Given the popularity of his watches, Maximilian Büsser should be running a watchmaking empire now. But he isn’t. Because while demand for his horological creations grow year after year, the creative genius behind MB&F has been scaling back production and dropping retailers. Last year, the independent watchmaker produced only 218 timepieces. The number is set to be even lower this year.
“People have to understand – and they are starting to understand – that MB&F is a life decision. It’s not a business decision. It’s a pretty awful business,” says the 52-year-old with a laugh. For the past 14 years, Büsser has been keeping his team and his business small, even when opportunities for growth were immense. To date, he has only 25 people in his employ. There is no middle management, or “layer of custard” as he refers to them as, in his company – just four directors (Büsser included) and 22 staff.
“It’s super high risk, no returns, and my salary is still half of what it used to be in Harry Winston,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I’m happy, and that’s what counts.”
This year, MB&F launched its very first watch for females: The FlyingT. What was the inspiration behind it?
I created it for my mother and my wife. For the past 14 years, I have always been creating for myself. I mean, at the end of the day, MB&F is the story of a spoiled brat who creates for himself. I thought I would do something different this time, but I was a bit late because my mother never got to see it. Also, my family is almost entirely made up of women: My mother, wife and two daughters.
The dial of the MB&F FlyingT comes in black lacquer, pave diamond
and baguette diamond versions.
What makes the FlyingT a female watch? The timepiece comes with diamonds, but men are equally comfortable with and without diamonds on their wrists these days.
So I created a movement that looked feminine – at least in my opinion. This is femininity seen through the eyes of a man, so maybe it’s completely wrong. But my wife loved it. There are also various symbols in the watch. For instance, the sun represents the women in my life, because I gravitate towards and revolve around my wife and two daughters; and the dial is at an angle because if I am going to give that watch to the love of my life, I want the time to be only for her eyes. It’s my gift to her. I’m not sure if that makes it a feminine watch, but I did it for that purpose.
There was an enormous debate internally about whether we should launch this piece with or without diamonds. Honestly, my wife doesn’t wear diamonds with watches. She barely wears watches actually. But I took the executive decision to go with diamonds because even though my wife Tiffany doesn’t wear diamonds – she’s the reason why the watch is named FlyingT, by the way – I wanted the message to be very clear. This is our first piece dedicated to women, and I didn’t want people thinking it was a unisex watch.
The watch also features a sun-shaped automatic winding rotor
You also launched the Medusa this year in collaboration with clockmaker L'Epee 1839. There seems to be a theme of femininity running through your designs this year.
I’ve always had a pretty important feminine side, and I think I’ve become more comfortable expressing it over the years. I’ve become much more mellow. I used to be very intense. If you’d seen me when I was 20, nothing would make you believe that I could be where I am today. I was a very lost and insecure young man with very little social skills, and very few friends. The brand is called MB&F (Maximillian Büsser & Friends) for a reason. I craved having friends because I had none.
It has been a 30-year journey of self-discovery for me. When I created MB&F 14 years ago there was a lot of anger in me – directed at myself, because watchmaking saved my life and it gave me a purpose but I sold out and became a marketer that created products for the sole purpose of selling them; and at the industry for no longer being creative, innovative or resourceful. Now that I’ve embraced my feminine side more, I’ve never been as serene or happy as I am today. It was testosterone that was driving me in the past.
Created in collaboration with clockmaker L'Epee 1839, the limited edition Medusa
is available in pink, green and blue
How would you describe MB&F’s positioning across markets?
We have no positioning, we just create products and let them out in nature. I’ve got a bit of a schizophrenic creative process. Horological Machines are my psychotherapy – the crazy 3D kinetic sculptures. Legacy Machines are my tribute to great master watchmakers. The HMs come from my gut, and LMs come from my head. Some markets are more LM-driven, more conservative, and some prefer the crazier and more insane HMs.
Does the company have any priority markets?
We are exactly where we want to be. Our focus is one-third on Asia, one-third on America, and one-third Middle Eastern Europe. We are not in some of the most important markets of high-end watchmaking – China, Japan, Korea and India. And we have virtually no presence in Europe. But it doesn’t matter because we don’t want to grow. All I am doing these days is cutting retailers.
What is your opinion of e-commerce, seeing as how many watch brands are now starting to take the leap and sell their items online?
E-commerce is a necessary channel for everybody. Our industry has been insanely arrogant, up until now. This is something we have to offer to our clients. I have no idea if it’s going to be an important part of the business, but we need to offer them that option. If a gentleman or a lady comes home after a good dinner with friends and is in bed with his or her iPad, he or she might say, “You know what, I’m going to buy that IWC.” Click. Why do we have to make people’s lives miserable? Because we want to give them that “experience”?
MB&F has always been selling online, since we opened the M.A.D Gallery in Geneva. We don’t have a purchase option on the website per se. But people will usually send us an email saying that they are interested in a piece. If they want to see it in person, they would unfortunately have to travel to an offline store. But if they know exactly what they want, they can make direct wire transfers to our bank account, and we will bring the piece to them anywhere in the world, door to door. We’ve been doing this for years. People would ask to purchase pieces via email or WhatsApp.
What about e-commerce in China? This is an area that many watch brands are just starting to venture into.
We are starting to think about it. It’s very complicated, as we don’t have a physical presence in China. We are now speaking with a Hong Kong retailer, and are discussing the possibility of setting up a showroom and finding a way. But first, we have to launch our WeChat Official Account, which I hope will be around this month. Then we will ease into it slowly. China poses a huge learning curve for us. We are at absolutely zero and have to learn everything from scratch. I don’t understand anything about the market. It will be my homework for this coming year – to learn how everything works.
You mentioned that MB&F is not looking to grow. Yet, it is launching its official social media presence in China – the largest market for luxury goods consumption in the world. How is that in line with your strategy?
We sold three pieces to Chinese customers in our Dubai M.A.D Gallery in the last couple of months. They were walk-ins that already knew about the brand and knew what they wanted. Within half an hour, they paid and left. They’ve never heard about us from us, but they’ve heard about us from their peers. That is way more powerful than hearing it through us, but we still need to have a social media presence to reassure. For a Chinese, if a brand is not on WeChat, is it even really a brand? It’s like the brand doesn’t exist! So we need to be on WeChat, even if it’s just to reassure the public that we are a real entity. It’s for legitimacy. We exist – you can ask us questions, and we will respond to them.
Do you see any differences in consumption patterns between the Chinese and your other customers?
I don’t have enough experience to tell you that. But if there is one thing I have to say about our clients all over the world – China included – it’s that they are very rare animals. If you have the courage to like an MB&F watch, you’re a very special individual. In a world where everyone is trying to blend in and be part of the tribe and to have the same piece that everybody wants, you want something that looks so different. Everybody around you won’t understand your choice. You have to be a seriously self-asserted individual. Over the years, I discovered that while my clients all come from different backgrounds – religion, upbringing, social values – they are all the same people. One of my dreams is to create convention, where everyone who has ever bought an MB&F can meet each other. Because they will find that they are all mirror images of each other, in parallel worlds.
What else can we look forward to in 2019?
We’ve done something I said we will never do. We’ve come up with two calibres this year. One of them is the FlyingT, and the other is something completely wild. It will be released at the end of October.
Credit: All images courtesy of MB&F