Traditional Swiss watch brands have responded in a variety of ways to last year’s smartwatch revolution: Frederique Constant/Alpina/Mondaine by inserting connected tech into a quartz movement; TAG Heuer, Breitling, and Movado with their own distinctive electronic tech that strives to maintain the brands’ historic DNA; H. Moser & Cie. by doubling down on its old-school horological cred and defiantly releasing a none-too-subtle mechanical doppelganger to the category-leading Apple Watch. Early on in the game, Montblanc came up with its own clever take: leaving the actual mechanical watch alone while adding “connectivity” to the strap for a “best-of-both-worlds” compromise between high-mech and high-tech.
I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with the Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed Chronograph, one of the first models to be equipped with the so-called Montblanc e-Strap, and it proved to be an interesting, if unconventional, wrist companion with some eminently useful capabilities.
The “mech” parts of the watch exude a suitably sporty elegance: the round case is a fairly large 43 mm in diameter, made of stainless steel with a gray, sandblasted finish. The slightly sloped bezel is in black ceramic and surrounds an expansive dial with a tricompax arrangement (30-minute chrono counter at 12 o’clock, 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock, running seconds at 9 o’clock, plus a slanted date window at 4 o’clock).
The attention to detail on the winding crown is very nice, with a grooved, engraved pattern on the barrel and the famous Montblanc star logo in white on black. The pushers have a very smooth brushed finish and are a tactile delight to operate. The star also finds a home as an engraved motif at each end of the bars/screw heads that attach the curved openworked lugs to the strap (again: attention to detail).
Red is used as a highlight color on this predominantly black watch — for the circular gasket beneath the crystal that encircles the dial, the borders of the five-minute indices along the minute track, and all the chronograph hands. The chronograph function is very legible while in use, as the red central chronograph hand makes a fine contrast with the black background of the dial as it sweeps around. Conversely, the “Montblanc” logo text at 3 o’clock can cause some confusion in low light, as it is about the same thickness as the hour and minute hands and could be mistaken for one of them at a glance.
Moving on to the “tech” elements, the connected module of the e-Strap is very compact, and can be shifted around and removed from the NATO-style “Extreme Leather” strap (more on which below) with ease. Having it on does make the watch a bit more unwieldy to attach to the wrist, and it certainly adds a bit of bulk that makes this a less than ideal timepiece to wear under a dress shirt cuff. Furthermore, on my test model, the strap itself was a bit too long for my relatively thin wrists and I had to fold the end of the strap inward so it didn’t overlap the watch’s face (though I suppose this is what a NATO strap is designed to do).
I tooled around with most of the e-Strap’s multiple functions during my time with the watch, which include the following: vibrating notifications of incoming e-mails, texts and calls, as well as alerts from calendars, social media, and other apps; reading texts, identifying callers, and previewing e-mail subject lines on the tiny touch-screen display; and logging calories burnt, steps taken and distance traveled on the accelerometer-powered activity tracker (a particularly useful feature that I utilized regularly during the heavy-foot-traffic days at the SIHH watch fair in Geneva, which coincided with my reviewing period).
Owners of the watch can use the module’s association smartphone app to track their athletic progress over the longer term, of course, and can set additional vibration alerts to remind them to stay active and updated on daily progress. Another interesting aspect of the device is its ability to function as a remote control for different smartphone capabilities: you can use it to play, pause, and skip through songs playing on your phone, and trigger your phone’s camera remotely with a tap — again, a boon to hands-free photography at SIHH.
The “Find-Me” function (which I fortunately did not need to use), lets you search for your watch via your phone, or your phone via your watch, within a range of 30 meters. The module, which is ensconced in rubberized stainless steel case, is 40 mm long and 14.2 mm wide and will normally require charging via USB once every five days. It is compatible with the iPhone 4s, 5, 5C, 5S, 6 and 6 plus; with Android devices running Android 4.3 or higher; and with the Samsung Galaxy S4, S5, Note 3 and Note 4.
Removing the module for charging allows for a closer examination of the strap itself, which is made from Montblanc’s original “Extreme” leather, produced at the brand’s own Montblanc Pelleteria in Florence, Italy. Its upper surface has a carbon-fiber-like pattern, with a special treatment to improve its structural integrity, making it, Montblanc says, abrasion-resistant, water-repellent, and resistant to wear from both water and fire. Again, fortunately, I did not have occasion to test these claims, but can report that the strap, with and without the e-strap module, feels quite secure and comfortable on the wrist.
Another consequence of having the NATO strap is that you won’t be seeing the movement, Caliber MB25.07 (based on a Sellita SW500), unless you remove the watch case, which has a clear sapphire caseback window, entirely from the strap. And you should, because the movement is a rather pretty piece of micromechanics. It’s equipped with automatic winding, powered by a stylized Montblanc rotor graced with côtes de Genève, and offering a 46-hour power reserve and a brisk frequency of 28,800 vph. When I tested it on the Lepsi Watch Scope, the watch lost as few as 2.5 seconds per day (dial down), but also as many as 4 seconds per day (dial up). The average was about 2.9 seconds per day, with an average amplitude of 316.
The Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed Chronograph e-Strap retails for $4,900 (the version without the e-Strap module will run you $300 less). There is also a UTC model, sans chronograph, which costs $4,200 ($3,875 without the e-Strap). Again, this is not the most subtle of timepieces to ever peek out from under a shirt cuff — and might not even fit all that cleanly under every single one — but if you’re someone who likes to be “connected,” and wants to literally wear your love of classical watches on your sleeve rather than joining the growing horde of Apple acolytes, this is definitely a watch worth considering.