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High Frequency

Maximilan Büsser: Speed Under Control

Maximilian Bϋsser, the exemplary Swiss Watchmaking Art creator, reveals for us the secrets of the magical Swiss recipe, or how to drive fast, but wisely…

By Constantin Stikas
Photographer and journalist

First published on veryimportantwatches.com

Constantin Stikas: We are undergoing significant changes in our societies. Do you think we should speed up or slow down?

Maximilian Büsser: I believe that it is not up to us to define that. It is society that is accelerating, due to media acceleration and communication becoming faster and faster. I see how I work today compared to how I used to work ten or twenty years ago. A few years back we barely just had a fax and it was customary to receive a reply within a week. Today, if we don’t receive a reply within half an hour we wonder what is going on…

I think that the world is accelerating, but it is not up to me to define in what direction it should be heading.

CS: MB&F is one of the rare Houses that take their time when preparing a new watch. You have just presented your 5th Horological Machine, after 6 years of activity. Would you like to talk to us about it?

MB: We take the maximum amount of time that we can. Creating a movement from scratch in 3 years (that is our average time for creating a new movement), is a quite good performance in comparison to the companies where I used to work before.

If we take the HM5, ‘On the road again…’ that we have just presented, it is a project that is –as usual– extremely personalised. A project that has been maturing in me for a very long time. I purchased my first vintage Amida 7 or 8 years ago and I told myself “I must create a tribute to this piece”, which is wonderful and supermale, while it arrived at the worst moment in mechanical watchmaking history, in 1976, when no one wished to see a mechanical movement.

The project of realising the HM5 took a lot more time than we had anticipated, because at the outset –and since it is an optical system for indicating time and we are not specialists in the field– we had found a French company specialising in optics that led us in the wrong direction, by telling us that we need parabolic mirrors. Thus, we developed everything on the basis of parabolic mirrors, it took us a year and a half to find someone who would accept to manufacture microscopic parabolic mirrors for us –which what is more cost a fortune– and when we finally mounted the first prototype, it was absolutely impossible to read the time!... We threw it all in the trash and started again from scratch. Movement and case.

Therefore, the HM5 is a project that necessitated 5 years of research and it is the slowest and the most complicated that we have implemented for MB&F.

CS: However, you are among the fastest when it comes to communication. A few minutes after the presentation of each of your watches, we see it making headlines everywhere…

MB: I don’t know about that… I only know that we understood how to forge close ties with the media. And what is extraordinary is that we did not forge them through advertising, since we do not do advertising and thus our relationship is not tinged by fiscal concerns, but it is characterised by essential qualities: one is total transparency –we are completely transparent in everything we do, there is no ‘bullshit’ among us, we tell you who made each element, how he made it, what type of problems we had, how we arrived there etc.– and the other is that every year we release a piece that is always very polarising, very surprising, very different and that provokes a certain anticipation amidst media outlets and clients, “what surprise do they hold in store for us this year?’ And this fits nicely, since I also ask myself what surprise am I holding in store for myself this year!...

Also on the same subject and concerning speed, we also treat everyone in the same manner. It’s Swiss democracy!... There are no niceties, there are no VIPs. Everyone receives the same information at the same time. And therefore everyone is treated with the same respect. There is not someone receiving better treatment than another and that is also very important.

CS: You have just been awarded a double prize for the LM1. After years of work, 5 minutes at the podium of the Prix de l’Horlogerie de Genève, how can they influence the history of an Haute Horlogerie House?

MB: I did not know what to expect. And I had not expected this prize. Today we have a waiting list for the LM1, but I am very–very surprised by the amount of congratulatory messages from around the world, from retailers, end-clients, fans, media outlets, suppliers…

I had 5 beautiful minutes at the podium, but this was followed by some very beautiful days, where we realised that people loves us and take pleasure in being satisfied for us, and that is magnificent!...

CS: 
You create watches that exhibit great technical interest. In the high frequency domain, since 1969 there was a single protagonist, the El Primero which beat at 5Hz. In recent years we have seen watches operating at 5, 8, 10 or even, at TAG Heuer, at 50, 500 and 1000Hz! Are there any limits on this quest for the unexpected?

MB: I am the worst person to answer this question! I find high frequency to be an extremely interesting subject, but one that I take no interest in!... Let me explain myself: high frequency interest me, because I adore Watchmaking, but the reason for which Houses engage in this ‘quest’ after Hertz evades me somewhat.

Today we are all in agreement that after the ‘70s and the invention of quartz, the mechanical movement has ceased to have any reason for existing. Of course, there is an enormous number of other reasons traditional, artistic or emotional reasons, reasons relating to good craftsmanship, but there are no practical reasons. In Watchmaking, we can state that in the era of the TGV we are making steam engines. Therefore, when we move from 5 to 6, 8 or 10 Hz, (and I am not talking about 500 or 1000Hz), it is the same as if we were straining to make a steam-powered engine that is 5 or 10% faster than its counterpart and this causes me to laugh somewhat!

At the end of the day, we make steam-powered engines. People don’t buy our pieces because they run faster. They buy our pieces because they are works of Art.

From my point of view, high frequencies pose absolutely no interest. I have always stated, we make watches that tell the time, but not for telling the time!...

CS: The El Primero is a movement that hundreds of thousands of people have been wearing on their wrist already for 44, while all the other high frequency watches and especially the TAG Heuer, champions in the field are what we would term “concept watches”. Given that your watches are technical marvels, which are however produced in very limited quantities, what do you think about the difference between an everyday watch and a concept watch?

MB: One evidently needs both, but I think it is important for a concept watch to be wearable, usable and reliable. The time when one purchased a Ferrari and kept it in the garage because if one drove it he stood a 50% chance of mechanical failure has gone by… That is no longer acceptable. Today, all the creators of prestigious high-end cars no longer have an excuse. They must make a race-car which is uncompromisingly difficult to drive, which is not all about comfort and is not 100% safe but, by contrast, it must be reliable. The images of the synthesis of products that would never work, that really does not interest me… And unfortunately that is also a great field of expertise in our profession.

CS: During the presentation of the TAG Heuer Mikrotimer someone asked if the eye, the hand and the brain can follow such an unimaginable performance (1/1000th of a second). What do you think about this?

MB: I look at the race for constantly improved technical performance from the road… In the same way that I watch cars passing by. I don’t really have an opinion. The performance that interests me is Art performance and not technological performance.

CS: Could high frequency also be an interesting subject for MB&F?

MB: So, we have no interest in high frequency, since we create Art machines

CS: Switzerland, to most people, is a ‘slow’ country. However, the CERN is located in Switzerland and today we see Watchmaking regularly beating the high frequency record… What is your opinion?

MB: It is Switzerland’s slow speed that has saved the country. Switzerland, not having evolved as fast as the other countries, has not entered the same path as other countries and it is for this reason that today it is an island in the middle of Europe (which by the way is a topic of great interest), where there is still 3% unemployment, where salaries are very high etc.

It is because we have not become part of the American ‘grid’ system, nor in the European system of total assistance scheme towards workers. In Switzerland, one can dismiss someone as one wishes. There is no labour protection, but nevertheless there is respect for the employee. I have 14 people who work for me, they are all extraordinary people and it is my responsibility as their employer to make them happy. It would be a catastrophe if they were to leave.

Switzerland has been built on quality. Everyone makes a huge fuss when companies relocate to China, but Switzerland underwent this one hundred years ago. Because, for Switzerland, China was Italy, France, Spain, where industrial costs were much lower than here. And suddenly, in the beginning of the previous century we lost all the production and we adapted ourselves by providing superior quality and by proclaiming “it is better quality, so you will pay more for it.”

Switzerland specialised in engineering, pharmaceutics, geochemistry, in everything where we could be the best. We knew that if we were to talk in terms of volumes, we didn’t stand a chance. Therefore, Switzerland has been built on quality and also on confidence. We were until not long ago trustworthy and respectable people and that is why the ‘Made in Switzerland’ label stood for high quality.

Speed is derived from the fact that, being a slow country, we are a country that perennially exists and that remains strong.

CS: What is your personal relationship to speed?

MB: Personally, I am someone who moves very very fast and who is also very impatient. Patience was never one of my good qualities. There is an old Pirelli advert that encapsulates it all: “Power without control, is nothing.” I will paraphrase this: “Speed without control, is nothing.” Because if you drive fast but are not in control of the car, you veer off course. After 21 years of professional experience, I have learnt that you can drive fast, but that you must be in control of your car when you drives fast. In my personal life I drive in race tracks for some years now, and it is a great lesson in humility. Because at first I would step down on the gas and I would veer off course. It was an important lesson: in order to start driving fast, one must first learn how to be in control of his car.

CS: Do you think that a speed limit should be imposed on motorways and, if so, at what km/h should it be set?

MB: Honestly, if you would have asked me the same thing 15 or 20 years ago, I would have said absolutely not, look at Germany, everything works fine without speed limits, but today I would reply that yes, one must impose limits, because there is a generalised lack of responsibility among users and if we don’t impose limits on them –like on children– this becomes very dangerous. Conversely, it is true that I would prefer a slightly higher speed limit than the one we have today…

I remember that when I was a child, my father who loved Lancia cars used to drive at 170km/h. But today, when I think that those cars didn’t have proper brakes, not even seat belts etc, if the least thing were to happen we would have all been dead…

Cars today are ultra-safe and, moreover, speed limits mean that we have fewer injuries and casualties than before.

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