Montblanc CEO NICOLAS BARETZKI tells STEPHANIE IP why the worlds of mechanical watches and technology need no reconciliation – and how the two segments can work hand in hand
THE LAUNCH OF the Apple Watch in 2015 caused a little commotion in the Swiss watch industry, but the past few years have assured brands that there was nothing to worry about. The sales of luxury mechanical timepieces are stronger than ever, but this hasn’t stopped traditional watchmakers from exploring the smartwatch category, either. The future was still relatively uncertain when Montblanc dipped its toes into the digital waters with the e-Strap in 2015, but fast-forward to SIHH in 2017 and the brand dived head-first into connectivity by bringing us the Summit.
Why is smart technology so important to this Richemont-owned watch and pen company? CEO Nicolas Baretzki breaks it down.
There have been two schools of thought on smartwatches. Some brands, like Montblanc, have embraced them, while some insist they’re a very different product. Why is taking part in the connected-device industry important to you?
I don’t think that there is a right answer. It’s not either A or B, but it’s more a question of brand consistency and strategy. In this world of connected devices, I think it’s a very fast evolution and is becoming huge for a good reason. It’s going to be very much linked to people having security, besides it being a cool object. I think all these devices will become essential – tomorrow we will go from a curative to a preventative health approach, and if that segment becomes as big as I believe it will be, I cannot imagine that there won’t be a luxury market within that segment.
That’s why I believe that Montblanc, being a very innovative brand and in terms of price positioning – quite aggressive price positioning in luxury – belongs completely in that segment, provided that it’s done in a way consistent with the rest of the maison. If there’s a segment to conquer or to create, Montblanc should be there; that’s very much in the spirit of the company. I think when we did the smartwatch, it was very much using the experience of fine watchmaking, such as the sapphire glass casing, and all the various elements – but with a digital heart.
When I talk to customers around the world, that smartwatch is a huge success. But I’ve never heard them asking me, “How do you do mechanical watches and how legitimate is it?” At the end of the day, we are also very recognised in the fine watchmaking segment because our manufacture is in Switzerland. So, it’s just a different approach. We aren’t new to the technology world; we have things other than watches. For me, it’s almost a category within the Montblanc universe. We have a digital offering in watches, we have had a digital offering in leather at some point – and that makes it completely consistent across categories. The specificity of the category does not compromise the positioning or the quality of the product.
Montblanc initially came out with the e-Strap, which wasn’t put on the dial, and now we have the Summit watch. How did it all evolve?
I think it comes back again to that concept of being innovative. We were the very first watch maison to enter the world of technology with the e-Strap. Having said that, at that time, the technology wasn’t great, so the quality of the screen suffered and the app linked to the e-Strap wasn’t that interesting. It was just the first attempt. A bit of a test-and-learn, as you will also see at Apple and other major companies. And then we said, “Okay, now we want to make it seriously.” Because the technology was evolving, we went into smartwatches. But that’s just the beginning. The technology is developing very fast – and I think being one of the first to enter will be
a big advantage in the future, because we will learn and improve. I definitely see Montblanc has potential in that segment as being one of the leaders in smart luxury products.
Who do you work with today on the technology front?
We are working with one of the best there is: Android Wear [now called Wear OS]. Basically, it’s Google. When we do something, we want the best technology. If you’re a luxury maison, you need to offer the best.
How closely do you look at what other luxury brands are doing?
It’s not a question of competition – it’s a question of positioning. If there are more brands entering a segment, it just gives it credibility. Then you’re sure there’s a genuine luxury segment, a smart luxury segment, et cetera… so I’m happy that there are more brands now. Recently, I’ve seen that some have already announced a position. But then there are the questions: Are you doing it for the image? To create some buzz? Or are you doing it with a long-term strategy and really thinking, “What is my answer, as Montblanc, for the smart world?” That’s the approach we have – functionality of good products and of luxury products. That will be for the long term. I have seen other brands come with a different approach where prices are very high, and I’m sure there are customers for that, but that’s not the kind of customers we are targeting here.
Montblanc has a rich watchmaking heritage, especially with Minerva celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. How do you reconcile this DNA with the technology component?
In fact, I don’t think we have to reconcile, because I don’t oppose digital and the technology world. Montblanc is a global luxury maison and every time we enter a segment, we do it 100 per cent. Today, writing is our core activity – it’s a historical activity and we have the full development. We have a design team for our writing instruments and our manufacture in Hamburg. When we entered into watches, we had the same approach. We had our first manufacture in Le Locle, and we have specific dedicated design and engineering teams for the watches. And now we have Villeret, which is one of the most amazing manufactures in Switzerland – a very specialised manufacture. When we did leather, it was the same approach.
So when we enter the digital world, we are doing it the same way. We have a category. We have real experts who are able to talk to the guys at Google and Apple and understand each other, and that can definitely provide the best offering for the client. It is a new segment within the maison, but that segment of watches, for us – thanks to Villeret, which gave us the expertise since 1858, marking
160 years of expertise – proves that we are very legitimate and credible, and have a real watchmaking offer.
That’s why I think our customers really understand these two different worlds. I have a lot of Montblanc clients who thought the Summit was really cool and bought it even though they’re big mechanical watch lovers, and we also have a lot of new clients who weren’t Montblanc clients who said, “Oh, it’s a really cool item” and discovered the brand through the Summit watch. These two worlds are completely living next to each other and I’ve never heard comments like, “Oh, now I’m confused.” And you see it in the boutique; you have the leather environment, you have the watch environment, it’s all very clear. Even though it’s one concept and one boutique, people understand that everything works in a vertical way.
So, it’s down to the legitimacy of the product. The manufactures give Montblanc the history and with technology, you’re choosing to work with the best.
The good thing about tech is there’s no history. So, in watchmaking history, we have a huge opportunity. Through our manufacture, we get all the expertise of 160 years and we are using this heritage to complete our collections. It’s in the Star Legacy, in the spirit of classical fine watchmaking, also on the 1858, in the spirit of mountain-exploring. It can be very systematic. And then when it comes to the digital product, it’s more about the future, the innovation and the new approach – and what can we get from the professionals on that subject to make it a Montblanc product. Then it becomes a completely different approach.
What I’m most convinced about is that in the next five, six, seven years, they will have arrived. I’m quite convinced that most of the people will have a device on their wrist because they will have to monitor their heartbeat to provide information. At some point, the doctor will call you and say, “You know, I think you have some issues with your heartbeat – maybe you should come and see me, or you should go directly to the hospital.” It will become like the phone today – something that you won’t leave the house without. This is why I think it’s so important to have a voice in that segment.
Clockwise from top left: Three views of the Montblanc Summit, a smartwatch “for those always on the ascent”; Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki