“I always make people laugh because I can’t afford my own pieces. This is one year’s salary for me,” says Maximilian Büsser, pointing to his wrist. “I can’t go and buy a watch at that price.”
The owner and creative director of MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends) is discussing the car-themed Can-Am, the product of more than 50 prototypes and 18 months of production. Like most of his timepieces, from idea to delivery took somewhere between three and four years.
“This is the engine bay and you’ve got the heads up display of the dashboard,” he says, indicating each intricate part. “And you’ve got the engine, which is winding up the watch while you’re actually wearing it – see the gold battle-axe. And these are the titanium roll bars that protect the car.”
It doesn’t actually look like a watch, which Büsser takes as a compliment.
“You could never do market research for this because everybody would tell you you’re completely crazy. That you’re never going to sell one. But I do 20 a year. There are 20 people out there who are as crazy as I am and who have got, contrary to me, the means to actually buy the piece.”
Büsser is an old school eccentric, although you’d never think it from his appearance. Smartly but casually dressed, our lunch at Zahira in the H Hotel lasts more than two hours and is punctuated by moments of extreme honesty – the passing of his father, the need for therapy, an unhappy childhood, near bankruptcy, the addictive nature of creativity.
He occupies a world of visions and make believe, creating very particular, very unique, and very dramatic watches, most of which will set you back in excess of $150,000.
“I realise I’m not like everybody else,” he acknowledges. “It’s interesting because when I was a kid I was the kid who didn’t fit in. And I suffered a lot from that. For a very long time I judged my childhood was unhappy, I didn’t have any friends, although I longed to have them. Then I discovered way, way down the line that to be different was okay. But it took me a really, really long time to get over that one.
“It’s not by chance that I chose this photograph for my brand,” he adds, pointing to an image of two boys with wired-up colanders strapped to their heads. “This was the photo that most resonated with me when I decided what the brand was all about.”
MB&F is a company of rebellion. An artistic concept laboratory. An assembly of independent watchmakers united around the simple idea of developing radical horological masterpieces. At its centre is the belief that a ‘creative adult is a child who survived’.
It is perhaps apt then that we are dining at Greg Malouf’s Zahira, with its elevated take on traditional Levantine dishes and Malouf’s years spent working on the evolution of Lebanese cuisine. Both he and Büsser come from traditional creative disciplines in which experimentation is sometimes frowned upon.
“I often say that starting off in watchmaking saved my life,” admits Büsser, whose company generates $15 million in revenue a year. “Not because I really do adore watchmaking, that’s not the point. I used to adore car designing. But because I entered watchmaking when the industry was virtually all bankrupt. It was the late 80s early 90s and when I entered Jaeger-LeCoultre 26 years ago we were on the verge of bankruptcy. The CEO became my surrogate dad and said ‘we’re going to save this company, come with us’. He basically gave me a meaning.”
Gordon Robertson, Zahira’s floor manager, serves us wagyu beef skewered with pearl onions and Hungarian peppers. There is Egyptian-style pigeon twice cooked in aromatics, too, with freekeh and chopped Arabic salad.
Half-Swiss, half-Indian, Büsser studied microtechnology engineering in Switzerland before being approached by Henry-John Belmont, chief executive of the then-ailing Jaeger-LeCoultre, in 1991. He remained with the company for seven years before joining Harry Winston Rare Timepieces, a company that he didn’t realise was virtually bankrupt.
What he achieved, however, was remarkable. He took a company with revenue of $8 million and increased it tenfold. Yet the more the company grew, the more he became unhappy, with the passing of his father ultimately leading him to seek therapy.
“I went there to talk about my father, but the therapist said ‘what about you? If something happens to you today, would you have any regrets?’ And I was shocked. Because I was living the life, I was the man, I was the guy who’d come out of nowhere and was receiving all these plaudits. And I realised I would have a tonne of regrets. The first one is that the little boy who was sketching cars all the time had basically sold out. I’d become a marketeer. Everything I did was always to create products for market, always to create what I thought would sell. And it was a complete abnegation of myself. It’s not what I wanted to do, it’s what the market would take. And I was like ‘oh my God’, what the hell am I doing? Am I proud of this? No, absolutely not.
“When you create products that you think will sell – meaning you want to sell to the most people possible – you will usually take all the character out of them. Nobody hates them, but nobody loves them either. Our creations – a lot of people hate them. A lot. But hence those who like them, they adore them. We’ve got a very polarised creativity.”
Childhood looms large in Büsser’s work. There are spaceships and mechanical jellyfish and what looks like a rocket inspired by Buck Rogers but is in fact re-imagined from the stories of Tin Tin. His pieces have names such as Space Pirate and Aquapod, while the company’s M.A.D Gallery concept, pioneered in Geneva, curates mechanical kinetic art. There are two further galleries in Taipei and Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.
“What I’ve discovered over the years is that creativity is basically like drugs,” says Büsser, who set up MB&F in 2005 with $900,000 he’d managed to set aside. “You need to increase the dose all the time. If you do the same thing, you don’t feel it anymore. You’re always trying to push the boundaries.
“When I create I don’t care if people like what I do. I’ve actually come out with products – the Thunderbolt in 2010, for example – that I thought would bankrupt the company. But that piece liberated me. And it also showed me that out there are people who are even crazier than I am and are okay if I go that one step further. It’s not a question of price. It’s a question of mentality. Am I courageous enough to wear a thing like that?”
Dessert is served: ice cream with white chocolate and leatherwood honey truffles, followed by buttermilk rose cream with rose jelly and caramel berries.
“You know, when I first started MB&F, it was very much about sketching my ideas,” adds Büsser, who works closely with the designer Eric Giroud. “When I found something I would just refine it and refine it until I liked it. And only then would I realise it was a spaceship or a car. Now, many years down the road… this is going to seem very weird. I have visions. When I’m alone. I have to be alone. And that’s why I’ve created so much more in Dubai than when I was in Switzerland. Because when I’m in the workshops I’m always interacting with people and I can’t create anything then. Here, I just sit in the garden and let my mind wander.”
* First published in Open Skies, June 2017