My editor kept saying to me: You have to meet Max Büsser, you have to meet Max Büsser, you have to meet Max Büsser. I had an important question: Who is Max Büsser?
Regular readers of this column will know that my mind has been preoccupied with other concerns. First, I was fixated on my pink Hublot and then busy mourning its loss. Next, I was attempting not to enrage my docents at the Vacheron Constantin manufacture. And before I knew it I was in Geneva walking up the cobblestone street to M.A.D. Gallery realizing that, wow, this was really too late to google Max Büsser.
Max Büsser did not seem to care that I knew nothing about Max Büsser. “Better this way, no preconceived notions,” he said in an accent that seemed oddly American for a man whose surname contains an umlaut. We were standing in the middle of the gallery, his gallery, surrounded by timekeeping oddities. Basically they’re sculptural machines that monitor the minutes in ways that are unusually artful or baroque. We stood in between something resembling a grandfather clock, except it was really only the guts of a grandfather clock, in bright primary colors and a piece of – would you call it wall art? It was art, it was on a wall, it was made of metal tiles that arranged themselves as a mirror image of anything that stood before it, like if you were holding a sign above your head that said “Don’t forget to google Max Büsser,” it would show that. This was spooky enough. And then, additionally, there was an object the size of a Roomba floating in space.
“I thought this was a … clock gallery?” I said just as a man in an electric-blue sweater sidled up to Max Büsser and me. Büsser had been explaining what an anchor does, because tbh I’d never quite figured it out at Vacheron, and the sweater guy was all of a sudden there chuckling and saying, “Ah, you’re becoming a watch nerd, welcome to the dark side.” Then, Max Büsser walked away and Blue Sweater Guy asked me if I wanted to go talk in a conference room.
I’m really glad I did not say, “But what about Max Büsser, does he want to come in the conference room?” because, ladies and gentleman, the Blue Sweater Guy was Max Büsser. Max Büsser is 56, and looks 51, which, if you are almost 56 or older, you know is a real compliment. He wears white jeans and white sneakers, both spotless, and a sweater, as mentioned, as bright blue as the spring sky in the Jura. He is lean and alert, a bit bird-like but less serious than a bird. Despite being very precise and direct he also can laugh, or be vulnerable, as you will soon see.
Everyone calls him Max Büsser, using first and last name, and it’s partly because there is only one person who could be responsible for such odd watches – and also because the X sound ending his first name runs naturally into the B beginning his last. So much of branding is luck like this. Though on top of having a pleasing name, Max Büsser also has made a living selling watches that don’t look like watches, and that’s not luck so much as it is having a hunch that “classy” is a lot of rich people’s favorite word, but not all of theirs, certainly – and then being right about that hunch.
Like the American-accented gentleman before him, who turned out to be Büsser’s American-born communications lead, Charris Yadigaroglou, the real Max Büsser was delighted that I was coming in semi-blind. “It’s good,” he said with a voice considerably more Swiss. “We need more fresh eyes in the watch business, more people coming to things with wonder rather than expertise.”
I looked through the catalog of MB&F watches, taking special interest in one resembling a dog whose jaws close slowly, and, near complete closure, let you know it’s time to wind. This is the one Max Büsser was wearing. I also saw a watch that had two dials and relegated time-telling to a sophisticated apparatus that looked like an egg timer. Where Vacheron seems to be on a centuries-old quest to perfect the arts of tradition, elegance, and sophistication, MB&F – Busser’s watch brand (the F stands for Friends) – is out to do something else entirely. Its central question seems to be: Given the limited real estate of the human wrist, how much can we still expand the possibilities of what counts as a “watch,” while also simultaneously reminding people that all watches are, on some level, machines?
Yadigaroglou brought me a bottle of water as Max Büsser launched into a succinct but captivating story about how he had come to be a man who makes watches that look like bulldogs and sleek 130,000 CHF egg timers, as well as the creative force behind a gallery where grandfather clocks look like children’s toys and certain objects literally float in the air.
When he was in his 30s, he worked at Jaeger LeCoultre. This was back when Reversos were inexpensive and easy to get, and he helped to revive the brand to the point where the opposite is true – thank you, Max Büsser, from Jaeger LeCoultre and literally no one else.
He was happy at JLC, but when Harry Winston recruited him he left to work there. Then his father died. He mourned and tried to get on with his life. He found he could not. “It was not necessarily what a Swiss engineer would have chosen for himself, but I saw that it was necessary for me to go into therapy,” he said. Even as his story got emotional his tone of voice stayed light, a bit sing-songy, and his hands rested on the glass tabletop and did not move. He gestured at the HM10 Bulldog in titanium, which had a bright blue strap, pulling together his look. “It looks very big,” he admitted, “but all of these watches have to be comfortable to wear on my tiny wrist.”
The therapist deduced that Max Büsser was depressed, not just because his father was dead but because the integrity he had admired in both his parents was currently missing in him. The therapist also observed that what Max Büsser had loved as a child was not present in his life – and that, having been an introspective boy obsessed with model airplanes and machines, it was unlikely he’d grow into a man who gleaned much satisfaction from the manufacture and marketing of diamond quartz watches, not to mention the cutthroat environment required to sell more of them each year.
I suspect very few people walk out of therapy with a perfect mission statement for a business, but Max Büsser pulled it off. “I knew then,” he told me, “that I wanted to build horological machines that were proof of human genius and do it surrounded by incredible people – and for customers who don’t care when people find out how much their watches cost and say, ‘Are you crazy, you should have bought a Patek Philippe.'”
MB&F watches are not classy or sophisticated or elegant. If Patek or Philippe laid eyes on one of these things they would have thought they were on acid.
Büsser stressed to me that these are not watches so much as machines. Watches tell you the time and can do other things like count off seconds and race-car-driver-guy stuff like that. MB&F’s work can certainly tell you the time, but its primary function seems to be – I have to admit I’m not entirely sure. The pieces are aggressively three dimensional. Power reserves, discreet on most watches if visible at all, are featured here, because why hide energy? On the HM3 Frog, bulging eyes show minutes and hours. In a business where people will favor leaf hands or fleur de lys hands or baton hands, bulging eyes pretty aggressively suggest that, hey guys, watch hands are just long narrow things that point at numbers and kind of do it all the same way. Couldn’t we maybe try another way?
Talking Watches With With Maximilian Büsser
Just as I was finally starting to understand that Büsser came to watchmaking not so much from a love for the golden ratio or the sparkle of gems but from an interest in machines, he spelled out for me exactly how M.A.D. (Mechanical Art Devices) Gallery came to be. When he wasn’t working with his team (now about 30 people) designing and making watches (now about 300 each year), he had a habit of creating things art galleries called “watches,” and watch retailers called “art.” He also admired a small coterie of other like-minded creatives, and it became clear that he wanted to create the first mechanical art gallery in the world. So 11 years ago, he did. And now, here we stood.
The piece before us was called Tides, made by a design studio called Breakfast. The gallery notes on the materials that make up the piece are “flip-discs, software, camera, computer.” The way it works is that a camera at the front of it sends a message to some software which then instructs the flip discs how to move into the proper shape to duplicate the photographic image, e.g. the “google Max Büsser sign” mentioned above.
Nearby was a different piece, a more technically advanced and higher-quality version of something you might buy for your dad at the Sharper Image. It was made by French artist Damien Beneteau, called Variation 120, and entailed a large metal ball swinging in and out of a hole. But then you look closer and you see that because the ball swinging in and out of the hole is matte black on one hemisphere and metallic and reflective on the other, when it goes through the hole there’s a moment where it seems to disappear. I understood roughly how both these things worked, or created illusions, but they still felt like magic. In fact, in a world of CGI and Kanye-gifted Robert Kardashian holograms that advise Kim to go to law school, their innocent simplicity, their benevolent uselessness, felt even more magical. Though not quite as much as the flying saucer did.
We approached it. Was this thing really floating? I wanted to know. Max Büsser smiled with the self-satisfied cryptic smile all true nerds get when relative non-nerds are impressed by their weird toys. “Look underneath it,” he said. There was indeed nothing there, no supports, nothing but air, and then a view of the gallery’s chic white brick wall.
“There’s a magnetic field which is pushing that whole thing up, in the center, and then the outside forces, which are bringing it back down, holding it there,” he said. He sidled right up to the thing, and the gestures he made to illustrate the real science creating this specter of unrealness brought him very close to it, and I felt like saying “Watch out, Max Büsser,” but he was so caught up in his excitement in the object itself, and in explaining it to me, that he probably wouldn’t have heard. “Otherwise,” he continued, “It would just go plunk.” To the surface of the magnet clung thousands of tiny watch parts, wheels, bridges, that the artist retrieves from old flea markets.
He was equally excited about his relationship with the saucer’s artist, Quentin Carnaille, whose first pieces hadn’t interested him. But when Carnaille arrived with this, making a four-hour trip from France because he insisted Büsser see it in person, Mr. MB&F was thrilled. “He made this piece 10 years ago, and since then other pieces like it have been created, but at the time, it was the only one I’d ever seen.”
Max Büsser told me, unsurprisingly, that the 300 or so watches he makes every year can’t keep up with demand. When he recently released an “entry-level” piece designed to make his watches more accessible to mere mortals, he received 24,000 applications for just 400 watches.
Like Audemars Piguet with its various houses, MB&F has had to get creative about how to stay in contact with potential customers who want to be around the brand but will not be going home with a watch today or tomorrow or maybe even next year. Where the AP House uses whiskey to anesthetize customers from the pain of non-acquisition, Büsser’s secret weapon is physics. There are now M.A.D. Galleries in Dubai, Taipei, and Hong Kong.
If you asked me, a complete newbie to watches, what I would like to take home from the world of Max Büsser, I would tell you it’s a clock. Specifically, it’s a piece called ClockClock 24 from a Swedish design group who refer to themselves as Humans Since 1982. It’s – well, I can only describe it as a sort of dancing clock, which sounds ridiculous, and please don’t picture the dancing bears from the Grateful Dead, I beg you. In this piece there are 24 different small clocks, and the hands on each clock do a sort of dance for 40 seconds, and then, for 20 seconds they spell out the correct time, before going back to their dance. This thing is beautiful. I want one.
I expressed my admiration to Max Büsser and he nodded, sharing my admiration, and said simply, “I love these guys.” I thought about what kind of machine I would like to create, something that would belong here in this gallery. I decided it would be a machine that would allow me and anyone else to think that we were continually meeting Max Büsser for the first time – and of course the Max Büsser in my machine would betray nothing of the ruse, but would instead just smile benevolently and nerdily upon me so as not to break the spell.
Shop this story
For more information about MB&F and the M.A.D. Gallery, visit their website.