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Montblanc, watchmaking in the design era

INTERVIEW WITH DAVIDE CERRATO

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February 2018


Montblanc, watchmaking in the design era

Why are vintage and tool chronographs so sought-after at auction? Is this minimalism a passing fad or a genuine groundswell? After years of mechanical escalation, the industry finally seems to be reining in. We meet Davide Cerrato, head of Montblanc’s watch division, who turns his keen eyes on the ongoing changes, and reveals his satisfaction at this newfound appreciation of simplicity.

J

ust as the fragrance industry has its “noses”, Davide Cerrato is known as an “eye” in the watch business. This Italian native, ever charming and impeccably groomed, now places his visual acuity at the service of Montblanc’s watch division, having contributed significantly to turning around the fortunes of Tudor, a company now enjoying a new golden age thanks to the winning formula of chronographs, vintage chic, accessible pricing and legibility, which at the same time has sparked a resurgence in the brand’s value at auction.

Montblanc, watchmaking in the design era
THE OBJECT:
“I’ve just returned from London, the only place where I can comfortably go out wearing a British bowler hat. I love hats. In fact, I recently treated myself to an American park ranger’s hat! In Switzerland people don’t wear hats so much, and that’s a shame. Someone once asked me what I wanted to bring to the watch industry. Style!”

So, why Montblanc? Because... behind Montblanc, there’s Minerva. It was Montblanc’s acquisition of this historic manufacture, known for its stopwatches, that first drew Davide Cerrato’s attention. Minerva celebrates its 160th anniversary next year, which provides a convenient opportunity to take stock of the main aesthetic trends in the market. The age of technical extravagance seems to be drawing to a close, and the conversation is now turning to design and minimalism.

If we compare current watch production with that of five years ago, it seems like the aesthetic codes have been toned down. Many new watches today are strikingly similar to models from fifty years back, while the 50-year-old originals are doing very well at auction, particularly chronographs and sports watches.

Let’s take a step back. In the 1970s, quartz came as a terrible shock for the Swiss watch industry, and the industry’s response was to make mechanical watches even more technical. At the same time, design fell somewhat by the wayside.

The 2008–2009 crisis marked the beginning of the end of this technical phase. We have returned to an era of design, and a desire to take the best of mechanical craftsmanship and form. In watchmaking, as in any industry, design determines the first impression; it’s the most important element. Today, we are increasingly attracted to minimalism, and we can see the importance of design. The question we should ask is not what we can add, but what we can remove from our watches. Let’s not forget that the raison d’être of a watch is primarily to be a measuring instrument. We are reclaiming the watch’s primordial features; the legibility of sports watches, which is so keenly appreciated today, and their purely functional quality. A new cycle is beginning, drawing inspiration from vintage models.

Montblanc ExoTourbillon Chronographe
Montblanc ExoTourbillon Chronographe

This cycle isn’t necessarily favourable for today’s watchmakers. On the one hand, many new entry-level players are targeting young people by using vintage inspiration to create a luxury image at a competitive price. And on the other, many collectors seem to prefer the originals, and are turning to auctions!

I don’t believe that this is blurring the lines of luxury, because the difference between a luxury item and a fashion item rests on two elements. First: analytical depth, which means that you can continue to explore your past and learn from every stage. And second, technical quality; we have conducted research into materials, which has led to the development of watches like the TimeWalker Pythagore UltraLight Concept, which weighs less than 20 grams. It could scarcely be more minimalist. It is here that design meets innovation.

Moreover, I believe that every era experiences its own cycle of rebirth, creating new collectors. In my view, the markets for new and old watches have always coexisted. Retailers have always stocked second-hand watches. Vintage is part of the system.

Nevertheless, the internet has multiplied the possibilities for buying and reselling second-hand watches. That has to change things, doesn’t it?

It’s true that these days, not only does everyone own a watch, but everyone can become a watch trader. It’s an amplification of a pre-existing phenomenon.

Some brands are now trying to take control over second- hand watch sales, and over the destiny of their old products. Is Montblanc one of them?

No, this applies mainly to more high-end brands. But I won’t rule out the idea of paying closer attention to auctions in the future. Today, events like Only Watch provide a benchmark for the value of a brand’s heritage.

Let’s talk about your heritage. Next year marks the 160th anniversary of Minerva, which is now part of Montblanc. Why did you not revive the Minerva brand, given that it is greatly appreciated by connoisseurs?

II should point out that Minerva has always been more focused on the product than on its own brand. Its primary role was as a supplier. Minerva watches are rather rare. Today, our movements are signed Minerva, and we have extended the life of the manufacture. That seems to me to be coherent. With Minerva, we have a truly creative laboratory, along with the brand’s technical and design heritage, which encompasses dials and cases as well as movements. The company archives are a rich source of value. We have already begun to exploit Minerva’s heritage through our 1858 and TimeWalker collections. The RallyTimer, for example, brings back Minerva’s stopwatch spirit. Stopwatches were the computers of their day! They were true instruments, with very clear requirements in terms of readability.

Speaking of readability, it’s easy to feel lost amid Montblanc’s continuing expansion – perhaps a legacy of Jérôme Lambert’s creative activism – which now stretches from smartwatches to grand complications. What is Minerva’s role within this very broad range of products?

The integration of the Minerva manufacture has enabled us to create high-end pieces like the ExoTourbillon, and we can now apply these innovations more widely to the rest of the company’s products. The ExoTourbillon is a good example, because it then gave birth to the slim model.

Montblanc 4810 ExoTourbillon Slim
Montblanc 4810 ExoTourbillon Slim

Our stock-in-trade is simple: mechanical watches. We do mechanical watchmaking with a high intrinsic value, a good entry price and, in addition, some very accomplished complications. The Summit smartwatch has broad appeal with Millennials, and we are now applying our vintage dial designs to smartwatches.

But you have identified an important element: we will gradually move from ten to six collections, to make our company’s offer more “legible”, with a fundamental demarcation between sport and heritage. For each theme, we offer a broad range of fine watchmaking, at the right price positioning. There is no reason for us to change our strategy, as some brands are doing, because we have always built our brand around the concept of fair value. Our core business remains the segment between 2,000 and 5,000 francs, but we also have ranges between 20,000 and 100,000 francs.

Photographe: Fabien Scotti|Arcade Europa Star