Montblanc is huge. Parent company Richemont doesn’t break down its results, and so we can’t know exactly how big, but the German company with bases in Italy and Switzerland is one of the group’s two big beasts, the other being Cartier.
Like Cartier, Montblanc has a broad product offering, more broad in fact, covering writing instruments – a sector it claims to have more than a 50 per cent share of – accessories, leather goods and watches. Unlike Cartier though, it has a limited watchmaking legacy. It made its first watch in 1997.
This is an eternal problem for Montblanc. Richemont has done its best to solve it, buying the historic Minerva watch manufacture in 2006 and placing it under Montblanc’s control. For a time, Montblanc clearly didn’t know what to do with this bastion of fine watchmaking. It created a line called Villeret, named after the Swiss town where Minerva is based, but that proved confusing. And for a brief, even more confusing time, Minerva movements appeared in Panerai watches.
But there are signs it’s beginning to figure it out. At SIHH in January, Montblanc launched a new family called Heritage based on the look of archive Minerva chronographs – a good place to go for inspiration – and announced a new product structure and hierarchy that makes smart use of Minerva movements, which these days are exclusive to Montblanc.
The Heritage may have an unremarkable name, but the collection has gone down well with critics. Let’s take a look at it.
Fitting into the new Montblanc line-up
First thing to say is that Montblanc’s men’s watch collection will now have four main families, distilled into TimeWalker, 1858, Star Legacy and Heritage. All references to Spirit and Chronometrie will soon fade from view, the Tradition and 4810 lines remain but we won’t see much more there for now, while the Nicolas Rieussec has been absorbed into Star Legacy.
The other is that every line now has a Minerva thread running through it. All families feature a Minerva calibre somewhere, sign Montblanc has fully clocked it has a powerful name it can leverage.
Minerva actually plays a very big part in the Heritage line. In the 1940s and 1950s, Minerva was at the top of its game, making some of the finest chronographs of the time, and certainly some of the most beautiful. It’s in this period, a popular one at the moment (see Breitling, Tudor, Oris and others) that Montblanc’s creatives found inspiration for the Heritage collection.
The new pieces all feature dot hour markers plucked from Minerva designs from around 1950, and 3, 6 and 9 numerals said to be taken from phone boxes of the time.
They also get domed crystals, albeit in sapphire rather than the far less practical plexiglass, and a rose-tinted dial colour palette, featuring salmon, smoked-caramel and silvery-white. Cases range in diameter from 39mm to 42mm (smart not to go any bigger, but could have gone smaller), and the final touches are Sfumato alligator straps produced in the Montblanc Pelletteria, the company’s Florentine leather workshop.
A new hierarchy
One of the below-the-radar trends in watchmaking is brands creating collections that service multiple market segments. Breitling now offers the same watch with either an in-house or third-party movement and with prices to match; Montblanc is now taking this idea a step further with ‘core’, ‘manufacture’ and ‘Minerva’ interpretations of the Heritage.
The core models are the Heritage Automatic, Day Date and GMT models. They’re all under €5,000 and fuelled by ETA or Sellita movements. And they’re good: nicely designed, well produced and a serious value proposition.
The next step up are two ‘manufacture’ pieces powered by movements exclusively developed for Montblanc, the sort of calibres some brands call proprietary. The Heritage Monopusher Chronograph’s movement (with a chronograph that’s started, stopped and reset using the same button) was developed in partnership with Sellita, and is all Montblanc’s for a year. It’ll be interesting to see where that pops up in the future.
The movement in the Heritage Perpetual Calendar’s Limited Edition 100 is a Richemont Group creation, but again, only for Montblanc. It’s clever, designed so the calendar can be adjusted forwards and backwards via the crown, and so it can’t be adjusted between 8pm and 12am when doing so would damage the movement. There’s even a second time zone in there. That makes it one of the most user-friendly perpetuals on the market.
And then at the pinnacle is one of the most talked-about pieces of the year so far, the Montblanc Heritage Pulsograph Limited Edition 100. This is where the Minerva movement story kicks in – inside its 40mm steel case (high-end pieces in steel cases is another theme this year) is Minerva 13.21, an exquisite chronograph movement made in the fabled manufacture. The watch has a salmon pink dial with a pulsograph indication, typically used by doctors to take a patient’s pulse, but which rather like a tachymeter is whimsical before its practical.
Still sharing a passion for fine watchmaking
One-time Montblanc chief executive Jerôme Lambert once pledged the company would ‘share a passion for fine watchmaking’. While the phrase isn’t used by the current management, the ethos remains – essentially to offer high-end watches at smaller prices than the competition. The Heritage Chronograph Monopusher is €4,750; the Perpetual Calendar €14,900 in steel; and the Pulsograph €28,000. All fair, looking at what else those numbers would – or wouldn’t – secure.
The Dubai Watch Week verdict
Montblanc’s Heritage collection is undeniably solid, and in places, it’s brilliant. The entry-level Automatics should give establishment dial names such as TAG Heuer and Tudor a run for their money, while the perpetual calendar is a beauty with a meaningful update to a popular complication. The Pulsograph will be remembered for some time, such is the cult-following attracted by Minerva movements.
The three-tier strategy is one to watch. Heritage caters for aspirational buyers and collectors in one hit, but it’s still too early to say whether it’s actually succeeded in convincing big-spending buyers to dig deep to buy upscale versions of something they’d consider run-of-the-mill.
But with product due to drop soon, Heritage should be a hit. The post-war period that inspired it was one of growing sartorial confidence for liberated young men, and you get the same impression from Montblanc these days. Style-conscious, focussed, bold. It’s a good look.