If property is 'location, location, location', then haute horlogerie just might be 'perception, perception, perception'. Given that all a watch must do is tell the time with accuracy, then differentiating among the thousands on offer, once past the aesthetics, is strictly a matter of reputation. Montblanc has been wrestling with this for just over a decade, as it was among the first luxury brands not born of either pure watchmaking or jewellery in general to enter the horological high end.
Gucci may have started the stampede, but Montblanc pre-empted Chanel, Dior and other brands that now boast tourbillons or minute repeaters or other functions rarely found in watches from the fashion and lifestyle brands. In doing so, Montblanc devised the business plan for making the leap from one discipline to another: achieving manufacture credibility in a short time.
In the autumn of 2006, Montblanc was handed the means to alter its image as primarily a purveyor of pens when parent company Richemont acquired one of the industry's great houses: Minerva, founded in Villeret in 1858 and known for peerless chronographs. After a slow decline that began in the 1960s and a brief rally in the 1990s, Minerva was purchased in 2000 by a group of Italian investors; their greatest gift to the brand was putting its design under the control of complications expert Demetriu Cabiddu. He remains to this day the éminence grise that ensures both the superiority of the movements and respect for Minerva's heritage.
In February 2007, Montblanc took over responsibility for this once-great brand. Alexander Schmiedt, Montblanc's Managing Director of Watches, appreciates fully what a boon this was to the company's aspirations. "Minerva arrived like the cherry on the cake, something which is impossible to plan - a beautiful, 150-year-old manufacture doesn't fall into your lap every day. Actually, it fitted very well retrospectively, but it looked strange in the beginning because we had the big gap between Villeret starting at €50,000, while Montblanc stopped at €5,000."
Today the benches are a little less cluttered and at least some of the watchmakers seem considerable younger than in days gone by, but the basic set up in Villeret remains the same 50 years on.
But even before horology joined Montblanc's other product areas, its writing implements overshadowed the leather goods and accessories in the minds of the public; it was thought of as a pen company. Watches were to suffer the same chilly reception. While producing its own line of wristwatches was just about acceptable, something every luxury brand seemed to be doing, it was clear that Montblanc had to avoid the trap that snared so many: too many produced watches not of the same quality and prestige as the core products. Montblanc would never suffer that.
Initially, the watch industry's pundits bemoaned - and many still do - the relegation of the name 'Minerva' to the view through the sapphire crystal at the back. It seemed a waste not to relaunch it as a stand-alone brand. The reason not to do so was explained by Schmiedt. "Putting Minerva on the dial might have been very good for Minerva, but it would have had very little positive spillover to Montblanc." Instead, Minerva completed an evolution into what Schmiedt identifies as "three basic segments. We have our volume business, which is around €3,000 to €6,000. We work with external movements, with modules that we develop ourselves - we try to build our competence in this segment but it is still driven by external movements from ETA, Sellita and others.
"The second segment is completely new, built over the past four years: high-end, all-manufacture, but 'industrialised' manufacture, where you have the Rieussec, and, since last year, the Calibre MB LL100 chronograph. These range from €6,000 in stainless steel, up to €30,000.
"Then, on top of that, you have the artisan segment. If you make an analogy with fashion, it would be our haute couture. And that is where we have Villeret, from €35,000, going up to €200,000. That's the structure of our collections. You have different customers behind each of the segments, different competences, different volumes - exactly filling the gap that existed in 2007, and that brings us to how haute horlogerie can benefit from prêt-à-porter and vice versa."
From design through assembly and final quality control, the name Minerva has always stood for traditional, in-house Swiss watchmaking involving a degree of painstaking craftsmanship that is rarely encountered even in the world of haute horlogerie.
The middle ground
Schmiedt recalls: "When we started at Villeret in 2007, we had a huge gap between everything that was Minerva and what was below. At that time in our works at Le Locle, we did not have our own movements, so there was a big hole in the middle. Today, that has changed, because of the benefits of having something like the Nicolas Rieussec chronograph, which we launched in 2008, and LL100, our second, more industrialised manufacture chronograph, launched in 2010 and which we're now starting to roll out. That was the strategy."
At the beginning, Minerva was kept deliberately quite separate from mainstream Montblanc. "At Villeret, you had a split. On the one hand, you had development, which is a strong competency of Villeret, out of which we gain more and more synergies for the overall Montblanc in movement development. There are people who work on the tourbillons, people who develop the TimeWriters and they will have very interesting experiences, which they can also contribute to the development of new complications for Rieussec, the new LL100, etc.
"Not immediately, but over the years, more real-life synergies will result in development, synergies in aesthetic design, because today our design teams work across all collections. You have a person who on the one hand designs high complications for Villeret, which is a great experience, but then she works on a Rieussec or a TimeWriter. There's a lot of cross-fertilisation in innovation and design, so we are starting to leverage synergies over the years, and it will go on into the future."
Connections between the three segments will be evident in movement development, which will be for Montblanc as an entity, and not split between Villeret and the other lines. "Today we have a movement that is developed in Villeret with complications, but this benefits the more industrialised movements. In the future, we will benefit more and more from joint movement development competence, using the experience at Villeret.
"Will we have hand-assembly of volume watches at Villeret? Probably not, but a completely different production process could result." As an example, Schmiedt mentions that complicated Rieussecs could one day be assembled in Villeret.
Montblanc's three segments are clearly defined internal classifications; the watch families as seen by the customers are more flexible in terms of pricing. "The Star Family starts with Rieussec at €25,000, down to €10,000, which then goes down to €3,000 for watches with a simple automatic movement. We have the same thing for TimeWalker - from €2,500 up to €15,000 with the LL100, and then you have the Villeret Collection on top of that."
Recent models clearly indicate the future direction of the house, while adhering to a company philosophy of 'tradition and innovation'. This year's TimeWriter II, is, agrees Schmiedt, "too complex to have volume impact, but Villeret is not meant to be volume. Villeret is a think tank and competence centre on the one hand, but also a production atelier for a naturally limited collection on the other. So, TimeWriters I and II, all of the complications we have, exemplify what we want to do - traditional ways of crafting a watch, but blending it with something innovative that hasn't been done before, like Metamorphosis."
Refreshingly for the boss of a Swiss/German watch house, he admits that Metamorphosis was an "exercise in how can I push technical achievement. Crazy. A great game, toys for boys - exciting, offering very little for practical functionality or volume. TimeWriter II is also niche, but it allows you to measure at a higher frequency, and the potential could be applied elsewhere."
For SIHH 2013, the company will not show a TimeWriter III; the practice for that series is to issue one every two years. Instead, if all goes well and it is ready, visitors might see a new chronograph with Minerva roots, and a new surprise in the volume sector in the form of "an interesting new innovation in Rieussec."
The TimeWriter II Chronographe Bi-Fréquence 1,000 (left) and the TimeWalker TwinFly (right).
Schmiedt feels that Montblanc still has a lot to achieve in its desire to establish its haute horlogerie status, and this - naturally - takes priority over the concerns for Minerva as a stand-alone entity. In dealing with the fate of Minerva, which is where we came in, Schmiedt is cognisant of the sensitivity of the issue, and how the purists reacted to it five years ago. He points out that Minerva was revived as an independent brand in 2000, but it "didn't fly" and may not have survived if Richemont and, therefore, Montblanc hadn't stepped in. But he generously notes that Montblanc would not have many of its Villeret complications if it wasn't for the acquisition of Minerva.
For those who feel that the name 'Minerva' is an underused asset - coincidentally, our conversation took place the week that Bulgari announced the end of the Roth and Genta names - Schmiedt says: "That is why we keep the name and that is why we communicate it." Montblanc certainly sees the Minerva heritage and reputation, especially with chronographs, as a form of added value. So will the name 'Minerva' ever appear on a dial again?
"From our perspective, we thought about it when we took over Villeret, how to integrate it and how to do it. When Minerva is so well established with Montblanc, that you can have 'Minerva' on the dial and people will immediately make the link to Montblanc - that would be for me the right moment for a Minerva Limited Edition.
"You should never say 'never'."
Further information: www.montblanc.com