< Up Close >
“With childlike exuberance, Mr Bethge took me inside his plush cabin and showed me a huge photograph of the Swiss Alps on the wall. He asked me to identify Mont Blanc. Seeing me hesitate in making a guess, he explained it was a Japanese masterpiece where all the peaks were a photographic interpretation of Mont Blanc. I knew I was in for an interesting conversation with the man at the helm of a brand as iconic as Mont Blanc itself ”
– B y Mitrajit Bhattacharya
Let me start by asking you about Montblanc’s DNA.
Montblanc is more than a hundred years old. From the beginning, the brand has stood for timeless elegance and craftsmanship. We have been zealously guarding this tradition for the past century and will continue to do so in the years to come. When the founders named the company after the highest mountain in Europe, they used the name as a commitment for superlative European craftsmanship. This has certainly helped Montblanc tremendously in the diversification process, especially when Montblanc introduced watches in 1997.
Montblanc’s DNA is about classical and elegant shapes coupled with the highest quality and manufacturing excellence; this is how we started with the watch business.
Could you take us through the history, like what were the maiden products?
When we introduced watches in 1997, many people were curious how a writing instrument brand that had not been in the watch business could succeed. But what they missed was the fact our customers, which we had acquired over the many years, had one strong belief that Montblanc represents quality; it’s a brand that has manufacturing competence and produces products that have a timeless classical design.
This capability was established by the founders for they were craftsmen who wanted to create a fountain pen that you could take along with you when travelling without requiring to use a bottle of ink. This was the Rougeet Noir, the first pen created by Montblanc. The biggest development, of course, came in 1924 when we created the Meisterstück that established the Montblanc brand. This icon is on display in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Arts in New York). Classical design is the philosophy that still guides us today when we think about new products. You will never tire of using a Montblanc product because it has a timeless classical design.
Take, for example, this new watch, (points at the new launch of 2008 on his wrist) its new movement, and the way it works in new ways. I think this costs around 37,000 euros. Ten years down the line when somebody shows it to his friends and says, “I bought this platinum watch 10 years ago and paid 37,000 euros,” his friends would probably say, “Wow, only 37,000 euros!” That is why timeless classical design is of utmost importance to us.
If I get you right, you have remained true to the basic philosophy of keeping timeless elegance.
Not only timeless elegance but also the highest quality and manufacturing competence. When we started our watch business, we knew we had to learn a lot. Fortunately, we were by then part of the Richemont Group that has an enormous wealth of knowledge in watches. However, that was not enough for us. So we invested a lot of money in our own watch manufacturing unit at Le Locle near La Chaux-de-Fonds where we developed skills to manufacture our watches. Last year we added one more watch manufacture Villeret which is the old Minerva’s factory. This allows us to do something similar to what we did with our writing instruments.
The new manufacture is an artisan studio where we have goldsmiths and stone setters who do not work in a regular factory – a lot of handwork goes into this product. Of course, you cannot compare this with a product of which only a few pieces are produced. Basically, it is redeveloping things in a standardised manner but producing it like an artisan would. In fact, when I met the head of our Villeret manufacturer, it was like déjà vu.
Had he been with Minerva?
That’s right. When I went to the artisan shop where we do special things, it reminded me of the artisans in Hamburg. I thought it would be wonderful to have something like that as well for Montblanc. As we developed our watch business, we introduced standardised processes and continually strived to acquire more knowledge. This led to the development of the Montblanc Chronograph.
In Villeret we are focussing on artisanship and I believe it is complementing our business because we have customers who are looking for the Meisterstück in watches as well. Besides, we are looking for artisan pieces where we can only do a few hundred pieces per year. For instance, last year we produced only 180 pieces for the Villeret collection and this year we hope to produce 300 pieces. This is heart of our watch strategy. With these watch collections we offer the same creativity and competence that we offer with our writing instruments.