In 2002, when Marc Hayek, the grandson of Nicolas Hayek, was put in charge of Blancpain (he now also manages Breguet and Jaquet-Droz), the brand that was relaunched by Jean-Claude Biver and Frédéric Piguet in 1982 was producing around 3,000 watches. Today, just over a decade later, Blancpain produces “in excess of 20,000 watches”, employs almost 700 people in Switzerland and generates a turnover that can be estimated at around 300 million Swiss francs (these are unofficial figures, given that the three brands Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz “came close to a billion Swiss francs in sales in 2012, Breguet accounting for over half of this sum”).
Since 2010, when the movement manufacturer Frédéric Piguet was absorbed within the Blancpain manufacture, the factory has been largely self-sufficient and employs over 600 people, spread across two different production sites with totally different, but perfectly complementary, characters. The industrial arm alone accounts for 500 of these employees in a building in Le Sentier (Vallée de Joux), where the majority of the components for the in-house movements are produced (“exclusively mechanical since 1735”, as the provocative slogan dreamed up by Jean-Claude Biver proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of the quartz crisis). Since Piguet was fully incorporated within the company, Blancpain, which only uses its own movements, has been working exclusively for itself.
In nearby Le Brassus, the complicated watchmaking arm is established in an historic farm. Here, some fifty accomplished watchmakers and artisans work on the brand’s most sophisticated timepieces in an atmosphere that recalls the peaceful environment in which early watchmakers worked. The “Farm”, with its warmly wooden ambiance, is divided into specialised workshops where silence reins. There is a decoration workshop, where the work is done in the traditional way by hand: bevelling, file strokes, mirror polishing, circular graining, Côtes de Genève; the engraving workshop, whose excellence is well-known and where France’s Best Craftswoman works, with a blue-white-red ribbon on her collar. Throughout the “farm”, the workshops are separated by types of complication. Here, tourbillon, carrousel, running equation, perpetual calendar; there, minute repeater.
- CHRONOGRAPH LARGE DATE by Blancpain
But beyond the picture postcard image, the “farm” is also a laboratory for complications. Blancpain has thus been able regularly to surprise us with some remarkable, original and at times genuinely innovative accomplishments, such as the recent Villeret with traditional Chinese calendar. It’s a world first, which, besides the Gregorian calendar, also displays the traditional Chinese calendar based on a lunar cycle of 29.5 days. This is a highly complex calendar with a double-hour indication, the signs of the zodiac, the Chinese date and month, as well as indications for the five elements, celestial stems and leap months. The profound complexity of this movement is primarily due to the irregularity of the different cycles, an irregularity that requires a leap month to be added, because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year but becomes longer when this additional month is inserted! In short, it is a mathematical headache that took a long time (5 years) to convert into gear trains, cams, levers… for a total of 434 components that then had to be bevelled, polished, engraved… for this world premiere that absolutely had to be ready for the Year of the Dragon.
Another remarkable feat is Blancpain’s revival of the carrousel, a watchmaking mechanism whose effects are comparable to those of the tourbillon (compensation for the effects of gravity), but which had been eclipsed by the latter for quite some time, mainly because of the complexity in its assembly and adjustment. By reintroducing this forgotten mechanism (with the help of watchmaker Vincent Calabrese) and coupling it with other complications such as the minute repeater, Blancpain has created a new category of timepiece almost from scratch.
Although Blancpain raises the bar very high with these pieces, they obviously only represent a fraction of the brand’s total production. But they act as ambassadors to a clientele that prefers more traditionally horological collections. Among the five main product lines offered by Blancpain, the classic Villeret line (named after the place where the brand was born in 1735) is the most popular. The other major lines, in addition to the complications produced in Le Brassus, are the famous Fifty Fathoms divers’ collection, the L-Evolution sports collection and the Women line. We can look forward to new products in each of these lines in Basel.
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- Blancpain: The farm next door to the factory
Source: Europa Star April - May 2013 magazine issue