(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Let’s get one thing straight: Maximilian Büsser, the creative force behind the red-hot MB&F brand, isn’t making watches he thinks you’ll like.
He already did that. For about seven years, the son of a Swiss diplomat and a mother from Mumbai was head of the watch division at luxury jeweler Harry Winston Inc. Büsser revived the unit—increasing the staff tenfold—built a new production facility and launched the Opus line, a series of collaborations with the world’s best watchmakers in the early 2000s.
Büsser had recognition, fame (at least of the watchmaking kind) and money. And he was miserable.
“I was very good at creating products I didn’t like but I thought people would like,” he says. “I hated myself.”
The death of his father, with whom he’d endured a cold and distant relationship, forced a reckoning. He went to therapy, where he considered what a life free of regrets would look like, one he could leave with a legacy he’d be proud of: technologically surprising and playful objects with no compromises that were, at least to him, art.
The result is a company called MB&F, for Max Büsser & Friends. It produced a mere 30 watches in its first run and 125 the next, generating a small but deeply dedicated fan base. Its timepieces look nothing like the sober round dials of stalwart Swiss brands Rolex and Omega.
A visible oscillating balance spring is a signature feature on many of the oversize and yet refined models, whether they’re LM “Legacy Machines” that provide cutting-edge innovations to classic watchmaking or the radical HM “Horological Machines” with unconventional case shapes inspired by space travel, cars and sometimes animals. (Previous models have resembled everything from panda bears to frogs.) MB&F has designed and produced an impressive 20 different calibers or movements in its 17 years.
Yet only since the pandemic gave consumers the time to explore more unusual timepieces has a much wider community begun taking notice. Despite prices above $100,000 each, waitlists can stretch from years to almost a decade.
Speaking a few days before Christmas at his “M.A.D.House” headquarters, a 120-year-old mansion in the Geneva suburb of Carouge, Büsser insists this surging interest won’t diminish MB&F’s mantra. “It’s very important for us that we do not give a damn if you like what we do”—sharp words from the otherwise soft-spoken creative director. “That’s the only way I could create a watch that looks like a spaceship or a bulldog.”
MB&F’s sales slipped to a five-year low of 15 million Swiss francs ($16.3 million) in 2020, as the pandemic disrupted retail and production, but rebounded sharply to a record 21.2 million francs in 2021, when the company produced 278 watches. Last year was its best, with sales reaching 28 million francs on 350 watches produced.
MB&F forecasts production of about 440 watches in 2023, with revenue well above 30 million francs. Büsser, who’d always insisted he’d never have more than 15 employees, just hired his 40th. Retailing giant Watches of Switzerland Group Plc has special in-store areas dedicated to the brand in London and Las Vegas. “MB&F products are sold before we get them,” says Chief Executive Officer Brian Duffy. “We can’t get enough.”
Büsser plowed about 900,000 francs of his savings into the venture when it started in 2005, yet it took two years and a brush with bankruptcy to deliver the first watch. The HM1 was a double-dialed beefcake with a tourbillon visible in the middle; it measured a monstrous 64 millimeters wide (most average 38mm to 46mm) yet managed to be both elegant and wearable.
Among the initial team of five watchmakers was Stephen McDonnell, a horologist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a University of Oxford degree in theology, who later became one of Büsser’s most important collaborators. McDonnell designed and built the movement for MB&F’s first perpetual calendar watch, a tool that tracks not only the time and day but also the months and years, while accounting for leap years. They’re notoriously delicate and require frequent service. By setting the monthly default at 28 days, rather than 31, McDonnell’s was robust—and a major hit. The Legacy Machine Perpetual premiered in 2015, a platinum-cased version retailing for 168,000 francs, and has sold more than 250 pieces. (The brand was then making fewer than 300 watches a year.) See it in action here.
McDonnell’s next radical innovation, the 172,000 franc LM Sequential Evo, won the Aiguille d’Or in 2022, the top prize at the annual watch industry awards in Switzerland. It features two independent chronographs measuring seconds and minutes but powered from the same movement. Büsser says the waitlist is already years long.
At its beginning, MB&F was “rather niche,” just for “crazy watch-loving geeks” who appreciated kinetic art pieces, says Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches, Continental Europe and the Middle East at Phillips Geneva. But interest has broadened, he says, and “the prices have been going up steadily.”
Also of the “F” in MB&F are heritage Swiss companies L’Epée 1839, with which Büsser has created desk clocks shaped like spiders, and Reuge, for wildly futuristic music boxes. A recent watch collaboration with French jewelry designer Emmanuel Tarpin lent diamond-studded opulence to the LM FlyingT Ice and Blizzard models, limited to just eight pieces each.
Büsser is also dipping his toe into watchmaking for the masses: During the pandemic he started a side project called M.A.D.Editions, producing relatively affordable, limited-edition pieces powered by modified Japanese Miyota movements and priced around 3,000 francs; they’re changing hands for three times that on the secondary market.
Now 56, Büsser is preparing to make way for the next generation of creatives within the group. In 2025, MB&F will introduce a watch whose lead designer, for the first time in the brand’s history, won’t be him. The founder hopes the baton pass will be a testament to MB&F’s maturity, staying power and legacy of like-minded collaborators and customers.
“We just do what we like,” Büsser says. “If you don’t like it, you are a normal person. If you like it, you’re not normal. And if you’re not normal, let’s talk.”