It’s ironic that at a time when we’ve had glimpses of what the future of timekeeping could look like thanks to smartwatches, brands have looked at past classics to create timepieces that can still leave watch enthusiasts weak-kneed. Montblanc’s 1858 Collection – introduced last year to celebrate the founding year of the jewel in its watchmaking crown, Minerva – pays a handsome tribute to the legacy of the Villeret-based watchmaker. Minerva was an artisanal watchmaking business based in Villeret and known for its handcrafted movements and chronographs made by employing traditional methods. Richemont Group acquired the ailing business in 2006 and used it to boost Montblanc’s watchmaking expertize, which until then was limited to its facility in Le Locle.

The Montblanc MB23.30 is based on the Unitas 6848

The first watch in the collection – the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter – takes inspiration from pocket-watch chronographs Minerva produced in the late Twenties and Thirties. However, this is a limited-edition model built at Villeret and costs in excess of $30,000. But Montblanc hasn’t entirely abandoned its core segment of affordable luxury watches. The second offering in the collection, the 1858 Small Seconds, inspired by the aviation watches Minerva made in the Thirties, and produced at the brand’s Le Locle facility is available for around $3,000.

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for pilots’ watches, so when Montblanc asked me if I would like to borrow the 1858 Small Seconds for a couple of weeks, I was happy to oblige. Now, Montblanc only started making timepieces in 1997 and despite the phenomenal strides it has made in the world of watchmaking, to the uninitiated, Montblanc is still a company that makes expensive pens, which it refers to as writing instruments. So every time somebody spotted the 1858 Small Seconds on my wrist and took a closer look, they would go, “Oh, is that really a Montblanc? And what’s with that logo?”
A 44 mm wide steel case and that vintage Montblanc logoThe latter question is a valid query, as that’s the first thing you notice on the matte black dial. Montblanc has gone with a historic emblem instead of the usual rounded star symbol to emphasize the watch’s vintage roots, a strange choice given the brand didn’t make any watches till 1997. Even stranger when you realize that the modern emblem is visible on the big half-onion crown. The most striking feature of the dial is its legibility. This watch is clearly inspired by the Minerva Pythagore Calibre 48 aviation watch from the Thirties and comes with similar Arabic numerals, cathedral hands and a small seconds sub-dial at 6 o’ clock. It is encased in a stainless steel case that is 44 mm wide and 10.95 mm thick with a mix of brushed and polished surfaces. The case is finished well and despite the largish size, it sits well on my wrist thanks to sloping lugs and the thin polished bezel that frames the matte black dial. 

However, I do think the case could have been smaller (around 40-42 mm) considering the original Minerva measured only 34 mm, although I can understand why Montblanc went with a size that was more in line with modern tastes. White SuperLuminova has been applied to the Arabic numerals and rhodium-plated cathedral hands, making it highly legible in low-light conditions. A limited-edition variant (858 pieces) is available with a more vintage-like beige lume and a back alligator leather strap with beige stitching. The dial is fitted with domed anti-reflective sapphire crystal and the watch is water resistant up to 30 meters.

This isn’t strictly a pilots’ watch though. For it to be one, the watch would need to be anti-magnetic and the movement would sit in a soft-iron Faraday cage with no visible caseback. However, on this Montblanc, an exhibition caseback reveals the hand-cranked MB23.03 movement based on the Unitas 6948 pocket watch caliber. Montblanc has done some work on the movement what with Côtes de Genève decoration and blued screws. The watch beats at 21,600 vph (3hz), has 17 jewels and a power reserve of 46 hours, although I’m inclined to believe that the power reserve is better than Montblanc claims. Now, why doesn’t this have a Minerva movement if the collection is inspired by the Villeret manufacture? Montblanc is able to keep this a value proposition by moving the production to Le Locle. One could argue that it could have better finished the movement with beveled and polished edges, but that would mean the watch would cost more. I am going to stick my neck out here and say the caseback is well finished, you get what you pay for.

A brown fine grain calf-leather strap with a steel pin buckle Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds

My test watch was paired with a brown fine grain calf-leather strap with a steel pin buckle. An option is available with a stainless steel Milanese bracelet, but I much prefer the leather strap. Over the course of two weeks, I found the 1858 Small Seconds extremely easy to wear. It’s slim enough to slip under your shirt cuff, sporty enough to wear on the weekends and that classic pilots’ watch styling is so easy on the eye. The 1858 Small Seconds is a charming value proposition from Montblanc. Its vintage codes and affordable price place it uniquely in the Montblanc catalogue, and it does enough to get the attention of budget-conscious watch aficionados looking for an interesting new watch.