Jean-Claude Biver is the man in charge of the fortunes of the LVMH Group’s watch division. It’s thanks to him that the group’s watch brands, in particular, Hublot and TAG Heuer, are shirking the current challenges faced by the watch industry with their products snapped up by ever-enthusiastic customers — and that’s because Biver has ensured that they have made the transition from being insular watch-enthusiast brands to become global luxury lifestyle brands.

To achieve this, he has been brilliant in creating dynamic partnerships with other lifestyle genres. And in so doing, he has captivated new audiences, such as the youth demographic, so as to imbed the desire for his watches in the next generation.

But more importantly, he understands the modern luxury consumer. He understands with heightened attenuation where you are, what you like, and how you live your life. He knows what you eat, drink and wear — as if he is able to peer inside your internal emotional matrix. And he has one simple philosophy regarding his brands.

He explains, “At my brands, we have a king and a queen, and these are the only two entities that matter. The king is the customer and the queen is my product. My job is to make them fall in love. So, if my king likes to ski in Courchevel, if he likes the English Premier League, if he likes championship boxing, if he likes music at festivals like Coachella, am I not going to bring the queen everywhere he goes so they can meet?

Biver pauses for a moment as he is explaining this to me. He rises from his seat, locks his eyes on me as if in Vulcan mind-meld mode, and says, “Of course, I will!” Because Jean-Claude Biver understands one very, very important thing about the modern consumer; something that was, in fact, perfectly expressed by Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church last year.

I explain to Biver that last year, Pope Francis, who is irrefutably the coolest religious leader in the last hundred years, traveled around the world. He went to Catholic countries and he went to non-Catholic countries. Everywhere he went, he had to time for everybody — he shook hands, he kissed babies, he had innumerable chats and he won over hearts and souls like no other. And when asked why he made such an effort, Pope Francis, with his characteristic frankness, said, “Because the era of authority is over and the era of persuasion has come.”

“Yes, exactly!” Says Biver, who has, for the better part of his life, been on a similar journey to convert hearts and minds. In the midst of the Quartz Crisis, he converted consumers back to the perennial wonders of mechanical watchmaking.

At the Swatch Group, he convinced us all that despite what Ian Fleming may have written, Commander Bond was an Oh-mee-ga man. And at Hublot, he converted us to the era of contemporary watchmaking — or as he calls it, “Fusion”.

Now in his capacity as the head of TAG Heuer, he’s converted us to the cult of affordable luxury and connected watches. But what about Zenith? “Ah, Zenith,” he says to me. “Zenith is next. I have to make this a success. I cannot go down in history as having had one failure. I will not allow this to happen.”

A brand in ascendance

Looking back at what Biver and the very able Zenith CEO and my friend Aldo Magada have done in 2016, you can actually sense the powerful and intelligent upswing in momentum for the brand. It began in mid-2016 with the announcement of Zenith’s partnership with the single most iconic cigar brand in the world, Cohiba.

If you are not a cigar smoker, you need to understand the level of obsessive, slavish devotion that is dedicated to Cohiba. Born from the personal cigars smoked by Fidel Castro’s bodyguard and turned into a state gift to foreign dignitaries, the mythology of Cohiba is legendary. Then, there is the way it tastes, which is a medium-body cigar capable of expressing the greatest complexity in flavors in the way that the wines of Romanée-Conti do.

The sight of a Cohiba in the United States in the pre-Obama embargo-lifting era would reduce a grown man to tears of joy. I know men who own Cohiba lighters, wear solid-gold Cohiba rings and have Cohiba tattoos. So, when Zenith launched the watches emblazoned with the famous yellow-and-black emblem, the watches sold like crazy. Even the highly perceptive and hard-to-please Vanity Fair On Time editor, Nick Foulkes, had to admit, “I want one.”

Step two was to tap into the craze for vintage watches by launching the Heritage Revival Cronometro Type CP-2 — a faithful homage to the iconic Zenith “Cairelli” chronograph used by the Italian military in the 1960s. One distinction here, though, is that rather than the old manual-wind movement originally found in the Cairelli, the new watches have the brand’s iconic El Primero movement, which is the world’s first integrated automatic chronograph movement.

Also, due to trademark issues, the lower part of the dial no longer features the words “A. Cairelli”, which was the name of the Italian retailer that was also the sales agent for the vintage version of these watches.

Step three has been to forge a new partnership with Range Rover. When I ask my friend Gerry McGovern, design director of Range Rover, about the partnership with Zenith, he enthuses, “Look, it’s a great strategic partnership as both brands are pioneers. Range Rover is the first-ever luxury off-road vehicle, and Zenith created the very first automatic chronograph.

What’s important for both brands is that we embrace our roots and our authenticity, while focusing on ways to make our brands truly relevant for the modern consumer. For example, a Range Rover today is still an incredible car off-road, but it is equally thrilling and dynamic on the road, and has all the comforts that the modern buyer would want.”

Says Aldo Magada, “We love the association with Range Rover, because it is both the originator and the reference. You could say that it is thanks to Range Rover that the entire category of luxury off-road vehicles was born.

Similarly, thanks to Zenith, the automatic chronograph was born. And for both of us, the birth year for these achievements was 1969. It was thanks to the technical daring and spirit of innovation for both brands as well as our pioneering attitudes that this was able to happen for both of us.”

To celebrate this partnership, McGovern and has design team began to discuss concepts for a very special watch. Says McGovern, “I knew right away that I wanted something very pure, that kept the precision of the Zenith chronograph, which is the only watch that divides time down to 1/10th of a second at its very epicenter.

I also wanted something very modern and very relevant to the tastes of today. I wanted something that was matte because at Range Rover, we believe in total refinement but in a discreet, understated way. Look, for example, at the tachymeter scale. I wanted this to be very visible and functional because of its relationship to auto sports, but I also wanted it to be very discreet.

I think we did a great job integrating it into the flange just inside the bezel. And I wanted to something that brought a true technical performance advantage. When the idea of an aluminum case was suggested, I leaped at the opportunity.”

Says Romain Marietta, the head of product development at Zenith: “We are always on the lookout for new technology not just within, but also outside the world of watchmaking. We heard of this person who was making aluminum components for racecars, but with one very special difference.

Aluminum is often used in performance cars and even aerospace. It is lightweight and very rigid and strong. However, aluminum has one weakness — it has poor surface hardness. This means that it can be dented or scratched easily, which has always made it a poor choice as a material for a watch case despite it being lightweight.

However, the person we met had succeeded in ceramizing the outer part of his aluminum components. This was very exciting for a watch case, because it meant that you could retain all the lightweight benefits of the case, but because the surface of the case is transformed at a molecular level to a ceramic-like coating, it is now three times more scratch-resistant than steel.

In fact, it comes with a Vickers rating that is just slightly less hard than solid ceramic, which in turn has a Vickers rating which is just below that of diamond! And while ceramic is slightly harder, it is not as light as the aluminum case. Also, ceramic has one very big weakness, which is that it is brittle. So if you drop a ceramic watch from a height, it can shatter.

Our aluminum case will not. Finally, if you do somehow succeed in scratching the watch case, say, with a diamond ring. It can be easily refinished.  This is really a material that has great performance applications for watch cases at Zenith for the future.”

As a result, when you wear the handsome 42mm matte-black Zenith El Primero Range Rover watch counterpointed by its fabulous perforated off-white strap, it is very easy to forget you have it on. Says Magada, “The category of lightweight sports watches is very interesting for us. Because they are so comfortable to wear, they are genuinely the type of watch you can keep on during sports without compromise. And if you consider that inside the watch is the world’s most iconic timing device, this is truly a fantastic watch for the auto-enthusiast, the bicyclist or any other sportsman to whom timing is important.”

Recently, Zenith also sponsored the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, a vintage and custom motorcycle rally that takes place in over 500 cities in the world and which in 2015, raised USD2.3 million to fight prostate cancer; as of 2016, the total funds raised is just under the USD4 million mark.

Says Magada, “With each universe that we meaningfully collaborate with, we expand the awareness and interest in Zenith. We win over new hearts and minds, as long as the watches that result from these partnerships are genuinely appealing.”

Says Jean-Claude Biver, “This is just the beginning. You can feel the energy building behind Zenith. Wait for next year when we launch the El Primero 21 — a 1/100th of a second automatic chronograph — at an affordable price.

In 1969, Zenith came up with the revolution of the El Primero. Next year, we need to bring another revolution. At the product level, we have an advancement of the brand even as we broaden its horizons into different lifestyles.

Trust me, it is going to be fantastic.”

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