In 1997, when then-CEO of Montblanc Norbert Platt made the decision to broaden the brand’s horizons beyond pencraft and small leather goods, some wondered if this was a necessary move. After all, the company was an undisputed leader of the corporate writing world.
Platt might have sensed that the world was changing, far beyond what most of us anticipated in 1997. Thus he put in place a plan for diversification, one that has paid off in unexpected ways. Mr Platt brought in Mr Thierry Pellaton, a fourth generation watchmaker with an illustrious family history in horology, to quickly develop Montblanc’s watchmaking competencies.
Twenty-three years later, Montblanc’s ability to define its tale of watchmaking has rested on the shoulders of brilliant minds such as Pellaton’s and others after him, as well as the foresight of leaders such as Lutz Bethge and Jérôme Lambert (now CEO of Richemont) and its current CEO and watch managing director, Nicolas Baretzki and Davide Cerrato, respectively.
Montblanc at Le Locle
The earliest Montblanc timepieces were classic models, powered by ETA movements styled by the brand’s design team to keep in line with its design ethos. As it developed, it eventually settled on the city of Le Locle for its manufacture. The Montblanc mansion at Le Locle is a high-tech, modern facility for assembly and production, and most significantly, quality control.
From its earliest days, Montblanc realised that to compete with its peers, it had to deliver the best performing creations it could master. Even before the 500 Hours Quality Certification was established, Montblanc had already been subjecting its timepieces and in-house movements to the 12-week-long testing programme, ensuring that its watches were highly precise.
A decade later, an opportunity came to then-CEO Lutz Bethge to acquire a significant property — the Minerva manufacture in Villeret, a significant watchmaking facility with historical importance. The brand quickly decided to acquire it, restoring and modernising the Minerva manufacture, while retaining its know-how, historically notable movement designs and machining skills.
In the following years, the Minerva manufacture churned out innovative ideas and designs, from the ExoTourbillon to the Metamorphosis, and even developing a dual cylindrical hairspring which delivered greater precision. When Mr Lambert joined the brand as CEO in 2013, he pushed for greater innovation in Montblanc, a task that Mr Baretzki and Cerrato continues to this day.
The Minerva Manufacture
Montblanc’s watch development today come from a strategy devised by CEO Nicolas Baretzki with watch managing director Davide Cerrato. Together they segmented for the watch division’s products: two primary segments, with two design styles, plus a rarefied segment that would bring in high-end collectors. More importantly, he began to develop a closer alignment between Montblanc’s Le Locle and Villeret manufactures. Cerrato made sure to fuse their know-how and initiated the release in a new line that surprised the industry then: the 1858 collection.
The collection simultaneously marked 160 years of watchmaking tradition by Minerva, while embracing a new phase of design for Montblanc. The 1858 collection debuted with the Geosphere, a superbly priced world-time complication that simplified the legibility of the function through the use of two domed counters on which both hemispheres are printed, marked out with the seven greatest summits of the world. A 24-hour indication on each counter, controlled by the crown, enables control of the second timezone while also displaying timings across continents. In many ways it is a more convenient mode of quickly gauging the hour in another part of the world.
Cerrato cites mountaineering as the original inspiration for the 1858, which is the reason for the seven red summit points on the Geosphere’s display. Of course, one particular mountain has always been at the heart and soul of the brand — the Mont Blanc, which at 4,810 metres in height is one of the tallest peaks in the world and in mainland Europe.
“When I first joined the company four years ago, it was agreed that we needed to develop the sports segment of the brand’s watch offering. We wanted to enhance our sports watch offering. Coming from a long experience in developing sports watches, we realised that mountaineering was a natural theme for the brand, given its name, the six-sided star logo that represents the Mont Blanc snowcap (the Planpincieux glacier), as well as the symbolism of mountaineering, challenging yourself and going beyond your limit.”
Since then, the brand has continued to evolve through the use of materials and colour tones in the watch dials of the 1858. Bronze was a material of choice, since it naturally ages and matures, developing a patina over time. Last year, for the Only Watch 2019 auction, it presented the 1858 Split-Second Chronograph with a titanium case and degraded blue agate dial that gave the impression of a fumé dial. The dial was particularly outstanding, reminding one of a glacier surrounded by a sea of water.
Montblanc’s 2020 Releases
Coincidentally in line with Pantone’s Colour of the Year, the brand’s key releases are in blue. The 1858 Geosphere is dressed in shades of blue, from cool blue on the ceramic bezel to a deep midnight on the textured dial that graduates to near pitch black around the circumference of the dial. The seas and oceans of each hemisphere are in the same deep blue, with luminous paint on the continents, indexes, hands and compass points on the bezel.
The addition of Super-LumiNova to the bezel’s markers are a new touch, as well as its bi-directional operation and ceramic material, highlighting the watch’s tool purpose to be able to navigate even in the dark with ease. In addition, to further highlight the 1858’s dedication as a durable timepiece, the new Geosphere is housed in grade 5 titanium. Montblanc has also introduced a new bi-metal bracelet for the watch, in titanium with steel central links.
The star of the collection is the 1858 Split-Second Chronograph Limited Edition 100 in blue and housed in grade 5 titanium as well. The watch takes reference from a historical Minerva monopusher chronograph featuring a notable movement, the calibre 17.29 from the 1930s. The dial recalls the design of vintage chronograph displays with a snail-scale for the tachymeter on the dial, as well as a telemeter on the inner ring of the watch. Both were practical functions in the past — the tachymeter was used by pilots in early days to plot their speed and therefore their actual physical location referencing cartographical maps, while the telemeter was used to determine distance, a function useful in military operations.
The dial itself is crafted in grand feu enamel, on a base of solid gold. A master enamellist applies layer upon layer of vitreous enamel material, heating them to temperatures of between 800 and 900 degree Celsius before cooling, and while grand feu enamel is usually done in a singular colour, Montblanc has created a graduated blue dial that goes from a marine blue at the centre of the dial to a deep blue near the edges. This is particularly challenging, as the artisan needs to blend the colours evenly to create an even gradation across the dial.
Within the watch, and stunningly exposed on the back of the timepiece, is the MB M16.31 movement, which descends from the 17.29 calibre mentioned previously. However, Montblanc has further engineered the movement to make it a horizontally coupled split-second chronograph, and designed in such a way that the chronograph and splitting operation is slightly elevated and can be completely appreciated through the caseback when in use, from the clamping of the chronograph seconds to its return to match the split seconds. Two column wheels control the operation of the entire watch and the classic Minerva V-shaped bridge, a style that is iconic to the manufacture, as well as the oversized balance wheel that runs at a steady 2.5Hz, can be obsessed over by chronograph lovers.
Like the 16.29 calibre, the 16.31 calibre is signed as a Minerva and Montblanc movement, with the manufacture and its location engraved on the baseplate of the movement this time. Bevelling, anglage, perlage, Genevan stripes and brushed surfaces show off the movement in a breathtakingly beautiful manner. The orange details on the dial reveal the chronograph and splitting operations, with the rattrapante pusher at the two o’clock position.
Two further references are: a time-only automatic model powered by a modified Sellita SW200 — sized at 40mm and featuring a graduated blue dial and cathedral hands — and an 1858 Automatic Chronograph driven by the 25.13 calibre, based off the SW500. The automatic chronograph bears a central seconds hand and two counters — the seconds at nine o’clock and the 30-minute totaliser at three o’clock, respectively. The stainless-steel cases for both models bear ceramic bezels with compass point indicators, a look that Montblanc has maintained in the line.
The brand has also introduced a brand-new single-hand reference, a 24-hour watch that’s purposed to act both as a timekeeper and a compass reference. Housed in a two-tone case, a single hand display gives you the time in military format while an outer ring shows compass markers, so you can use the Sun or any other fixed reference point to chart your movement.
The use of Sellita-modified movements for selected Montblanc models is designed to keep the timepieces at highly accessible prices, thus introducing new collectors to the world of Montblanc watchmaking. As Cerrato points out, “We’re very lucky in that we’ve been able to work with Sellita to really enhance the reliability of their movements. Thanks to our work with them, it’s allowed us to develop exclusive movements like the SW510 MP and MPC variants, which we use in the Heritage Monopusher Chronographs and [for which we] can maintain a pricing below €5,000.”
The MB 25.12 calibre stems from the SW510 MPC calibre and is presented in this year’s Heritage collection of watches as well as the 1858 collection, drawing an overlap between the two collections. Two models in steel as well as a bronze case variant that’s thoroughly handsome and will patina beautifully, are part of the complete range of 1858 models that will emerge. These differ from typical 1858 models in that they do away with the compass bezel but instead offer a telemeter scale on the periphery, positioning themselves nicely between the two lines.
Finally, a last addition to the Star collection is the introduction of two new Orbis Terrarum timepieces. The worldtimer reference has a beautiful new display, featuring two sapphire crystal discs that indicate the day and night as with past editions, but now with a metallic display of the world created by galvanic growth on the crystal discs. Two models in steel and rose gold have been released, with matching Sfumato alligator leather straps. The dials, with light reflecting off the polished maps of the world, take the Orbis Terrarum up a notch, really bringing out the design of this classic model.
All these are in addition to the new Star and Heritage models introduced last month, and reveals the comprehensive work that Cerrato and his team have done on the entire Montblanc watch range. We’re looking forward to seeing what else will be forthcoming from the brand.