Writing a future in watch-making

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am

Montblanc, better known for its fine writing instruments than its timepieces, is making its mark with timeless designs

SEVEN YEARS AGO Montblanc extended its business of making fine writing instruments to include the manufacture of watches, creating timepieces that are contemporary and sophisticated.

Among products that have impressed the market are jewellery versions of chrono movements for women.

But, make no mistake, Montblanc does not want to be mistaken for a fashion brand.

'Our female watches have fashionable elements, but we are not a fashionable brand,' said Montblanc's international marketing manager, Markus Diegelmann.

Nor does Montblanc want to follow trends.

'We have timeless designs,' Mr Diegelmann said. 'You can wear our watches now or in 10 years' time. We do not follow trends. We have our own outstanding design. Behind the big letters and big watch face - the trend at the moment - are a lot of details.'

Nor is the company intimidated by players who have been in the industry for a century or more.

'Everybody has to start some day,' said Mr Diegelmann.

'Other watch brands have a history of 100 years. We see it as a good story.

'One important element in a Montblanc watch is that it is Swiss-made. We are big in writing and, as part of the Richemont Group, we can share [our] know-how and resources,' he said.

Montblanc sees its challenge in creating an identity alongside the giants in the industry.

Its first step was to place the Montblanc trademark star on the watch crown while putting great effort into the design of the profile.

'Montblanc places great emphasis on the design of the profile of a watch because it is the first sign a person sends about a watch,' said Montblanc president Norbet Platt. 'We have a very significant profile in the new line of watches.'

Although the company has upgraded its assembly plant in Le Locle, Switzerland, to increase production capacity to 200,000 watches a year, Montblanc is not about to move into making watch movements.

'There are less than 10 makers of movements altogether,' Mr Platt said. 'If we go into movement, we would have to raise the entry point to Euro50,000 [about HK$460,000].'

Montblanc is using just below half of its factory capacity, distributing the 100,000 watches produced a year through 230 boutiques and 1,800 jewellers.

Europe accounts for 38 per cent of sales, Asia 29 per cent, the United States 25 per cent, and the Middle East and Africa 8 per cent.

The brand believes it represents an elite, cultured lifestyle and the best of European craftsmanship. It also believes it has made significant strides in the watch-making business in the past seven years.

'Today we are a force,' Mr Platt said. 'Not a big force but a meaningful force in watch-making.'

Montblanc offers five product families.

The 'heritage line' Star is closest in design to the writing products. It was Montblanc's first line of watches. A new product launched under this line this year is the Star Chronograph GMT Automatic, with a face 42mm in diameter.

The core collection, and also the entry point, is Summit (Euro680 to Euro2,950). The collection is biased towards women, and uses only quartz movements.

'We see that mechanical is still a trend. Watch brands must always offer quality mechanical movements and, at the same time, the option of quartz movement,' Mr Platt said.

The Sport collection, which bears traces of the Star style, now comes covered in diamonds or precious stones to target the women's market.

'Women like to wear big watches, so we have taken the sports watch style into the women's arena,' Mr Platt said.

The TimeWalker line, which emphasises the profile of a watch, offers the Chronograph Automatic model this year, featuring a 43mm case and a black or white dial.

'We are strong in chronograph. This has something to do with the positioning of Montblanc,' Mr Platt said.

While intending to keep the core of its watch business in the price range of Euro1,000 to Euro3,000, Montblanc made an exception to the rule with a Euro75,000 jewel-studded quartz watch for its Profile collection.

'We wanted to show we could make top-of-the-range watches,' Mr Diegelmann said.

'Anyone can put a big ugly diamond on a watch,' Mr Platt added. 'We use a nice graphic diamond on the profile of the watch. We did not show the glitz [to the media] because it's not the core business.'