Diamond Life

Being the boss of a division of the world’s most famous diamond company has its advantages. Elizabeth Drachman takes a limousine ride with Maximilian Büsser, who has made the Harry Winston name as big a success in the watch industry as it is the jewellery business, and has now brought the timepieces to Dubai.

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By  Elizabeth Drachman Published  November 2, 2004

Lifestyle|~|Huppert&Busser2.jpg|~||~|Driving one of the most expensive yet rarest cars in the world is a fitting metaphor for what Maximilian Büsser does for a living. The managing director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces compares his passion for his TVR Griffith 500 to that of his company’s customers: “raging enthusiasts.” Made forever famous by Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” tribute in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and for owning the largest diamond in the world, the Hope, the House of Harry Winston built a home last month for its watches in Dubai. The New York-based diamond retailer was founded by Harry Winston in 1920 and has since become synonymous with Hollywood glitz and glamour, lending its jewels to the most famous actresses for Oscars nights. The timepieces division operates out of Geneva, the site of the workshops where no more than 2,500 watches are handcrafted each year. The number of watches produced per year may seem small, but the price tags are not. The average Harry Winston watch, the priciest on the market, costs US$28,000, with the most exclusive designs soaring over US$300,000. Opening a Middle East office was an obvious choice since 22% of worldwide watch sales come from the region, according to Büsser. Three of the 18 Opus 4 series watches sold worldwide this year were scooped up by customers in the Gulf, he adds. These watches — which are ordered a year in advance — cost over US$300,000. While Büsser won’t name the buyers, he does admit that they are connoisseurs and collectors. “Clearly, our clients don’t just have one or two watches, some have up to 500. Some of them buy watches as jewellery, some people see them as works of art, others as pieces of technology,” he says. The Dubai office, located at Capricorn Tower, will be the site for appointment-only viewings. The watches and the jewellery can also be purchased through Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons’ stores; Seddiqi is one of the luxury brand’s exclusive partners. “We found ourselves making so many trips [to this region] that it made better sense to open an office,” says Büsser, in town last month for the office opening. “We had been dealing with the region from Geneva. We just didn’t think we were giving the right service to our retailers. We travel a lot. I was here two or three times a year. Our sales director was here two or three times a year. Our area manager would be here. So at some point we decided we have to set up an operation here.” He adds: “It is also the first step to — in the not-too-distant future — maybe open our first free-standing boutique for jewellery and watches in the region.” Because the watches are so expensive, the company obviously caters only to the wealthiest clients. Identifying this clientele is not as easy as targeting local Bentley owners. “We have an extremely faithful clientele. We tend to have clients who want a watch that is hard to find, one that you will not see on everybody. These are clients who want to stand out — or, in some cases, to be understated. It’s an exclusive club.” Maintaining that “exclusive club” cache is tricky, says Büsser. “You can’t flood the market with the brand because clients don’t want to be wearing the same thing as everyone else; and you can’t let people forget you are out there either,” he explains. “Because we don’t advertise, people in the street don’t recognise what I’m wearing when I’m wearing a Harry Winston. Only some high-end clientele would know that’s a Harry Winston. That’s the way we want to keep it.” Büsser attempts to achieve this balance by keeping production down and unveiling watches in series. He also claims it “is not a marketing company” by — ironically — marketing the company as such. The “we-don’t-do-any-marketing” marketing formula is working. The company that owns 51% of Harry Winston — Toronto-based Aber Diamond — announced a profit of US$12.3 million in the second quarter this year, up from US$5.8 million in the same period last year. Aber cited strong sales at Harry Winston and improved quantity and quality of its diamond production as the two major contributors for the surge. Sales for Harry Winston in April alone hit US$10.1 million. Aber acquired its majority share early this year; Fenway Partners and Chairman Ronald Winston, the son of Harry Winston, hold the remaining 49%. In addition to better sales, the parent company also added two more boutiques this month — in Las Vegas and Taipei — to its current stable of salons in New York, Geneva, Beverly Hills, Paris, Osaka, Dallas and Tokyo. The idea to begin a line of watches was the brainchild of media-shy Ronald Winston, who took over the company after his famous father, lovingly called “The King of Diamonds,” died in 1978. “Ronald Winston is passionate about watches. He loves them. And he’s a chemical engineer; he’s worked for NASA. He’s a Renaissance man. He has 360-degree interest in everything in the world. In 1989, he said ‘Look, I want someone to create for us one of the finest timepieces that will go with our jewellery.’ So we set up a company 15 years ago in Switzerland, and we are just doing two or three models a year in our own boutiques,” says 37-year-old Büsser. Büsser’s own story is one of talent — and a little bit of luck. The half-Indian, half-Swiss Büsser, whose life suddenly and dramatically changed in 1998 when he was named managing director of the timepieces division at the age of 31, now literally hobnobs with the rich and famous. Born in Italy, he spent most of his life in Switzerland. Watches were never his first choice. “Like most men, I have a passion for cars, and from a young age I wanted to be a car designer. Since I was 4 years old, I used to doodle cars all the time, on all my books, everywhere,” he says. “So I went into engineering thinking I would do that. During my studies, I got to know the watch industry because it’s one of the rare industries we have in Switzerland — and I got completely hooked.” After finishing a master’s degree in microtechnology engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, he joined Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1990, a traditional Swiss watch-making company. Seven years into the job he received a phone call from one of the top headhunters in the industry. “He said he had a job he wanted me to interview for. He said ‘You’re 10 years too young, but you qualify in your experience.’ When he said it was for managing director of Harry Winston Timepieces, I laughed out loud. You’ve got to be joking I said, I’m 31 years old!” he says. “But since I had absolutely nothing to lose, I was completely cool, calm and collected in all the interviews with the COO, Mr. Winston, the whole team. I knew I had no chance whatsoever, so I was telling them, ‘this is how you should do it, this is what’s wrong.’ I remember the first time Mr. Winston interviewed me, he asked me what I thought of the watch he was wearing, I said ‘Look, honestly, it’s not my taste. I like something very different.’ And at the end of the interview, the headhunter came up to me and told me ‘Mr. Winston has rarely been so challenged, but that’s OK.’” Four months later, in November 1998, Winston called him and said “You’re the one.” With a mandate to create a watch that is worthy of the company’s famous jewellery, Büsser began pouring money into research and development, workshops and hiring top personnel. “We had a lot of expectations to live up to,” he says. Beyond the lure of bling-bling, Harry Winston watches truly are technological marvels. Some of the more intricate men’s watches take years to design and are comprised of thousands of tiny wheels and dials that work together to create feats of engineering. “People don’t expect that from a jeweller, but we’ve created a very high-tech handmade watch,” says Büsser. “You like the watch or you don’t, but at least technically I can assure you it is exceptional. We don’t want to be known as just a pretty face, just a pretty watch. We want to be considered a player in the watch arena.” The process of creating one of these engineering wonders starts with one of the executive team’s vision, which is communicated to a Swiss watchmaker, whose first answer is “not possible,” explains Büsser. “His second answer is ‘what an incredible challenge,’ then two years later, you have your timepiece.” The watches gained renown in such a short time that last year the company turned a very unusual request into a creative success. The Taormina Film Festival in Italy asked the watchmaker if it would provide timepieces as trophies for the festival winners. It was the perfect non-marketing marketing opportunity, not to mention the fact that Büsser has now rubbed shoulders with stars like Mira Sorvino, Antonio Banderas, Martin Scorsese, Monica Bellucci and Tom Cruise. The polished executive appears to be right at home in such company, both amazed by his luck but extremely confident in his abilities. “That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day, fun, enjoying yourself,” he says. “Luxury is based on a two-way relationship. I reward myself when I buy something and I make a statement. Whenever you buy anything, a dress, a car, the reward part is very important. For us, that’s the most important part.” The managing director, who, in just five years increased revenue by 400% in a top-heavy industry, has obviously struck the right chord. And as for his childhood dream of designing fast cars, Büsser has settled on just owning them.||**||

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