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Person to Know: The Watchmaker Creating Amorphous, Otherworldly Timepieces

By Bianca Husodo

Maximilian Büsser, 52, is the founder, CEO and chief creative officer of independent avant-garde Swiss watch brand MB&F.
 
Tung Pham
Maximilian Büsser, 52, is the founder, CEO and chief creative officer of independent avant-garde Swiss watch brand MB&F.

Maximilian Büsser doesn’t want to grow up. For one, the 52-year-old’s namesake watch brand, MB&F — an acronym for Maximilian Büsser and Friends — stands by a tagline that believes “a creative adult is a child who survived.” And with his brand as the medium, Büsser’s own child-like imagination would, more often than not, manifest in real life.

“I was a very creative child who became a very boring adult,” Büsser says. The Swiss-Indian watchmaker first entered the horological industry as Jaeger-LeCoultre’s product manager before joining Harry Winston as managing director at an unfortunate time. A fortnight after he joined, the company was put up for sale. Yet, Büsser, putting in the extra hours, managed to upend the struggling company. The numbers spoke for itself: Within five years, Harry Winston went from revenue of US$8 million (S$10.9 million) to US$80 million (S$109 million).

Despite the colossal financial triumph, he wasn’t happy. “All I was doing was dealing with everybody’s problems. I was in meetings all the time, trying to make communication better, changing people, motivating them. At the end of the day, I wasn’t doing what I like,” Büsser recalls. “But then I got my mojo back when I was 35.”

In 2005, he declined Harry Winston’s offer to renew his contract and quit. The seasoned executive bit the bullet and ambitiously started his own company with just 900,000 Swiss francs (1.2 million) in his bank account. It was a gamble he willingly took. He wanted to create without being imposed by any form of external limitations.

“My salary now is still half of what it was at Henry Winston 15 years ago,” he smiles, “But I’m happy.”

Dubbed “the zaniest watchmaker on the planet”, Büsser’s horological creations are a far cry from the typical luxury watches. Priced at an average of S$250,000 per piece with an extremely limited annual production of just 220 watches, the only semblance an MB&F wristwatch has with the everyday watch is its time-telling function and the wrapping of its strap around the wearer’s wrist. Beyond that, any attempt at logical explanation falls flat.

“Nobody’s ever lukewarm when they look at my work,” Büsser muses. “We generate emotions. We generate love. We generate hate. I think that’s art.”

His watches are amorphous mechanical sculptures. With his mad scientist-like approach, all substance bend and morph according to his imagination. Platinum is moulded into tiny spaceships, that happen to double as watch dials, and come detailed with minuscule alien passengers. Intricate, complex movements are vertically stacked. Oversized balance wheels hover or fly. Simply put, they’re crazy, both in design and complexity.

“I created this [MB&F] so that maybe 20 people in a year are bonkers enough, like me, but have means way higher than I do, to buy,” says Büsser.

Laid out on the coffee table before him is the Legacy Machine FlyingT, Büsser’s first women’s watch since starting his brand 14 years ago. At the recent Baselworld, it debuted to much fanfare. The timepiece hosts a clear sapphire, which bends into an exaggerated dome — 22 millimetres in height — to roof over a towering flying tourbillon movement. Sitting at the 7 o’clock position is a tiny dial, displaying the hour and minutes. Tilting at 50 degrees, it can only be read through the wearer’s point of view.

MB&FThe original Legacy Machine FlyingT features a diamond-encrusted case that’s offset with a stark black lacquer dial plate, $115,000 (S$156,650).
The original Legacy Machine FlyingT features a diamond-encrusted case that’s offset with a stark black lacquer dial plate, $115,000 (S$156,650).

Why? “Because if I want to give time to the love of my life, I want it to be only for her,” Büsser answers. The timepiece was a personal project dedicated to the women in his life: his late mother, his wife Tiffany (the T in FlyingT is a homage to her) and his two daughters. “My mom was and my wife is women with great character, larger than life, full of enthusiasm and at the same time, there’s a polarisation here, super elegant.”

It proved to be the most challenging design in his career, he admits. “When I created this,” Büsser gestures towards the bulbous HM6 encircling his wrist, “it was 10 times easier than this. This baby is for me, I know what I like. But I had a creator’s block wondering what women want.”

The process took four years from start to finish. It was chaotic, Büsser says. He wanted to achieve “wild and crazy” that was in parallel with his idea of elegance. “At some point, I stripped out everything and just kept the essentials: the tower of the movement. My elder daughter — she’s six — wants to be a ballerina. She often walks around in a big tutu and she’s got this kids’ musical jewellery box. When you open it, a little ballerina starts turning around. The watch’s tower movement is exactly that. It’s like a ballerina twirling at the centre of a stage.”

Becoming a family man hasn’t only just affected Büsser’s design thinking. It has changed the way he would like his company to progress — or rather, not to. He no longer wants it to expand.

“In 2013, I hit what I call my point of happiness, which is the ideal size of my company. It was the year that my first daughter was born. I decided the company was not going to grow anymore.”

If it isn’t obvious by now, it should be: Büsser doesn’t stick to any set of rules. Currently, the company is thriving, and demand for MB&F watches is higher than ever with uncovered Asian countries the likes of China and Japan requesting for a slice of his deliberately rationed watch quota. Yet, he did what defied all business logic: He recently cut down production and eliminated almost half of his 41 retailers.

“Happiness, before my children, was advancing and pushing. When I had that little baby in my hands, I was like, wait a minute, I’m going to carve out of my life and dedicate it for my family. I want to be a good husband and a good father,” he posits.

To Büsser, his company isn’t a business. It’s a life decision where happiness and well-being are topmost priorities. Growing his company beyond what it is now would mean sacrificing just that. He adds, “I create only for myself and never look at the market, as a real artist, basically. What I’m looking for is to create what I believe in.” What that is is a playground of total creative freedom, where Büsser and his 26-person team get to craft their hundred thousands of dollars worth of otherworldly toys — completely unrestrained by the ebb and flow of watchmaking. Call that naïve, yet his strategy, or perhaps lack thereof, seems to be working fantastically.