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Maximilian Büsser: MB&F's genius founder talks about reinventing the watch

MB&F watchmaker and founder Maximilian Büsser has created some of the most instantly recognisable modern watch designs on the market. The winner of the Industry Hero prize in the Square Mile Watch Awards 2020, he sits down with us to reflect on his achievements to date

Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB&F, interview

Maximilian Büsser andFriends, or MB&F to us watch fans, is a brand that seems to specialise in making people smile. It started as “a little idea of a little company” according to the ebullient founder Max Büsser, but since 2005 the independent Swiss watchmaker has created perhaps the most inventive series of watches the world has ever seen.

His ‘Horological Machines’, dubbed HMs, balance highly whimsical thematic imagery with an acutely technological edge – these unique timepieces may look like a jellyfish (HM07 Aquapod) or a dog (HM10 Bulldog), but this child-like wonderment wouldn’t be possible without creating highly innovative movements that belie traditional watchmaking practices in order to fit their creative guises.

In a world where watches have remained largely unchanged for the best part of 200 years, Büsser has taken on the mantle of reinventing the wheel and, in doing so, brought fun with a capital ‘f’ to an industry that takes itself far too seriously.

Celebrating 15 years of consistently surprising the watch industry, Büsser is overdue this award as our Industry Hero in the Square Mile Watch Awards 2020

We sat down with him to find out what makes him tick…

How was 2020 for you?

Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like the end of the world. Yeah, we're all going to go bankrupt, and that was the end of that one. I told my team we're going to cut 50 percent of staff, we'd be lucky if we do minus 50 this year and everyone was looking at me like, "Oh, what are you talking about? It's all going to be over in June." And then something absolutely insane happened in April-May time, sales of our watches at retail started just like taking off.

We hadn't changed anything other than maybe we a little bit more social media, and I discovered what Instagram Live meant. But it just went nuts, and we're up 47 percent on our sales of our pieces in stores. We're down 15 percent for the year because we can't deliver. We couldn't catch up on on, of course, the lockdown and all the issues our suppliers have. But how is this actually possible in a world which is in such turmoil? So touch wood for the moment all well.

On top of that, I used to travel like a madman and I haven't traveled in nine months. I have seen my wife and my two daughters – one is three, one is seven years old – like from virtually nine months nonstop. I mean, this is incredible, you know, I have never been this happy. I don't brag too much because there's so many people who are in difficulty. You just don't want a guy to be super happy when you're in shit, basically, but it's been a good time for me.

When I started off MB&F, I was completely and utterly clueless

Looking back from where we are right now to the formative years of MB&F, did you have a dream that you could grow to the level of success that you have?

When I started off MB&F, I was completely and utterly clueless, and I think you only realised that way longer afterwards – because when you do start something like that, you think you've got everything in hand, you've got all the elements in control and you know what the hell you're doing. But actually, you have no clue. And when I look back, I'm like, "Dude…"

I've had this amazing lucky career: lucky to start at Jaeger-LeCoultre, incredibly lucky to land a great job at Harry Winston when I'm 31. Turn it around. Make it a success. I had no idea I was actually capable of doing that. And at that I become like this… I'm going to say a spoiled kid who's got what everybody wants and goes, "But this is not what I want." What I want is to be free. I want to be able to create what I believe in, I don't want to think about clients, I don't want to have any shareholders, and I want to work only with people who share the same values. I fall in love with my little idea, which is a little idea. It's a little idea of a little company.

When I started the brand, I had HM01 as a design. I had HM02 as a design, but not at all, as you know HM02, it was actually in the case of HM01 because my mental software was still programmed as a brand, and so when I started MB&F, that's all I had. So I put all my savings in the company and I go around the world after like four months with the drawings of HM01 and HM02, trying to sell number one. When I come back from my round the world tour, I realised doing the same case doesn't make any sense – if I'm really going to be a creative lab, I have to create something different.

MB&F HM01 watch – MB&F's first watch design

And there we are: 15 years and 18 calibres later. If you would have told me that back then I would have been amazed. Are we successful? I deem that we are successful in the fact that I am happy and that's how I define success. Happy and proud. But I would imagine most 'successful' people or entrepreneurs will look back and say, I never expected to get to this point.

I did a presentation a little bit like a TED talk about a year and a half ago, when we still were allowed to talk to people and over 25 minutes I basically told the story of the four times in our 15 year history where we nearly went bankrupt. And everyone was like woah. But I explained what I learnt from that process. We had some really, really rough years – 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014. All of them were for completely different reasons, which is a good thing. If they were over the same reasons I'd be a really pathetic entrepreneur!

So going back to your question, no, I had no idea what was going. What I what I knew is that whatever I did, I wanted to make myself proud. That was, I think, more or less the drive. Being happy was not an option, being happy came way later because… I don't think I've ever expected to be happy in my life. I mean, I was brought up in a "You're going to work your butt off and maybe one day you'll be happy before you die," sort of mentality. That's how I was brought up. Grateful, yes. And I am happy now. But I never expected to be where I am now. The last 15 years have been one big learning curve.

There’s an important points of difference between working for a large watch brand and owning an independent watch brand.

I think one of the things from people who don't work in the watch industry don't perhaps realise is just because you can sell a luxury product for quite a lot of money, certainly by normal kind of average workers standards. It doesn't necessarily mean that all of a sudden its owners are driving around in Lamborghinis and Ferraris or, you know, they just have to travel all the time.

People expect that because we create watches that are worth £160k that I'm a multi-billionaire! Like, you know, guys, my salary is still 15 years later, half of what I was making at Harry Winston. The big difference is I'm so happy. That's the trade off, which I'm fine with.

You can't please everybody and you can't be understood by everybody, especially when you start taking such a polarising point of view on creativity as we do. I mean, the amount of times I discovered the meaning of the word 'fugly' on social media in reference to our products. I mean, the times we get laminated on blogs and social media by Rolex and Patek Philippe owners and collectors who are looking at our last creation and going, "How disgusting. What a waste of money." It still upsets me a lot. It doesn't upset me because they don't like my creativity, I completely get not everybody likes my creativity – if I'm creating vanilla ice cream, I'm doing something completely wrong – but it's they don't realise the work which goes into what we do. And that really enrages me, I become Godzilla, and I feel like answering these guys on the forum, like "You don't know anything, man!"

It doesn't upset me people don't like my creativity… but it's they don't realise the work which goes into what we do

I think in the watch industry we are used to certain words, meaning certain things in the world of horology, you know, elegance, prestige, luxury. These are all adjectives that are describing classic watchmaking. On the flip side, the word that I think of first when when I think of MB&F is 'fun', but that's deemed a dirty word in watchmaking.

We always we like to make people smile. I mean, when I was explaining HM10 'Bulldog', it was so much fun. But I must admit, I procrastinated a good year and a half more than I should have before coming out with that product, because even I after so many creations was like, oh, we're going to get hammered because we made watch looking like a dog and people are really going to say, now you've pushed it too far. But actually it was fantastic. It came out on the 24 March, seven days after we closed the company because of lockdown.

I think a lot of clients and collectors associate watchmaking to tradition – it's all about looking back – and I get that because I'm the first one to worship the 18th and 19th century watchmakers. If you look at it today, virtually everything that our industry is doing was invented between 1760 and 1870, which is a bit pathetic when you think about it. In the 150 years since, we haven't invented much!

But I think it's associated with tradition, and the tradition wasn't fun in those days for two reasons. First, watchmaking in the 19th century was there to solve a problem which was timekeeping. Then in the 20th century we got into the industrial revolution and the democratization of time, and watchmaking was there for the people. I mean, workers could finally afford a watch and so it was all about giving them a reliable tool. Fun didn't come into it.

There was a tonne of fun in the late 18th century, early 19th century. If you see that some some pocket watches are incredibly quirky and cool and fun and and they used to integrate artistic elements. Actually it's only when the Industrial Revolution arrived late in the 19th that we started taking all the art out. And if you look at it, 20th century watchmaking is at the best boring.

It's from 1900 to 1970 it's a tool. In the 1970s it becomes fun, because of the Pop era. The 1970s were so cool in everything from design to architecture, and that sort of transcended everything. Then of course, we went back to the late 80s to try and save our industry from Quartz and we went back to tradition. So then again, we looked at the 1970s watches as like, "Oh, that's not serious. That's not good." So the 1980s and 1990s we're into super serious watches again. And I was part of that story. And then early 2000s, you've got Richard Mille coming with RM-01, Ulysse Nardin coming out with the Freak, Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei doing the Urwerk-103, I do the Opus 3 with Harry Winston. We're starting to have an inkling in 2002-2003, signs of something new.

People looked at us like, "What are you doing? What is that thing?" And I was like, well, if watchmaking is art then we wanted to do our art. There was a revolution, actually, at the beginning of the 21st century. And I don't think I could have achieved what I have, if I created these watches in the 1980s. I wouldn't have been accepted.

Watchmaking hit this plateau in the mid-2000s. I think a lot of what we see comes from the marketing side of things that was made so popular by Jean-Claude Biver. I think he found a working formula for selling Blancpain and then Omega, and later Hublot: talking about tradition, talking about prestige, looking back on old references, bringing them back to life. It’s been replicated to a point where I would say 50 per cent of the watches that we see today are heritage watches.

I think it's also because there is no more defining artistic current in 2020. There was Art Deco in the 30s, there was industrial design in the 50s and 60s, in the 70s it was pop art, then we have something crazy like Miami Vice sort of stuff in the 80s, and then we stopped having a defining art. I'm not saying that's good or bad, it's just that there's nothing which defines our era when people will look back on in 50 years time.

So as we don't have a defining artistic occurrence in our world, we just go back and replicate. Unfortunately, we're becoming like fashion, which keeps on going back to the past and reinventing stuff. There are very few, other than individual couturiers, who actually have their own style.

If there is one defining culture today it is Streetwear and street art, and I wonder how that's going to influence watchmaking.

The role of the independent watchmaker is very much the first footsteps in the sand, pushing boundaries.

Where the industry is losing, for me, is that it's constantly trying to please the clients and the large amount of clients. If you're an art form, you can't be about pleasing clients. An art form is innovative and creative, and that cannot happen by doing panel discussion. Do you think this style is better than that one? It has to be created by strong-minded individuals or directors or creative directors or owners who go, "You know what? I'm doing this because I love it. If you don't like it, I don't care." And that's how all the icons of art, not only in watches in everything. We need more of that. We need much more.

MB&F HM07 'Aquapod'

I mean, could you imagine if Instagram existed in the 70s when the Royal Oak came out? It would have been panned.

Especially coming from a classic brand like AP. People would have been calling Gerald Genta a lunatic. I sometimes wonder about my body of work – I've never actually used that word about myself – because when you look at it, what are people going to say in 50 years when an MB&F arrives at auction at Phillips, Christie's or somewhere? Will they go: "Weird, crazy piece created by some nutty guy and his art died with him" sort of thing." Will it be part of an artistic current which lasted 15, 20 years of what was deemed as contemporary watchmaking and died. In the 2030s, whatever. Or is it going to be the turning point, the missing link between the old world and the new world.

It's interesting because I don't wish for anything. You know, I think Steve Jobs wanted to change the world and it became a better place for that – I mean, at least in some ways. But I'm not here to change the world. And I actually I'm just curious. Creating my watches is an egocentric process, which is very much my psychotherapy. It's as if my psychotherapy met my autobiography: I'm writing my novel, my big novel, and it's on the 15th chapter. And while I'm doing that I am understanding who I am. Yeah. And what I created 15 years ago, I would probably never create today.

Creating my watches is an egocentric process, which is very much my psychotherapy

Is there a piece that you've created so far that you would say, you have a particularly strong affinity to?

The HM04 Thunderbolt. We just released a pièce unique. The Thunderbolt changed my life because I was totally and utterly terrified when I came out with it. I founded the company in 2005, the first watch comes out in 2007 HMO1 and in 2008 HM02. We had a really tough time in 2007, we nearly went bankrupt before we delivered our first piece. In 2009, the economic crisis hit and we nearly went down with it. And in 2010, after having survived two horrible years, I come out with a watch where I'm looking at it thinking, "Nobody's ever going to buy this. Who the hell is nuts enough to put that on their wrist?" I'm not even talking of price – that's another issue entirely – but who will have the guts or the balls, to put this on their wrist, let alone £140k to buy it.

MB&F HM04 'Thunderbolt' watch

When I showed it to my retailers they all thought I was mad, understandably. Then we launched it in April during Baselworld and then I sent emails out to the press in June, and suddenly my phone started ringing and emails started coming in from retailrs going, "Do you still have that weird crazy watch?" I'm like, yeah, nobody ordered it! And they said, "Well, there's a guy in the store, he wants it." And believe it or not, those 100 movements over four years, 25 per year, there was a waiting list for four years. So the retailers didn't get it. Most people didn't get it. But it sort of opened up the door where a whole new category of people thought this was cool.

For me, not only is it an amazing piece, but it has since defined the fact that I need to be terrified to create a great product. Of course, my senses get dulled over the years, because the crazier you go, the more… I mean, creativity it's like drugs. Feeling if you keep on taking the same dose, you're not going to feel anything after a moment. You have to increase the dosage. So creatively you need you need to constantly get out of your comfort zone. You need to take risks. I mean, when I came out with the FlyingT last year – which is our first women's watch, which was not for me, but for the women my life – I was a nervous wreck, which hadn't happened for a long time. And again, boom, everybody went nuts.

You're going to see more of the same next year. There's a lot of insane pieces coming out in 2021, but one in particular I'm going to really put myself in jeopardy, and take the risk that people will thrash us on social media. But I'm going to take it because I don't feel alive if I don't have that adrenaline kick.

There's a lot of insane pieces coming out in 2021, but one in particular I'm really taking a risk on

What does the future hold beyond scaring yourself with your newest creations?

It's always this incredible balance: pride and happiness. Pride comes from taking risks. Nobody's proud of going to the Maldives on a holiday. It's a great holiday, but you go jumping into a Norwegian fjord in the middle of winter you'll be telling your grandkids about it. That adrenaline rush drives my creative process now.

It's interesting. Maybe I'll come out one day with a super classic watch – it's not planned yet, but the last couple of weeks I've been thinking about that – a super-classic hour-minute watch and you take the risk of everybody hating it. But if I like it, why not?

The happiness part is about balancing family and work. I mean, my two daughters are young, they're three and seven. I want to see them grow up – I don't want to be pulled into the factory all the time.

None of this tells you what I'm going to do, doesn't tell me what I'm going to do, but gives the frame. I mean, I've got the products for the next five years more or less in the pipeline, so I know with what's coming out then, but I have no idea what I'm going to create now tomorrow.

Maybe one day I'll say, "You know what, F-it. I want to do something else in life." That option is actually allowed! What most people don't realize about creating a brand is there's really only three ways of getting out of it: one, you go bankrupt, two, you sell it to, three, you die. OK There's another option which nobody's ever thought of, which is I walk away. I am not at all there, and I absolutely don't want to start the rumour mill going, but my thought process is that is absolutely an option because it's all about pride and happiness.

MB&F Legacy Machine FlyingT

And why not? It seems it seems to me that MB&F pretty much stands for why not?

We've got a great phrase we use often: "Wouldn't it be cool if…" If a question starts that way, my ears are already pricked up. That's the source which takes out all the "Oh, people will hate it, people won't buy it." Thinking about what others will say has killed more creativity than any other thing in the world. What will people think? You have to take that out of the equation if you really want to innovate.

For a very long time, I had a chip on my shoulder that I'm an engineer, but I'm not a watchmaker. A lot of my colleagues who are watchmakers and have got their names on their dials would, in one way or another, make me feel that way. But I realised quite early on that most of my creativity comes from the fact that I'm not a watchmaker. Take Legacy: even though it's a classical watch, when we came up with the idea of putting this flying balance wheel, I was shocked nobody had thought of it previously. And you realise nobody thought of it because they are all watchmakers.

As a watchmaker, you are told that your balance wheel has to be protected, as small as possible because that's a high frequency therefore it's easier to regulate, and that's it. So you don't say, "Oh, let's make it as big as possible and put it flying up there," because that goes against everything you've been taught. But I don't care. I want to create something which is beautiful. It’s as simple as that.

Maximilian Büsser is the winner of the Industry Hero prize in the Square Mile Watch Awards 2020For more information, see mbandf.com

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