We’re used to seeing some pretty wild stuff when it comes to watches, but none quite prepared the world for Maximilian Büsser’s creations. In an industry familiar with round-faced watches, his pieces – under his namesake firm MB&F – come in forms previously unfathomable in the watchmaking world. Then there’s the mind-boggling array of fresh new calibers released yearly, each vastly different from his last, and mechanically superior in leaps and bounds — even to the most established marques.
The complexity of his manufacturing process allows for only a handful of pieces to be made every month, yet it’s clear that profit doesn’t drive him, his art does. 13 years later, this idiosyncratic’s take on timekeeping has earned him the title of a radical independent, a rare accolade he’s definitely keeping for another year with the launch of his latest wearable masterpiece, the HM9.
Paying around S$250,000 for a watch that only tells the time transcends logic, but aficionados know the real value of his pieces. Like many of his works, there is a childlike innocence in its strange bulbous silhouette and flying balance wheels, one on each side of what looks to be a tiny rocket for the wrist. If it’s not already obvious, Büsser loves a good challenge.
But as with any art piece, to truly appreciate MB&F’s pieces is to dig deep into the mind of its 51-year-old Swiss founder, who wasn’t shy about admitting that he’s constantly pushing the boundaries in an industry that, till today, is still steeped in rigid tradition.
My very first experience would have to be with my dad. We didn’t get along for many reasons; he was of that generation which didn’t communicate much. He gave me a mechanical watch when I was a child, and when he came to say goodnight to me I would wind it up in front of him — that was my little ritual. I’d then put it beside the bedside lamp right before he switched off the lights in the room, so the luminous markers would light up in the dark and I could read the time.
I grew up in the quartz era, so even if was interested in watchmaking, everyone would probably discourage it. When I was 18 [in 1985], my parents wanted to gift me a watch, they gave me the equivalent of S$1,000, which was an enormous amount even for them. Randomly, I found myself sitting next to a guy in university and asked him about his watch. It turned out to be a Rolex, but I hadn’t even heard of the brand before, even though I was an 18-year-old Swiss (laughs). I was even more shocked when he revealed that the price was around S$7,000 and gave him a hard time for it.
I was a cinema usher doing three screenings a night while giving math tuition during lunch breaks and selling hi-fis on Saturdays — I knew I’d only make that amount of money in a year. That was my first encounter with high-end watchmaking, and it didn’t start right.
I bought a quartz Tissot. There’s an old saying that goes “I never lose, I either win or learn”. If I saw the young me buying that Tissot now I’d advise him to get a Rolex Steel Air-King instead because it’s about the same price!
I bought my first beautiful mechanical watch when I was 22 with all my savings. I just had a horrible accident in the army, and after six weeks of hospitalisation and tons of physiotherapy, I jumped on a bus — still in full cast — and went to the middle of town in Lucerne and I bought a chronograph with an El Zenith movement. It was the epitome of watchmaking back then, and I spent all my savings on it.
I spent seven years at Jaeger-LeCoultre, and I became way more passionate about watchmaking there. Being my first job out of university, I learnt how to work and the importance of integrity. When I arrived at Harry Winston — which I had no idea was virtually bankrupt when I became CEO of the Rare Timepieces department — I discovered who I was. My time there allowed me to understand what I was capable of doing, especially after saving the company and rebuilding it. It also made me aware of the fact that I didn’t like my life, my job, and the person I was becoming, and gave me the courage to change my life and create MB&F.
It just happens, really. When I first started MB&F, I would just sketch a lot. But I’ve been creating watches for 27 years, and it has gotten to the point where I don’t need to sketch anymore; I just have to visualise it. The watch [HM9] you see today was completely visualised in my garden. I try set an hour aside everyday to just sit there to think.
So one day it popped up in my imagination, and I could look at it in its three-dimensional form in my head. Like my other work, I only realise where I got the inspiration comes from much later. In the case of the HM9, I never set upon doing a tribute to design in the 1940s. It’s not an intellectual process, and art cannot be intellectual. It can be explained, but it can’t start with an intellectual idea — at least not for me. We are totally influenced by everything that surrounds and makes us.
My childhood inspired me for a very long time. I was a very solitary kid whose only way of escaping loneliness was daydreaming or creating. For a very long time I regretted my childhood, but over the years I’ve learnt to transcend my lows and transform them into strengths. My hardship is what made me stronger, and that’s the point of MB&F.
Yes exactly, the Balthazar is a good example of that.
It’s interesting because the one I created 13 years ago seemed like the most daring, but now they look extremely subdued. If you look at the HM1, you’ll realise that we’ve come a long way. When I started the brand, I only wanted to deconstruct a traditional watch and reconstruct it into a 3D art machine. I’ve pushed the envelop ever since and we’ve come to the HM9 today.
The industry has retracted into vintage and super conservative designs, because that’s what sells. Unfortunately there are very few brands that dare to create these days, because it’s not what the clients want today. But I don’t care; I craft less than 20 watches a month, and I’ll find the 20 customers who want them.
Most people thought I was completely insane, because there wasn’t a market then. Interestingly, I’ve had way stronger reactions to the first few machines than new ones, because our customers have grown up with us. If you show this to someone who’s never heard of MB&F, they’ll usually fall off their chair. The most beautiful compliment I could get from anyone is that my creations are not watches, but art.
When I first started showing our pieces to watch stores, they’d tell me that they were not watches. So I approached art galleries instead, because I identified my work as mechanical art. They looked at it and said “but this is a watch.” Creatively, we’re right in the middle.
Creating a watch is pretty complicated in itself, because you’re essentially machining steel and brass into highly accurate time measuring devices. The entire process is insane, from the engineering and manufacturing process to the hand finishing. At least 30 to 50 percent of the new calibers by us has never been accomplished before, even my us. We’re always pushing the boundaries of engineering.
Take the HM9, for example. Even after we managed to fashion its impossibly complex shape from titanium with 3D mills, our biggest conundrum at the end of the day was making it water resistant. Even if you don’t swim with it, we can’t afford having the humidity ruin the movement within. We had to invent the industry’s first ever 3D gasket just for that. A lot of watch brands will seek a technical challenge, but we’re only looking to create an incredibly cool concept first, and making it a reality second. It’s a bit upside down — the engineering feat is not the objective, it’s a means.
Every one of our creation is a stepping stone which allows us to go one step higher in difficulty. If we hadn’t created the Legacy Machine No. 2 — which already had two flying balance wheels that took four years to engineer — and the Space Pirate with a curved case that was another four-year nightmare to create, we could have never have made the HM9.
Even our suppliers grow with us. I believe that no big brands out there can achieve what we did with the HM9, even after 10 years of engineering because they don’t have the expertise.
There are all sorts of ideas that I’d love to transform into reality, but haven’t managed to yet because of my two biggest boundaries: Wearability and water resistance. We have an insane number of projects which we’ve had to scrap because we couldn’t make them water resistant, and I want to make sure my creations can be translated into a comfortable, reliable timepiece for wearing on the wrist. The challenge in our industry is not losing your impetus because you keep hitting technical hurdles. That’s my world and I live with that.
It used to be something I was wary of, but I also realised that I’ve never had any idea of what the hell was going to happen to me. I try not to overthink anything because then it’s not going to happen. If you told me I was going to work in the watch industry when I was 22, I would never have believed you; I had my sights on working for a big multi-national company. If you told me that one day — at the age of 35 and at the pinnacle of my career with Harry Winston — that I’d stop, put all my savings into a company and starting all over again, I would’ve laughed out loud.
If you were to tell me that I was going to create a round watch at MB&F, I would’ve never believed you because I was so enraged and angry with my industry, and only wanted to create crazy cool 3D sculptures. Now I’ve done all that and even started a mechanical art gallery to top it off. Once I accepted life’s uncertainties and embraced the fact of not knowing what was going to happen, I was liberated of the constraints of creation.
It’s a tribute to the motoring designers in the late 40’s and early 50’s, who didn’t have wind tunnels when they were designing cars or planes, so the only way they could create something fast was by imagination. A good example of this is also one of the most beautiful cars ever created: The Mercedes-Benz 196, which was driven by Juan Manuel Fangio at Formula One. The Buick Streamliner 1947 is another car worth mentioning. Then there’s the Lockheed P-38 Lightning — who in his right mind thought it was a good idea to create a plane like this? They had no real data to substantiate its design, but ended up creating something which was much more beautiful and innovative than anything we’d create today. Now, our planes are shaped like a cigar with two wings, because that’s what the wind tunnel tells us to do.
Inside, its movement is pretty insane. It’s a rare double wheel movement so it has two hearts with a differential that is averaging it out. It’s also sending the information vertically to the dial, which is incredibly complex to engineer. Transversal thinking is key here, we used conical gears which are commonly found in cars, and this contraption was only previously used twice in the history of watchmaking. There will be two versions at launch, and about three of these watches crafted every month. ‘Air’, the aviation version, has a black movement, while ‘Road’ has a red gold plated movement with a really cool 1950s-styled speedometer.