Mont Blanc, the mountain that is the origin of the brand's name and its logo, has six glaciers running in different directions, all united by the snow and ice dome at the summit. The brand is rather like this, with a range of very different products that all share the same DNA. Leather goods, writing instruments, jewellery and watches, the latter ranging from the superbly prestigious timepieces made at Villeret, and the innovative watches manufactured at Le Locle. What do they all have in common? Could it be luxury? We spoke to Lutz Bethge, CEO of the company, at the SIHH fair in Geneva, January 2013.
"I think that luxury is an expression of love. A luxury item is often given as a gift, to someone you love or appreciate. You look for something with a special touch, that speaks to the personality of the person, and then you say, I want this relationship to last for ever, so you buy something that has this special ingredient, so that in ten or twenty years you can say, I'm still proud of this, it's still so beautiful."
One very special feature about Montblanc's watches is their diversity, reflecting the two manufactures, one at Villeret producing some of the most extraordinary and innovative timepieces on the market today such as the ExoTourbillon Chronograph, and one at Le Locle, in which space-age technology and cutting-edge design are combined in watches in the Star, TimeWalker and Nicolas Rieussec collections. The two manufactures work in a mutually beneficial synergy, so that, for example, the Nicolas Rieussec watches are made in Le Locle, with an important horological design contribution from Villeret. We asked Lutz Bethge to summarize the most important new products shown at SIHH 2013.
"There are a few really big things. First, we believe that there are a lot of people out there who would like to have a watch with a small complication, something that makes the watch a bit more exciting, but they don't want to spend 10,000 Euro for that. We have worked on creating pieces that are attractive and beautiful, in the price range below 5,000 Euro. For example, in the Star line there is the Quantième Complet, which includes date, day, month, and moon phase, and in the steel version, you can get all that for 3,850 Euro."
It is a beautiful object, with day and month in windows above the centre, date shown by a fourth hand indicating numbers just inside the bezel, and a seconds hand with a small counterweight in the shape of the Montblanc logo. Classical and elegant, it has an alligator strap and a sapphire caseback.
"Then we have a new watch in the TimeWalker line, the TimeWalker World-Time Hemispheres. We know that many of our customers have friends and business colleagues who live in different time zones. So we have worked on the world time complication, but we have tried to give it a design twist, making it a bit more sporty. The version with steel bracelet and black dial retails at 4,390 Euro, while the version with white dial and black leather strap costs 3,790 Euro."
The design of this watch is very TimeWalker, in other words, fresh and modern. It is also innovative, with the 24-hour disc at the centre of the dial, which rotates so that you can see the time all over the world, and a map of the northern hemisphere seen from above the north pole. But what happens if you often travel to the southern hemisphere?
"I usually say, buy a second watch! This reference is available in two versions, north and south, with northern or southern hemisphere cities around the bezel, and different movements – the 24-hour disc turns in opposite directions. But of course not everyone listens to me. You can turn the North watch over, and you see the opposite pole and southern-hemisphere cities engraved on the back with the respective UMT time corrections." (Shown below, the Montblanc TimeWalker World-Time Hemispheres, South).
Lutz Bethge introduced another major innovation, which is the Nicolas Rieussec Rising Hours. "This watch is in a different league. This is a very special movement, an extension of the rotating discs reflecting the tradition of the first chronographs. In the Rising Hours complication, the hours are shown digitally, with skeleton numbers on a disc so that the digits change colour according to whether it is night or day. When you see it, it looks simple, but to get there wasn't so easy. Under the top white disc there is a second disc that is part grey, part dark blue, which moves only at 6.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., so that daytime numerals are shown in grey, and night-time numerals in blue. This is what we have achieved with this patented mechanism."
The Nicolas Rieussec has become even more striking by means of this development, with a skeletonized minute hand, and the two rotating discs for the chronograph function, controlled by a monopusher at 8 o'clock. Appearance is enhanced by the dial with grain d'orge guilloché, with an overall light tone complementing the case versions in platinum, red gold or steel.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to ask Montblanc's CEO a few marketing questions, for example on how his company manages the diversity between the different collections?
"Our diversity is an opportunity. We have four strong pillars in our brand, and that has helped us to be successful. We reached developing markets with our writing instruments much earlier, and this enabled us to gain a powerful foothold in countries such as China, Brazil or India. The 200-euro ballpoint or 300-euro wallet prepares the ground for the watches that cost much more but share the Montblanc star, which symbolizes that you are part of the successful part of society."
And what could be the role of e-commerce in Montblanc's marketing?
"There was the question of whether the customer would accept e-commerce for luxury products, because he wants to touch it, he wants to see it, he wants to get close to it, he wants explanations about it. Internet purchasing works for two reasons, convenience and price. We tested it in the U.S. last year, and this year in Germany, France and the UK, and we have seen that customers like using the system to make a gift. We offer a packaging service, and cards, and writing instruments and leather goods are ideal, because the customer knows all about the product. When it comes to watches, the situation is different, because he wants to compare various models and see the latest pieces. But without doubt, e-commerce is here to stay, and we are continuing to roll it out."
Of course the new Montblanc watches at SIHH 2013 included many more references. We will look at some of these in successive articles. The atmosphere at the Montblanc show was dynamic and optimistic, reflecting the work of a brand that is developing haute horlogerie and enabling whole new sectors of society to come into contact with the fascinating world of mechanical watches.