Watches: Mechanical Advantage

For companies with brand names as substantial as Hublot’s, acquiring 30 new employees may not seem particularly newsworthy. But for a niche industry in which art, craft, and precision engineering intersect on a single square inch of real estate, an apparently small move such as this can have profound implications.

"Thirty watchmakers is a small number," says Hublot CEO Jean-Claude Biver of his company’s new complicated-watch department. "But considering their level of skill, it is actually a huge number."

These highly accomplished professionals position Hublot as a major new force at the industry’s top end. But Biver says the company’s complication department, which Hublot purchased at a stroke from an insolvent supplier, grew far beyond his expectations.

In 2004—the year Biver took the company’s reins—Hublot became the largest buyer of complicated movements from specialist BNB Concept, whose modern movement designs attracted much notice during the past decade, when the global watch market surged. But many of BNB’s modernist clients were among the first casualties of the economic downturn, and by the end of 2009, BNB’s dwindling cash flow forced the firm to seek bankruptcy protection. A veteran of successful stints at both Blancpain and Omega and one of the most astute executives in the watch business, Biver recognized in BNB’s predicament an opportunity to pick up some distressed assets on the cheap. "We made 30 offers to watchmakers, expecting to hire maybe 18 or 20 of them," he recalls. "But in the middle of the crisis, all 30 said yes."

The acquisition—which includes all of BNB’s equipment and the services of founder and former principal Mathias Buttet—will have an almost immediate effect on Hublot’s offerings. Not only is the company’s pipeline of new models full, but many of its more complicated watches, such as the King Power Tourbillon, can now be produced in-house and in greater numbers. Next year will see the introduction of three minute-repeater designs with tourbillon and chronograph variations whose production the new group helped to facilitate.

Owing to Biver’s perspicacity, Hublot now finds itself in a position even Biver could scarcely have imagined a year ago. Though it has sold an impressive number of tourbillons—nearly 250 in 2008—Hublot has not devoted the same energy to complicated watches as it has to advanced-design chronographs, which Biver calls "fusion" watches because of the mix of materials used in their construction. However, Biver insists this will change as soon as the watches generated from a development program he is now initiating come to market in two to three years. "It would be a mistake for us to put traditional movements like those of Breguet or Patek in our cases," he says. "We need to develop the fusion concept in our movements as well, with new constructions and materials."

 

Hublot, 800.536.0636, www.hublot.com

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