ThePuristS Interview Maximilian Busser
The Man Behind Harry Winston Timepieces.

by Jaw
© November 2002

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Mr. Janek Deleskiewicz of Jaeger Le-Coultre (JLC) once spoke affectionately about this “great people-manager.” It turns out he was referring to Mr. Maximilian Busser, who has been the Managing Director of Harry Winston Ultimate Timepiece SA Geneva since late 1998.  He accepted this position when he was only 31 years old.

In less than four years, he has developed the company into a fully fledged high-end timepiece operation, developing the strategy, products, marketing and worldwide distribution, whilst integrating design, R&D and manufacturing in house. The results are a 300% increase of turnover during this period.

Harry Winston is the first company to work with the talented Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, to implement his various retrograde complications in Harry Winston, whose attractive modules are now widely used in other high-end watches. It has premiered the world first solid platinum diving watch (10ATM) and remained the proud maker of the world's ONLY solid Rhodium watch since 1998, a perpetual Calendar.

With the exception of an in-house movement, Harry Winston manufactures its own cases and bracelets and uses dials mostly made by ‘Les Cadraniers de Geneve”, a dial manufacturer jointly owned by the company, Cedric Johner and Francois-Paul Journe.

Prior to Harry Winston, Maximilian spent seven years at JLC. His responsibilities ranged from Product Management & Development to Sales & Marketing for Europe.

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to interview Mr. Busser at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore recently, and I thoroughly enjoy this educational experience. We chatted for hours and went long beyond the allotted time.

(This WAS the only adult photograph of Mr. Harry Winston released to the public then.
First appeared in his 1978 New York Times Obituary)

"Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it!" - Marilyn Monroe, in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'

The Interview

TP178: Harry Winston is one of the most respected independent jewelers in the world. Can you educate us briefly about the company? Its strengths and weakness?

MB: Harry Winston used to say “If I could, I would place diamonds directly onto a woman’s skin”. That dream was to be the lifelong inspiration of the man who loved precious stones and adored women. Beginning in the nineteen twenties, he wrote one of the most exciting chapters in the history of high jewelry with his truly innovative creations. The settings that he conceived in finely woven platinum were so flexible that they followed the wearer’s slightest movement. The dream thus practically came to life and the Harry Winston style was born. Free of their traditional settings, fine gemstones took on a new dimension.

Created in 1920 by Harry himself, the company is still family owned (Ronald, Harry’s son, is the owner and Chairman).  A small company created and based ever since on exclusivity, quality and personal relationships.  The Harry Winston name was not created through extensive marketing, but through word of mouth.  And the trust of our clients is an intrinsic part of our DNA. 

Harry Winston’s name has also been intimately linked to Hollywood stars, through Marilyn Monroe referring to us in “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, and through generations of actresses wearing our jewelry during the Oscar celebrations.

A weakness of the company? Some would say that we are not easy to find.  Be it for a Harry Winston piece of jewelry or a timepiece, because we are, and want to remain, very exclusive.

The Harry Winston haute joaillerie is all hand-crafted in New York, and available exclusively in our 5 salons across the world: New York, Beverly Hills, Paris, Tokyo and Osaka.  The timepieces on the other hand are 100% crafted in Switzerland and most of the parts in Geneva itself, where our Timepiece headquarters are located.  The first timepiece was created in 1989, and was for many years only available in our salons.  Recently we decided to extend the distribution of timepieces to select independent watch retail partners. There are today 65 across the world.

Mr. Maximilian Busser at the Four Seasons Hotel, Singapore.
The bubble-wrapped watch on the table is the Opus-II, Double-face Perpetual Calendar Tourbillon.
On his wrist is a Harry Winston Perpetual Chronograph

TP178: What can you tell us about the man, the late Mr. Harry Winston and Chairman Mr. Ronald Winston? Any interesting anecdotes for our better understanding of these 2 exceptional men?

MB: 1908 - a twelve year old was studying a pawnshop window and, on a tray of inexpensive jewelry, spotted a rather dull-looking ring set with a green stone. The pawnbroker had estimated the stone at a quarter of a carat and sold it to the boy for 25 cents. Harry, as the boy was called, took it back to his father, Jacob Winston, a modest local jeweler and showed it to him : his father was flabbergasted. The emerald actually weighed two carat and young Harry sold it two days later for 800 dollars.

The legend was born.....

When Ronald Winston succeeded his father in 1978 and took over the Harry Winston Corporation, he was not altogether unknown. He had not trodden the traditional pathway of an heir apparent. From an early age, he was initiated into the secrets of gems and, above all, learned the value of hard work from his father.

Ronald’s life is marked by the milestones of patents he has filed. He devised hitherto untried alloys of precious metals. An expert technician, he invented machines for cutting diamonds and was also one of the first to use a computer to catalogue stones. As a designer, he created jewelry which took the House of Harry Winston into modernity. Just as his father's diamonds delighted Marilyn, the jewelry designed by Ronald Winston captivates the women who dominate the world today. One of the most famous of these, Madonna, has also succumbed. During a concert she sang, danced and put on such a performance that she lost a rare Harry Winston earring - which was found a few hours later.

His enthusiasm for leading-edge technology led Ronald Winston as a matter of course to introduce his first line of watches in 1989. This new domain for the House was an old passion for Ronald himself...

Mr. Ronald Winston, the family prefers public attention
on their products than them personally, and as far as I know,
have not allowed media photos where their faces are shown clearly

TP178: You had an illustrious career at one of the truest watch manufacturers, Jaeger Le-Coultre. What made you joined Harry Winston Ultimate Timepiece SA?

MB: It was definitely not easy to leave the JLC team.  The company had had such an exhilarating decade, and during seven years from 1991 to 1998. I was privileged to work very closely with Henri-John Belmont and our small enthusiast team to develop a unique company, and create unique products.  I was therefore addicted to this way of working, addicted to adrenalin, and did not believe I could reach the same level of euphoria in any other company.  So, when the head-hunters approached me for the position at Harry Winston, I was initially very perplexed: after the JLC haute horlogerie experience, how could I ever work for a jeweler? Well, thirty minutes with Ronald Winston cleared that matter!  The man is totally passionate about high-end watch-making, and the living proof was the first Harry Winston timepiece in 1989: the first ever double retrograde perpetual calendar, a piece Ronald commissioned from two Geneva watchmakers named Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and Roger Dubuis... So just think of what could be achieved, when the Harry Winston legendary search for rarity and excellence in Haute Joaillerie was to be transferred into Haute Horlogerie...  The potential was limitless!

TP178: How different is the environment between Jaeger Le-Coultre and Harry Winston? Are you comfortable with the changes?

MB: JLC was a 250 person Manufacture which we grew to 800 employees over 7 years.  There already was a whole structure, even though it was manufacturing more for the other high-end brands than for itself!  But the management team remained nevertheless extremely compact and flexible.  And of course we were all on a mission: to put JLC back on the map where it deserved to be.  For this we knew that our most effective weapon was Product creativity.  We had the craftsmanship means, and we had the ideas.  And this replaced any marketing or advertising.

This sense of a mission, the flexibility, this passion for creating is of course shared at Harry Winston.  But when I entered the company, the whole timepiece operation was 7 persons, as most of the operations were subcontracted to qualified Swiss artisans.  Today, after practically four years, we have created an extensive internal R&D and Manufacturing unit.  We are 42 employees in-house and 60 if we count our dial, case and bracelet manufacturing units.  I was extremely privileged in being able to create my team, which is only made of highly enthusiast and motivated young people – the average age of our whole team is 31 years old -  And  they run, often much faster than I do !  We share a wild dream of placing Harry Winston on the map of the finest High End timepieces. A mission Ronald Winston entrusted us with.  After 4 years at the head of Harry Winston Timepieces, the drive has never been stronger.

Harry Winston Bi-retro Perpetual Calendar, a world first in 1989,
retrograde mechanism by Mr. Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, watch is
also made in collaboration with Mr. Roger Dubuis

TP178: Harry Winston was the first to launch a Double Retrograde Perpetual Calendar in 1989, and several retrograde complications modified from Frederick Piguet movements. What can you tell us about this very impressive range of watches? Are they commercially successful?

MB: Because we are jewelers, we have to overcome a certain amount of skepticism towards our watch-making creations.  This gives us one more reason, not that we needed it, to create very innovative timepieces that separate themselves from the rest of the 200 year old house-hold names.  We have lead this way since our first watch, the double retrograde perpetual calendar, and have created one watch-making world premiere every year since 1999.  Our team has now the definite feeling that the world of connoisseurs is waking up to this fact.  And the figures are the proof, as each year has created more demand on these technical achievements.  Now, the quantities are always very confidential, and we wish to keep it that way, for example, we will only be crafting this year 175 Premier Excenter’s, our most successful technical timepiece. Exclusivity...

TP178: The retrograde complications are very similar to some of the later Roger Dubuis and Franck Muller watches. Do you consider that a compliment? Or a rip-off from your ideas? Is there any behind-the-scene story you can share?

MB: The retrograde indicator is one of our trademarks since the beginning.  Roger Dubuis and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht created our first movement for us.  It is only normal that Roger continues on the same path with his own brand. And Jean-Marc Wiederrecht created since Agenhor in Geneva, a small company of enthusiast watchmakers who develop modules for a few top-end brands.  We work actively with Agenhor to develop new movements.  Now, the retrograde indicator gives also much more creativity in aesthetics, which is why I am sure that many more brands will try to develop this segment.

Harry Winston bi-retro, retrograde second at 9 o'clock,
retrograde day at 3 o'clock and date at 6 o'clock

TP178: Tell us about your in-house production of dials, cases, bracelets and link. Do you think it is commercially viable for a relative small company like Harry Winston?

MB: Basically and above all, I believe it is a question of responsibility and ethics for the brand.  Harry Winston is one of the most famous jewelers in the world.  The jewelry pieces that we sell are all totally crafted in house.  It should also be true for the timepieces.  The decision to integrate our production activities (i.e. cases, bracelets and dials) also responds to concerns for control over our quality and delivery schedules. It is definitely not a financially driven decision. On the contrary, the costs are higher because the quantities are small and the necessary production infrastructure cannot therefore be amortized. There again, being a family owned company allows us to invest in long term projects, where the returns are not immediate.

TP178: Why not an in-house movement then?

MB: Harry Winston is in the midst of a learning curve.  As you mentioned earlier, we have progressively integrated crafts such as dial-manufacturing and case-manufacturing, but only when we thought we had acquired enough experience to do it ourselves as good, or we hope better, than the best suppliers.  As for a HW movement… it is not thinkable today.  But clearly our partnerships with Master-watchmakers such as François-Paul Journe or Antoine Preziuso have opened our eyes to the possibility of creating small series of ultra-high end mechanical timepieces.  Now movements are not only about technical developments and machines.  Movements are about skilled artisans…  and who knows what would occur if we were to strike a good partnership…

Harry Winston, bi-retro seconds with date

TP178: I am a great admirer of Mr. Francois-Paul Journe and I noted you work with him for your first Opus! Can you enlighten us as to ‘why Journe?’ and tell us about this project?

MB: François-Paul is in my opinion the heir to Abraham Louis Breguet.  He has managed over the last twenty-five years to master and synthesize the past with the future of watch-making.  Locked in his head are quantities of projects that will amaze the connoisseurs.  I am privileged to say that François-Paul is also a friend.  The premises of the Opus project begun somewhere on an escalator during Basel Fair, where I recall telling François-Paul that it was a shame that he had created some of the most interesting movements of the last decade for well-known brands and that he was not recognized for it.  My following thought was: why don’t we create a product together with both our names on it? And the project took off during dinner!  Clearly, our friendship, and later on collaboration, was based on a shared philosophy of independence, craftsmanship and passion.  The idea of working with a different watchmaker every year and the name Opus developed during the following weeks. 

The Opus concept is to mix the DNA of Harry Winston and that of the Master watch-maker.  The children, the timepieces, are therefore inheriting the characteristics of each parent.  So, each Opus is different and each Opus remains recognizable as part of the Harry Winston family.

And each Opus project is developed as a real partnership.  We wished to break the traditional client/supplier relationship which governs the Swiss watch industry.  Opus is about persons, teams and companies who share common values.  And, as this started as a story of friendship, so will it continue with the next.

TP178: Opus II? Why Antoine Preziuso?

MB: Well, Antoine had been working for Harry Winston well before I arrived in the company.  As early as 94, Antoine was in charge of casing the first Premier chronographs equipped with the Frederic Piguet 1185.  Then in 95-96, Antoine created two unique Tourbillons and one Minute Repeater for specially commissioned pieces by good clients of the House.  So, quickly after arriving at HW, I met up with Antoine, to get to know him, and we stayed in touch.  Antoine was therefore a clear choice when the Opus concept was created.  In fact we had already developed together the Opus 2 Tourbillon by the time the Opus One was presented during Basel 2001.  This one and only working prototype will in fact be put up for auction in November by Phillips in Geneva
(Note from Jaw: The unique Opus-II fully working prototype will be auctioned off on 18th. November 2002).

Harry Winston Premier Excenter, I believe this is still the
only watch with a bi-direction retrograde seconds

TP178: The double face Perpetual Calendar Tourbillons; impressive both in terms of technical achievements and aesthetics. I noticed the unique leap year indicator and the unusual hands; can you tell us more about this watch?

MB: Opus Two was based initially on the 110 hour power reserve Tourbillon ebauche from Christophe Claret, with whom Antoine has developed many movements over the years.  I thereupon wanted an indicator on the back of one of the two models.  So what would it be ? A power reserve ? a date ? a second timezone ? Finally we settled on the idea of the Perpetual Calendar – a logical choice to accompany the Tourbillon, in terms of complications, but the most delicate to achieve.  This part of the movement is part of our DNA as it stems from the original HW double retrograde perpetual calendar, which we reworked to fit the Tourbillon.  We had unfortunately to sacrifice the moonphase in the process, so we chose to give the Perpetual a very technical graphic, hence the solid gold dial with “Côtes de Genève” decoration to resemble the base plate.

We wanted everything in this movement to be Platinum and Blue, the colours of Harry Winston, so the rubies were replaced by sapphires, the screws of course were blued by flame, and the hands were hand-lacquered by Antoine personally.

TP178: What is your annual watch production? Proportion of technical watches to jewelry watches?

MB: Over the last twelve months, we crafted and delivered 2’345 timepieces.  80% ladies and 20% men’s.  To bear the Harry Winston name, it seemed clear to us that the product had to be exceptional.  For ladies, the diamonds are truly exceptional, for men, the movements had to be innovative and exceptional. 

Opus 2, Double-sided Perpetual Calendar 110 hr. Tourbillon, limited to 11 pieces,
on the left, the 110hr Tourbillon limited to 12 pieces on the right,
including a unique piece with baguet diamonds)

TP178: You have done some wonders in certain serious timepieces, why go into this difficult market segment when you are doing just fine in your established jewelry pieces?

MB: As a Jeweler, it would have been much easier to stick to ladies diamond-set pieces, but that was not Ronald Winston’s philosophy… Our Geneva team has set upon this very difficult but rewarding path.  And clearly the 20% turnover achieved with our technical timepieces take up 80% of our energy.  But it is also an incredible motivation driver for our young team.  You cannot imagine the exhilaration we achieve by creating these timepieces.

TP178: How do you see a Harry Winston watch owner?

MB: A self confident person who is not trying to blend into one or another social group, who doesn’t need to follow mainstream fashion diktats, who does not need massive marketing support to reassure him or her on their choice...  The Harry Winston watch owner wears a Harry Winston because he knows what the product stands for and what craftsmanship was involved.  Harry Winston timepieces are not created to be fashionable, because we do not want them to be out of fashion one day

Harry Winston Opus-I, top to bottom: Tourbillon {Dial in Anthracite Grey, Silveered, Blue, black, pink & turquoise},
5-Day Automatic {Dial in silver, black, blue, mother-of-pearl, green and deep blue}
and Resonance Chronometer {dial in anthracite grey, silvered, turquoise, black, purple and blue}
6 unique pieces of each model, making a total of 18 pieces

TP178: Being an established jeweler can be a hindrance to your image as a fine watch house. How do you plan to overcome this obstacle?

MB: By using the strengths developed as a Jeweler: craftsmanship, attention to detail, service, individuality…  By being more prolific and more innovative.  By “thinking out of the Box”.  By challenging what is commonly accepted.  By creating products strong in identity, and harmonious in proportions, even though many may not like them.

TP178: You are obviously a busy man. How do you cope with stress? How do you try to get some relief? What are your hobbies?

MB: You cannot live the exhilaration of creation, growth and entrepreneurship, without experiencing stress.  Success is therefore the best antidote.  It’s addictive. For example, there is nothing like the rush of adrenalin one experiences when one of our retailers calls us to say that a product our team has thought up 2 years ago and taken so much energy to materialize, is now on the wrist of a happy client.

So I must admit, that (much to the despair of my wife) my work is also my hobby !

I have nevertheless another passion: cars…  I know, most businessmen will say that, but in my case, it dates back to my first memories!  Ever since I was 4 years old, I wanted to be a car designer… but that’s another long story…

TP178: Who is your favourite watchmaker?

MB: A very touchy subject… especially after creating the Opus concepts.  I will therefore pass on that question.  But I will tell you who most inspired me in this industry: Günther Blümlein.  Passionate, literate, intelligent, strategic-thinking, charismatic and so approachable.  His leaving us so suddenly and so early in his life was a shock and a great loss.

The House of Harry Winston

TP178: What do you feel about

MB: A totally different watch aficionado website.  Structured, incisive, easy to navigate, no garish pop-up banners.  It gives me quantities of interesting insider information and anecdotes, without the usual false rumours.  Clearly Jaw has an eye and an ear for what is really important, and for separating the “True” from the “Official”.  Also there is a real technical background and passion from the authors, which is so rare today.  So keep up the good job!

TP178: Thank You, Mr. Busser!

MB: Thank You!

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