For its watches, Montblanc operates from two manufacturing units, one in Le Locle, and one in Villeret, near Neuchatel. The second is a traditional building, filled with traditional machinery, in which watchmakers still make timepieces by hand, performing just about all operations, including construction of the balance springs, by hand. Montblanc’s racier and more youthful watches are made in the Le Locle manufacture, while the pieces emerging from Villeret are often limited series – the factory only makes a couple of hundred watches a year – of remarkable quality.
The Villeret works has a long history. From its foundation in 1858 up until 2007, it was a brand named Minerva, that had succeeded in surviving the quartz crisis by resolutely maintaining the old traditions. It was taken over by Montblanc, and the luxury brand ensured that the Villeret unit would continue to work in the same way. This commitment can be seen in a watch such as the ExoTourbillon Rattrapante,with the ExoTourbillon in view at the top of the dial, and the time and chronograph functions displayed on a series of dials further down.
The rattrapante chronograph function enables you to start the chronograph, and read the partial time by pressing the pusher at 2 o’clock, while the chronograph is still running. So the two chronograph second hands start out together, and when the pusher is pressed, one hand stops while the other keeps going. You can then reset the rattrapante function with another push on the pusher, and the light-coloured hand catches up with the blue chronograph hand. The mechanism is well illustrated in the Montblanc video further down. Follow this link for a selection of split-second chronograph watches.
The ExoTourbillon is a Montblanc patent, in which the tourbillon is different from the normal pattern in that the balance oscillates outside the cage. The logic of this arrangement is that the balance has a higher mass and higher inertia than usual, while the cage itself is lighter than usual. So less energy is absorbed by the rotation of the cage. This watch also has a slow tourbillon rotation, once every four minutes as compared to the more usual one minute. The result of all this is that the power provided by the single barrel can be used for both the tourbillon and the chronograph functions, while still maintaining a power reserve of 50 hours.
The dial arrangement is balanced and symmetrical, and it is only on a second glance that you begin to realize that it’s not the normal arrangement. Three hands are pivoted at the centre, the skeletonized minute hand, and the two chronograph hands, one blued, the other pale gold. The continuously-running seconds dial is at 9 o’clock, and the chronograph minutes dial is at three o’clock. On the subdial at 6 o’clock, there is the hour hand, skeletonized in blue, and another black hour hand, showing the time in a second time zone (adjusting the time zone is performed using the pusher at 8 o’clock). Lastly, on a very small subdial at 4 o’clock, the hours are shown on a 24-hour dial, in which the main indications are night and day as applied to the second time zone. So, in the photograph below, the skeletonized blue hands are showing the local time of ten past ten, while the black second time-zone hand is showing 2 o’clock, and the 24-hour dial shows that it’s two o’clock in the morning.
The dial, in gold, with rhodium plating and grainé texturized decoration, is very three-dimensional, with, at the outer edge, a flange (réhaut) marked with fifth-of-a-second graduations for the chronograph function, The subdials have applied grand feu enamel scales, and the subdial at 6 o’clock has an interesting, quirky design, with two asymmetric bands of enamel bearing the roman numerals in black.
Finish is superb throughout, with all components lavished attention. None more than the figure-of-eight-shaped tourbillon bridge. The final stages of finishing are performed with gentian wood, and the artisans who work on them search for their own sticks in the local countryside. Why gentian wood? It has exactly the right characteristics to polish the metal without scratching it. Just this one part can take up to 40 hours to achieve the right finish, and a watchmaker can recognize whether he or she made that particular bridge.
This is a limited edition of 18 watches, part of the Villeret 1858 collection. The gold case is large at 47 mm, and it has a sapphire caseback revealing parts of the movement: the chronograph column wheel at 6 o’clock, the split-second column wheel near the split-second button, and between the two, the various levers used for the chronograph mechanism. The balance has a frequency of 18,000 oscillations per hour, 2.5 per second, which enables elapsed intervals to be measured to the nearest fifth of a second. Price is €250,000. Find out more about Montblanc watches at montblanc.com