When you’re one of the most successful pen makers in the business, you really don’t need to enter the already over-saturated world of watches. However, that is precisely what Montblanc did in 1997. Inspired by its most famous fountain pen, the Meisterstück, this confident beautifully-executed design, complete with trademark white star on the crown, was a definite “how to do like them apples” to any detractors who might have been whispering that a maker of writing instruments, as precise and well-crafted as they were, had no business making watches.
It was a display of confidence that has come to define the history of the Montblanc brand over the past 23 years.
Not content to just launch a watch and then retreat and see what the reception was, Montblanc’s next big step was setting up a production and administration centre in an Art Nouveau villa in Le Locle, the birthplace of Swiss watchmaking.
Using third-party ETA movements, followed by Sellita, it started to establish itself as a watchmaker. The next big stage in this journey was the purchasing of then-defunct Villeret-based watch manufacturer Minerva, in 2007. This not only bought Montblanc nearly 150 years of history but also a manufacture with a specialism in high-performance chronographs; rather apt for a former pen brand when you consider that the word “chronograph” literally translates a “time writer”. It’s also the reason why the brand has a collection named after the man who invented the first chronograph, which was literally blobs of ink on paper used to time horse races, Nicolas Rieussec.
The Villeret site was renamed ‘Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie’ and it became where Montblanc’s more high-end watches were made, specialising, naturally in chronographs, tourbillons and, if you were one of the privileged few, where your bespoke Montblanc would be created and assembled.
Le Locle was the place where the brand’s more democratically priced watches were made and where new technologies such as 3D printing and CAD design were deployed as opposed to the antiquated machinery in use at Villeret to make the signature movements identifiable by the V-shaped bridge and smaller arrow.
Originally the two sites, and their manufacturing purposes, were kept separate until Jerôme Lambert took over as CEO from Lutz Bethge, which is when things got a bit more free-flowing and Villeret movements were used in watches assembled in Le Locle. This more fluid approach saw Montblanc’s watches become more creative, leveraging the design talents of those in Le Locle with the watchmaking prowess of the team in Villeret.
Under Lambert, Montblanc moved away from safe, but still desirable watches, such as its Star collection, and started to branch out into such horological flights of fancy as its Villeret 1858 Exo-Tourbillon Chronographe - a rare form of tourbillon where the minimal weight of the cage is disconnected from the balance wheel making it even more precise.
It even launched a brand-new women’s collection, called Bohème, which was so full of romance and whimsy, as well as haute horology, that it contained a calendar watch that showed the months in their ancient lunar form, such as Ice for January, Snow for February and the dramatic-sounding Dyan for June.
It has also started raiding the Minerva archives as inspiration for its column-inch generating Heritage timepieces, with such standout results as last year’s Pulsograph Limited Editon with salmon dial that went straight to the top of everyone’s wish list.
Lambert may have exited the brand to become COO of Richemont, but Montblanc’s white, snow-capped star is still very much in the ascendance.
And no one’s asking about ink now.