New generation of watch players innovating in luxury watch scene

Horological Machine No. 4 (left) is sculpted to look like a double-engined rocket. Mr Maximilian Busser (above) does not want his company to grow, so that he can keep overheads low and he will not be compelled to produce commercial pieces.
Mr Maximilian Busser (above) does not want his company to grow, so that he can keep overheads low and he will not be compelled to produce commercial pieces. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF MAX BUSSER
Horological Machine No. 4 (left) is sculpted to look like a double-engined rocket. Mr Maximilian Busser (above) does not want his company to grow, so that he can keep overheads low and he will not be compelled to produce commercial pieces.
Horological Machine No. 4 (above) is sculpted to look like a double-engined rocket. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF MAX BUSSER
Mr Kingston Chu (above) thinks that the affordable luxury watch market segment is underdeveloped in Singapore.
Mr Kingston Chu (above) thinks that the affordable luxury watch market segment is underdeveloped in Singapore. PHOTO: SINCERE WATCH
Mr Elie Bernheim (above) says Raymond Weil watches are often inspired by music.
Mr Elie Bernheim (above) says Raymond Weil watches are often inspired by music. PHOTO: RAYMOND WEIL
The Freelancer Piper (above) is a tribute to his grandfather, who was a passionate pilot and owner of a classic Piper plane.
The Freelancer Piper (above) is a tribute to his grandfather, who was a passionate pilot and owner of a classic Piper plane. PHOTO: RAYMOND WEIL

Building sci-fi machines

Founder of MB&F Horological Lab

The three-dimensional Swiss- made MB&F Horological Machines look like they came straight out of a science-fiction movie.

"I've always wanted to be a car designer and I was always dreaming about spaceships," says Dubai-based Mr Busser, who is of Swiss and Indian descent.

"When I was a child, I would imagine that I was the Star Wars character Han Solo, battling the Death Star spacecraft.

"And 40 years later, I created my interpretation of it through a timepiece."

The piece in question is Horological Machine No. 6, the Space Pirate. Built in the shape of a spaceship with five "cockpits", it comes with a retractable dome-shaped shield in the middle - to protect its "engine" from UV rays.

The Space Pirate is in good company. The silhouette of Horological Machine No. 5 was inspired by the sleek bodies of luxury sports cars, such as the Lamborghini and Lotus. Meanwhile, Horological Machine No. 4 is sculpted to look like a double-engined rocket.

And yes, you can still tell the time with these miniature machines (priced between $45,600 and $324,200 each) that sit nicely on the wrist.

Prior to starting MB&F in 2005, Mr Busser made his rounds at some of the largest Swiss watch-making companies. He started out at Jaeger-LeCoultre, where he managed the product development and sales teams. Later, at the age of 31, he moved to Harry Winston, where he was managing director for seven years.

The father of one holds a master's in micro-technology engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

While MB&F watches may look like expensive toys, Mr Busser says they are "insanely complex" serious pieces that showcase Swiss watch-making skills.

"The look of my watches is different, so we have to engineer the mechanics and movements differently to fit the concepts and shapes," he says.

"They're not watches with simple mechanisms and a funky case around it.

"We deconstruct traditional watch-making and reconstruct it into three-dimensional mechanical art."

He was in town in June to launch the commemorative HMX model that marks the brand's 10th anniversary.

There are two MB&F galleries, in Geneva and Taipei, where the complete range of MB&F Horological Machines, other watches and devices are on display.

A third one opens in Dubai this month.

What does MB&F stand for?

Maximilian Busser and friends.

In your personal life, if people bully, backstab or lie to you, you just don't see them again. In your work life, you still invite them for lunch.

So when I started my own brand, I decided I would work only with people who share my values.

I wanted a small company with super competent people and we work with a team of independent horological professionals who create the different parts of our watches.

Then everything is assembled in-house in Geneva, Switzerland. My friends - the artisans, engineers and watch-makers - transform my dreams into reality.

Why do luxury watches intrigue you?

In the mid-1980s, when I was in my first year at university, I asked the guy sitting next to me about the watch he was wearing. He was wearing a Rolex, a brand I had never heard of then. He told me its price and I went crazy.

During my undergraduate years, I was a private mathematics tutor and a cinema usher, and that guy had a year's worth of my salary on his wrist. I wondered why anyone would spend that kind of money on a watch.

So for one of my theses, I chose to investigate why people spend so much on luxury watches.

I wrote letters to the chief executives of Vacheron Constantin, Gerald Genta, Breguet, JaegerLeCoultre and Audemars Piguet, and asked to meet them. They agreed to meet me and blew me away with their stories.

I learnt that their world was about surviving in an industry where beauty is trumped by practicality. They were all complete rebels and dreamers.

And it helped that before I graduated, I was offered a job at Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Why did you decide to start your own brand?

After my father died in the early 2000s, I realised the most important day of a person's life is his last day, when he would either feel proud of what he had accomplished or be filled with regret.

When I was at Harry Winston, I was the poster boy of my generation. I was young and successful and never knew that I could have that kind of money and lifestyle. But I was not happy.

Instead of creating what I believed in, I was thinking only about what watches would sell. I didn't even feel like wearing the pieces I created, but they sold well and I was not proud of that.

So I needed to create a company to focus on what I believe in, instead of looking at what the market wants.

Do you intend to expand your business?

MB&F was a life decision, not a business decision.

I'm an enormous risk-taker. I put all my money - $1 million - into the business 10 years ago, went to work in my small flat in Geneva and had no salary for two years. I've barely been able to recoup half of that as I've reinvested almost all of it back into the company. Some days, I realise how ridiculous our business model is, but it fills me with pride.

I have had 10 incredible years. We produce only 280 watches a year, or about 24 a month.

Since 2013, our yearly revenue has stood at $20 million and it will remain flat. I don't want the company to grow because if the company grows, so will the overheads - which may start scaring me off my creative path and onto more commercial stuff. And that just defeats the purpose of why I created MB&F.

Creating affordable luxury

Vice-chairman and managing director of Sincere Watch Limited

When Mr Chu took on his current heavyweight roles at Sincere Watch at the relatively tender age of 27, he had a lot to prove.

After all, luxury watch chain Sincere has a long history and an established presence in the region.

The company was founded by Singaporean entrepreneur Tay Boo Jiang in 1954 and it was turned into a powerhouse by his son Mr Tay Liam Wee.

Mr Chu's mother - Hong Kong billionaire Pollyanna Chu Yuet-Wat - bought over the Sincere Watch Group for $232 million in 2012.

So far, Mr Chu, a business graduate from the University of Southern California, has shown a knack for creating on-point retail concepts.

In June last year, he rolled out a 9,500 sq ft flagship store in the upscale Sharp Street East in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, to showcase the Swiss-made Franck Muller, Cvstos and Backes & Strauss watches.

This four-storey Maison Franck Muller is the brand's first store that features two exclusive fine-dining restaurants: Francesco by Franck Muller and Eighteen Sharp.

To cover both ends of the luxury watch market spectrum, Hong Kong-based Mr Chu, who is engaged but declines to reveal details about his fiancee, was in Singapore in April to launch the "accessible luxury" watch store SunTime Watch at Takashimaya Shopping Centre.

The brands sold at the new boutique include Corum, Longines, Tag Heuer and Tissot. At this store, the watches generally do not cost more than $8,000.

Why the decision to launch SunTime Watch?

I wanted to extend the company's luxury watch offerings. That includes a more accessible range that the Sincere Fine Watches boutiques, which focus on high-end watches, is lacking.

The watches that are sold in SunTime Watch store fall between luxury and masstige. They may be accessible, but the brands have strong branding, expertise and histories in watch- making.

The store is also designed to be simple, with an open concept, so customers who walk in will not be intimidated.

What potential do you see in the affordable luxury watch market?

In Singapore, the segment is underdeveloped, although the demand has been around for a while.

Too many retailers in Singapore focus on high-end luxury.

That is why I think this is a scalable concept.

We already have a presence in the region, so I intend to leverage the relationships with our partners and bring SunTime to other countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Tell us more about Maison Franck Muller.

There are two storeys of luxury watch retail space and the other two floors are taken up by the restaurants.

Francesco by Franck Muller offers Italian-Japanese fusion food, while you can expect contemporary Chinese cuisine at Eighteen Sharp.

Maison Franck Muller is the first of its kind. There isn't another luxury watch retail concept like it.

Our VIP customers are invited to dine at the restaurants for free. They can come and browse, then decide on the watches over a meal and return to the store to buy.

Or they can come by just to eat.

I want them to leave with a full belly and an unforgettable experience, even if they don't buy anything on that visit. So they will remember the brand and the service.

The restaurants are also open to the public.

How did you prepare for your current roles at Sincere Watch Group?

I am still a senior manager at my family's other venture, Kingston Financial Group. That was my main role before I took on the ones at Sincere. My job was to execute corporate finance projects, such as mergers and acquisitions.

I had intended to spend 60 per cent of my time on the finance company and 40 per cent on Sincere.

But now, I spend 90 per cent of my time on the watch business.

I just gravitated towards the watches as they unlock my creative side.

I did not have the luxury of time to prepare for my roles at Sincere. It was more like a baptism of fire.

My background in financial deal-making, which is often about partnerships and synergies, has helped.

In the watch retail industry, partnerships with the brands and malls are crucial. It is all about how one plus one makes three.

What are your plans for Sincere?

Besides opening SunTime in Asia, the focus will be on improving the quality of service and the stores.

The market for high-end luxury is saturated now. The era of huge flagships that stand at more than 10,000 sq ft is now past.

A large store does not necessarily translate into superior sales figures or a superior customer experience.

What kind of watches do you personally like?

I like old-fashioned watches with classic execution, such as a three-hand watch with a fusee chain mechanism, as well as features such as rose gold and a leather strap.

My favourite brands include A. Lange & Sohne, Franck Muller, Vacheron Constantin, JaegerLeCoultre and Breguet.

Composing timepieces

Chief executive of Raymond Weil

Tinkling on the piano and playing the cello are pleasurable pastimes for Mr Bernheim.

The son of a professional pianist, music is in his blood. And so is watch-making.

It is only natural that he marries the two forms of art in running the family-owned Raymond Weil, a three-decade-old Swiss watchmaking company. The brand's watches are often inspired by music in both form and function.

Mr Bernheim, grandson of the late brand founder Raymond Weil, took over the reins at the company in April last year. He succeeded his father, Olivier, who was chief executive of the company for 18 years.

The brand is also known for its masstige watches, which are priced between 800 Swiss francs (S$1,160) and 3,000 Swiss francs.

A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Mr Bernheim started working at Raymond Weil in 2006. Before he became chief executive, he helmed the product development and marketing teams.

He appreciates good food and wine and the father of two also owns two popular restaurants in Geneva.

What were some of your earliest memories of your grandfather and the Raymond Weil brand?

I was immersed in the watchmaking industry and the Raymond Weil business from as far back as I can remember.

My mother often took me to the office to watch my father and grandfather at work. So it was natural for me to join the family business and continue the work that my grandfather started decades earlier.

Why are the price points of Raymond Weil watches kept relatively low?

My grandfather's wish was to make Swiss-quality watches accessible; it is still our main motivation. That is why we have always been focusing on the same price segment.

What sets Raymond Weil apart from other Swiss watch brands?

Music and the arts have always been at the centre of the Raymond Weil universe and creativity.

My mother is a professional pianist, my father loves the opera and I play the piano and cello.

We like to say we compose our timepieces the way musicians compose their chef d'oeuvres or masterpieces.

The names of our collections are taken from famous operas or evoke musical terms. We often partner renowned artists and music charities too.

But essentially, our strength lies in being a globally recognised name and selling elegant and affordable watches.

What is new at Raymond Weil?

This year, we launched limitededition watches to honour two great music icons.

We have the Maestro Frank Sinatra, a sleek timepiece, to commemorate the 100th year of Sinatra's birthday.

Then, there is the new Nabucco, which is inspired by musical instrument manufacturer Gibson. The Nabucco Cello Tourbillon is the brand's first tourbillon watch.

We also presented our first pilot's watch, the Freelancer Piper, recently. It is a tribute to my grandfather, who was a passionate pilot and owner of a classic Piper plane.

What are some luxury watch trends that you have observed recently?

In uncertain economic times, people go back to the fundamentals and they want to invest wisely. Watch brands have to adapt and provide clients with authentic, honest and reasonably priced products today.

What are some of the challenges facing the Raymond Weil brand?

As an independent brand, we have to fight with big groups for space, in terms of distribution and points of sales.

The current economic situation is obviously another big challenge. We need to be cautious, but I'm optimistic.

Being a family business, we can react much more quickly to situations and can count on our reliable partners with whom we have built good relationships since the brand's beginnings.

Tell us more about your two restaurants.

I love food. It was a dream that came true when I opened Cafe des Banques in 2008, in the middle of Geneva's banking district. We serve seafood, steak and good desserts.

My wine bar Chez Lucien was launched in 2010. Our seafood tartare dish is popular.

I love planning the menus with the team every week.

  • These stories first appeared in the August 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "The watch list".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'Building sci-fi machines THE WATCH LIST'. Print Edition | Subscribe