MB&F Founder Maximilian Büsser Talks Design, the Industry and the Future of Watchmaking

SHIFTed spoke to Büsser about riffing off vintage American design elements in his timepieces, the state of the Swiss watch industry, and MB&F’s future projects.

Maximilian Büsser of MB&F isn’t a designer. He doesn't simply design radical watches — that would be limiting the extent of his efforts to simply creating a tangible good that’s pleasing to the eye. If you’ve ever handled an MB&F piece, you know that it takes some time for the brain to understand the intricacies and ideology behind this variety of kinetic art. Telling time is completely secondary. The best way to approach an MB&F piece is to understand that Büsser develops an entire concept, and the rest of the process, including the design, follows that concept.

Büsser’s foundation in horology came when he helped turn Jaeger LeCoultre around into a profitable company, then eventually moved on to head Harry Winston’s timepiece segment.

Then he quit and struck out on his own. No one else was going to turn his boyhood fantasies of rocket-ship- and muscle-car-derived mechanical creations into something real.

MB&F's imagination extends beyond wearable art — the brand just announced the release of  Kelys & Chirp, a fully mechanical music box shaped like a walking turtle with a singing bird companion on his back. Co-created with developers at the mechanical music specialists REUGE and Swiss automation expert Nicolas Court, it's the latest inventive release from a brand that never ceases to surprise. 

We spoke to Büsser about riffing off vintage American design elements in his timepieces, the state of the Swiss watch industry and MB&F’s future projects.

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MB&F's new collaboration with REUGE and Nicolas Court, this music box demonstrates how the iconic Swiss brand isn't afraid to do things differently. (Courtesy of MB&F)

Right now in the watch world, it seems like everything is simply being recycled. We see companies often digging into their archives rather than putting emphasis on creating something entirely new. MB&F obviously does things a little differently and creates watches that look like they’re 50+ years into the future — why is the watch industry focused so heavily on the past as of late?

MB: It’s tricky — It’s my perspective; I’m not sure it's the reality, but clearly I think we’ve arrived at the end of a cycle in the big watch brands. As you said very rightly, the brands are now either doing the umpteenth iteration of an icon or going back to the archives and copying what was done in the '30s, '50s, '60s, '70s. Nobody dares to create anymore; it’s the biggest issue of our industry today.

It not commercial, it’s not production — it’s that no one is creating. We as an industry have been milking the cow for 20 years. We’re working off the past's creative guts, their boldness. Look at all the icons we have today, apart from Richard Mille, who is the only one to have truly created an icon in the past 15 years, all the others date back to minimum 40 years ago — because business grew fast and easily for the industry, it forgot to create. Then the brands became so big that they couldn't take any more risks.

"What was done in the past is extraordinary, but it’s become extraordinary because it was bold, because it took risks." 

When you craft 50 to 100 thousand watches per year, you have very high minimums to meet. You can’t just go and create something so bold that you’re terrified that no one is going to buy it. You're going to create something that you know people will want, so either you work with your icon or — for the last five years at least — you go and look in your archives. What was done in the past is extraordinary, but it’s become extraordinary because it was bold, because it took risks. We’ve been milking the cow, but my question is, when are we going to start feeding it? In 20 to 30 years are they going to continue doing the 7000th variation of X, Y or Z? We need to seed now so that they flowers come up then — we’re seeing the flowers that were seeded 30–60 years ago.

Sure, we need to inject a bit more imagination into the creation process for the big guys, but then there’s this idea that an icon becomes an icon because it’s “as good as it gets” and we should perfect it little by little.

I completely disagree. Icons, when they came out, were usually completely misunderstood. They were often commercial failures. They were strong concepts. When the JLC Reverso came out, Jaeger only sold a small amount. You rarely see the old ones at auctions because there simply weren't that many made. It was only in the late '80s that we rediscovered this weird looking watch and said, “That’s amazing! Let’s make something out of it!”

The Royal Oak came out as a limited edition in steel and they didn't plan to do more than their initial run; no one wanted to buy the Nautilus in the '70s, '80s and early '90s and now everyone is dying to get their hands on one. So, in a way, icons are such strong concepts that initially they are not major successes. It takes time and changing tastes to become an icon.

HM4_MOVEMENT_2.jpgEven this movement of the HM4 is a work of art . (Courtest of MB&F)

MB&F clearly eschews any sort of design trends; it’s the epitome of bold.

Right. I created MB&F as a life decision. On the last day of my life I wanted to know that I had the guts to create what I wanted to, even if nobody would ever buy it. So it’s about always getting out my comfort zone and pushing boundaries.  I was terrified to come out with the HM1 and it seemed incredibly disruptive at the time . . . I look at it 12 years later and think it’s actually a very subdued piece.

Every year I try to push the envelope, and every year I have no idea if anyone is going to buy it. It’s about the concept, and it’s a work of art. The concept and the work of art is more important than anything else. We’ve seen eight horological machines and we’ve seen five legacy machines. They’re two very different animals.

The horological machines are pretty much my psychotherapy. I revisit my childhood and episodes of my life are transposed into 3D pieces of art — which, oh, by the way, give you time. Legacy machines are completely cerebral. They’re tributes to what the masters watchmakers of the 18th and 19th century could have made had they been alive today. What would I have created if I lived back then? The horological machines come from my guts; the legacy machines come grom my head. I’m completely schizophrenic.

"I will not let any product out that I don't love. Most important is that I don't disappoint myself."

Usually creators have one groove they follow. I’m frustrated because there are so many I want to follow. A lot of people ask me now about the expectations I’ve generated. Twelve years ago there were no expectations, so it was easy to amaze — but now after 14 calibers, the public is expecting to be wowed. I will not let any product out that I don't love. Most important is that I don't disappoint myself.

Are any classic American design elements that are inspiring to you? Any piece of Americana that influences your expressions?

The side of the HM6SV, the sapphire HM6, is complete American streamlined design of the 1950s, you know, like the old Greyhound busses. There's a whole part of American design from the ‘50s and '60s that I’m super interested in. I own and drive a ‘65 Stingray; every time I look at that car, from every single angle, I’m blown away by the design. This was made in a time when there was no wind tunnel for testing, but it's a car that when it’s standing still it looks as if it’s going fast. And at the same time it's got so much character and testosterone.

Nobody today can do something like that. I look at that car and I think: The guys who designed that had to be geniuses. It’s a work of art that’s also a car. And I’m not talking about its history. Someone who has never seen a car before will stop and look at this car. When I drive it in Geneva, people come up to me and ask what it is.

You’ll see how this comes to life in the HM9 in October next year. It’s been inspired by aerodynamic design from the ‘50s.

HM6_Alien Nation_Profile_CMYK.jpgMB&F's HM6 Alien Nation (Courtesy of MB&F)

We don’t need a watch to tell the time anymore, and in a way, that turns all watches into “mechanical art,”  yet big watchmakers constantly advertise new technologies used in escapements, materials, etc. as selling points. Are major watchmakers doing themselves and us a disservice by thinking that watches are used for telling time anymore? Should they actually be thinking: “we need to make a beautiful object first and tell time second?”

Well, if you see it as a watchmaker then your whole role is improving on the world of watchmaking. The technical side. The guys that create longer power reserves, new escapements. I’m an engineer, I’m not a watchmaker, and it actually made a big difference in my creative process. It’s interesting because for a very long time I had a big chip on my shoulder because I was not a watchmaker. A lot of my colleagues liked to remind me of that.

I later realized it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s heresy to take the balance wheel out of the movement and place it on top – like on a Legacy Machine — you’re just making it more complicated by a multiple of 10. The idea wouldn't even cross any normal watchmaker's mind because it’s making his life more difficult. I wanted to see the escapement — and then I find a technical solution to make it work.

As far as giving time, I’m not sure watch brands think too much about that today.

"The greatest danger of our industry is that instead of shifting from giving time to art, we’ve shifted from giving time to status." 

Brands today have figured out that they have to sell a lifestyle; they’re aspirational now more than ever. The technological advancements are seemingly secondary to the perceived lifestyle they're selling you.

Exactly. The greatest danger of our industry is that instead of shifting from giving time to art, we’ve shifted from giving time to status. Because when you go into selling status, the people who buy your products more and more don't actually understand what exactly they are, and this opens the door to being able to sell a piece of industrial rubbish at insane prices.

It’s dangerous because it allows the possibility of the industry losing its integrity, and people lose sight of why we’re buying watches in the first place.

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Swiss watch sales are soaring despite the fact that watches aren’t a total necessity. Is there a bubble that’s going to burst?

I think we’re actually just in the middle of the growth curve. In the last three years China slowed down, the rouble evaporated, oil prices sank. That had quite an impact on the industry. But that was just a speed bump. The industry has always grown in “bursts” followed by adjustment periods. We’re only scratching the surface now.

There are many people who buy beautiful cars, put lots of money into their house, and those people might also eventually want to get into beautiful, high-end watchmaking. I see it as an incredible opportunity. I think the industry has the potential for enormous growth — but it needs to create. It can't keep using the same recipe. Maybe all the people that haven't become interested in the industry are not interested because they keep on seeing the same thing. Maybe we need to give them something new.

Cole Pennington
Cole Pennington

After spending half a decade exploring the far-flung corners of Asia as a travel writer, Cole returned to New York City where he’s currently enrolled at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. He writes about horology, classic motoring, exploration, and aviation. You’ll find funky and chunky ‘60s divers and far out ‘70s chronos on his wrist, and a modified '74 Datsun Z-car in his garage.

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