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“Watchmaking Saved Me,” Says MB&F Founder Maximilian Büsser

Known for his beloved namesake timepieces, Max Büsser divulges the lesser-known tale of how MB&F’s whimsical creations have helped him arrive at self-acceptance.

“Watchmaking Saved Me,” Says MB&F Founder Maximilian Büsser

Anchor Image: Maximilian Büsser is one of the most charismatic (and unapologetically unfiltered) people in the watch industry.
(Image: MB&F)

Maximilian Büsser is grinning like a child on Christmas Day. He’s just unveiled his latest Legacy Machine watch to the world.

In order to create the watch, christened the “Thunderdome”, Büsser had to convince two revered watchmakers, Eric Coudray and Kari Voutilainen, to work with him on the project. Together, the trio created the world’s fastest triple-axis regulating mechanism, which takes pride of place at the heart of the watch.

Coudray was given the task of creating “the craziest, most cinematic three-axis tourbillon ever” — which he promptly did. The result is the visually astounding three-axis, two-cage proprietary TriAx tourbillon. This configuration represents a radical departure the traditional tourbillon construction, where each rotational axis has its own cage. Plus, the mechanism also integrates the unusual Potter escapement — named for 19th-century watchmaker and inventor Albert H. Potter, who later worked in Geneva — which uses a fixed escape wheel in place of the mobile escape wheels seen in just about every modern escapement. Needless to say, using a fixed escapement in a tri-axial tourbillon has never been done before.

Once this feat of watchmaking engineering was completed, it was up to Voutilainen to lend his elegant hand to its aesthetics; the smoothly rounded bridges, sharp hand-bevelled angles, mirrored curves, and the shimmering finish of the ratchet wheels are all signature Voutilainen.

The MB&F Legacy Machine Thunderdome, like all of the brand’s watches, is the result of the work done by Maximilian Büsser and his friends — hence MB&F.
(Image: MB&F)

33 editions of the MB&F Legacy Machine Thunderdome are available in platinum with a light-blue guilloche dial plate, while 10 pieces in tantalum are dedicated to the 40th anniversary of MB&F’s Asia-Pacific retail partner, The Hour Glass. Five of these 10 feature dark-blue guilloché dials and debuted in December 2019, while the other five will have aventurine dials and be released in early 2020.

The MB&F Legacy Machine Thunderdome marks Büsser’s 14th year of creating dreamy timepieces for himself. But, as any MB&F fan will know, things didn’t start out that way; Büsser had previously spent years at Jaeger-LeCoultre (where he became friends with Coudray) and Harry Winston, creating market-friendly watches that, while beautiful, didn’t necessarily fulfil him in the way that MB&F’s timepieces do. So how did he get to this point?

Early Beginnings

When he was a child, Büsser’s father would come to his room to wind his watch — that was his way of tucking young Max into bed. Other than those minimal interactions, Büsser had not been close to his dad. When his father passed away in 2001, Büsser recalls spending little time in mourning, before throwing himself back into his work.

It took Büsser a long time to realise that he had not come to terms with this loss, which prompted him to seek therapy.

“During my many hours of therapy, I came to realise that I was not happy inside,” he reveals. Büsser discloses that he was a very different sort of child — he uses the adjective “weird” unabashedly to describe himself — and that he strove to conform and hide this uniqueness. He visibly recoils when he verbally rehashes memories of the ostracism that his younger self had to endure.

After many chance encounters, bold decisions, meetings with people who bought into his “weird” ideas, and taking a chance on himself, Büsser stands on the precipice of his namesake company’s 15th anniversary. Compliments he has received from around the world culminated with a mention by Jean-Claude Biver, during Dubai Watch Week a few years ago, who remarked; “if we talk of soul, look at what Max Büsser does. MB&F — that’s incredible; that’s soul.” Max vividly remembers standing at the back blushing while a full house of 400 people turned around to look at him. “It was a great moment in my life when someone who’s accomplished so much says something like that about you,” Max shares.

The candid and affable leader of one of the most lauded independent watch brands in history, he refers to the whimsical timepieces that he and his friends have produced, as his “psychotherapy”. He derives immense joy from rolling out his unconventional creations and has realised the value of surrounding himself with positive individuals, who embrace “weird” as much as he does.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve said that has caused your team to be upset with you?

That’s a good question. I tend to forget that sort of stuff? I’ve seen them roll their eyes a couple of times. I did a presentation in January at SIHH, where I basically told all the errors — major errors — that we’d done over the years. So we gave our numbers, said how we screwed up and what we had learned from them.

They (the team) were like, “you’re not going to do that, are you?” Yes, of course, I’m going to do that. What’s wrong with that? Because it’s true that we’re in an industry where everyone always shows their beautiful side. Even if things don’t go so well, everything goes perfectly well. I’m in a moment in my life when I’ve worked like hell and I’ve taken massive risks. A lot of risks I’ve taken, I look back and I go, “good grief!”

I don’t think I would have taken those risks today. The man I am today wouldn’t, but most of them paid off.

What risks and attitudes have helped an independent watch creator such as yourself stay afloat in a mass-tige conformist market?

MB&F is a really bad business decision but a great life decision. (laughs) When I lost my dad, went into therapy and realised that I hated my life. I decided to do only things, from that day onwards, which would make me proud.

Professionally, that meant a complete turnaround of what I was doing. I created my own little company because I didn’t want shareholders to tell me what to do — mostly growth and profit all the time. I wanted, as a creator, to be able to be completely free and I wanted to be able to work only with people who share my values. It’s also about finding clients who resonate on the same wavelength as us. I often feel like a dolphin all alone in the ocean of millions of fish. I send my sonar out and not one fish understands what the hell I’m talking about. And then suddenly, ‘beep’, the sonar will come back, from persons who understand what we do.

It seems like each watch you’ve released has a specific message. What is the impetus of your counterculture creations?

I don’t do it because I want to be different. I do it because this is what I love. I do it because this is what makes me happy. For 14 years, seven years at Jaeger-LeCoultre and seven years at Harry Winston, I had always been creating for the market. Here (at MB&F), I was (finally) creating for myself.

Growing up, I was the weird kid. I was the one you would beat up at recess. I was the geek who just didn’t connect with other people. I had a different way of seeing the world. I didn’t understand (my peers), they clearly didn’t understand me. I suffered a lot from it, but at some point, I realised that being weird was ok. I sort of shifted my life and whatever you see is the result of that. I blurt out my (MB&F) creations and I understand them afterwards.

The Thunderdome, and all of MB&F’s creations are the result of Büsser’s creative design-centric mind.
(Image: MB&F)

Are there other forms of fulfilment that you seek to derive from your own independent company?

Creativity is like drugs — not that I’ve done drugs — but if you stay at the same level for a certain amount of time, you don’t feel anything anymore. You have to up the dose. All addictions are like that; if you keep on doing the same dosage, you don’t feel alive anymore. For me, it’s about always getting out of my comfort zone. I derive pride and adrenaline from taking risks. I don’t get any pleasure from doing the same thing.

I don’t know where I’m going right now. I know where we’re going in the next five to six years, because we’ve got all the projects in the pipeline, but I actually don’t know what I’m going to create tomorrow. Maybe I’ll go in a completely different direction?

There was this incredible moment last year when we released our first ladies watch, the Flying T. For the past 14 years I’ve been creating for myself, and suddenly I took this insane risk and it was such an ordeal to create my first ladies watch for the women in my life, but it made me so proud. I want more of that. I’m not a masochist, but I need to put myself in danger.

What did you seek to achieve with the Legacy Machine Thunderdome?

MB: This whole story started off 28 years ago. 28 years ago, I started at Jaeger-LeCoultre as a youngster, as a product manager. In the prototyping department, there was a young crazy watchmaker named Eric Coudray and we got along really well immediately. From there, we said one day we should do something together. And life being what it is, our paths didn’t cross again.

Finally, four years ago, he was free to develop something for a third party. I asked — “now can we do this? After 24 years?” And he said yes. I said I know of Kari Voutilainen, and Eric wanted to do something together, so I brought Kari and Eric to the table and we started a project. The goals for me, A, was to work with these people; and B, was to create the wildest, most insane regulating system in the history of watchmaking. Not because I want records, but because I want to push boundaries. I want to do something that has not been done already.

My goal as a mechanical sculptor is to create kinetic art pieces which tell time. This gave me the opportunity to make the escapement the star of the show. I sat with Eric and said, “you are the man who created the first multi-axis tourbillon. Create the craziest escapement you’ve got in mind.”

Could you talk about the process of what it was like working with Kari Voutilainen and Eric Coudray?

They’re so different. They’re exact polar opposites, Kari and Eric. Both are incredibly talented watchmakers, but Kari is the classical, restrained, shy watchmaker, while Eric is the insane, boisterous, completely left-field watchmaker. It was really interesting to have them work together. First off, we agreed that the engineering is most important — we need it to work. Afterwards, Eric went in and started building this insane sphere and once he had built that, then Kari came in.

The back of the watch is more or less 100 percent Kari. The design, the 19th-century pocket watch feel to it, the way the bridges speak to each other, the internal angles. Of course, everything is hand-finished and hand-engraved. Each tooth of its wheels has been hand-polished. The ratchets of the barrels have got a signature decoration from Kari and he’s never done this for anybody else. Even on my Legacy Machines that he worked on, he didn’t do this, except for this piece.

The function on the back, that power reserve, also commemorates the first project that Eric and I worked on at Jaeger-LeCoultre, which was the beautiful 1993 Reverso Tourbillon. The hours, minutes and small seconds are on the front. Turn (the Reverso Tourbillon) around and you see the tourbillon and power reserve on a bridge, so we did the same thing with the power reserve of the Thunderdome.

On the top, it’s mostly Eric. It’s his sphere; it’s his three-dimensional whirlwind. The baseplate was engine-turned on this 150-year-old machine that Kari acquired, which was used to make dials, but also cases in the mid-19th century. Everyone let the other one do what he was best at. There was no ego, even though all three of us have got ego. I just said, my idea is this. You go ahead and do what you think is best. Because we care for one another, it worked out well.

The MB&F Legacy Machine Thunderdome in tantalum with the aventurine dial (top) and dark blue guilloche dial (above) are each limited to 5 pieces worldwide, available exclusively at The Hour Glass.
(Image: MB&F)

How does the Thunderdome tie back to MB&F’s relationship with The Hour Glass?

21 years ago, in 1998, I arrived in Singapore. I was 31 years old. I arrived here with my little briefcase, my suit and tie, and glasses. I came to see The Hour Glass and I met Henry and his young son Michael. I come wearing my Harry Winston cap — I had just taken over Harry Winston and we were in a very dire situation there. I sat down with them and said, “ok this is what we have. It’s not great, but this is where I would like to take the company. I think there is incredible potential.” They listened to me and after a moment, Henry said to Michael, “go ahead, order some pieces. We’re going to start working with them.” They went out on a limb for me. If you saw what we had in those days… They are some of the people who allowed me to save Harry Winston and build it.

Seven years later, I resigned from Harry Winston, I came back to Singapore with a drawing of my HM1 and told Michael about my new baby — MB&F. Kinetic sculptures, new crazy 3D machines every year. I told him: I’m putting all my savings in it, but I don’t have enough money, so if you believe in it, if you want to order, I am going to ask you for one-third in advance — this was 2005 — and if everything goes well, I will deliver the first pieces in 2007. He said, “ok, let’s do this.” These are the things in life you don’t forget.

This piece owes a lot to The Hour Glass — a lot more to Michael than to The Hour Glass. Around 2012, Eric was working for another brand. Michael comes to me and says, “you really should do something with Eric. Let’s do a multi-axis tourbillon with Eric.” Eric replied that he really couldn’t because he was still employed by another company, so we left it at that, but the very first impulse (of the Legacy Machine Thunderdome) was Michael coming to see me in 2012, seven years ago.

The Hour Glass’ group managing director Michael Tay with MB&F founder Max Büsser.
(Image: The Hour Glass)

Can you describe the synergy between The Hour Glass and MB&F?

Our destinies are mingled. We’re a minute little company, The Hour Glass is a major player, but there’s always been an enormous caring energy. Honestly, The Hour Glass team spends an inordinate amount of energy and time on MB&F compared to the revenue that we bring to the company. They probably could spend it much more efficiently on other bigger brands than on us. I am very grateful for this. A lot of people have the impression that MB&F has been a walk in the park, which is partly why I gave that talk at SIHH 2019. Mechanical watch creators cannot only be great creators. You have to surround yourself with people who’ve got other talents. You need an amplifier and a loudspeaker. I’m basically writing the music and I’ve got the orchestra, but if we don’t have an amplifier or a loudspeaker, we do not exist.

The ‘Friends’ in Max Büsser & Friends have certainly been the backbone of the company’s success. What does it take to be a ‘friend’ of MB&F?

In a previous life, I looked for talent. Today, I look for a mindset, values and enthusiasm. I’ll give an example — we opened the M.A.D Gallery in Dubai Mall 18 months ago. I said; I’m not going to look for somebody who’s just good at watches; I need somebody else. Our two best sales executives today were previously a Mercedes salesman in Uzbekistan and a flight attendant with Etihad Airways. Both of them were very active on our social media platforms and they would even send me private messages.

When I write back to fans, they are blown away. What, you were writing to me expecting me not to answer? (laughs) But that’s what I do. Both of them, serendipitously, sent me messages on LinkedIn separately (that said something like): “You know I love your brand. If one day you’ve got an opportunity, tell me.” So I said, come over, and boom.

The ex-flight attendant had never sold anything in his life. The first six months, he actually didn’t sell anything in the gallery and he was getting super depressed, but what he had that nobody had was this insane passion for the brand — he can talk to you for one hour about every artist and every art piece we’ve done, with incredible enthusiasm. Well, guess what, out of eight he’s the number two salesperson today. These are the sort of people that I need to have around me. The other thing I do is I only hire nice people. It makes people laugh when I say that, but it’s really important, because we work 70 to 80 per cent of our waking hours. Wouldn’t it be great if we could work with nice people, with people we would like to hang out with?

The friends who helped to create the Legacy Machine Thunderdome.
(Image: MB&F)

You’ve emphasised the importance of preserving traditional watchmaking, because the rare skills of various craftsmen would be lost if not for this niche industry. What market forces are you combating and what motivates you to fight the good fight?

Corporate culture, industrialisation, the search for profits, maximising profits, is killing artisanship and humanity but I’m not the only one fighting. If you talk with Philippe Dufour, that’s all he’s been doing for the last 15 years — trying to defend the humanity and the artisanship of our work. I think there will always be people like us defending that.

But clearly, there are less and less opportunities and also, only the better of the best will remain, because fewer brands are actually working that way. We are one of the very last brands where one watchmaker assembles his or her movement from scratch. When I tell people that, they say it’s not possible. In most brands today, one watchmaker would put 25 components in, give it to the next guy who puts in 20… which makes sense on an industrial level, to get the risk out of the equation.

One (MB&F) watchmaker gets all the components and over hours, days, weeks, he or she will assemble it and they are responsible for the regulating of it. At the end of the day, do you know what a watchmaker is? He or she is god. He or she is Doctor Frankenstein. They take pieces of metal which have no life, build them together and at some point after weeks, you wind up the barrel, let it go and suddenly the heart beats. The ultimate goal of any watchmaker is to give life.

Would you ever consider integrating smartwatch technology into your mechanical complications?

The issue is, what I do has to be repairable in 100 years. For example, I don’t use any exotic materials in the movements — it’s all brass and steel. Many other brands have gone into materials like silicon, but I don’t want to take the risk. In 100 years, a great mechanic and a great watchmaker would be able to repair my babies. As soon as you put anything electronic in it, 12 months down the road, you can’t repair it anymore. So, I don’t think those two things should ever cohabitate ever.

If you weren’t giving life to mechanical watches, what might you be doing?

I’ve often wondered. I don’t know. If you use the good ol’ ‘what if’, you scare the hell out of me. The number one ‘what if’ is if I hadn’t been skiing on that ski slope in January 1991 and hadn’t bumped into Henry-John Belmont (then-CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, who convinced Max to join him immediately), where would I be today?

You might have gone ahead with joining Nestle?

Maybe selling powdered milk? Maybe, a depressed old guy. Or not? Maybe I would have branched out to something else.

Maybe you would have created powdered milk in a different way?

Maybe cool packaging! (laughs and pauses) Watchmaking saved me and built me. If I had been in a corporate environment, I have this gut feeling that I would have never become the man I am, because watchmaking gave me a purpose and a family. It made me feel good and boosted my ego. I was lacking confidence as a young adult. Becoming great at something actually allowed me to start loving myself.