Maximilian Büsser Joins for an Introduction to "Maximilian Büsser and Friends",
a new Concept in Horological Creativity

© July 2006


Maximilian Büsser is a name familiar to anyone who has followed haute horlogerie, especially in the last few years.  He began his career in watchmaking  at Jaeger  LeCoultre  under the  tutelage of such luminaries as Günter Blümlein, and then, as  Managing Director, transformed Harry Winston Rare Timepieces from a virtual unknown in the highly selective and competitive world of high end watchmaking into arguably the leader among all the brands with the resources to operate in this stratospheric territory, where both costs and stakes are sometimes staggeringly high.
His work at HWRT has  been  marked by an  almost  transgressive approach to watchmaking; the Opus series is notable for its distinctive use of depth, dimension, tactility and color to create timepieces which are immediately recognizable and which, though very different from each other, form a coherent body of work with a distinctive design sensibility.

Last year at Basel 2005, the Opus 5 was the talk of the show, with its controversial  design  decried  by  some as  an  elaboration for elaboration’s  sake and praised just as loudly by others as a truly fresh approach to the display of time, and a groundbreaking design effort that  completely  altered the  sense of  what it  means to be  a horological designer. 

To its fans the Opus 5 was both a success in its own right and a glove thrown down to the rest of the industry, a statement that watches should no longer be considered merely as craft objects with a static design vocabulary, but as works of art, kinetic sculptures as capable of innovation in form as any of the other fine arts and with the added obligation to always explore fresh territory in terms of mechanical inventiveness as well. 



For most people such an achievement would have been a watershed moment, a high point, an opportunity to rest and reflect in satisfaction on what has been achieved. It was at this point, however, and most intriguingly, that Max Büsser chose to do the almost unthinkable: leave HWRT and strike out on his own to establish an entirely new brand
'MB&F' (Maximilan  Büsser and Firends): an entirely new presence and concept in high horology, which promises to do the impossible:  extend the inventiveness and relentless energy of the Opus series of watches even further, into uncharted and unimaginable territory. 
With one of the most anticipated product launches in recent memory imminent, Max Büsser took time out from his busy schedule to answer some in-depth questions from on his journey through the world of horology, where he sees himself now, and also on what course he plans to chart for his new venture.



TP: Although the opportunity to strike out on one’s own is certainly always attractive in the abstract,  your success at  Harry Winston Rare Timepieces  was  so remarkable that one can’t  help but wonder what specifically led to your decision to establish MB&F when you did.
For those who saw “Saving Private Ryan”, at the end of the film, Tom Hanks tells Matt Damon, “Make it worthwhile.” I think that is what most led to my decision (the phrase, not the film !). Over the last 14 years, I have had the most exhilarating professional experience, and arrived career-wise where I had never even dreamt I would. At some point, I therefore stepped back for a  minute  and  thought “now what ?”  Are you “just” going to lead Harry Winston higher and higher, or jump ship to another big brand to do the same? 
Or are you going to turn this amazing experience into what you really deep down in yourself dream of achieving?  Also, the larger Harry Winston Rare Timepieces was becoming and the more power I was wielding, the less I was enjoying myself. 
It hadn’t taken me much time to realize that I was not a corporate man.  Nevertheless it took more time to understand that  the entrepreneurship part in my career was what I most enjoyed.  So I set upon developing this utopian concept: MB&F, a very small company, whose only goal is to be hyper-creative in high-end horology, whilst working only with people I appreciate.


TP: The Opus series watches whose  production  you oversaw at HWRT are  remarkable  for a  number  of  reasons  but one of their most  noticeable characteristics is their three dimensionality.  You’ve ‘broken the plane’ of the dial, so to speak. 
Will MB&F watches continue the evolution of this design philosophy?

MB: Definitely!  The MB&F creations are called “Horological Machines” because, unlike traditional timepieces, they are  conceived as  3D machines that give time. Now, we are not talking of design cues and big cases but of explicitly developed movements that explore a 3rd dimension which had been up until very recently shunned by “haute horlogerie”.  
Horological Machine No1 is still a hybrid, a Jules Verne inspired machine which combines both worlds; however, later creations will explore much bolder pieces of horological machinery.

TP: You’ve sometimes used the term ‘architectural’ to characterize the aesthetic you envision for  MB&F  watches; is there any particular architectural design idiom which you feel has influenced you?

MB: I have always been struck how most watch designers, and in  fact  creators, sketch in 2D.  The dial  and the top of the case are seemingly what differentiate a watch in the eyes of most people.  And then  the  engineer  in  charge  of development would work out an esthetically pleasing side of the case.

Often the designer is not even involved in that final process ! At MB&F I wanted to create machines so I chose to work with Eric Giroud to design our creations.  Eric is an extremely talented freelance product designer, who was previously an architect, and  had  his own architecture studio.
I knew Eric would understand where I was going and when I showed him my initial sketch of HM01 he first looked at me as if I needed my head examined . . . and then quickly got into the mood.  We started by exploring the 3-dimensionality of a watch case,  but quickly also moved to the movements.  On new projects we often sketch the side of the case before starting work on the top!

TP: Will MB&F watches use pre-existing base calibers with novel modular complications, or will you be committing to creating a new caliber from scratch for each watch?

MB: MB&F is some sort of a utopian company – my dream business model. It is a very small company, concentrating all the advantages of size and flexibility; however, still generating enough revenue to invest in very ambitious horological developments. 
It is also utopian in the fact that I hope to be able to only work with people I appreciate.  And to be able to achieve this I must keep the company small and the growth modest so as not to enter the rat race of hiring more people to achieve ambitious goals, who in turn increase fixed costs which force us to increase our financial goals even more the following year. 
That said, Horological Machine No.1 is nevertheless a completely new movement. I was honored to work with extremely professional partners and the results are amazing. 
However, it would be much too risky for my company to create a completely new movement every year, so we will alternate: 
one year a completely new movement,  the year  after  a very innovative module developed on a high-end Manufacture base movement.  We have four pieces in the pipeline, two fully new movements, and two modules on an existing high-end movement.

TP: Do you envision small series watches at Opus price points only, or is there a chance that in the future, MB&F might present a watch or watches priced at a more accessible level with no predetermined production limit?

MB: By developing a fully new movement in such small quantities (there will be 100 HM01 movements crafted over 3 years – 30 watches the first year) and high standards of finish, we have to be in Opus price territory,  i.e.,  150’ to 200’000.- SFr. 
With the modular concepts however we can offer some truly amazing world firsts at price levels of around 50’000.- Sfr while still remaining in small series of approximately 100 pieces a year. 
I honestly feel it is in fact a more difficult challenge to bring to the market real innovation in high horology standards at 50k SFr price levels rather than at 500k SFr.

TP: I am intrigued by the name of your firm, “Maximilian Büsser and Friends.” It sounds so informal! I’m reminded of the statement of the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who said “I write for my friends, and to ease the passage of time.” Is the personal relationship between you and the craftspeople who create your watches important to the final product and how will that express itself in the design process?

MB: You could say that it is a hyper-creative company undertaking extremely serious engineering and where each member tries not to take him or herself seriously. 
The excellent relationship between all the members of the Collective is crucial to be able to bring projects to their conclusion in harmony and efficiency.  In fact, by nurturing teams of talented individuals, harnessing their passion and creativity and crediting each individual's essential role, MB&F uses their synergy to become greater than the sum of its parts.  And that is essential.

TP: Although the name sounds almost as if the company were founded by a wealthy gentleman of leisure as a diversion, of course there is always a need to realize sales commensurate with the enormous costs of realizing these idiosyncratic designs. How will you balance the challenges of keeping a highly individual vision and at the same time developing a stable and growing market for your products?

MB: Founding MB&F was probably much more a life decision than a business decision. To develop a reasonably successful business in the watch industry, you need the image building concept products to help sell the “volume” high margin pieces. 
At MB&F, we only have concept products in very small quantities. Clearly I have chosen the toughest and most dangerous route – but it is so much more thrilling, and emotionally rewarding ! 
Now, to minimize risks in the business model, one totally original complicated movement (or module) will be launched every year. However, each creation will be delivered over three years. We will manufacture 100 HM1 movements in total;  however, only 30 Horological machine No1’s will be crafted in 2007. 
Going forward, after year 4, MB&F should be able to withstand the financial hit of one new development facing technical delays. 
And to answer your last question, it is not our job to develop a growing market; the market for highly innovative horology is still extremely niche but is growing all by itself. Our challenge is to be able to transcribe into reality our wild imagination !

TP: Do you see the designs we’ll be seeing from MB&F as in a direct design lineage from those you did at HWRT, or can we expect to see an effort to deliberately and explicitly break off in a new direction?

MB: I am sure that some minor detailing in our first creation can be traced back to Harry Winston. I suppose it is normal when one has spent seven years creating the strong identity of a brand; however, all MB&F creations have a definite very strong style of their own. 
In fact MB&F allows me all those creations that were in my mind, but would not fit in the Harry Winston DNA ! 
More importantly, I have taken the deliberate decision of allowing great  freedom in the MB&F  product DNA.  Focusing  brand characteristics is basic marketing textbook; however, it does not allow free thinking and may block real creativity. 
I consider MB&F more as a Creative LABEL than a brand. By assembling in total freedom different collectives to develop different products, we have come up with some pretty extreme products and not hindered by trying to make them enter a pre-formatted style.

TP: To what extent do you see yourself as directing the design process? Although the name MB&F suggests a deliberately cultivated collaborative process, creatively such collaborations are often difficult to sustain and run the risk of producing pieces that do not express a unified aesthetic. How will you balance the demands of both ensuring a unified vision and at the same time respecting the uniquely collaborative process you hope to encourage?

MB: Günter Blümlein once told me - or basically shut me up when I was disagreeing with him! - in a meeting over 12 years ago, “Mr. Büsser, creativity is not a democratic process!” 
As so often, there was a lot of sense in what he said: the more people involved the more diluted the project usually is. 
In MB&F, flexibility is the key word. If I have a clear vision, then the collective of friends will interpret that and often improve on it. 
If, on the other hand, a designer or watchmaker friend has a strong vision of a product, then I will do my best to make that dream come true. Each project is a group effort and my input will vary according to what is needed to ensure that the result is an MB&F Horological Machine.

TP: Since your initial work in the industry at JLC you have had an opportunity to see tastes evolve towards an acceptance of and a great enthusiasm for more extreme designs. However there is always a segment of connoisseurs who lament such ‘extreme watchmaking’ as an affront to classical design values, and who insist that once the novelty value of such pieces have worn off they will lose much of their appeal. Do you see the novelty factor as an asset, or as a potential problem, and in your opinion are such design oriented houses as MB&F establishing a new classicism, a design language for watches that will stand the test of time?

MB: One of the most interesting evolutions of our 21st century is that there is no one predominant artistic or technological current (like Art Deco in the 30’s, or Pop Art on the 70’s). 
Our world is populated with many different “tribes”, each and everyone finding their own. Therefore, staunch defenders of traditional classical values can very easily cohabit with lovers of eccentric extreme innovation. 
In fact, our industry needs the conservative brands to remain so because they represent the landmark from which you can measure innovation. If everyone creates extreme designs and innovation, then nothing is extreme anymore. 
The real danger lies in novelty design without integrated technical development. Anyone can design a “funky” case, with an ETA movement. It’s like adding spoilers and wings to an Opel Astra … it won’t turn it into a fine piece of engineering like a Pagani Zonda. 
The problem is that more and more opportunistic brands are doing just that - customizing extreme bodywork onto a basic engine. If that continues, the end-consumer may find it excessively difficult to separate the genuine article from the fake.

TP: Will you be exploring the integration of new materials into the craft of watchmaking? The use of exotic case materials and high-tech mechanical solutions seems to offer a good deal of scope for expanding the available design possibilities and removing some of the constraints that practical construction issues have placed on watch design in the past. And yet, of course, pushing the outside of the envelope always runs the risk of producing sometimes very lengthy and unexpected delays in delivery of a product. . .

MB: Again let us separate the products where the use of new materials are part of the real concept from those where the brand tried to “spiff up” the sales of an existing model. 
HM1 will only be in 18ct gold –which is most fitting for this Jules Verne piece of machinery. On the other hand, HM2 has been developed specifically with the idea of composite materials. Both pieces have totally different characters and I believe both will be considered equally amazing.

TP: What will set an MB&F watch apart from other players in high design horology?

MB: Even if it sounds corny, I want to say “it is soul”. The creation of each piece has an amazing human story behind it. This is not design for the sake of design. Now from the engineering point of view, the 3D machine aspect is key to the differentiation – that may not be totally apparent on HM1; however, it will be on the following projects.

TP: The language of complications has deviated very little from the same handful of mechanisms since the time of A. L. Breguet. Will part of MB&F’s efforts to expand the scope of watchmaking include not only novel ways to display the passage of time, but also the development of new expressions of your aesthetic vision in the form of heretofore unknown complications?

MB: All depends on the creative collective involved on the project: some will investigate innovative displays, others will venture into real horological fundamental research. In all cases I believe we will amaze while maintaining a level of traditional hand finish amongst the best.

TP: Will we see (I hope) any hints of things to come, can you give us any glimpse at all of what to expect from your first offering, or do you prefer to keep the curtain down completely for now?

MB: The unveiling will be at the end of September. I have nevertheless sent you the first image of the watch to be released to any media.



TP: Who is Eric Giroud, and what was the genesis of your current collaboration?

MB: I was introduced to Eric by Peter Speake-Marin at Basel 2004. 
Eric worked with me first on some pretty innovative ladies watch concepts at Harry Winston.  Then on a couple of very high-end complicated pieces, Eric helped us design not only the case, but also the movement together with Claret’s team (you will probably see the products soon). 
During this time, I was not only impressed by Eric’s talent as a designer but also by his vast culture and finesse of thinking. He, in fact, was trained as an architect and had his own architect bureau until approx. 10 years ago. He then decided to branch off into product design and has designed accessories, writing instruments, telephones . . . and of course timepieces. 
He is today a key player in the development of MB&F.

TP: Other than yourself, will anyone who has worked on the initial offering from MB&F be part of the design team for the next project?

MB: Many. Eric Giroud for one, but also all the craftsmen and women involved in the case, dial and hands. In the creation, development and manufacturing of the movement on the other hand, it is practically a completely different team.

TP: Will you be releasing a new MB&F project every year?

MB:Yes: 4 are in the pipeline already, including the first piece which will be presented this Autumn

TP: Do you currently expect to be able to show your debut project in September of this year, as has been stated elsewhere?

MB: Yes, as the development is still on target and, all going well, we should be able to deliver at least a few pieces to clients before the end of the year.

TP: Do you see any other manufacturers, independent or otherwise, as direct competitors in terms of business model or aesthetics?

MB: Anyone doing anything remotely along a similar path is helping to expand the market for radical timepieces and innovative thinking and is therefore not a competitor
TP: Do you particularly admire the work of any houses or independents? With whom would you like to work next?

MB: Over the years to come we will be working both with high-profile creators and virtually unknown talent. In some cases, like in HM1, we may ask them to collaborate on the same project. The biggest hurdle in all of our projects is not finding the talent, or even to convince them to work on a project, it is all of us finding the time to develop such ambitious projects !

Interview by Jack Forster


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