Writing Time

At Montblanc, Davide Cerrato’s first collections signal a shift toward automotive styling.

By Jonathan Bues

The Montblanc TimeWalker Automatic Chronograph UTC.

In the 20 years since Montblanc debuted its first timepiece collection, at SIHH in 1997, the global luxury Maison most often associated with fine writing instruments has evolved into a major player in haute horlogerie.

How did it happen?

Being part of Richemont, the second largest luxury group in the world, certainly didn’t hurt. But Montblanc’s horological prowess can also be attributed to an unusual, multipronged strategy that involves operating two Swiss watch manufactures. Both do excellent work—one in a contemporary way, the other using centuries-old techniques. Together, they form a modern company whose breadth of traditional métiers even includes crafting and shaping hairsprings by hand.

The Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph 1,000 Limited Edition.

Montblanc is both an exclusive and an aspirational maison. Its movements hailing from the Villeret Manufacture—the erstwhile Minerva—match or exceed the quality of any calibers currently being produced in Switzerland. The manufacture’s production is limited because at Minerva, everything—from the German silver plates to the in-house hairsprings—is made the old-fashioned way. Montblanc even welcomes touring retailers and journalists to see its hairsprings being spun at Minerva, a surprising instance of transparency for a part whose making is cloaked in secrecy at other watch factories, in the rare instances it isn’t simply purchased from an external supplier.

Minerva’s approach to hand-crafting watches is a dying art form. In an age that has seen many of the most prestigious horological marques embrace new materials such as silicon and new techniques such as LIGA, Montblanc’s Villeret manufacture boldly stands up for traditional techniques that reach back through the centuries. The craftsmen in Villeret ply their trade using machinery that previous generations of watchmakers also used to make some of the finest movements—mostly chronograph calibers—ever made in Switzerland.

The TimeWalker Rally Timer 100 on the wrist.

Less than an hour’s drive away, a state-of-the-art manufacture retrofitted into the lower level of an art nouveau mansion produces the more accessible products. It’s from this operation that the cover watch of this issue hails. The TimeWalker Chronograph UTC is as accurate an expression of automotive sportiness as one is likely to find in a timepiece. Its DLC-coated case and black dial lend a stealthily stylish face to a watch whose white indexes and hands provide at-a-glance legibility. These indications are complemented by red accents for the chronograph seconds hand, the cardinal positions on the dial, and the UTC hand.

Powering the watch is the MB 25.03 automatic chronograph movement with GMT function. Visible through the sapphire caseback, the movement is an enhanced version of the ETA 7754 base caliber.

The TimeWalker Chronograph UTC comes in a 43 mm diameter case and ships either on a rubber strap or a vintage-styled leather racing strap.

The front of MB M66.26 caliber.
The back of the MB M66.26 caliber.

This timepiece is joined by the TimeWalker Chronograph Automatic, which utilizes a similar auto-inspired design. This is available on a bracelet or on a leather strap, the latter for just under $4,000. The entry level to the new TimeWalker collection is an automatic three-hand with date whose good looks come via an obvious inspiration from high-end analog speedometers.

This watch is the hero piece in the introductions that bear the strong influence of both a new watch division managing director, Davide Cerrato, and a recently appointed CEO for Montblanc, Nicolas Baretzki, who  took the reigns of the Hamburg, Germany–based luxury maison when erstwhile CEO Jérôme Lambert was promoted to a role overseeing several maisons for Compagnie Financiére Richemont.

The Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph Rally Timer Counter Limited Edition and its vintage inspiration.

But it’s not so simple. Both factories’ efforts contribute to the advancement of a single maison. And the lines dividing the factories can themselves be blurred. The TimeWalker Collection, for instance, uses both Villeret and Le Locle­–made movements. This year it relaunched with renewed purpose and aesthetics courtesy of Cerrato. Cerrato is one of the few watch executives who have risen to household-name status among the watchmaking cognoscenti. His track record includes transformative successes notched at companies as diverse as Panerai, Tudor and, most recently
Montblanc, where his efforts are focused on timepieces. >

Among the ultra-high-end watches that made their SIHH debut with Cerrato’s new TimeWalker design direction were the TimeWalker Chronograph 1000 and the TimeWalker Chronograph Rally Timer Counter Limited Edition 100. The latter of these is a modern reinterpretation of Minerva’s well known historical rally timer pieces. The company that would go on to become one of Montblanc’s watchmaking wings had a reputation for making many of the world’s foremost chronographs and stopwatches in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Naturally, as the automobile and motorsport grew in prominence, Minerva made watches for drivers and for timing races. Cerrato discovered this heritage upon joining Montblanc, and he knew right away the direction in which he wanted to take TimeWalker.

The 1858 Automatic.

The Rally Timer Counter Limited Edition 100 is not just a watch. It is also a stopwatch that can be held in the hand and used to time events. Two small legs that pop out from the caseback give it a third look as a desk clock. But that’s not all. When worn on the wrist with its custom leather snap strap, the Rally Timer Counter Limited Edition 100 can be rotated up to 90 degrees to enhance its ergonomics and offer easy reading when one’s hands are gripping a steering wheel.

Inside is the MB 16.29 manual wind caliber, one of the most finely finished and most elegantly constructed manual wind chronograph calibers in the world. The Rally Timer Counter Limited Edition is listed as price upon request on the Montblanc website, (the price is currently set around $40,000).

The 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition.

The TimeWalker Chronograph 1000 Limited Edition 18 is an ultra-high-beat chronograph with a frequency of 360,000 beats per hour, or 100 beats per second. The TimeWalker Chronograph 1000 offers even greater insight into timed events via complex gearing and the addition of a “thousandths” wheel, which rotates ten times per second. In this way, the watch is able to extrapolate thousandths of a second from a frequency that would, with a conventional watch hand, display only hundredths of a second. Can any human start, stop, and reset this watch fast enough to make use of the thousandths feature? Not likely, but that’s not exactly the point of a chronograph engineered to push the limits of mechanical timekeeping.

This year also saw Montblanc enter the smartwatch arena with the evocatively named Summit. It runs on the recently released Android Wear 2.0 operating system and comes with a number of dials that are modeled after new and vintage-style Montblanc horological hits. The Summit is priced just below $1,000, allowing it to straddle the line between the aspirational and the affordable in a way that has distinguished much of Montblanc’s watchmaking since the beginning.

The Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph Automatic.

Montblanc is a major player not just within Richemont’s stable of horology maisons, but in the industry as a whole. Its capabilities in watchmaking are incredibly strong, especially when one considers that the whole enterprise began only 20 years ago. After all, what other watchmaker can claim six-figure high complications, a sub-$1,000 smartwatch, and everything in between?

Q&A with Davide Cerrato, Managing Director of the Watch Division at Montblanc

Closeup shot of the TimeWalker Chronograph 1,000 Limited Edition.

What inspired the new Timewalker Collection?

It was a double inspiration. When I got to Montblanc we began sifting through the tremendous archives of Minerva, and we saw all of these amazing historical examples of rally timers and stopwatches. We wanted to add a sporty element to the Montblanc collection and, given the maison’s history in stopwatches, an automotive element seemed like the logical avenue to bring sportiness to the line.

You elected to use bronze in a handful of models this year.

Yes, in the 1858 Collection, which also highlights the know-how of Minerva but in a vintage-inspired way. We did this with the 1858 Chronograph
Tachymeter, which had previously been available in precious-metal limited editions. Using bronze allowed us to emphasize the vintage appeal of this watch with a grade of the metal that grows an individual patina without ever developing verdigris. At a more accessible price point, we added vintage-inspired automatic and dual-time models with bronze bezels and stainless-steel cases.

You have a track record of watches that are critical and commercial successes. What is the key to making a watch that people want?

It’s a good question. A million-dollar question. I’m Italian, and I love cooking. When I was a child, my grandmother would cook the most amazing dishes. But if you asked her how she did it, she was incapable of telling you. There is a rational aspect to cooking, but a lot of it is also intuitive. I think creating a product is a bit like this. That being said, I have developed my own very specific way of putting together the recipe. Reinterpreting is very different from reissuing. I think in recent years we have seen a number of brands simply reissuing what has been successful in the past. This is bad for value, because it calls into question what is worth more, the original or the new. I prefer to reinterpret the spirit of the watch. If you are capable of discovering the true spirit and merging that with a contemporary touch, then you are onto something. No one would imagine reissuing an old car with the exact same materials and technology. If you can find the original spirit and combine it with the spirit of today—if you make this match, you find the iconical power and keep it an icon.

If you didn’t work in watches, which industry would it be?