Montblanc has been around since 1906 but the Hamburg-based luxury brand only forayed into the watchmaking business in 1997. Richemont handed over Minerva to Montblanc and the Villeret manufacture was absorbed into the German maison’s watchmaking division which is based out of Le Locle.
Today the Villeret facility, referred to as the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie serves as a center of watchmaking excellence for Montblanc. While Le Locle produces commercially-viable watches on an industrial scale, Villeret stays true to the watchmaking traditions that have been passed down the last 160 years. There is still an artisanal quality to the watches produced here as evident in exquisitely finished movements like Caliber 16.29 used in the GPHG-nominated 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition from last year.
To their credit, Montblanc has done a commendable job with preserving the integrity of this place. Apparently the artisans at Minerva were a bit uncertain about the future direction of the manufacture but all misgivings were dispelled after they were given a tour of Montblanc’s atelier in Hamburg. “They realized soon enough that Montblanc shares the same values when it came to craftsmanship and tradition,” says a spokesperson for the brand during the tour.
Montblanc restored the crumbling manufacture while keeping alive its spirit. Walking through the Villeret facility can feel like stepping into a time machine – some of the rooms still contain machines from the early 20th century but now they share the floor with modern CNC and CAD machines. Villeret only uses German silver to make their movements, it is chosen as the base material because this alloy is more durable than (commonly-used) brass and on oxidation it imparts a pleasing yellowish patina to the metal.
The movements are all hand-finished, many of the parts are shaped, chamfered and polished in a series of time-consuming processes in this department. During my visit, I spot an angleur hunched over a workbench, polishing the distinct bridge of an ExoTourbillon. Polishing this bridge – shaped like a twisted wire – is no easy task, it may take up to two weeks to complete just one of them.
Montblanc is among the few watch brands that make their own balance spring. I got a glimpse of this secretive process - a special alloy (its composition is kept secret) is passed back and forth between spools containing diamond cones that stretch the wire about 15 per cent. Eventually the wire is thinner than human hair and is cut and curved into springs.
The haute horology pieces made at Villeret use a large high-inertia balance wheel made entirely in-house. This requires a level of skill that is hard to come by in the industry. The hairspring is attached to the balance wheel by the régleur, who makes tiny adjustments by hand to the wheel trains to regulate the accuracy of the watch.
WHAT HAPPENS AT LE LOCLE?
Montblanc’s watch division is based in Le Locle. Though they have two buildings here, the main facility is a 100-year-old Art-Nouveau villa that’s been designated a heritage property. Here, Montblanc’s design department sits and labors over computer-aided renderings of new products.
The design department sits close to their prototyping and watchmaking colleagues, so Montblanc is able to swiftly go through the creative process when it comes to new products. The three designers work with the technical director on new prototypes that go through a homologation test before it is considered for regular production. I see initial sketches of some of the novelties that were released this year and judging by the amount of revisions the models have gone through, it is clear that Davide Cerrato, the head of Montblanc’s watchmaking business, has been a stickler for details.
Montblanc’s watches go through a battery of tests before it leaves the Le Locle facility. The ‘500 Hours Test’ is designed to simulate the first year’s lifecycle of a timepiece. The encased movements are examined in a dedicated laboratory. According to Montblanc, every watch with a manufacture movement is tested under conditions that emulate as closely as possible the environment that the watch will encounter when worn by its future owner.
Under Cerrato, Montblanc’s integration of its Le Locle and Villeret is more seamless than it has ever been. The new product line-up is focused around three pillars - the Spirit of Mountain Exploration is a nod to Minerva’s military watches (Montblanc 1858), the Spirit of Classical Fine Watchmaking is based on classical pocket and wristwatches (Star Legacy Collection) and the Spirit of Racing riffs on the stopwatches and chronographs made by Minerva (TimeWalker Collection). All these lines have models that link the past and the present through design and innovation. While Le Locle focuses on industrialized production, the haute horology timepieces are all fait main à Villeret (handmade in Villeret).
Cerrato, the head of Montblanc’s watchmaking division sums up Minerva’s importance to Montblanc. “Minerva is a special story. We have such a treasure trove of historical references and unique chronographs in Minerva’s history. It wouldn’t be possible to do what we do if we didn’t have this gem in our possession.”