30 Minutes with Lutz Bethge Montblanc’s CEO discusses the brand’s high-watchmaking ambitions.

Lutz Bethge

When Montblanc unveiled its Metamorphosis watch at the SIHH watch show in Geneva in January, many believed it would be years before the exotic new chronograph would be ready for market. After all, the watch, with its 567 components, seemed hopelessly complex. The prototype on display was kept behind glass: it didn’t work well enough for a live demonstration.

That was then. “At the end of October, I will have the first real piece in my hands,” says Montblanc CEO Lutz Bethge, who, on a recent trip to New York, met with WatchTime to discuss the brand’s 14-year-old watch business. Another piece will come out in January, and from that point on there will be five or six per year until the series of 28 watches is complete.

Lutz Bethge

The watch, shown below, is named for its ability to transform itself, in a matter of seconds, from a watch telling only hours, minutes and seconds, into a chronograph. When the wearer pushes a slide on the side of the case, four wing-like shutters open, and the new dial appears as if by magic. The watch’s price is also other-worldly: $297,000.

Montblanc Metamorphosis

Out of reach as it is, the Metamorphosis underlines two important points for Montblanc, according to Bethge. First, it reinforces the brand’s identity as a maker of chronographs, which have been its strong suit since Montblanc got into watches. “All over the world, the interest was in chronographs from the very beginning,” Bethge says.

Second, it marks another step in Montblanc’s campaign to earn its bona fides in mechanical watchmaking, which company executives admit has not been made easier by Montblanc’s far-greater fame as a maker of pens. The Metamorphosis movement is the work of Montblanc’s haute horlogerie operation, the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie, located in Villeret. Montblanc’s parent company, the Richemont Group, bought the Minerva company in 2006 and put it to work making ultra-high-end mechanical movements for Montblanc. In addition to the Metamorphosis, which was actually designed by two independent watchmakers, Franck Orny and Johnny Girardin, Minerva has also turned out a couple of unusual tourbillon models: the Grand Tourbillon Heures Mysterieuses (launched in 2009, below left) and the ExoTourbillon Chronographe (from this year, below right). The idea behind joining Montblanc and Minerva was to help Montblanc raise its watchmaking profile among connoisseurs.

Montblanc tourbillons

That campaign had actually started several years earlier, when Montblanc began cutting down its quartz-watch collections and focusing on mechanicals instead, Bethge said. The latter now account for 65 percent of Montblanc’s watch-sales volume. Because the brand’s sales have shifted so dramatically toward mechanicals, the average price for a Montblanc watch has doubled in the past five years, he said.

The real hero in Montblanc’s battle for mechanical-watch clout, according to Bethge, is the Nicolas Rieussec, a monopusher chronograph made in-house at Montblanc’s factory in Le Locle (it was Montblanc’s first in-house movement). The watch, named after the inventor of an early chronograph, has unusual seconds and minutes counters consisting of rotating disks rather than rotating hands. The watch was introduced in 2008.

“If you want to identify the point when suddenly Montblanc appeared on the [mechanical-watch] landscape, then it would be the Rieussec,” Bethge said. “When we came up with the Rieussec watch suddenly we saw significant growth in the number of new customers who are really watch customers rather than Montblanc brand customers.” The company is still fulfilling orders for the Rieussec that were placed in 2008.

Montblanc’s Nicolas Rieussec chronograph.
Montblanc Nicolas Rieussec

It’s no surprise, then, that the Rieussec, which sells for $9,600 in steel and about $30,000 in gold, will be the focus of much attention in the future. There is now an open-dial version of the watch, launched last year, and a model with silicon escape wheel and lever, which came out this year. More versions are on the way (including one next year that Bethge declined to describe). “I think the Rieussec offers us a lot of opportunity,” Bethge said.

He believes the Rieussec movement and Minerva’s string of high-end creations together give Montblanc a strong hand in its bid for haute horlogerie legitimacy. “It shows we have a couple of instruments [at our disposal], and that more and more customers do understand that Montblanc is a serious watchmaker,” he said.

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