The Story Behind Jay-Z’s New Watch Alert [Exclusive Book Excerpt!]

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Datwon Thomas / June 26, 2012

The Story Behind Jay-Z’s New Watch Alert
By Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Excerpted from a new chapter in the recently released paperback edition of EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: HOW JAY-Z WENT FROM STREET CORNER TO CORNER OFFICE. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Zack O’Malley Greenburg, 2012.

“New watch alert—Hublots!”

Those four words, delivered by Jay-Z in the third line of “Otis,” may not have struck every listener as groundbreaking. To Redding’s biggest fans, they may have even seemed a tad sacrilegious. But they marked the beginning of yet another business arrangement between Jay-Z and a luxury brand, not to mention a major twist in a decades-long rivalry between Swiss watchmakers Audemars Piguet and Hublot.

To fully understand Jay-Z’s role in the story, one must start in 1976. That year, Italian scion Carlo Crocco left his family’s watchmaking company, the Binda Group, to create timepieces of his own. Naming his company Hublot, after the French word for porthole (the inspiration for the design of his watches), he set up shop in Geneva and unveiled his new line in 1980. Though he didn’t sell a single watch on his first day of operation, Crocco managed to generate sales of $2 million in his first year, thanks in part to his product’s bold, chunky design.

Problem was, there was already another bold, chunky design on the market from Audemars Piguet, a company whose heritage dates back to the late nineteenth century. Its Royal Oak Offshore line clicked into existence in 1972, four years before Crocco’s Hublot. Critics contended that Hublot’s watches were knock-offs its older rival’s models.

Perhaps because of this perception, the company languished for years after its initial surge. Says Stephen Hallock, founder of the watch blog TickTocking.com: “It’s safe to say that Hublot was basically dead.”

That changed in 2005, when Crocco sold the company to a man named Jean-Claude Biver. Born in Luxembourg, the brilliant and flamboyant Biver was known for his hobby of cheesemongering at his personal farm in the Swiss Alps—and for bringing watch brands back from the brink. In his previous job as a director at Swatch, Biver revived the company’s Omega line, tripling sales by using tactics like placing products in James Bond flicks.

Biver gave Hublot a much-needed makeover, starting with the guts of its watches. At the time, 95 percent of its products employed quartz movements—the precise but generic method of timekeeping used by the vast majority of analog watchmakers around the world—and only 5 percent of his models employed mechanical movements, as most prestigious Swiss brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars do.

“When you make quartz, you are not very close to the art,” Biver told me. “You are close to a technology, but not to art.” By 2006, 95 percent of the watches produced by Hublot were mechanical.

The second point was to focus on making watches that were, according to Biver, even bolder and “more macho” than Hublot’s original offerings. The Big Bang chronograph, launched in 2005, was the first effort in that direction. Critics claimed it was an Audemars knock-off, but Biver was quick to defend his new company. “Both brands took as an inspiration the look of a porthole,” he says. “Because of this similar inspiration, you have, necessarily, similarities.”

Sure enough, Biver’s plan got Hublot’s gears churning. Sales increased fivefold from 2004-2007; in 2008, luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey bought the company for an undisclosed sum, leaving its direction in Biver’s able hands. The watchmaker was awash in a fresh wave of marketing dollars, and Hublot soon scored endorsement deals with Formula 1 racing and the Manchester United soccer team, reportedly paying $6 million over three years to secure the latter.

Hublot, however, had plenty of competition on the celebrity endorsement front. In 2005, Jay-Z partnered with Audemars Piguet to create a limited edition watch in celebration of his tenth year in the music business—and lauded the brand in the song “Upgrade U,” where he and Beyoncé mention Audemars five times.

Those shout-outs may have attracted Biver’s attention, but he says the seeds of his Jay-Z collaboration were sown when he saw a picture of the rapper wearing a Hublot watch in 2009. Later, when Jay-Z was in Paris, Biver invited him to Geneva for a tour of the Hublot factory. When the rapper arrived, there were no writers or photographers involved (“Okay, I took a picture with Jay-Z and my son,” Biver admits. “But I didn’t want to exploit it.”)

Biver clearly made an impression. “Otis” debuted months later, and the message was clear: Jay-Z had switched his allegiance from Audemars to Hublot (When I contacted Audemars Piguet late last year, a representative declined to comment on the brand’s relationship with Jay-Z).

Over at Hublot, meanwhile, the effect was monumental. As soon as “Otis” hit the airwaves, the watchmaker was flooded with more orders than they could fill. “We could feel an increase in demand,” says Biver. “But that demand could not be transformed into turnover because we were out of stock.”

So, in the end, what compelled Jay-Z to mention Hublot so prominently in such an important song? When I spoke with Biver in November, he said that no money had changed hands before Watch the Throne’s release, but that the two sides were close to finalizing a significant agreement: “It’s only a question of time.”

The relationship (which still hadn’t been announced before the paperback edition of Empire State of Mind went to press) won’t be a simple licensing deal to make a watch bearing Jay-Z’s name. “That would be stupid; it’s too limited,” says Biver. “Sometimes you have partners who do not understand luxury or who don’t care or are not involved. That is not the case with Jay-Z. Here we have a real active player who has his own tastes . . . We can make a watch together with him, with his input.”

Judging by Jay-Z’s history with such deals, he’ll likely get a seven-figure payout, perhaps in the form of a small equity stake. Such an agreement likely won’t mean Jay-Z is done mentioning other timepieces—in his verse on protégé J. Cole’s “Mr. Nice Watch,” released in September, he again mentions his Hublot in the first line, but references his Audemars later in the verse. And that’s fine by Biver.

“I’m not a believer that you should only have one watch or only one brand,” he explains. “Most of our customers don’t have only a Hublot . . . if you drive a Ferrari, usually it’s not the only car you have.”

Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a staff writer at Forbes. This piece is excerpted from a new chapter of the paperback edition of his book EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office, released on June 26th by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Zack O’Malley Greenburg, 2012.