In the beginning, there was the hand. Five fingers, controlled by heart and mind, extended by the tools, also made by hand, cutting, assembling, polishing and engraving; from start to finish, a work not just of the body but soul.
In a time of standardised luxury production, Swiss haute horlogerie still distinguishes itself by championing something that no industrial machine can yet replicate: the artisan’s hand.
Though today, machines cut out components, perform rudimentary polishing and engraving, the final gestures are still made by the artisan, a tradition perpetuated since the birth of Swiss watchmaking.
The Latin word “manufacture” like that of Montblanc’s Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie is there to remind us of the primacy of humble hands. The Minerva Institute, purchased by the Richemont Group in 2004, is one of the few manufactures that has been producing watches and movements continuously since its inception.
Minerva, a famous name in movements, was founded in 1858 in the town of Villeret, Switzerland. Once a bustling centre of watchmaking, now Minerva is one of two companies that remain. Its eventual secondment to Montblanc has allowed Minerva to remain committed to its roots – making the finest mechanical movements, using traditional production methods mixed with modern ways of thinking and manufacturing.
The company that would become Minerva was initially called H & C Robert Co. An established watchmaker, the company producing its own escapements, movements and cases, and had all the skills for complete watch production – one of the rare 19th-century exemplars for a manufacture we recognise today.
By 1929, the company was renamed Minerva S.A. and then was sold just six years later to two long time employees – Charles Haussener and Jacques Pelot. They then continued Minerva’s concentration on small production runs of exclusive, mechanically complicated watches which has continued, uninterrupted, to the present day.
And Time Stood Still
The building which serves as the reception area to Minerva has been in constant use since 1902. In fact, there is still a plethora of archival work going on within these walls. From new old stock enamel dials to movement parts for the original Calibre 13, Minerva’s iconic column wheel chronograph movement, it’s quite impressive how Montblanc was able to preserve so many original Minerva components.
That said, Montblanc did renovate the old buildings but the brand wanted a refit that would reflect the company’s respect for tradition, so while the older outside buildings were refurbished, as much of the classic aesthetics were kept (windows, tiling, etc) much like modern Minerva Monopusher Chronographs today.
With over a century of in-house manufacture including balance springs and wheel, plus design and manufacture of over 90% of movement parts within the facility, this substantially reduces the time needed to build prototypes, which explains how they can quickly move through the “trial and error” phases of prototyping; this in turn creates a key competitive advantage for Montblanc and when it comes to novelties like the ExoTourbillon Rattrapante and the Metamorphosis.
The ExoTourbillon represented a pinnacle for tourbillon watches, with ingenious construction that allowed a huge balance wheel, much larger than any other tourbillon in existence, rotating outside (hence “exo”) the cage with a smaller hairspring inside the rotating cage. This unique Tourbillon architecture granted the advantages of a large balance, imparting greater stability in chronometric rate, while giving the benefit of a tourbillon without undue influence from gravitational forces.
It was a marvel to look at prototypes, which we were sure were handled by 30-year veterans like now retired Head Watchmaker Dimitri Cabbidu. At the R&D department, we also got to play with the fourth-generation mighty morphin Montblanc Metamorphosis. Channelling its metamorphosis through a shutter system that opens and closes a pair of apertures on the dial at six and 12 o’clock, truly earning the name “research” in Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie.
At six o’clock, there’s a traditional 24-hour world-time disc replicating a three dimensional domed globe, hand-painted to illustrate the Northern hemisphere and indicate a passive display of the world’s time-zones (plus day/night indication) reminiscent of a complication from sister manufacture in Montblanc’s Le Locle facility – the 1858 Geosphere; representing a wellspring of unprecedented cooperation that Montblanc watchmaking as a whole can tap into to serve all price-positioning in the watch market.
When the sliding lever built into the left side of the case is actuated, the dial opens up at both six and 12 o’clock to reveal Montblanc’s patented one-minute Exo Tourbillon, held aloft by a sapphire crystal bridge instead of regular brass. Talk about serious watchmaking.
The truth is, beneath the flash and splendour, haute horlogerie is a pursuit born of extraordinary slowness and patience. It bides its time and builds upon centuries of fine watchmaking tradition: just open any door at the Villeret Manufacture and the first overwhelming sensation (beyond the hallow of provenance), is the incredible silence.
Men working in silence because watchmaking is laborious and a work of concentration. Take for example, the tremendous amount of effort required to conceive the literal heart of a mechanical calibre: the hairspring.
A hairspring breathes, gives life, once set within a wheel and balance assortment, it provides impulse to the escarpment. Given that the manufacturing process of the balance springs remains constant, it would surprise you to learn that variables can be introduced in the very act of creation itself which can lead watchmakers to have to “adjust” the chronometry of a balance with weights for more precision.
Montblanc tells us, “the manufacturing process of the balance springs can vary a little bit (influence of the temperature in particular)”. The addition of weights by the watchmakers intervenes because there is also the influence of the balance wheel alone which intervenes and these are indispensable adjustments.
Curious as to all the effort it takes just to make a hairspring, we wondered why the spirals don’t come out of the lengthening and curling machines exactly the same as each other and the watchmaker on duty answered, “after drawing and rolling, there may be small dimensional differences including the influence of temperature, machine settings, etc.”.
Ultimately, each balance wheel requires a different type of adjustment before leaving Villeret because each piece is made by hand, the balance wheels are assembled and bent “by hand”, counted by hand, and the balances are then sent to specialist artisans for decoration, again, by hand.
Today, the Villeret manufacture is Montblanc’s Movement and Innovation Excellence Center. Since 2015, all the manufacture movements and complications are assembled by watchmakers in Villeret and completely tested following Montblanc’s quality standards (rate, amplitude, power reserve, etc.) before they are sent to Le Locle for the final encasing.
When it comes time for servicing, your high complication typically returns to the watchmaker who first breathed life into it, much like timepieces of old, when production was executed in the style of an atelier: one watch, one watchmaker. Here in the snowy valleys of Villeret, Montblanc still measures time in the stillness of time.