Blancpain's modern history began in the 1980s. It was one of the many Swiss watch companies to have suffered the effects of the quartz crisis. In 1980, Blancpain was part of the SSIH group that included many watch companies, and a few years after, SSIH sold the brand name Blancpain to movement manufacturer Frédéric Piguet, led by Jacques Piguet, and Jean-Claude Biver. Together, Biver and Piguet started a new chapter for the brand, using its considerable expertise for its own watches – during the previous decade, Blancpain had been making many high-quality movements for other brands. Later Blancpain returned to Swatch Group, that Nicolas Hayek had developed from SSIH. Today, Blancpain’s success can be described in the figure of 1,100 employees, most of whom work at the company's two units in Le Sentier and Le Brassus, the rest in other countries worldwide. Since 2002 it has helmed by Marc A. Hayek.
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Legend has it that in the old days, watchmaking became an important trade in the Vallée de Joux because the farmers there didn't have much to do in the winter months when the snow was down and the livestock was safe in the barns, and so they made basic movements that they sold to watchmaking companies. Today, watchmaking is a massive, labour-intensive commitment. A watch consists of from 150 to 850 components or more. Most of these begin in the form of raw metal, cut into unfinished pieces by sophisticated machines, and then finished and assembled by hand.
Most brands don't bother. They buy movements ready-made. So many watches look very similar. Blancpain don't have this problem. Their watches all have a unique appearance, from the Fifty Fathoms diving watches to the pieces right at the top of the range, with tourbillon or carrousel complications. A watch like the Blancpain Tourbillon 66240-3431-55B defies belief. Just the tourbillon assembly – the balance that revolves once a minute to cancel the detrimental effects of gravity on precision – has dozens of parts and weighs a fraction of a gram. Each tiny component is made in-house, and finished by hand using traditional Vallée de Joux techniques. Blancpain is one of the few maisons whose movements are assembled from start to finish by a single watchmaker.
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Watchmaking is like walking a financial tightrope. Even though designing a new movement has been facilitated by computers, occasionally the prototype just doesn't work and the project has to be abandoned. Not to mention the question of time: developing a movement takes a couple of years, and a company has to look into the future and try to gauge what the market will want five or six years down the line. A high-end timepiece isn't just a product: it's a work of art.
Today the Vallée de Joux is classic Swiss countryside with more cows than humans. Watchmaking factories are located in villages, and most watchmakers live in the valley and have to be content with a relatively quiet lifestyle. It does have its plus side. From the Blancpain manufacture at Le Brassus, the nearest skilift is 50 metres uphill. A fair number of the watchmakers kit up and spend their lunch break skiing down the slopes.
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