Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds: Reviewing the 1930s-Inspired Aviation Watch

The Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds is a charming, hand-wound timepiece that’s inspired by a vintage classic, the Minerva Pythagore Caliber 48. Here’s a hands-on review of the watch, courtesy of our colleague Nitin Nair at WatchTime Middle East.

Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds - wrist
The Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds is inspired by aviation watches made in the ’30s.

It’s ironic that in an era when we’ve had glimpses of what the future of timekeeping could look like, thanks to smartwatches, watch brands have increasingly looked at past classics to create timepieces that can still leave watch enthusiasts weak-kneed. Montblanc’s 1858 Collection – introduced last year to celebrate the founding year of the jewel in its watchmaking crown, Minerva – pays a handsome tribute to the legacy of the Villeret-based watchmaker. Minerva was an artisanal watchmaking business based in Villeret and known for its handcrafted movements and chronographs, made by employing traditional methods. The Richemont Group acquired the ailing business in 2006 and used it to boost Montblanc’s watchmaking expertise, which until then was limited to its facility in Le Locle.

The first watch in the collection – the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter – took its inspiration from the pocketwatch chronographs Minerva produced in the late 1920s and ’30s. However, this is a limited-edition model, built at Villeret and costing in excess of $30,000. But Montblanc hasn’t entirely abandoned its core segment of affordable luxury watches. The second offering in the collection, the 1858 Small Seconds, inspired by the aviation watches Minerva made in the 1930s, and produced at the brand’s Le Locle facility, is available for around $3,000.

Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds - back
The Montblanc MB23.30 is based on the Unitas 6848.

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for pilots’ watches, so when Montblanc asked me if I would like to borrow the 1858 Small Seconds for a couple of weeks, I was happy to oblige. Now, Montblanc only started making timepieces in 1997 and despite the phenomenal strides it has made in the world of watchmaking, Montblanc is — to the uninitiated — still a company that mainly makes expensive pens, which it refers to as “writing instruments.” So every time somebody spotted the 1858 Small Seconds on my wrist and took a closer look, they would remark something to the effect of, “Oh, is that really a Montblanc? And what’s with that logo?”

The latter question is a valid query, as that’s the first thing you notice on the matte black dial. Montblanc has gone with a historic emblem, instead of its more familiar rounded star symbol, to emphasize the watch’s vintage roots — a strange choice given the brand didn’t make any watches until 1997; even stranger when you realize that the modern emblem is visible on the big half-onion crown. The most striking feature of the dial is its legibility. This watch is clearly inspired by the Minerva Pythagore Calibre 48 aviation watch from the 1930s and comes with similar Arabic numerals, cathedral hands, and a small seconds subdial at 6 o’ clock. It has a stainless steel case that is 44 mm wide and 10.95 mm thick, with a mix of brushed and polished surfaces. The case is finished well and despite the largish size, it sits well on my wrist thanks to sloping lugs and the thin polished bezel that frames the matte black dial.

Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds - reclining
The watch has 44-mm-wide steel case and a vintage Montblanc logo.

I do think the case could have been smaller (around 40-42 mm), considering the original Minerva measured only 34 mm, although I can understand why Montblanc went with a size that was more in line with modern tastes. White Super-LumiNova has been applied to the Arabic numerals and rhodium-plated cathedral hands, making it highly legible in low-light conditions. A limited-edition version (858 pieces) is available with a more vintage-like beige lume and a back alligator leather strap with beige stitching. The dial is fitted with a domed, nonreflective sapphire crystal. The watch is water-resistant to 30 meters.

This isn’t strictly a pilots’ watch, however. For it to be one, the watch would need to be anti-magnetic and the movement would sit in a soft-iron Faraday cage under a solid caseback. However, on this Montblanc, an exhibition caseback reveals the hand-cranked MB23.03 movement, based on the Unitas 6948 pocketwatch caliber. Montblanc has done some work on the movement, with côtes de Genève decoration and blued screws, for example. The watch beats at a frequency of 21,600 vph (3hz), and has 17 jewels and a power reserve of 46 hours, although I’m inclined to believe that the power reserve is better than Montblanc claims. Now, why doesn’t this have a Minerva movement if the collection is inspired by the Villeret manufacture? Simply, Montblanc is able to keep this watch a value proposition by moving its production to Le Locle. One could argue that it could have finished the movement to an even higher level, with beveled and polished edges, but that would mean the watch would cost substantially more.

Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds - buckle
The brown, fine-grain calf-leather strap has a steel pin buckle.

My test watch was paired with a brown, fine-grain calf-leather strap with a steel pin buckle. It’s also available with a stainless steel Milanese bracelet, but I much prefer the leather strap. Over the course of two weeks, I found the 1858 Small Seconds extremely easy to wear. It’s slim enough to slip under your shirt cuff, sporty enough to wear on the weekends, and that classic pilots’ watch styling is very easy on the eye. The 1858 Small Seconds is a charming value proposition from Montblanc. Its vintage codes and affordable price place it uniquely in the Montblanc catalogue, and it offers just enough to get the attention of budget-conscious watch aficionados looking for an interesting new timepiece.

Montblanc 1858 Small Seconds - wrist 2
Despite the 44-mm case size, the watch wears well on small wrists.

MANUFACTURER: Montblanc Montre SA, Chemin des Touelles 10, 2400 Le Locle, Switzerland
FUNCTIONS: Hours, minutes, small seconds
MOVEMENT: Montblanc MB23.30 (based on the Unitas 6948), manual winding, 21,600 vph (3 hz), 17 jewels, Incabloc shock absorption, Geneva stripes, blued screws, 46-hour power reserve
CASE: Stainless steel, domed sapphire nonreflective sapphire crystal, sapphire exhibition caseback, water-resistant to 30 meters
DIAL: Matte black dial, Arabic numerals and rhodium-plated cathedral hands with White Super-LumiNova
DIMENSIONS: Diameter = 44 mm, Height = 10.95 mm
PRICE: $3,045

For more articles and features by Nitin and his team, visit the WatchTime Middle East website.

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  1. Sylvio Bertoli

    PS and the Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 must have been inspired in the Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Ref. 5524 …

  2. Sylvio Bertoli

    I would say that this watch was inspired in the ZENITH PILOT MONTRE D’AÉRONEF TYPE 20

  3. James Crue

    Watches are larger now because of current trend but more so because a majority of the population are overweight with big flabby wrists. Can you imagine a 34 mm case on today’s fatso’s?

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