was also a very eager concept, to market their products to a younger, more modern audience, different from their current one. “We were looking for a young audience, number one, number two, we wanted to be more disruptive,” exclaims Biver. “The pilots were important, but also the spirit in the team,” adds Grande. The environment, the people, the events, the whole Red Bull universe was in line with the direction they wanted to take on with the Tag Heuer brand.
Biver’s leadership approach is focused on getting things done, not being idle or standard in any way. He is an advocate for moving forward into exciting and unknown territory. To make mistakes. To learn from said mistakes. To move forward. To make new mistakes, and to keep on going.
When the world goes left, Biver does more than go right. He goes through a roundabout and ventures onto gravel roads.
More than ever, in our ion-dependent world, there is a need for a nostalgic approach to keeping time. The accuracy of a quartz or electric clock cannot defeat the nostalgic appeal of a mechanical timekeeping instrument. More than an innate need, automatic watches are an ode to craftsmanship- craftsmanship that lends itself to a time in human existence when art superseded innovation, cultural relevance trumped stature, and quality was rare and sought after- not another fad. Biver saw this when he gave the finger to “trend” during the quartz revolution, which was praised as the nail that would shut the coffin on the traditional artisanal watchmaking industry.
Today, the Swiss watchmaking industry goes far beyond profit. It is about cultural relevance. It is about art. It is, against every odd, a fad once more. Much of this history and success is accredited to Jean-Claude Biver and his expert team.
*Editorial contribution by Alessia Parasuco.