About Time

MB&F: Close Encounters Of The Horological Kind

Mr Maximilian Büsser’s childlike fantasies (plus an enviable little black book) equate to a watch brand from the great beyond

Looking at MB&F’s otherworldly menagerie of “horological machines”, you might assume their origin story involved a UFO crash-landing in the centre of Geneva’s Old Town, dry ice billowing across the uprooted cobbles and silhouetted watchmakers wielding laser-guided tweezers. That sort of thing.

  • Mr Maximilian Büsser, Geneva, 2016. Photograph by Mr Jake Reeder, courtesy of MB&F

Sorry to disappoint, but every miniaturised cyborg frog, steampunk drag racer and armoured jellyfish that originates from Mr Maximilian Büsser’s febrile mind springs into life the same way as most other Genevan timepieces within a grand but timeworn block on Boulevard Helvétique, unremarkable save for a buzzy organic farmers’ market round the corner (otherworldly in itself, for such a buttoned-up city).

Up the stairwell and through an unmarked door, the parquet wooden floors, stark white walls and murmur of studied toil would be familiar to any regular visitor to the local ateliers or factories that dot the Jura Mountains on Geneva’s northern horizon. But glance over the shoulder of any watchmaker at MB&F HQ and you’re greeted not by the slimline disc of a conventional watch movement, but by what can only be described as a dismantled robot insect halfway through surgery.

Mr Max Büsser’s “& Friends” enterprise has spent the past 14 years focused less on the pedestrian task of telling the time, and more on what goes on behind the dial. Like Lord Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre or Lloyds of London building, the innards are the star and they’re displayed on the outside in all their steampunkish glory. If you’re drawn to mechanical watchmaking because its cogs, levers and springs provide an antidote to the sterile electronics of quartz or smartwatches, you’re going to love this.

It prompts the question what took MB&F so long? If the charm of a mechanical watch is in its anachronistic old-world technology, why didn’t someone decide sooner to explode those inner workings and bring them dial-side? The answer is that, in the closeted circles of Swiss watchmaking, it takes an insider to disrupt anything. And, fittingly, it takes time.

Following a formative stint at Jaeger-LeCoultre, Mr Büsser’s reputation as a businessman was forged during his precocious custody of the Harry Winston Rare Timepieces division. His groundbreaking Opus collaborations championed up-and-coming watchmakers such as Mr FP Journe and Urwerk’s Mr Felix Baumgartner while establishing Harry Winston’s own horological clout and marking out Mr Büsser as a name to know in the industry.

A spry fiftysomething with twinkly eyes and an enviable shock of dark hair, you cannot fail to fall for Mr Büsser’s charms. Nor could the 85 industry contemporaries who have dropped everything at some point to work with him since 2005 and helped him bring (at the last count) nine Horological Machines and six (more classically designed) Legacy Machines to life. Every one of his imaginings starts with his own sketch, which he takes to designer Mr Eric Giroud, whose CAD drawings are then turned into ticking, breathing creatures by a 24-strong team of engineers and watchmakers.

“When I’d left Harry Winston, the whole point of MB&F, while working alone in my flat, was that it was a life decision, not a business decision,” says Mr Büsser. “I did this to be proud of what I create. To do that, I have to get out of my comfort zone. It’s never a branding exercise, and I hate the idea of lines. I just want to work with creators and, to paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, just create an insanely good product.

“Once that’s created, that’s it. I don’t want to hone or improve it. I want to move on.”

Wanting to spend more quality time with his young family, who are based in Dubai, Mr Büsser hired a hotshot sales director to take care of what he calls his business shortcomings. Any other CEO with such an established, expanding brand would be fishing for buy-outs or cashing their chips by now, but he’s more invested and more excited than ever.

“Currently, we’re launching three completely new movements over just 12 months. The Flying T [MB&F’s first women’s watch, already comprising a quarter of production], the new Legacy Machine Thunderdome and come March, Horological Machine No. 10. It’s utterly crazy. It makes no sense economically. Developing a new movement costs millions, but now I’m renewing my focus on the creative side of things, we have a turbocharged pressure-cooker situation, with more collaborations in the pipeline than ever.”

MB&F has remained totally self-financed from day one, despite its founder’s commitment to costly research and development. For a brand that sells just 210-odd watches per year, the business model is almost as impressive as the watches themselves.

“Every client of ours is supporting our creative process,” says Mr Büsser. “It’s like buying from a gallery. You’re supporting the artist.”

It’s not just the creative process either. As alien as MB&F’s creations are, seemingly beamed up from a distant star system, the mechanical acrobatics could only be realised by Swiss watchmakers of the highest pedigree, trained in the ways of traditional horology. The usual set-up of spring-powered geartrain with miniature, ticking pendulum is all in there somewhere, with the added complication of, well, MB&F’s essentric designs.

To invest in a newfangled gizmo from Mr Büsser, it seems, is to invest in the preservation of high craft, done the traditional way.

“After all the workshops I’ve visited in my time, I can say with pride that there’s no other brand where watchmakers have so much responsibility,” says Mr Büsser. What he means is that, rather than specialising in one stage of assembly, passing to the next workstation, they assemble each movement entirely themselves, from the raw kit of parts to regulating the finished piece.

“They take unusual pride in their work, from A to Z,” he says. “After all, engineering our sort of watches is inextricably linked to the final, convoluted assembly. Because our engineers could never fully understand the assembly skills that take years to learn, we sit down with every prototype and our watchmakers tell us what will work and what won’t.”

What works, or what doesn’t, still boils down to the deft experience of Switzerland’s finest. But, as a MR PORTER regular, you’re probably wondering what works and what doesn’t when it comes to accessorising with an MB&F wristwatch.

The brand’s weird and wonderful co-creations with Swiss clockmaker L’Epée 1839 – think executive desk toys as imagined by Blade Runner’s eccentric toymaker, JF Sebastian – simply demand a modernist office space and sense of fun. But an MB&F watch? Given his own effortlessly suave brand of smart-casual, surely Mr Büsser pays some mind to how his creations will be worn.

“Stylistically, I don’t design for any particular look or situation,” he says. “The only important thing, in terms of consideration towards our customers, is that everything is physiologically easy to wear. Even on small wrists.

“But how you see fit to wear it, or accessorise it? It’s entirely up to you. You as a client should project onto us – use us how you want.

“Wearing an MB&F, you have to be ready to be stared at. But our clients aren’t showing off. They don’t subscribe to a specific type. They’re not a dandy or a goth. They have their own unique style, of which we simply form a part.”

Art, aliens, arachnids, anime… Finding a look where any of those simply “forms a part”, in watch form? If you’re struggling, just bear in mind Mr Büsser’s prevailing, and strangely affecting, motto: “a creative adult is a child that survived”.

shop the collection

  • MB&F Arachnophobia Limited Edition Palladium-Plated Brass and Coated-Aluminium Table Clock, Ref. No. 76.6000/114

  • MB&F Octopod Stainless Steel, Nickel and Palladium-Plated Table Clock, Ref. No. 11.6000/201

  • MB&F HM8 Can-Am Automatic 51.5mm White Gold, Titanium and Croc-Effect Leather Watch

  • MB&F Balthazar Limited Edition Palladium-Plated Polished-Brass Table Clock, Ref. No. 50.6803/301

  • MB&F HM7 Aquapod Limited Edition Automatic 53.8mm 18-Karat Rose Gold and Rubber Watch

  • MB&F HM9 Flow Air Limited Edition 57mm Titanium and Leather Watch