In Villeret, near Neuchâtel, there is a watchmaking company that has succeeded in doing something that 30 years ago few would have said possible. In the toughest years of the quartz crisis, when hundreds of factories were throwing out their equipment in order to embrace electronics or mass production, Minerva continued in the old tradition, doing virtually everything in-house using time-hallowed crafts techniques. In 2007, Montblanc took over responsibility for Minerva, enabling the Manufacture to continue its work, creating innovative timepieces that are renewing and maintaining the old traditions.
Not only did Montblanc Villeret keep the old equipment, they still use it. From the massive presses that stamp the base plates right through to tiny devices used to calibrate the balance spring, the machines have a definitely period look about them, with the original nameplates, battered paint, and all those tiny marks and patina that come from decades of constant operation.
Montblanc Villeret is not only surviving, it's thriving. It produces only about 200 watches per year, but these exert a powerful attraction on collectors who are willing to order and pay for a watch that they may only see 18 months later. Prices up to about €230,000 make them objects for people who recognize and appreciate superbly-crafted timepieces. At the moment, the spotlight is on a watch called Metamorphosis, an amazing piece of micro-technology developed by the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie, led by Demetrio Cabiddu at the Manufacture, according to a concept by two young watchmakers who presented their idea to the Institut. Johnny Girardin and Franck Orny wanted to build a watch like a Transformers robot, one that would magically change into something else at the touch of a button. It has seen the light only recently, after four years' development.
To see it in action is so incredible that it's hard to describe. (Click below to watch a video).
The watch, shaped like a teardrop, has a top dial for the hours, a retrograde centre minutes hand, and a large centre seconds hand. A subdial at the 6 o'clock position indicates the date. When the slide on the side of the watch is pressed, the lower subdial deconstructs, and disappears into the structure. Another dial appears to replace it, the minute counter of the chronograph. A similar transformation occurs on the top dial, changing the watch's functions from time-date to time-chronograph. Perhaps the most mind-boggling thing is that the functions continue to operate during transformation, so that, if you start the chronograph while the watch is in chronograph mode, and then change it to time-date mode, and then back to chrono, it will still be obediently measuring the time from when you first activated it. The conversion process takes about 15 seconds, and takes a lot of components. In total there are 780 in the case.
This watch is part of the 'Timewriter' project, in which Montblanc Villeret invites young watchmakers to present original and innovative ideas for development. In the case of Metamorphosis, not only were Girardin and Orny paid during the many months that they worked at the Manufacture on the development of their concept, they will also retain ownership of the patents granted to the watch.
Another Timewriter project watch is the Bi-Fréquence watch, a mechanical watch that follows the Minerva traditions for chronography – the brand was one of the first to create a stopwatch capable of 1/100th of a second accuracy – and can measure an interval of time to an accuracy of one-thousandth of a second. The question that people are asking now is: what will the next Timewriter be?
Meanwhile, at Montblanc Villeret, the Manufacture continues to make its classic watches, often based on 155 years of horological history. It also repairs old Minerva watches that are occasionally returned for servicing. When I was visiting the factory, I saw a scene that remains deeply engrained in my memory: a young man wearing bumster low-waistline jeans and a hoodie top, dedicating rapt attention to a gold movement perhaps 60 years old while measuring its accuracy after having finished his work on it. The brand has successfully achieved a change in generation while retaining its reputation at the peak of traditional watchmaking.
Production phases include traditional processes and new features. The composition of the wire used for balance springs is top secret, and likewise the procedures used to create a flat-section wire, to be used for the balance spring, that is thinner than a human hair. The final procedure of linking the balance spring to the balance wheel involves harmonizing the spring's natural oscillation frequency to a reference spring underneath, purely by sight, and by changing the length of the wire. The watchmaker then folds the extremity of the wire up and over – the Philips curve – to create the notoriously difficult Breguet balance spring.
Another delicate component is the 'double infinity' tourbillon bridge, whose many internal angles require hours of patient work to bring to perfection. The craftspeople search for their own gentian wood in the local countryside. This plant has a woody stem that is exactly the right consistency to polish the metal without scratching it. Little longer than a fingernail and much narrower, the tourbillon bridge alone takes 40 hours' work to bring it to perfection. Though each one is exactly the same, each watchmaker has his or her own individual style, and so when a watch is returned for servicing, they can recognize who it was who made that particular bridge.
The final assembly of a Montblanc Villeret watch is, like all other operations, performed by hand. While a relatively simple calibre can be assembled in a few days, a complication movement could take even longer, up to six weeks or even more. Perhaps it is no surprise that in Shanghai, a customer said to Demetrio Cabiddu, "You know, considering all the years of development, and the work that goes into your watches, the prices are really too low."
But Montblanc Villeret is about preserving watchmaking tradition rather than about making profits. The watches are for a select group of collectors and investors, and the watchmakers are there because they enjoy it. Above all Monsieur Cabiddu, who, when he is not travelling the world to present his unique products, supervises day-to-day work at the Manufacture. Sometimes he takes work home. "Last weekend, I decided to wear a watch for a few days, one that had been completed and had passed all the tests. I even had it on while I was chopping some wood, just to make sure that everything was perfect." The idea of wearing a €230,000 watch while wielding an axe seems like an audacious move to me, but perhaps it's just the 'hand-made' concept applied to quality control. The watch passed this final test with flying colours, of course.