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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Montblanc’s Villeret Luxury Watches Keep The Minerva Soul

The home of traditional Swiss watch company now owned by luxury brand, Montblanc. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

VILLERET, Switzerland — In the Swiss watch industry, it could be said that the more things change the more they stay the same. This is particularly true for the watch company known today as “Montblanc Manufacture in Villeret.”

The company was founded in 1858 as the H. & C. Robert watchmaking factory by brothers Charles-Yvan and Hyppolite Robert inside the family house in this picturesque village on the edge of the Jura mountains. The company took on the Minerva name in 1923 and kept it for 84 years. 

Some of the components that make up a watch movement. All pieces are made in house in the Swiss watchmaking tradition. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

Almost from the beginning the company, which moved from its residential workshop to a true manufacturing facility across the street in 1887, produced in-house movements, particularly its chronographs that were so accurate and efficient they were used in the battlefields of World War I and II and to keep time for the events of the 1936 Winter Olympics. It was one of the first companies to produce a chronograph pocket watch, one of the first to produce movements for wristwatches, and one of the first to build a chronograph that could track hundredths of a second. The company also produced chronographs and classic watches for the general public. Needless to say the brand’s heritage and quality of their movements produced a loyal following.

A watchmaker creates one of the individual components of a movement. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

The company’s biggest change happened in 2000 when Italian investor Emilio Gnutti purchased it and changed its mission to produce haute horlogerie timepieces in-house using the same hand-made techniques and the philosophy of the brand. The new owner brought in Demetrio Cabiddu as its technical director. Then a change of seismic proportions happened in 2006 when luxury goods conglomerate, Compagnie Financière Richemont, purchased the company and from my understanding assigned the watch manufacturer to Montblanc—one of the many luxury brands it owns.

The balance spring (also known as a hairspring) is attached to the balance wheel to control the speed at which the wheels of the timepiece turn, and thus the rate of movement of the hands. These items are hand-made inside the factory. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

In the new atrium on the top floor of the historic manufacturing facility, Cabiddu, who is extremely passionate and protective of the company’s heritage, said he had some sleepless nights wondering what Montblanc, which was new to the staunchly traditional Swiss watch industry, was going to do with the company and its heritage. 

A skilled watchmaker attaches the balance spring to the balance wheel and then sets it over a timing device with a reference balance. She checks the difference in beats and bends the spring until they match.  Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

“Of course I was very worried, I was scared,” Cabiddu said in French through a translator. “There was a need to preserve the heritage and credibility of Minerva and this 150 years of expertise.” He added, “People who don’t have fear are people who don’t have a conscience.” 

Some of the older equipment in the factory includes this large stamping machine. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

It turned out that there was no need to fear. Montblanc, the German company with its own 106-year history as a manufacturer of luxury writing instruments, not only bought into the legacy of Minvera, but in some cases expanded upon it. 

Another example of the early equipment that is still being used in the Villeret factory is this vertical drill. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

In fact, Montblanc’s inexperience in the Swiss watch industry “turned out to be an advantage,” Cabiddu said. “Montblanc trusted us. In hindsight it turned out to be the best choice.” 

Before Montblanc took control of the company, it was known for 84 years as Minerva. The toolboxes still carry the name and according to technical director, Demetrio Cabiddu, still maintains the Minerva heritage. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

There were some changes. Most obvious was the name change to reflect the location of the company. “Losing the name was a solution I had to take,” Cabiddu said. “Today I laugh about it a lot more. I used to cringe (when hearing the new name). In hindsight it was probably the right thing to do as we move into the future.” 

Two persons are dedicated to working with clients all over the world to create hand-drawn models of bespoke watches they would like to own. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

Montblanc also renovated the manufacturing facility. However, restoration is a better way to describe the work. Apart from the new, modern atrium with a view of the countryside, a fresh coat of paint and some structural repairs, little appears to have changed. 

Montblanc Collection Villeret 1858 Vintage Tachydate

Montblanc renamed the building the “Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie,” and created a foundation under the same name, which Montblanc said in a statement is, “dedicated to classical fine watchmaking and the upholding of traditional skills and special complications,” adding that it “supports young watchmakers through internships, commissioning research on the history of traditional watchmaking and initiates new developments with traditional techniques in watchmaking.”

Montblanc Collection Villeret 1858 Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique

It isn’t clear to me how this institute or foundation operates. What is clear is that it hasn’t changed the focus of the company. Villeret is a watch manufacturer that employs 36 full-time workers and four consultants and produces between 200 and 250 limited-edition hand-made timepieces per year, Cabiddu said. Everything is done in house with the exception of the dials, hands, straps and cases. 

Montblanc Collection Villeret 1858 Régulateur Nautique Timepiece

Large stamping machines and vertical drills that date back approximately 80 years share the building with modern CNC and CAD equipment. Some machines are so old parts aren’t available anymore so watchmakers have to hand-build the parts and even the tools to repair the equipment. The company produces chronographs, tourbillons and classic watch lines. In addition, it creates bespoke timepieces for private clients. Two designers are dedicated to creating hand-drawings of the timepieces based on specifications of these collectors. 

The company was founded in 1858 as the as the H. & C. Robert watchmaking factory by brothers Charles-Yvan and Hyppolite Robert in the house across the street from the current manufacturing facility. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

With its trademarked V-shaped bridge and a small arrow, the highly polished movements were always a site to behold. However, the outside of the watches were traditional and one dimensional. Montblanc added variety to the overall appearance of the timepieces, Cabiddu said.

The company, formerly called Minerva, was known for its chronograph movements. Here is some the company's earlier chronograph pocket watches. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

“Our movements were always beautiful,” he said. “Montblanc added a diversification of the aesthetic.” 

The company still does repair work on antique watches that were built prior to Montblanc's ownership of the brand. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

But still he describes the timepieces they make as “understated luxury,” and added that Montblanc’s own history shows that it respects and enhances this philosophy. “Montblanc is not really big with being in your face.” 

This philosophy of beauty could certainly describe the town that now shares the company’s name. Very little seems to have changed in the countryside outside the building, yet its prosperity shows that it is able to adjust to changes in the world while maintaining its heritage. Looking out from the atrium just across the street is the yellow-colored house where the watch company was founded more than 150 years ago, now occupied by a new family. Beyond the house cows graze on a sheet of green. Past the meadow are the Jura mountains covered with the flaming reds, oranges and yellows that represent the leaves of autumn on this late October day. If that’s not enough, above the cliffs in the powder blue late afternoon sky is a crescent moon.

It’s a scene that one could easily describe as understated luxury.

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