Controversial Watchmaker Maximilian Büsser Reveals What Makes Him Tick

Maximilian Büsser is the founder of MB&F, a horological collective that creates some of the most innovative and controversial timepieces on the planet. Büsser began his career at Jaeger-LeCoultre before becoming the managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces. But MB&F has enabled him to embrace a decidedly counterculture approach to watchmaking. His whimsical creations have pushed the boundaries of design and engineering, making the Swiss entrepreneur the watch-industry equivalent of automotive visionaries like Horacio Pagani or Christian von Koenigsegg. We caught up with Mr. Büsser to chat about his iconoclastic timepieces and learn how they are influenced by his passion for cars and motorcycles. (mbandf.com)

RobbReport.com: Your watches are unlike anything else out there. Before you founded MB&F, who were your watch heroes? Who did you look up to?

Maximilian Büsser: I’m trying all sorts of new things. I did all the basics, I started off at Jaeger-LeCoultre 23 years ago and spent seven years at Harry Winston. I’ve done all that. Now, I’m reinterpreting all of it, and I have no reference at all. There are a lot of people I look up to as talents, but not as creators. Urwerk and De Bethune are the two brands I really like. But at the end of the day, I’m writing my own story. And nothing at all is linked to the trend of fashion or what’s happening in the watch world.

RR.com: Many of your watches reference cars. What cars do you drive, and where do you find automotive inspiration?

MB: I’ve always been a car person. But for me, like watches, the human beings who create them are as important as the product themselves. So, when I finally started making a real living, 13 years ago, I got my dream car of the day. In those days I drove a TVR Griffith. Absolutely hairy, crazy car. I had it nine years and every time I took a turn I was like, “I’m still alive!” But the sensation that car gave me was much more than any Porsche or Ferrari … I’m not that sort of guy.

Three years ago I sold my TVR and I got my next dream car. I got a Wiesmann MF4-S. I specialize in cars that are handmade by crazy people, who have put their soul in it. It’s as important as the product itself. Something completely different made by people who dream. And actually, TVR went bankrupt and Wiesmann has gone bankrupt now. I went to visit their factories. Insane. Did you see the Wiesmann factory? That’s why they went bankrupt. They were doing 150 cars a year from scratch. BMW engines and Getrag gearboxes, all the rest was made by them. A monoblock aluminum chassis done by them. Even the bodywork, they had the molds; they were making them. The electrical circuits they were doing on measure for each client. It was insane. And it’s less than the price of a Porsche, so, of course they were going to go bankrupt. But it’s an incredible car to drive.

RR.com: What do you think of Pagani?

MB: Of course, I actually always use Horacio [Pagani] as an example. He’s practically the last dreamer in this industry except for a few English guys. And we all wonder how he’s still there. The level of detailing, the level of everything he does . . . incredible. And it’s interesting that one of my collectors in Hong Kong who’s got all my pieces, he’s got three Paganis, and after he bought the first MB&F, he said, “You know, what’s happened to me since I bought your piece is same thing when I bought my first Pagani. I’ve sold all my Ferraris and Lamborghinis and all that. And I’m going to sell all my watch collection.” Because it’s the same story. For him, it’s the same story. MB&F and Pagani. And it completely makes sense for me. There are no more rebels out there in the car industry. It’s so difficult to survive.

RR.com: Tell me about some of the engineering challenges you faced during the creation of the automotive-inspired HM5.

MB: It took four years just because we cocked up completely at the beginning; we had used parabolic mirrors [for the hour and minute display] and then we realized it didn’t work. But the whole system [was challenging]: the movement we developed which is, of course, new; the prism mirror; the most complicated case in the history of watchmaking—all the systems. And we’re never going to amortize that over the 200 pieces we’ve done.

RR.com: What inspired the unique shape of the case?       

MB: We have to find solutions for everything we do because round watches, which have been made for hundreds of years, are just improving a little bit on what already exists. We’re continually hitting walls in every one of our ideas, but nobody’s ever done it and we have to find solutions for it. So, this is an engineer’s wet dream, and it’s an engineer’s nightmare. It’s really both.

For us, we create kinetic art. That’s what we do. What I do is kinetic art, which, oh, by the way, gives you the time. So, I deconstruct beautiful, traditional watchmaking and reconstruct it into a 3-D machine, which, by the way, gives you time. Think Transformers. The car becomes a robot. For me, the boring round watch becomes a 3-D piece of mechanical art. It’s inspired mostly by my childhood. So, planes, cars, science fiction.

RR.com: What kind of science fiction?

MB: I was 10 years old when I saw Star Wars. I can still remember the first scene where Darth Vader walks down the aisle and [choking sound]. So, I was Han Solo. I was also Captain Kirk [from Star Trek]. I’m an only child, and my parents were so in love with each other they didn’t even notice I existed. I was all the time alone. I was so lonely that my survival depended on being a superhero, so I was saving the world every day.

I think when you’re a kid you’re 100 times more creative than when you’re an adult. You dream of all sorts of things and then your parents tell you, “Stop it. Become reasonable. You have to go and make a living.” Your professors tell you, “Stop having your crazy dreams. You need to work.” Even my first boss, whom I loved, she’d tell me, “Büsser, your crazy ideas are cool, but we need to make money.” And everything in your life conspires to stop you being a dreamer and a creator.

So for me, MB&F is as much my psychotherapy—revisiting my childhood—as my autobiography. I create without giving a damn about what people think. It’s the anti-marketer. I’ve been a marketer. I’ve done that. I never want to go back to that. As a creator, I want to create what I believe in and maybe there’ll be a client out there.

RR.com: How do you keep that inspiration fresh? Do you travel?

MB: I travel a lot. It’s actually when I travel that I create most. Not by talking with people, just by being alone, being in planes. Actually, it’s in planes that I create most. There are no e-mails. I’m all alone for 10 hours. Creating for yourself, like I do—which I’m probably one of the only ones in this industry—is like really heavy-duty drugs. It’s completely addictive. And initially it was really hard. My first HM1 took me 300 hours of design, and I was doubting everything. So it was the first time I was creating something for myself. I’d never done that. Who am I? Is that what I like? Instead of what does the client want?

The second one was easier, the third one was easier, and now, I’m the most frustrated man on Earth. I’ve got so many projects in the pipeline and we’ve got such limited means that anything I’m designing now is for after 2022. That’s in seven years. I don’t want to wait seven years. [When] what I’ve designed now comes out, I’ll be unhappy with it because what I’m designing now has nothing to do with what I designed 10 years ago. If it comes out in eight years, I’ll have changed myself so much that I was like, “Well, I’m not this. This is the man I was eight years ago.”

RR.com: Tell me a little about MB&F’s R&D process.

MB: Basically what I am saying is I don’t want my company to grow because I am going into more and more radical creative [directions]. Whatever I’m designing now is going to come out in 2020. The HM6 is our most radical and crazy timepiece to date, and it started in 2010; it’s taken me four years from sketch to the piece existing. [These are] enormous investments; we put 27 percent of our revenue into R&D every year. And every year we come up with a fully new caliber movement. [In 2014], we came out with two [caliber movements]. It’s 1,500 components, and we’ve been working on it for the last three to four years in R&D, but also the prototyping, the pre-series, and the financing all the different parts, which we started machining 18 months ago. You just build up, build up, build up until you have the HM6’s 475 components. And if you’re missing one, that’s it; it doesn’t come out.

RR.com: How many examples of each model do you build?

MB: Some pieces we do 10 a year. Others we do 50 a year. Some are limited, some are not limited. I’ll take a Legacy Machine 1 [LM1] where we don’t limit it, but we only craft 60 movements a year and we could sell 200. But that’s why we only do 60, because as I have zero communication budget and we don’t do any advertising, I cannot influence the market. I therefore have to always produce less than what the market can take because I have no pull on the market. If I know I can sell 60, I’ll maybe make 30.

RR.com: How long does it take to make the average watch?

MB: Well, from sketch to the first piece being delivered, it’s between three and four years. And once you decide to relaunch a production, it’ll take between 14 and 16 months. So, I not only know all the products that are going to come out from now to 2018, but I also have my production plan until the end of 2016, because if I don’t, it’s not coming out. Therefore, I take all the risks of manufacturing and that’s why I hope people are going to buy them, and that’s why I always produce less than what I think really could be sold because I have no way of …

RR.com: You don’t want to flood the market.

MB: I can’t influence it. Yeah, Instagram is great, but I’m not doing Instagram. It’s everybody Instagramming us. Communication today is not what the brand says, it’s what the other people say of the brand. The only way I can influence is by creating new pieces.

RR.com: Tell me a little bit about what you do when somebody says, “I want something made for me that’s unique?”

MB: We always refuse. We never accept anything bespoke. We’re the only small artisanal watch brand who never will do anything for anybody. This is my story I’m writing. This is not my clients’ story. Say I have done a really beautiful blue painting, and you come to me and say, “Oh, that’s very nice. Can you do the same in red?” If I’m a real artist, I’ll tell you to go to hell. If I’m a marketer I’d say, “Yeah, sure, and you want me to paint your kids in it?”

I am not a marketer. I am no more a marketer. We never do unique pieces, we never do anything changed, we refuse every single request from all our clients. And they try. This is my story. You don’t like it, just get away. And I’m the only one to say that.

RR.com: Is this the be-all and end-all for you? Do you want to just keep making watches or do you want to expand into other …

MB: That’s funny. If you’d have asked me that three years ago, I’d have said, “Yeah, sure. I’ve got so many things in mind for my timepieces, I’ll never do anything else.” And then two years ago we came out with our first piece I designed which is not a watch. And maybe you’ve heard about it? It’s a music box. Did you hear about it? We opened a mechanical art gallery in Geneva called the M.A.D.Gallery where I curate mechanical and kinetic artists of the world. And I’ve met incredible creators. And one of them was a small company in Sainte-Croix in Switzerland, called Reuge, which is the last manufacturer of super-high-end music boxes. And they’re beautiful. But they’re not my taste. They’re beautiful marquetry boxes and when you open it up, it’s Bach and Handel and Mozart. And I love that, but that’s not who I am. So, I went to them with a design, I said, “Would you accept to do this?” And they actually did. That was my music box. They actually manufactured my design, and it was such an amazing success, the 66 pieces are all sold. There are none left anywhere in the world, and they asked me to continue; “Do you have any other ideas?”

So, we just introduced last month MusicMachine 2. We worked with Reuge to make this into a resonant sounding board with aluminum. But inside you’ve got 350-year-old spruce wood, which has been crafted by a violin maker to be a passive mechanical sounding board. The sound, which is generated here by the music box, is then transferred through the vibrations of the aluminum shaft, goes into the dome and becomes the passive loudspeaker. You can put your ear here and hear the music as if it’s coming out of here, which it’s not.

RR.com: Tell me a little bit about your clients. I bet they have interesting lives.

MB: I’ve learned to discover who my clients are. They’re really interesting people because you need guts to wear what I do. What I do is pretty in-your-face. Somebody who wants to show off wants a product that everybody recognizes, and everybody knows the price, and everybody likes it. Here, nobody knows what it is. You can see it’s high-end, but you have no idea what the price is. And most people will go, “You actually paid for that?”

So, my clients are really strong-minded, self-asserted individuals who say, “You don’t like what I wear? I don’t give a damn.” And when I create, I say, “You don’t like what I do? I don’t give a damn.”

It’s like in life. I like people who take a stance, who say, “This is who I am. You like it or you don’t, but this is who I am.” And people who are wishy-washy and want to be everybody’s friend are just super boring. I’m not interested in that. I like people who’ve got passions, people who are different. And my products are different. They’re like me. And what I do is extraordinary. I will always accept that people say, “It’s horrible, it’s ugly, I don’t like it, I’ll never wear it.” Fine. You tell me it’s badly made? I’ll punch your nose in. It’s extraordinarily made. The artisanship, the craftsmanship in what I do—what we do—is extraordinary, way over anything of the luxury high-end industrial products that most brands have become.

RR.com: It’s mindboggling. I mean, the amount of workmanship that goes into high-end watchmaking. Carmakers share parts; Pagani still has an AMG engine [sourced from Mercedes-AMG].

MB: Absolutely. But face it, what killed TVR is when they came out with their own engine. And I understand the theory of that. This is a wholly new engine from scratch. But you can do that in the watch world. You can’t do that in the car world anymore.

RR.com: Or motorcycles, for that matter.

MB: True.

RR.com: I think the new Norton really suffered when they tried to build their own engine.

MB: In our art gallery I was extremely honored to have, for me, the greatest motorcycle creator in the world—in exclusive­. We had Chicara Nagata. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Nagata-san. Chicara lives in a little island south of Japan in Kyushu, and in 15 years, he’s done five motorbikes. He buys some of the most beautiful vintage engines. This is a 1950 Meguro, and he completely crafts everything by hand; seven thousand hours of work.

Is this practical? Is this a good motorcycle? Go and buy a Ducati if you want to grab a great motorcycle. But this is three years of a tormented soul from the greatest creator I know in this industry. That’s a Harley from 1939. And he does everything. That’s his racing moped with a Honda 50 cc put on the wheel—crafted from scratch.

So, 15 years, five bikes, never sold one. I went to see him in Japan, after three hours with a translator I said, “Nagata-san, how do you live? How do you live? I mean, you never sold one of these pieces?”

So he tells the translator, “I have to do some graphic design on the side to eat and pay my rent.” He’s 50 years old. He’s not 25. And then he starts talking with the translator and she gets all flustered and it goes back and forth. And then she sort of looks down, she doesn’t look at me and she says, “Nagata-san tells me to tell you his wife has left him, he has no more friends, but he can’t stop doing what he does.” Probably the most important moment of my last 8, 10 years.

I don’t think that that’s what I aspire to, but that is pure creative abnegation.

RR.com: Yes. It’s a cultural thing with the Japanese, too.

MB: It is.

RR.com: I mean, they really dedicate themselves to a craft, throw their whole lives into it. It’s fascinating.

MB: He actually sold two of his bikes, [and we took a] 10-percent margin. I saw him in Taiwan because we opened a second M.A.D.Gallery in Taipei three months ago, and he was there for the opening. And he tells me through a translator, he says, “You’ve changed my life. Thanks to you, I don’t have to do small little jobs to eat. With the money you gave me, I can now finally do 100 percent my art.”

RR.com: Wow.

MB: It’s those moments that I live for.

RR.com: What was the nature of your collaboration?

MB: In our gallery, we presented his pieces and PR’d him all over the world. We became his unofficial agent and we got him in every media we could get him into. And it’s funny because I saw him a year after (this has been going on for three years now). A year after he said, “Since you’ve been talking about me, I have received e-mails from people in 60 different countries. Nobody knew I existed. And now I’m getting all these e-mails …”

RR.com: And when did you show him first?

MB: Practically three years ago when we opened the gallery in Geneva. Art galleries would look down at us and, “That’s not art.” Don’t tell me that scribble on the wall is art. This is art. Because for me, art is linked intimately with craftsmanship. I don’t like contemporary art because 90 percent of the value of the object is the hype and the marketing behind it. And for me, that’s why I’ve created this gallery, M.A.D.Gallery. And now we’re open in Taipei and we’re actually talking of opening one in Dubai. And so, yes, we’re slowly, slowly getting these incredible pieces all over the world.

RR.com: It’s fascinating, the process and the attention to detail you have to pay. It must be exhausting.

MB: It’s my life. I don’t think of it that way. I’ve never been this happy. I’m completely free. And that’s totally priceless. I’m free creatively. I’m free economically. My salary is a joke. People don’t believe me. I say, “I can’t buy my own pieces.” This is my yearly salary. There is no way I can buy one of my pieces when my yearly salary is the piece.

So, this is not about that. This is about being proud. I decided to create MB&F when my dad passed away 13 years ago.

I realized that, for me at least, and it’s different for anybody, the most important day of my life is not the day I was born, it’s not the day I got married, it’s not the day my daughter was born, it’ll be the last one. It’s the day when you look back just before you go and you better be proud. Because if you’re not, everything you’ve done was for nothing. And after my dad passed away, I realized that. I completely changed my life. And this is just one of the things that changed in my life. Everything I do, I know it will make me proud. And I know also that people will say when I’m not there, “He was a good man.” And that’s all that will make me happy. So, that’s what it’s all about.

RR.com: That’s fantastic.

MB: It’s not only about watches, what I do.

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