A Conversation with Montblanc CEO Jerome Lambert

At this year’s SIHH Rebecca Anne Proctor speaks with Montblanc CEO Jerome Lambert about the brand’s novelties for 2015, the importance of value and how to keep running the marathon of fine watchmaking.

The age of exploration and the art of travel are two key themes running through Montblanc’s 2015 novelties. Introduced was the Montblanc Collection Villeret Tourbillon Cylindrique Geosphères Vasco da Gama Limited Edition 18 – watch that honors the legacy of one of the world’s great explorers, Vasco da Gama. The voyage to uncharted territory is encapsulated in a timepiece that brings together for the fist time ever – a cylindrical tourbillon and unique, functional worldtime indication in a strictly limited allocation of 18 pieces. Da Gama’s quest is similarly reflected in the make of Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie ExoTourbillon Minute Chronograph Vasco da Gama Limited Edition 60. It embodies an innovative tourbillon, whose balance wheel is outside the cage. “These watches abide by Montblanc’s triptych of key elements: quality, value and technical performance,” says Jerome Lambert in Geneva over an espresso during SIHH 2015. But why is travel and discover such important components of the Maison’s novelties this year? From likening a watchmaker to a marathon runner to the importance of precision and beauty in fine watchmaking, Lambert explains it all.

Montblanc Heritage Spirit Orbis Terrarum - Front 112307 copy

Why is travel such an important theme at Montblanc this year?

Montblanc about achievement and innovation combined with an active life. One dimension that we emphasize is the fact that we can move from one place to another. In these novelties we have tried to give back the pleasure of traveling to the traveler by offering a little bit of creativity and beauty. We all rush from one place to another, but when you are finally in the plane and you set your watch from the day to the night and observe that it is still night at home – then you can imagine that you are with your family. This provides comfort. You will be not there in the morning to wake them up, but at least when you can see on the watch what time it is there and imagine being with them. We wanted to incorporate the possibility of enchantment. The representation of time and travel is aesthetically very interesting.

What is the link between Montblanc and Vasco da Gama?

We wanted to reflect a time when precision was still lacking. Precision during the age of exploration had a direct impact on one’s life – especially when out bracing stormy seas on a mission to uncover new territories. We created the Geosphère with a visible South and North Hemisphere and the individual during this time that was making trips to these far away areas of the earth – back and forth – was Vasco da Gama. The trips that he took were not easy. Vasca da Gama symbolizes a navigator for Montblanc. At the dinner last night, there were several replicas of Vasco da Gama’s journal lent from the Museum of Lisbon. We will acquire a few that we will be able to give with our limited edition pieces to clients to make the story even more profound.

How would you compare Montblanc’s 2015 offering with what was introduced last year?

If I were to do a comparison between SIHH 2014 and 2015 I would say that 2014 was about underlining the relevance of Montblanc in terms of fine watchmaking. 2015 is a lot about showing the uniqueness of Montblanc in fine watchmaking; it is very much about this triptych of elements in terms of technical performance, quality and value. When you have a watch like the Orbis Terrarum it is truly unique so much so that the significance of the function disappears and you just have the emotion of this sky that is still going from day to night – something that you see very well in the Middle East. You can see the night sky on the watch wherever you go. After a while you forget that it is a watch of complication and see it just as a beautiful thing. You see the sunrise and the sunset and that is what it is about.

All of the watches this year have a very strong design signature. From wherever you are you can notice the inherent symbolism of an Orbis Terrarum. And this ability to leave a mark that is recognizable is very important to us.

You launched the Perpetual Calendar last year for 10,000€ and this year you’ve mentioned that there will be a watch that will compete with this price at 5,000 €. While prices at other Maisons are increasing, Montblanc’s are decreasing but without losing the value of its watches. How are you able to do this?

The 5,000 € watch is the Orbis Terrarum. First you have to dare and you need to have the courage to do it. You need to realize that it is not that it is not possible – it is that you are not trying. It has always been said that ‘clients have not liked it, people will not understand it, it is not feasible’ – all of these sentences retreat from the feel of inventiveness and where a big part of the challenge is to be capable to say ‘No, we have not tried this before and we need to change that.’ My job is to make the team dream big. I reuse the words of Nelson Mandela – ‘There is no passion where you cannot dream big’ and the team needs to do this – we need the team to say ‘Let’s think about it and do it.’

But why is affordable luxury – affordable timepieces important to the market right now?

Affordable luxury was the trend of last year. The triptych of the brand when it comes to watches is value, quality and technical performance. It was what we said 18 months ago and then we were ahead of market trends – we predicted it. I cannot change my strategy just because things have changed. The capability not to have price but to have value is something that Montblanc is really good at. You don’t define these watches as cheap, but aspirational. And when you equate this thinking to the budget that you had in your mind, this type of thinking makes it possible to buy a good value watch for a fraction of the price you estimate that you need to pay.

So value is not dependent on price fluctuation.

But you could also have a stupid watch for the same price or you could go for an intelligent watch for the same price. What I say to the team is always, ‘Let’s do more – let’s be confident that our client is happy, that our client is saving – let’s make them happy.’ If the watch is capable to excel a signature and its own quality then the other argument for value will make sense. But maybe you bought an affordable watch like the Perpetual Calendar for 15,000 € – that is not exactly the definition of ‘affordability’ because you can also have a watch for 5,000 €. The right word is value. During this period I believe that clients save more and are more discerning about what they buy.

Uncertain economic situation with the rise of the Swiss Franc and the effects it has had on the Swiss watch industry. How will Montblanc ride this tumultuous market wave?

First, when things are moving and you are in a challenger position it is never completely bad because then you need to push yourself to make the blocks move. There is always something positive to come about from difficulty. Already 18 months ago I was professing how important value was as a key concept in the triangle of our strategy for fine watchmaking. It’s like running a marathon. In order to run a marathon I train by running a half marathon. When the day comes for me to run, I am ready for the full marathon. When we say value we are already trained for a half marathon and now we need to be ready to run for the full marathon. We know what the exercise is about. Now we need to be even more creative, even more capable to bring value and even more capable to survive.

This is my 12th SIHH and I have a good measurement system for stress. When you introduce the collection you have the stress of bringing something new into the market and it takes hours and hours of working with the team before you have the conviction about what you are selling. From yesterday night when we introduced the novelties for 2015 the stress of last year disappeared and the stress of next year came. We are always competing against what we last did. I think the exercise is even stronger when you are capable of raising your bar.

What kind of developments have you seen in the Middle East market over the last year?

Montblanc has always had a great reputation in the Middle East and gained great respect from the collectors. We’ve found that it is very important to have a strong signature and the same with uniqueness that we spoke of earlier. For example, when you see the Geosphere – that watch is eye catching. You need to have immediacy in the Middle East. That is something that we have in our latest novelties.