MONTBLANC A Tale of Two Manufactures
Upon visiting Montblanc’s manufactures, it becomes abundantly clear how the watchmaker has developed into one of today’s leading names
THERE IS AN undeniable propensity within haute horlogerie to produce historical tales that stretch far back and bear unique themes – the further back and the more fascinating, the better. There are, on the other hand, more nascent names which make up for what they lack in historical roots with their daring innovations. Fuse together a celebrated narrative with impressive, state-of-theart technology, and let’s face it, you have yourself a winning combination. One such brand that is able to marry these two elements through its ethos, roots and locations, is Montblanc.
The Montblanc name stems back to 1906, funnily enough, with a pen, when a banker from Hamburg named Alfred Nehemias and Berlin engineer August Eberstein, both sensitive to the signs of time, saw the opportunity to bring the fountain pen to its technical and commercial success. The mission was passed down to Wilhelm Dziambor, Christian Lausen and later Claus Johannes Voss, who
would go on to create fountain pens in Hamburg, where for three years, it took the name Simplo Filler Pen Co. GmbH, represented in London and Paris first, before it was converted to Montblanc. Taking inspiration from the highest peak in Europe, it was symbolic of the company’s objective to reach its creative and technical heights. The snow-capped Mont Blanc emblem as we know now, dates back to 1913 and remains a symbol of excellence, one that is close to this brand’s heart. Not satisfied to stay only in pens, the company decided to expand its repertoire in 1935 when it took over a leather goods producer in Offenbach, Germany, and it would continue with this focus until 1997, when it added watchmaking to its list, establishing Montblanc Montre S.A. in Le Locle. While technically only 20 years on the market, despite its previous history, it is considered still in its adolescence and has had to make strides in a short amount of time in order to stand up next to its rivals.
Its objective with its watchmaking division was clear and put into motion from the getgo, and it immediately joined the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie [SIHH] in Geneva in 1997; at the time it was only one of eight exhibitors. Its first collection played to the aesthetics and sensibilities of their existing clientele, amidst an air of slight skepticism from the industry.
In 2007, Richemont acquired the famed Minerva watch manufacture, known for its exceptional handmade movements since 1858, to create the Institut Minerva de Recherche
en Haute Horlogerie in Villeret, Switzerland, and made it a part of Montblanc’s watch manufacturing capability. This propelled Montblanc higher into the realm of haute horlogerie and helped to further legitimize its position within the industry. With this new acquisition, Montblanc went hard to work on the production of its first inhouse caliber; the MB R100, which debuted in the Nicolas Rieussec Monopusher Chronograph, at SIHH the following year. While the project was in motion well before Minerva, it should be noted that such movements usually require around five years of work before being ready for prime time.
With that in mind, it might seem curious to have two manufactures 30 kilometers away from each other, but upon visiting both facilities, their contrasting personalities are immediately evident, and their distance offers an expansive, allencompassing view of their history and current day mission. We began with the Le Locle facility, the more modern of the two.
Quite frankly, I couldn’t think of a more picturesque day to be touring these facilities; the snow-capped mountains on an incomprehensibly sunny day was something out of a storybook. The stillness rang in the cool, crisp air as we approached what looked like a beautiful house, and Art Nouveau villa built in 1906, smoke billowing out of chimneys and ice beginning to melt from the rooftop, drop by drop.
A quick walk up the road finds us at a slightly more modern, non-descript building, which
houses the designers and where it was unusually quiet, most staff being wrapped up with post-SIHH duties. While this meant there was less buzz, perhaps less of an accurate picture of everyday life here, it afforded us the rare opportunity to move around freely, to explore and speak with almost everyone we crossed paths with. Here, ideas come to life in pencil sketches before being developed on computer, where details are narrowed down by designers, before engineers elaborate on the ideas and begin work on 3D models. Several waves of prototypes will follow, where construction and design are further tweaked, and a range of tests are performed on components.
This takes us back to the main house and down flights of stairs, where we were met with a hidden workshop, miles away from its traditional upstairs. We turn a corner to enter a swooping atrium- style structure that allows for the beauty of the outside to spill through to the traditional worktops and intensely modern machines. It is at these countertops that we saw the construction of the watches take place; each station has a dedicated task, such as hand assemblage or placing the dial on the movement. Dust is the enemy here and all manner of precautions are taken to avoid any of the movements being affected.
Quality control plays an integral part at Le Locle, and we were introduced to the Montblanc Laboratory Test 500, where every watch is put through a rigorous 500 hours of testing under various trying conditions, to mimic the genuine wear and tear it will receive in day to day life. Crown settings, temperature control, performance, setting differentials are just a few of the features tested, in an effort to release only the most durable, precise pieces to the world. In addition, UV resistance tests the degradation of the dial over time, leather and metal bracelets are challenged, and finally, the infamous drop tests, where the watches are dropped with such force, the whole room jumped. No detail is too insignificant for the laboratory.
So, with that, it was a journey back in time and process with a stopover at Villeret, at the Minerva Institute. As mentioned, the Minerva Institute was set up in 1858 by Charles-Yvan Robert, and would become one of Switzerland’s most revered specialists in precise chronometric functions. Here, there is much more focus put on the traditional art of Swiss watchmaking enriched with technological innovations, and where components are created. The heritage of Minerva is preserved and sensed profoundly throughout the facility, as modern machinery and technique is kept to a minimum, only introduced when and where hand craftsmanship
reaches its limits; even the staff seem of a different era.
Each section is dedicated to one particular component or process, and the savoir-faire, dedication and craftsmanship from master watchmakers and engineers is channeled into the development of numerous lauded creations, and adapted to new projects. The skills perfected through the Montblanc Villeret Metamorphosis and the Nicolas Rieussec Rising Hours, for example, were applied to the Heritage Spirit Orbis Terrarum, which shows a multi-layered dial composed of a sapphire crystal dial showing the northern hemisphere on top and a day/night disc underneath.
One of the more romantic touches comes to play in the Artisanal workshop, where each timepiece is seen to and assembled by hand by one single watchmaker, a process that often spans several months and requires a skillset seen in very few. After initial assembly of the movement, the functions are finetuned, then the caliber is taken apart for final decorations (which are all unique, as no one watchmaker has the same method) before a second and final assembly takes place. Though all timepieces reach identical levels in accuracy and performance, each are, in their own way, a one-off due to their watchmakers.
There is a real synergy between the Le Locle and Villeret manufactures, as staff frequently visit each other’s facilities, but beyond that, there is no plan to close up this distance. They complement one other and certainly garner a mutual respect, but they also serve very distinctive clientele. It will certainly be fascinating to see how they both continue to grow and how they bring their heritage along with them into each new decade.
Montblanc’s Villeret manufacture has remained virtually unchanged, producing timepieces such as the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition 100 this year to pay homage to its illustrious history
The Villeret manufacture dedicates itself to the craftsmanship of components and movement assembly