Montblanc’s 110th anniversary celebrations point the way forward for this German label
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“HI, I’M CHARLOTTE,” said the granddaughter of Grace Kelly, offering a handshake while I stood surprised, mouth full with prosciutto and ricotta cheese pizza. Thank God I kept a hand clean, I thought, mumbling back a hello while trying to avoid any food splatter. I’m usually pretty good with manners and etiquette, but the one time I had the opportunity to make an impression on the vivacious Charlotte Casiraghi, I blew it. Luckily for me she simply smiled, sat down and asked me to pass the wine and a slice of Nicoletta’s pizza (incidentally, extremely good).
The Casiraghis blend well into society. Dressed in a down jacket, with a casual top and jeans, Charlotte was nondescript. If you passed her on the street, you might not even realise her regal background.
In the corner, a bodyguard hovered discreetly, but she was safe, surrounded by an army of Montblanc employees who made us feel at home.
We had gathered in New York to attend Montblanc’s 110th anniversary celebrations, and the company thought it would be a great idea to have a first meet over pizza and beer, two of my favourite things. Nicoletta, at the junction of East 10th and Second Avenue, was a little brownstone with wood-fired ovens and excellent meatballs, along with several great craft beers to pick from.
Certainly the staff were not expecting Monaco royalty to turn up. The intimate atmosphere of the pizzeria and the easy flow of conversation floating through the place, served to foster a warm familial experience, even though we were jetlagged by 12 hours, having spent pretty much a whole day on the plane and arriving to a freezing cold snap that most of us were ill prepared for.
I have always thought of New York as a cold city, that is until you make some friends and get to know the lay of the land. It’s an incredible city, like a sophisticated older gent or lady (whichever you prefer) who will take you under his wing and guide you to becoming a worldly person. But like its winters, New York’s facade is difficult to break.
The wind chills right to the bone. It’s a city that can quickly become unbearable unless you have some sort of family around you, whether an adopted or an actual one. On this occasion, we had Montblanc, which made everyone feel right at home.
Family is something that’s important to Jérôme Lambert, CEO of Montblanc. In fact, it appears to be important to everyone at Montblanc, from the staff working on the ground to the celebrity ambassadors such as Charlotte Casiraghi and Hugh Jackman. In a brief interview the next morning with Lambert, he thoughtfully describes the Montblanc maison as a family home, one that straddles across continents to over 450 outlets in the world, but a home that would be empty and cold unless it’s filled with people. “Then, it comes alive,” he philosophises. “Their emotions, their feelings, the home becomes inhabited.” People, both customers and staff, are clearly what matters to Montblanc. And it’s a formula that appears to work for this Hamburg-based multi-billion dollar business.
It reminds me of Richard Branson’s famous statement on human resource: Train people well enough so they can leave but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.
It also marks a strong expressive difference within Montblanc, which has in the past always portrayed a professional corporate image when communicating with its customers. Perhaps it’s a remnant of its German heritage. After all, in the past, the emphasis was to constantly link Montblanc’s products with function, design efficacy and quality.
All three are still central to the work that’s done by creative director Zaim Kamal and his seven-person design team. The group puts together nearly 1,000 product designs in a year across all of its portfolio (watches, jewellery, leather goods, writing instruments, eyewear and bespoke services), which are then distilled and edited into the products you see in the store. But beyond that, Lambert and Kamal are eager to tell a tale of two cities, and the brand that spans them.
THE BRIDGE BETWEEN TWO CITIES
Montblanc’s founding gents, Claus-Johannes Voss, Alfred Nehemias and August Eberstein started with an essential business product in those days: the fountain pen, brilliant in style but notorious for its tendency to leak ink onto shirt sleeves at the most inopportune of times.
The trio invented a solution to eliminate this problem, a patented design for Montblanc’s refills that became its calling card and key to success. In a campaign for the 110th anniversary, just released last month online, Hugh Jackman described the trio’s plan as one not unlike that of a “modern startup”.
It’s correct. The Montblanc of today, as
Lambert later explains, is still one that’s full of innovation at its heart. But it doesn’t innovate without purpose or reason. As an example, he demonstrates a brand new Montblanc Starwalker 2-in-1 writing instrument that’s just about to hit the market. Available as a rollerball or fineliner, it also has a second e-fineliner tip that works on touch-friendly digital screens.
It’s brilliant, especially for creatives who need to draw for work.
In fact, that design stemmed from a need that Kamal experienced. He explains, “I still draw out the designs that I want to create, and today I have to draw it out on pen and paper, take a photo of it, send it to my team and they convert it to a computer-aided plan before sending it back to me as a PDF for approval.
It’s inefficient, so this allows me to still use my pen but more effectively.”
And though the 110th anniversary collection does dive into the archives of Montblanc and celebrates a particularly important range in the brand’s history, it also offers a peek into the next phase of Montblanc’s future with an eloquent range of products that evokes more than just the corporate experience of the past. Zaim Kamal opines that this all started three years ago when he first came on board as creative director. “But with Rouge et Noir, we really took a leap forward and created new icons and design themes that reverberate around a Montblanc icon from 1906, but made it more striking,” says Kamal.
Rouge et Noir was a line of writing instruments under its predecessor’s name, the Simplo Filler Pen company. The pen experienced zero leakage in any position due to the Simplo safety filler, and became a popular luxury accessory for the businessman who valued a practical advantage. Over the years, Montblanc continued to improve on the writing instrument throughout the booming years of the early 20th century. A particular design aesthetic in the 1920s on
its writing instrument was a snake clip, with an undulating snake curled around the pen cap as its clip. This was revived by Kamal for the anniversary this year, playing on both the theme of red and black, and the serpent.
“In nearly every culture in the world, the serpent is considered to be a figure of rebirth, creativity, fertility and healing,” he clarifies.
“At the same time, there’s an association with glamour and mystique. These and more constitute the serpent’s allure.” That, along with its significance within the Montblanc archives, was the reason the brand chose to revive it this year.
The colour themes reverberate on each and every object, from the black resin bodies of Montblanc’s anniversary edition, with a rouged edition in a coral-toned lacquer for the body. There’s also a limited edition in black ebonite, with a red resin top that’s modern, yet a little vintage. The series somehow manages to remind one of the Montblanc M writing instrument designed by Marc Newson, but with a retrospective, slightly archaic twist. A serpent clip in a special alloy that’s galvanised and treated to give it a vintage patina is seen on all editions. The same galvanised serpent wraps itself around the inner bezel of the Villeret Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique 110 Years Anniversary Limited Edition that’s the highlight timepiece of the range.
There are also menswear accessories such as cufflinks with the same coiled serpent with gemstone eyes, in emerald, ruby or sapphire. Another fond favourite is a serpent tie bar, with ruby eyes, that looks as if it’s wriggling across your necktie. Whoever said Montblanc didn’t have a sense of humour about its work hasn’t seen the Rouge et Noir series.
For those who like a little jewellery on their wrists, there’s also a pair of cufflinks in gold, with a Montblanc diamond set on it. Cut in its patented Montblanc star style, this unique and nearly flawless pair bears over 1.90 carats on each wrist. One only hopes Montblanc has a way to turn them into earrings as well, so that the wife doesn’t get jealous.
On the leather goods front, along with a range of soft grain leather bags and accessories, there’s also a steamer bag in leather with a serpent uncoiling around it. It is Kamal’s tribute to the olden days of steamship travel and reminds of the time when Art Deco was all the rage. The piece is central to the leather series and marks Montblanc’s boldest departure from its classically handsome leather goods.
Taking an icon from its past to propel Montblanc forward into the future, Kamal is determined to steer the company’s creative tendencies in a more exciting manner.
Lambert is of the same mind. “True luxury has to incorporate some amount of disruption. Creativity has to question the norm. It’s important for us to question convention in order to create a new paradigm. Whether it’s successful or not is another matter. But at least we stay true to our own DNA [of innovation] and it enables us to move forward in our state of development,” explains Lambert.
For a company built on an innovative but smartly safe luxury product, Montblanc looks set to disrupt itself and the luxury industry in order to move forward. We’re betting the bold moves will pay off.
True luxury has to incorporate some amount of disruption. Creativity has to question the norm
A SIMPLO MATTER
The Simplo Filler Pen company started out producing refills but eventually invented
a safe refilling process that ensured
the user remained spotless after filling.
This turned the company towards a luxury pen focus.
CLOCKWISE FROM OPPOSITE
Historical images of the original Montblanc manufacture; the safety refill function demonstrated (left); Charlotte Casiraghi on the red carpet of the Rainbow Room for Montblanc; Olivia Palermo and Kate Bosworth at the Rainbow Room
SERPENTINE STYLE The serpent pen clip is an old icon within Montblanc. First created in the ’20s, it was revived this year by Kamal for the brand’s
110th anniversary WHY NEW
THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP The Rouge et Noir Limited Edition 1906 in black ebonite with coral-tone resin top; the Villeret Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique 110 Years Anniversary Limited Edition; a holdall with the rouge luggage tag made for the anniversary; accessories for the collection include tie clips and cufflinks; the leather goods range; the anniversary pens in coral-toned lacquer and resin and black resin
Montblanc is a Hamburg-based brand, but as the founders met on a steamship trip from
Hamburg to New York, the latter was chosen as the spot for its celebration.
In nearly every culture in the world, the serpent is a figure of rebirth, creativity, fertility and healing