Legitimacy: In the context of the watchmaking industry, it’s this intangible quality that most brands chase because it leads to acceptance within the community. It’s a word that comes up a lot in discussions involving non-purist brands. In 1997 when Montblanc, purveyors of writing instruments for over 90 years, hosted a press event to unveil their first wristwatches, the then CEO Norbert Platt was famously asked “Where do you fill in with ink?”

The main Montblanc manufacturing center in Le Locle

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Montblanc today produces wristwatches that range from haute horology timepieces with exceptional hand-finished movements as well Android-powered smartwatches and everything in between. Beginning with former CEO Jerome Lambert who really laid the foundation for the watch division’s growth, Montblanc has come a long way since 1997. And under Davide Cerrato, Montblanc’s watch division has been consistently punching above its own weight.

Artisans at the Minerva atelier in Villeret

The former creative director of Tudor, Cerrato helped catapult Rolex’s sister brand to the fame it enjoys today when he created the vintage-inspired Black Bay series. At Montblanc, the Italian has integrated the Minerva manufacture — the Villeret-based atelier that has produced high-quality watches since 1858 before it was acquired by Richemont Group and handed to Montblanc in 2007 — and organized the brand’s catalogue into clear product lines. Under his watch (pardon the pun), Montblanc now has that ‘hero product’,  a Black Bay-like model that’s instantly recognizable and serves as a talisman for the brand. That hero model is the 1858 Geosphere, a vintage-style outdoors-inspired watch with a quirky worldtime complication that was developed in-house. It’s a watch that has caught the attention of seasoned collectors as well as newbies looking for their first bite.

The 1858 Geosphere has emerged as a hero product for Montblanc

“When a product is successful, it transcends gender and age. As far as the Geosphere is concerned, it’s not just hardcore collectors who like it but people who are buying their first watch. It’s got the attention of guys who like historical or military-inspired watches. The Geosphere has achieved that,” says Cerrato. We are in Munich in February for an early look at Montblanc’s releases for the year, just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic really blew up in Europe. Cerrato thinks the new Geosphere that will be unveiled in April this year will be the tipping point. Without letting the cat out of the bag (I have to respect the press embargo), I can tell you it’s going to be a presented in a new material and with features hitherto not seen on the watch. 

Caliber MB16.29 represents the top tier of watchmaking at Montblanc

Montblanc’s watches can be organized in a pyramidal structure now. At the bottom, forming the base, is their industrially-produced watches powered by movements sourced from Sellita. These watches are priced under €5,000. At the next level, the middle of the pyramid, Montblanc offers movements customized with manufacture modules like in the case of the Geosphere wherein an in-house worldtime module sits atop a base Sellita. Prices in this tier can go as high as €25,000. At the very top of the pyramid sit the rare, hand-finished watches built at the Minerva atelier. These include watches like the 1858 Monopusher Split-Seconds Chronograph and so on.

“I think the potential of growth is an inverted pyramid. We have seen more and more collectors buying watches made at Minerva, attracted by the rarity and the quality of the movements. And the stronger this category becomes, the more we can expect to grow our business in this category. The growth could be exponential here,” says Cerrato.

A cache of Minerva-signed Grand Feu enamel dials

Montblanc leans on Minerva’s heritage and provenance to give its products that oft-talked about legitimacy. The flip side to this has always been arguments that rage on in Internet forums about a rich luxury house (Montblanc) co-opting the watchmaking legacy of a smaller, yet bonafide watchmaking brand (Minerva). Cerrato is probably the best qualified to explain this relationship. “The fact that we acquired Minerva and have chosen a clear strategy to speak about it; to make the manufacture live within Montblanc, the fact that we use Minerva-signed movements in Montblanc watches is the best possible way to preserve that heritage.

Minerva-signed dial on the Montblanc Heritage Small Seconds 38

“Minerva has always been a fantastic watch company, but it used to produce watches in very small quantities. Frankly speaking, I don’t know if it’s possible today to acquire Minerva and then just live out of the small quantities of watches they produce. On the other hand when Minerva is integrated within Montblanc, we can continue to preserve, continue to invest in artisanal watchmaking and keep that tradition alive,” explains Cerrato.

I don’t know if it’s possible today to acquire Minerva and then just live out of the small quantities of watches they produce.

The exquisite hand-finished movements made at Minerva’s Villeret atelier have not gone unnoticed in the upper echelons of the collecting community. Cerrato, who spends a lot of time at various vintage watch auctions in Geneva and with collector clubs around the world, shares an interesting observation. “The new customers who buy Minerva are hardcore collectors. I see that a lot of them are Patek Philippe collectors. They are still buying Patek and because of that, they have this strong affinity, this sensitivity, to a certain level of finishing and a certain kind of movement construction. In Minerva watches, they find something that speaks to them. This is good sign for us.”

The Minerva atelier in Villeret that is now owned by Montblanc

A majority of Montblanc’s watches are paired with leather straps which is no surprise given their thriving leather goods division. However, this year the brand will unveil watches with metal bracelets too. Creating a metal bracelet that works well with the case is no easy task. Cerrato explains, “The proportion of the bracelet needs to be linked to the volume of your case. The broader links in the beginning (near the lugs) should integrate well with the case. There’s a term in French called la chute which basically translate to ‘the fall’ – the bracelet links reduce in size from next to the lugs to the folding clasp. So the links have to stay in proportion when next to the case as well when they are reduced and next to the folding clasp. The articulation of the links is important too. There has to be enough links or the bracelet remains stiff. You have to account for various wrist sizes. The smaller the links, the easier for the articulation of the bracelet. The better the articulation, the more comfortable it is to wear.”

One of the strongest trends in the industry over the last decade has been a revival of vintage-inspired watches. And no one has mastered that better than Cerrato. First at Tudor and now at Montblanc with the 1858 and Heritage lines. The watches in the collection are inspired by timepieces made by Minerva in the 1930s and 40s, but it’s not a 1:1 copy that a lot of other brands seem to adopt now. Being on trend, there are plenty of brands now that produce, with a fair amount of success, faithful re-editions of watches from their archives. At this point, I have to ask Cerrato if we are anywhere close to reaching peak vintage? “No. The early adopters are looking for something else, but for the mainstream it remains a strong trend,” he answers instantly.

The vintage inspired Montblanc Heritage Pulsograph limited edition

According to Cerrato, the trick to getting a vintage revival right is by preserving the spirit of the original watch but giving it a new strength. “It’s like the Porsche 911 – over the years this model’s basic design has remained but every iteration is always different. This is what keeps it relevant. It’s the same for a vintage revival watch as well. It’s a bit like being a chef. I rely on my gut feeling and experience to pick up the authentic, vintage traits and mix it with the contemporary. It’s a lot harder than what some brands are doing which is a bit like copy and paste. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t need artistic directors and product development teams. All you need is a scanner and 3D printer and it’s done.”

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 print magazine