Make no mistake. There is a war going on. Not a war fought in trenches with guns, knives or fists. But a war for the hearts and minds of the modern watch consumer. A war that, by and large, the Swiss watch industry, at least the part of the industry that is related to making new watches, is losing.

Sure, there are exceptions to this. Brands like Richard Mille, Hublot, Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Tudor are soaring to ever-greater heights. Because they have critically distinguished themselves by moving beyond the limiting confines of “watch connoisseur” brands and become global luxury lifestyle brands.

They have embedded themselves into the consciousness of the consumers so successfully that their watches are a symbol of access into an exclusive club that the people who wear them belong or aspire to belong to. And during a period where creativity has been largely stagnant, these brands have been more technically and aesthetically ambitious than ever.

But at the same time, the Swiss watch industry has also allowed itself to be blindsided and usurped by a brilliant consortium of media owners, opinion leaders, auctioneers, auction houses and watch dealers that have created a fervor around vintage watches the likes of which the world has never seen. And they’ve hyped it brilliantly, capitalizing on the tools that the Swiss watch industry feels most apprehensive about — websites and social media.

Why the apprehension about these game-changing channels of communications; channels that instantly connect millions of people all around the world? Because they can’t be regulated and that makes the typically unbending Swiss very nervous.

In the meantime, the vintage consortium seeks to essentially blitzkrieg and inundate these channels while it buys up, hypes up and sells off every kind of vintage watch imaginable, each with a cult of personality engineered around it, in one of the most brilliant acts of front-running the world has ever seen.

Many of the leaders of the Swiss watch industry look upon this phenomenon with a mixture of awe and admiration while turning their eyes downcast at the dismal results of their new watch sales, never realizing the simple truth that for every vintage watch sold, there is a client who did NOT choose to buy a new Swiss watch.

Fortunately, there have been some pockets of resistance; some energy coming from the Swiss watch industry. And one individual who has been at the forefront of this is Davide Cerrato, the watch boss at Montblanc.

Says Cerrato, “It’s very simple. The only way you are going to convince people to buy a new watch is to create a watch that is so appealing that they have no option but to buy it. This moves beyond creating something that is attractive or something that is a technically innovative.

“The watch has to tell a story, an authentic story. It has to have a narrative. It also needs to represent value, regardless of its price category. And it really needs to be cool. Because we are not trying to win over the guy who is 60 years old and sitting in a board room. We are trying to win over the guy in his 30s or 40s and at the same time, be attractive, even if it’s aspirational, to the guy in his 20s.”

Cerrato also understands that the current trend of watch brands creating facile facsimiles under the guise of vintage reissues in response to the commercial dominance of vintage watches is not the answer.

He explains, “No, if I want an old watch, I’ll buy an old watch. The idea is to create something modern. What you can do is utilize the codes and details of your vintage watches to create that modernity.”

A Statement Collection

Cerrato’s pre-SIHH release of bronze 1858 watches, a simple time-only watch, a UTC watch and a monopusher chronograph, are his demonstration of this utilization of vintage codes to create wholly contemporary fare.

And what was perhaps important regarding these watches was that the first time I saw them was the first time I actually wanted to buy a Montblanc watch. Previous to that, the watches had been functional, good value, decently designed but largely unemotional. They were, as the Swiss like to say, “product”.

Suddenly, with the unveiling of these three new watches, I felt that stirring in my heart coupled with the rapid erosion of my impulse control that signals actually desire to own a watch.

They were far more than the simple application of the material bronze to preexisting models. Says Cerrato, “We reworked every aspect of the design of the 1858 monopusher chronograph, from subtle differences in the font of the dial and the tachymeter, to how open the champagne-colored dial seems relative to the case and the bezel.”

When asked why he decided to utilize the very much in vogue material of bronze, he replied, “Today, luxury is about individuality, and so a material that patinas in a way that is unique to each owner is considered very desirable.

“Bronze is absolutely stunning to look at and yet the material is not significantly more expensive than steel, allowing us to create watches that, from a value perspective, far exceed your expectations when you hear the price.”

But the best part of the bronze 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition 100 is the engine driving it. Says Cerrato, “This is how we distinguish ourselves from brands that make simple superficial attempts at a retro-designed chronograph.

“Our movement is one of the most historically famous chronographs in watchmaking history and we decided to make it even more emotionally appealing by coating the German silver plate and bridges in rose gold.” As a demonstration of intelligent use of modern technology, the back case of the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition 100 is bronze-colored titanium to ensure that the skin on your wrist doesn’t discolor when wearing it.

The two other watches in Cerrato’s bronze collection are mixed metal watches with steel cases that intelligently use bronze bezels and crowns to create watches that, from a visual perspective, punch way out of their weight class. Says Cerrato, “No one had thought to use bronze in combination with steel and we love the result.”

When asked how he decided on the using the military-style straps on these two watches, he replied, “In the watch industry, we have to be aware of what people today want. We saw that a lot of guys bought their watches and then immediately fixed this style of military strap with horizontal stitching, and we thought, let’s just give it to them with the watch.”

Both watches are purposefully handsome and my favorite detail on the UTC watch is how home-time is told using a skeletonized cathedral-shaped hand synchronized to a moon-shaped day/night indicator at 12 o’clock. Also, because all indications, including the day/night indicator, are treated with vintage-colored LumiNova, you can time in two zones flawlessly at night.

Instruments of Glory

One of the main focuses for Cerrato as he guides Montblanc watches into the future is to find the shared narrative, the connective tissue, the universe that will envelop all the watches he creates. This is particularly important because, unlike most brands, Montblanc encompasses watches from the accessibly priced to the extremely high-end. Says Cerrato, “I was very much aware that there was some confusion because of all the different ranges of watches we make.”

A full year ago in Basel, Cerrato and I discussed this over some decent white burgundy. He explained that he loved Minerva’s rich history in timing instruments and showed me images of stopwatches created for a wide variety of activities, from regattas to troop movements. But it was, in particular, the “Rally Timer” stopwatches that were fixed into a plate on the dashboard of racecars that piqued his curiosity. And as the evening wore on, we eventually came up with “Instruments of Glory” as a phrase to define the type of watches these represented; watches that harked back to the era of competition, but always in the spirit of fair play. One full year later, I am profoundly impressed with how Cerrato has expressed this concept over watches that represented three very different price categories.

The first and my favorite is the TimeWalker 1000th of a Second Chronograph, a monopusher chronograph equipped with two oscillators. The first, which is for time alone, beats at the imperious rate of 2.5Hz or 18,000vph, bringing to mind old marine chronometers, while the second beats at 360,000vph, which allows the watch to accurately time events to 1/100th of a second.

The watch also features a gear multiplier device that further divides time to 1/100th of a second. So, when you hit the stop/start button you’ll get a reading for seconds down to the 1/100th from the normal chronograph scale surrounding the dial and 1/1000th of a second from the linear aperture at the top of the dial. Despite my prodding of Montblanc, they were very cagey about explaining precisely how time is further divided from 100th to 1000th of a second. Suffice it to say that the indication for the 1000th of a second is not continuously running but appears only once the chronograph is stopped, leading me to believe there is some multiplier gear involved.

All chronograph information has been optimized to be as easy to read as possible. Elapsed hours, minutes and seconds are read on the subdial at six o’clock. The 100th of a second is read off the central hand and off the scale at the circumference of the dial. The 1000th of a second is read off the semicircular, almost linear scale at the top of the dial. Says Cerrato, “Part of the dial is made in smoked sapphire crystal so you can see both oscillators beating.”

Anyway, the point to all this is that Montblanc has created a totally wearable, totally reliable, very cool looking 100th / 1000th of a second chronograph that a) fits perfectly into Cerrato’s narrative for “Instruments of Glory” and b) is downright sexy as hell.

After putting it on, I didn’t want to take it off. If the movement for this watch sounds familiar, that’s because it was launched in 2012 as a super high-end, artisan watch crafted at Montblanc’s workshops in Villeret. What Montblanc was able to do was to take the technical concepts from that watch and industrialize them so as to offer a timepiece that’s a lot more robust and, at 175,000 Swiss francs, quite a bit more affordable.

The process of industrialization also allowed Cerrato to make the watch slightly smaller and, despite its 46mm diameter, it sits very comfortably on the wrist. The case is made from titanium with a black DLC coating and the bezel is crafted from ceramic. The details that are particularly appealing about the case are the lugs, which are a nod to the original TimeWalker’s skeletonized lugs designed by industry legend Giampiero Bodino in 2007 but now redone to be reminiscent of an aero bridge.

Another nice modernist touch is the way in which the start-stop-reset button has been designed to look like the electronic trigger of some super high-performance timing device. Says Cerrato, “There is a touch of red in the trigger that complements the red elements in the 1000th of a second display. Basically, I wanted everything in this watch to say performance.”

Amazingly, so does the 50mm Rally Timer crafted by Cerrato, a watch that doesn’t necessarily need to spend all of its time on the wrist. He explains, “I really liked the idea of our watches as instruments. So, we created this 50mm monopusher chronograph. The case is entirely titanium so it is actually lighter and more wearable than you imagine.”

Cerrato continues, “I really liked the idea of a morphing object. With this Rally Timer, you can also turn the watch to face you so that when your hands are on the steering wheel, the dial can be angled toward you perfectly. Then you can take the strap off, hide away the lugs and it becomes a pocket watch or a desk clock.

“And finally, it can be mounted in a special plate, which is fixed to the dashboard of your vintage car. The idea was to create a special timing instrument that fans of vintage car rallies can wear in any occasion and take with them when they go from the car to the celebration dinner.”

While I have seen different versions of adaptable or, as Cerrato puts it “morphing watches”, I have to say that the system that he’s created for his Rally Timer is the most intuitive. Add to that the sumptuous Minerva caliber 16.29 movement with its laterally coupled system, signature spear-shaped levers and massive balance wheel with Breguet overcoil hairspring, and you get an undeniably stunning time-keeping object of art.

The most commercial offer created by Cerrato is the new TimeWalker range of chronographs, which represent the core collection for Montblanc’s watches. Both the simple chronograph and dual time chronograph feature 43mm diameter cases and ceramic turning bezels.

These bezels feature a second timezone indication. The watches are functionally appealing if not jaw-droppingly stunning. There are nice details such as the semi-skeletonized lugs and the pure simple legible iconography of the dial. In place of the second time indicator on the rotating bezel, I would have preferred a non-rotating one engraved with a tachymeter to really drive home the story of “Instruments of Glory”, but Cerrato assures me this is coming.

All of the watches in the new TimeWalker collection, whether in bracelet or strap incarnation, do come with one excellent innovation, which is a deployant clasp that can be micro-adjusted to three different positions, allowing you a bit of fine-tuning for wrist size. Of the various watches in this collection, the best version is the dual time model, which is rendered in black DLC-coated steel, which fits well thematically with the ceramic bezel.

Says Cerrato, “This was a little the Batman badass watch animated with a 7754 ETA movement. There is a second timezone hand and, together with the rotating bezel, you can track up to three time zones.” Personally, I would have extended the black coating across the entire core group as in today’s market you need every timepiece to be extremely appealing regardless of its price.

In terms of the coherence across all the different watches created by Montblanc, Cerrato says, “This was very important to have this strong family feeling across all the watches. We wanted to take the watchmaking and technical culture of Villeret and be able to transform it to tell a story at every level.”

All in, considering these are his first watch collections for Montblanc, I think I can safely say that Cerrato is off to a strong start and it’s wonderful to see this kind of creative energy returning to the Swiss watch industry.

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