Monday, July 9, 2012

An interview with Max Busser

A short while ago I blogged about the arrival of MB&F 'Machines' in Sydney and a dinner with Max. Now we bring you part three of this horological trifecta, an interview with Max.

Q: In a 2006 interview on Timezone at the start of MB&F, you said that “at MB&F we create concepts”. It strikes me that this still rings true. How would you describe the ‘concept’ behind the latest collaboration with Stepan Sarpaneva (I was surprised to read a comment made by you that Stepan is not widely known even amongst watch people)?  

Every year since 2009, we at MB&F have enjoyed co-creating a piece with an artist/ designer/ jeweller that we admire. We call it ‘performance art’, and the principle is simple: by giving one of our creations to someone who has a different background and style than ours, we mix our DNAs and obtain a piece neither of us would ever have created single-handed. Stepan is the first watchmaker to have had the opportunity of modifying one of our existing pieces, and the result is wonderful. He chose our HM3 Frog and rethought it into the MoonMachine. The design, the movement and even the attitude of this piece gets therefore his very personal Finnish finish! Also, these joint ventures allow us to give our guest-creators a much wider and deserved recognition - I was for example, aghast to notice in Basel that virtually none of our retailers and very few journalists knew of Stepan’s work or actually had heard of his name.  

Q : Your other latest venture is the gorgeous Legacy Machine 1, which I have to admit is probably my favourite of your ‘machines’. Why does the name ‘Legacy Machine’ represent, how does its modern classicism fit into MB&F, and is it a way of reaching out to a broader collector base?  

LM1 started like with virtually all my creations in my childhood. I had two main fantasies then (and still have!) – firstly, to be able to fly (and you notice that in all my HM pieces) and secondly, to be able to travel through time. This last fantasy was fuelled by an American tv show called the “The Time Machine”. Late in 2007 I started wondering “what would have happened if I had been born in 1867 instead of 1967? What would have happened if I had been born in the era of all the great watchmaking inventions - when literally all that we know today (chronograph, perpetual calendar, tourbillon, minute repeater, etc…) was invented. 

 I believe I would have wanted to create 3D machines which give time, but of course all my childhood references (Star Wars, Grendizer, planes,…) would not have existed, so I started wondering what would have been my inspirations and realiseded that the 19th century was an era where man was obsessed with defying gravity. The era of the first skyscrapers, of the first metallic hanging bridges, of the Eiffel Tower, of man trying to fly, etc… So very naturally the flying balance wheel became the star of the movement. 

The 19th century was also a near of the great explorers so it had to be a two time zone movement, and finally the 19th century was an era where Machines were the stars - whole Universal Exhibitions were set up for each country to compete in presenting the most ambitious or efficient Machines, so the power reserve had to be not only vertical but also reminiscent of the levers and cams seen in all the Machines of that time. 

I sketched pretty quickly what was going to become the Legacy Machine No1 and had to first battle with my whole team who just initially did not understand why I would want to create such a ‘classic’ piece of horology. Once they were convinced, Serge Kriknoff (my partner in the company and head of all technical development) and I went to find first Jean-François Mojon for the engineering and then Kari Voutilainen for the 19th century design and super high end finishing. And both said ok immediately. The dream team was assembled beginning of 2008 and the project could begin!

Most people just think that the Legacy Machine is a more ‘commercial’ piece from MB&F. I actually think it is the biggest risk we have ever taken. Until now we we haven’t been talking the same language as the rest of the industry. No one could say the Thunderbolt is better or worse than for example a Patek or a Lange. But with LM1, everyone can start making comparisons, and if the Legacy Machine had been half as interesting or not as well crafted we would have seriously damaged our reputation. 

As it is, we have on the contrary finally made people understand that MB&F stands for the most amazing engineering and highest quality and finishing, because we finally speak a language they can understand. So Legacy has seriously boosted our image and helped the rest of the range’s appeal. By the way, if you look carefully at the two pieces in our line-up which are most polarised. 

The LM1 and the HM4 Thunderbolt, you will notice that they are clearly from the same creators: two dials two crowns, one central balance wheel, time and power reserve, same finish on the case,… And suddenly you will recognise that both are style exercises based on the same concept!  

Q: Given how distinctive each of the Horological Machines are, do you and the MB&F ‘Friends’ feel pressure to come up with something more even more ‘out there’ each time?  

Creating and experimenting are the fundamental reasons for MB&F’s existence. They are my sole way of expressing myself, and thus there is of course no pressure to create. In fact it’s the opposite: the pressure is on how to find the time, energy and money to make each of our ideas come to life… We have at this moment seven Machines in the pipeline, at all different stages of their development. 

Q: With the watch industry seemingly increasingly driven by trends and fashion, do you think that it’s hard for independent watchmakers to remain committed to their individual visions? 

I don’t believe there is any problem for independents to stay true to their creative vision and beliefs – quite the contrary. But it is increasingly difficult for them to find retail partners willing to take the risks to present a product which needs education and passion – and is not presold thanks to big marketing budgets.  

Q: How many people work at MB&F? How many are watchmakers?  

Thirteen, of whom four are watchmakers and two take care of our Geneva M.A.D. Gallery. In terms of the amazing number of creations we manage to create, develop and craft, this is a very small team. Being small is not only one of the main reasons we can achieve this, but also a way of being. I do not wish my company to grow any larger.  

Q: In the world of independent watchmakers, there are probably a core group of enthusiasts/ collectors who are customers across the brands. I read that over 50% of your customers own two of your pieces. Loyal (repeat) customers seem to be very important…  

I suppose that we create extremely polarising products, sometimes I feel like saying anti-commercial. So, if you actually understand and like what we do, you will probably find a strong connection with us, which gives this amazing statistic. Interestingly, about 10 to 20 percent of our clients are women, with some owning up to 5 or 6 of our pieces, which defeats this common perception than only men buy our pieces. 

Q: For smaller ‘independents’, you often have to do your own PR. How much travelling do you do, and how important do you think word of mouth, especially online, is to success?  

Virtually no independent has any communication budget, and even if they did, you would not see the results as it would be impossible to cover more than one country with the small amount allocated. It could be debated that without Internet most of us would not exist, but I strongly believe so. Some of us are content to craft ten or twenty pieces a year and rely on word of mouth and Internet to relay their talent and find new customers. Others, like MB&F need to craft approximately 150 to 200 pieces a year so as to find the humongous financial investments needed to develop one new movement a year. And as MB&F pieces are so different from others, I do not have the choice: I need to travel extensively around the world to explain why and how we do what we do. In a good year, I spend about half of it travelling.  

Q: How difficult do you think it is for independents to get new customers and wider ‘brand awareness’? Especially for ‘machines’ such as yours which are probably difficult for the average person to wear or understand?  

I see for example that virtually no one in this industry knows of Stepan Sarpaneva and of his talent, and that he barely sells and crafts 15 to 20 pieces a year. That tells you how difficult it is for independents to find a voice and to build on their awareness. Some of them are too shy to showcase their pieces, others just don’t have the resources, time or money to travel. Being an independent watch creator and entrepreneur (and here I speak mostly of those who have funded their own company) is very difficult. That is why I tell everyone who wants to set up their own company that it better be a lifelong dream, because in regard of the super tough times ahead of them the only thing which will keep them from going insane or depressed is that their creative passion is fulfilled.  

Q: This will be your second retailer in Australia, and the first on this coast. Prior to this trip, did you get many enquiries from Australia?  

I must admit that no. I was very amazed when last year Swiss Time Machine came to see us at Baselworld and again when The Hour Glass Sydney followed up this year. But now that I have spent 5 days in Australia for the first time of my life, it is not that much surprising. The small community of watch lovers is incredibly vibrant, educated and wonderfully supportive. 

Q : I read that you are making about a dozen pieces a month, of which a bit over half go to South East Asia/ Singapore/ Thailand and Hong Kong, with 25% the U.S. and the rest Europe. We regularly hear about the importance of the Chinese market in terms of the Swiss watch industry. Do you have any plans for China? 

China is an incredibly important market but virtually impossible to enter for Independents, because there are virtually no high-end multi-brand retailers. The big brands open up their own stores, which give the luxury and power image necessary to sell the volumes they are looking for. I heard the other day that a brand like IWC has over 50 stand-alone boutiques in China! The investment required to open a brand boutique are way over what any independent can manage. We are extremely lucky that one of our very faithful customers (and owner of virtually each of our pieces) has offered us to help us set up the first MB&F boutique in China, which should open in Beijing in October/ November this year. I really hope that this new adventure and risk will be successful and maybe even give us a blueprint to duplicate elsewhere.  

Q: Why do you think it is that you’ve been able to do so well in Asia? 

(At this point Max turned the tables on me, asking me why I thought this might be the case. I had to confess that I didn’t know)  

I have the impression that it’s a lot to do with an appreciation of entrepreneurial spirit, risk taking, cultures which support and admire people who follow their way. Also, Europe tends to look always backwards, to the times when this continent ruled the world, hence a very conservative attitude today to risk taking and creativity, while Asia looks forward and realises that it has developed so fast because it has embraced innovation and new ideas. Finally, Asia has never ceased celebrating artisanship, whilst Europe and America shied away from that to embrace industrialisation as their only mantra over the last century.

Q: There was an online competition to win your personal 1974 Omega Speedmaster Mark 4.5, and you are the new owner of a Spirit Pioneer from your friend Peter Speake-Marin. Dare I ask – when not wearing your own watches, what types of watches do you wear? 

I have tried to own one of each classic: a ’67 Speedmaster, a ’68 GMT Master, a steel Reverso, a steel automatic Royal Oak, which are my every day pieces. And then I am lucky to own a few pieces from watchmakers whose talent and personality I admire such as Peter Speake-Marin’s Spirit Pioneer or Felix Baumgartner’s Urwerk UR-103. And I hope soon Kari’s direct escapement. If I had the means I would only buy pieces from independent creators I admire, because you actually touch a part of their soul in their creation. Brands have more or less lost their soul for me…  

Q: You have said in the past that MB&F is just the beginning, part of a journey of self-discovery. MB&F is no longer just about ‘time machines’; your M.A.D. (Mechanical Art Devices) Gallery is about sharing some of your favourite examples of mechanical creativity. Do you see yourself becoming a patron of unknown or up and coming designers?

 At MB&F we usually feel like aliens in a world of watchmaking normality, and realised that out there were many aliens like us but in their own worlds defying practicality and common sense. Artists, creators, designers who painstakingly created and crafted their own incredible ‘machines’ which were often overlooked or misunderstood by their environment. At the M.A.D. Gallery we are bringing together all these ‘orphans’ to create one jolly family! For example, by explaining the story of how German ‘Machine Light’ creator Frank Buchwald started crafting by hand from scratch less than ten pieces a year of his incredible Machines, we are in fact in one way talking about us. And by introducing to our MB&F fans these amazing creators/creations we are helping them build an awareness they usually did not have. It is therefore not only very rewarding to help virtually unknown creators gain some recognition it also helps us explain better why and what we do.  

Q: Given the time required from gestation to production for each watch, I’m guessing that HM5 is nailed down already? And when does HM6 start?

 The HM5 will be unveiled in October this year (and should see first deliveries by end of the year) , the LM2 which is already in prototype, will be unveiled next October and the movement of HM6 is already completely engineered even though only to be released in two and a half years... Any new MB&F creation takes between 3 and 4 years to take from design to delivery.

 Q: Do you think MB&F will ever run out of ‘F(riends)’ to collaborate with?  

No, first of all as there is no barrier to working with the same people over and over again and second because with our awareness and reputation of trustworthiness growing, more and more artisans and engineers approach us to collaborate. 

I'd like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Max for his generosity in giving up his time (and being patient with my 'technical hitches') and to The Hour Glass Sydney for making this interview possible.

[On a final personal note, I'd like to thank all of you for your support of the Sydney Tarts blog over the past few years. The blog will be entering a new phase after this post. I (aptronym) have launched my own watch blog called Horologium, and am stepping back from being this blog's editor/ chief contributor. There are some new posts in the works from onomatopia, so keep your eyes on this space.]

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