Earlier this month, the avant-garde Geneva-based MB & F released its Legacy Machine Thunderdome. The watch, which, according to the company, features the “craziest, most cinematic three-axis tourbillon ever”, looks as wild as it sounds. Its name is inspired by the 1985 Mad Max movie, and the rotating mass of cages, pinions and gears that rises up from the dial makes the case look like some sort of horological Asgard. The watch, the result of a collaboration between Eric Coudray and Kari Voutilainen, costs about Rs 20 lakh, and stays true to Maximilian Busser’s credo of making “kinetic sculptures”, almost always in association with independent watchmakers and artisans (the ‘F’ in MB & F stands for ‘friends’.)
The half-Swiss, half-Parsi entrepreneur — his late mother Dinoo Cowasji hailed from Mhow, in Madhya Pradesh, and she met his father Mario in Bombay in the late 1950s — was already a rising star in the world of high-end horology when he founded MB & F in 2005. His first employer was Jaeger-LeCoultre, and, as the head of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces, he is credited with turning around the brand that almost went bankrupt in 1998. The decision to go on his own – with a large part of his life’s savings and with his apartment as his office – was a “life decision, not a business one”, says the 52-year-old Busser who grew up in Laussane.
“I wanted to make watches that were not dictated by what the market wanted, and I wanted more time with my family. That was how MB & F happened.”
The first years were especially difficult for Busser. All he had, he says, was a sketch and a mock-up of the watch in his head, and he had to convince retailers to pay him a certain amount and take delivery of the watch in two years. To his surprise, some of them agreed. The steampunk-ish HM1 (Horological Machine), MB & F’s first timepiece, was launched in 2007, and featured 376 components, 81 functional jewels, and an elevated central tourbillon, among others.
The HM9, launched last year, is a tribute to cars and aircraft from the 1940s and 1950s, while the Legacy Machine series is driven by a simple question: What kind of watches would Busser — and his friends — have created if he “had been born in 1867 instead of 1967?” Over the years, MB & F, which has developed over 17 calibres, has created watches that have variously featured a panda and glow in the dark like jellyfish (and resemble it), and a clock named Medusa.
The central idea often comes from Busser himself, and his associates and friends, he says, convert it into horological reality. “I am inspired by various things. Sci-fi, furniture, cars. I wanted to be an automobile designer, but that never worked out,” says Busser who has a fine taste in fast cars. He owns a Wiesmann M4S convertible and a 1965 Corvette Stingray.
MB & F doesn’t make too many watches. Last year, it sold 218 timepieces, and MB & F will close this year with a sale of 212 watches and revenues of about 17.5 million CHF. Busser says he intends to keep it that way. “In 2013, when MB & F got to the 15 million CHF revenue mark, we had our first daughter, so I decided that MB & F should stop growing recklessly. We could make more timepieces than what we are currently selling, but I’m perfectly happy with where we are now.” Asia is the biggest market for MB & F — it sold 35 watches in the continent this year — closely followed by America, Europe and the Middle East. “I’ve been to Mhow several times with my mother. We don’t have a retail presence in India, but MB & F has several Indian patrons,” says Busser.
Busser is the first to acknowledge the role of the Internet and social media in the success of MB & F. “The internet and social media are great enablers of creativity,” says Busser. “If I had set up MB & F in, say, the 1980s, I would have been a big failure.”
MB & F might be a boutique company, but the arc of its journey has been closely followed by the big luxury watch brands, and, at times, they make their appreciation known, as happened a couple of years ago at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve, the Oscars of watchmaking. “I was standing next to the owner of one of the great watch brands,” says Busser. “We had never been introduced to each other, but he turned around and told me that in his collection, he had only two watches that were made by his competitors. One of them was an A Lange that he got from Gunther Bluemlein, watch industry legend who brought back Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC back from the brink in the 1980s, and orchestrated the rebirth of A Lange & Sohne in the 1990s, and the other a Phillipe Dufour from the great watchmaker himself. He then said someday he would like to acquire an MB & F as well.”
Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC. Read his columns