Fact-Checking Jean-Claude Biver: The Impossible Task
Last week the world saw the prototype for the new TAG Heuer Autavia Heuer-03. Caliber 11 spoke with the man behind the curtain, Jean-Claude Biver, about it. I thought it would be fun to try and fact check what he said.
Last week TAG Heuer invited collectors and a small amount of watch press to Switzerland for the Heuer Collectors Summit. Along with a tour of the facilities, they were privy to the first look at the new Autavia re-edition prototype. Calibre 11, easily one of the best sources of Heuer and TAG Heuer information, interviewed current TAG Heuer Interim-CEO Jean-Claude Biver about prototype and the movement within it.
If any of you have seen or heard Mr. Biver in press conferences or interviews, you know that he is a man of unbridled enthusiasm and at times his passion can get in the way of fact. During the press conference for the TAG Heuer Connected Watch, Mr. Biver told the crowd that "we have a computer inside the watch, the smallest computer in the world" as he was flanked by executives from Google and Intel who tried their best to melt into their seats. Quick fact check: The TAG Heuer Connected Watch is not the smallest computer in the world (Duh), it's the Michigan 'Micro Mote' which measures in at 1mm cubed. This might be slightly unfair as it's not like the Mote is a consumer device but even a comparable device, the Apple Watch for example, measures 38.6mm by 33.3mm, whilst the TAG Heuer Connected measures 46mm.
So as I started to read Jean-Claude's interview I was hoping for similar statements but for the most part they never came. Reading the transcript of the interview, it is clear that Mr. Biver is not a man whose words and phrases translate well in the written word. He frequently goes off on brief tangential remarks which mean the actual question gets lost (Remind you of anyone). Most of his interview with Calibre 11 consists of these somewhat rambling answers that cannot really be fact checked because they aren't really facts.
Mr. Biver has a salesman's gift of weaving a compelling tale between the pillars of fact as he lets his passion sell you the product.
I think this is why some watch press like covering him so much, it's because he's never dull! What other brand leader would make two senior executives and his own boss wear cow bells in a press conference? What other CEO would have a tradition of cutting a giant wheel of cheese! Whilst you might get more facts out of a Patek Philippe press conference, I doubt you'd have as much fun. That being said, there were a few statements he made to Calibre 11 that I'd like to focus on.
JC Biver- There has never been in the world of watchmaking a re-edition that came out with a new movement. It is a movement that has been built for the Autavia (The Heuer-03). One day it will be used in other watches than the Autavia but the Autavia today, the re-edition, is a very noble piece because it is not just a simple copy of 1963 with a Valjoux movement. No! It has the ambience; it has the atmosphere; it has the flair; it has even the soul of the past but it has also the contribution of the future. And in that sense, the Autavia re-edition is something absolutely unique in the history of re-editions
Calibre 11- When you and I last spoke, I think you were saying that the thinking was that would be a 42mm case with the CH80 movement and I guess collectors have been speculating about whether that movement might be renamed the Heuer-03 movement?
JC Biver- Yes, it is the Heuer-03.
Calibre 11- Are there many changes from the CH80 to the Heuer-03?
JC Biver- No, there are not so many changes. Of course there are a few changes but what is in the Autavia is the final, definite version of what has started as the CH80. This is the final product. And this Heuer-03 will be used in the TAG Heuer model collection from 2018 on.
Now I make a full concession that Mr. Biver's English is infinitely superior to my French however as he felt comfortable enough conducting the interview in that language I believe it's far to assess what he said at face value. In two lines he's said that no re-edition watch ever came out with a new movement, that the Autavia re-edition will come out with a new movement (the Heuer-03), and that the Heuer-03 is the new name for the old CH80 movement. One of these are not like others.
For those unaware, the CH80 is the still-born successor movement to the 1887, TAG Heuer's in-house chronograph movement. It was first known as the Caliber 1888, then renamed the Caliber 1969 before finally being dubbed the CH80, named after the town of Chevenez where the movement was manufactured and the claimed 80 hour power reserve. At Baselworld 2014 I was lucky enough to see the two heritage style chronographs that would be powered by the CH80 before the project was scrapped, along with TAG's Haute Horology division and the plans to raise the average price of their watches.
Mr Biver's first claim, that no re-edition has ever come out with a new movement, could be read to include the Autavia re-edition but I believe that his following sentence, "It is a movement that has been built for the Autavia", implies that he does not include the Autavia as having an old movement. You could argue that the Heuer-03 has seen huge changes over the last two years that have made it indistinguishable from it's CH80 base but Mr Biver quashes that argument by saying "No, there are not so many changes".
The term new movement is something that watch companies like to play a little fast and loose with; does the addition of a date function on an existing movement make it new? Does removing a chronograph module? Does adding one? In 2011 Seiko released three limited edition Grand Seikos to celebrate the 130th Anniversary of the brand, each of these watches were fitted with the new Caliber 9S64. So there are at least three re-edition watches that have been released with new movements but I'll give Mr. Biver the benefit of the doubt on this one.
JC Biver- It is forbidden [for TAG Heuer] to make a copy of the past. A normal eye of a normal person should immediately look see the differences between the re-edition with the original. That is what we are aiming at. So that nobody can ever be confused but if somebody likes the design of the Autavia, why wouldn’t we also make it today with a new modernised function- with more water resistance, with a better crown, in a bigger size and with a modern movement. That is what I want to do.
I never would like to do a copy as you mentioned it, when we did copies of the past we were not as successful and that is normal. You cannot be successful by copying the past. Nobody wants to copy the past but if there something interesting, if is there something strong with the past, if there was a great look in the past…why would we forbid ourselves to remake it?
What we should do is we should do it again but we should be careful that people can recognise the original one- which vintage collectors are hungry to find and to buy- from the new one. But if the new one looks like the original then it could be tough. You create a certain dilution from the past and instead of honouring the past, you dilute the past. And therefore the re-edition must have its own personality, even if the inspiration comes from the past and there is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from everything. What is wrong is to copy it again, that’s another thing.
Almost simultaneously Mr Biver says that TAG Heuer is forbidden from copying the past yet also says that if something was a great look "why would we forbid ourselves to remake it". I believe when he says copy he means 'make an exact replica' with the same movement, measurements and design which he believes weren't successful in the past. TAG Heuer, admittedly before the arrival of Mr. Biver as interim-CEO, have done a great deal of 'copying' the past with varying degrees of success with lackluster efforts like the Monza (2005 & 2011 versions) and more successful watches like the Monza (2015), the Carrera 1964 re-edition and the Monaco Calibre 11 "McQueen".
Mr. Biver's somewhat loose definition of 'copying' makes this one hard to check as He manages to say that copying the past is bad yet makes a case for why copying the past can be good. The Monza (2015) certainly copied the design of the past Monza's ye changed certain elements to make it more palpable to a modern consumer but I would say it succeeded because of how close it remained to the original, unlike the Monzas 2005 & 2011. Mr. Biver obviously has an idea of how re-editions should be handled and we'll see how the Autavia 2017 turns out when it is released next year.
My biggest criticism of what Mr. Biver said wasn't the whole 'copying the past' but the claim that the Heuer-03 was an entirely new movement. It's not, not matter how many changes have been done to the CH80.
Fact checking Mr. Biver wasn't as titillating as I expected it to be. Despite his excitable and energetic persona, he's still a CEO of a watch brand with decades of experience in the watch industry. He just sometimes allows his enthusiasm and passion momentarily get in the way off making clear statements.
Now I want to say that whilst I'm critical of TAG Heuer, I do appreciate that they held this collectors summit as you don't see many brands treat vintage collectors with this respect, and whilst the whole event was to drum up hype for the Autavia release, it was handled quite well. I also don't want to appear critical of Calibre 11 or the interviewer who spoke with Mr. Biver. I don't expect those invited to a mostly-private collectors event (The watch press were in attendance in small numbers) to probe or question their host about the origins of a new watch.
That being said I think those who write about watches need to be more rigorous and critical of the companies they are covering. I know that 'watch journalism' isn't Spotlight and that the 'controversy' covered is usually over very silly things like case sizes and who invented the first dive watch; however when a CEO says something wrong, makes a contradictory statement or makes a claim that isn't true (or is just partially true) then we need to hold ourselves and our passion to a higher standard.
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