Montblanc, the DNA of a true luxury brand

A century of tradition, craftsmanship, heritage, culture and creativity are some of the defining factors of Montblanc , one of the world’s most consistent and successful luxury brands, which CEO Lutz Bethge calls international: We are based in Germany but Montblanc is truly an international company our writing instruments manufacture is based in Germany, we have two watch manufactures in Switzerland, a design studio in France and our leather competence centre is Italy.

During my recent visit at the headquarters of Montblanc in Hamburg, I learned that most of the employees have been with Montblanc for generations, some growing up as part of the Montblanc family. For instance, in the nib manufacturing department (Montblanc manufactures internally the nibs for all its writing instruments – all nibs are made of gold) from a technical setter, Axel (20 years with Montblanc) to Eva who has been with Montblanc for 35 years, I was most impressed by the team spirit and passion the staff share. Production is divided in teams and each carry out the entire process of manufacturing – they are given a volume target and they can divide their time accordingly, almost like having your very own private atelier where you take joy in organizing your own time. To understand the passion for perfection in manufacturing, imagine a sealed room, perfectly soundproofed where two ladies test manually each fountain pen writing with invisible ink on paper. Even one cannot see the actual writing sense every single imperfection from the sound the nib makes when writing on paper as well as from the ease of various movements of the nib on paper.

Throughout my visit, I have uncovered efficiency is another key contributing factor to Montblanc’s continued success. For instance, in the nib manufacturing facility, the company installed exhaust systems to recover the gold dust which results from the manufacturing process. Production is optimized according to orders and the company keeps minimal stocks.

For its high-end, ultra luxury fountain pens, Montblanc has created a distinct division, almost like a separate company within Montblanc, which focuses solely on the Artisan Collections, the entire production being handled internally, from manufacturing of the nibs to the precious stone settings, as well as the actual creative process. The Artisan Atelier from Hamburg works closely with the design studio of Montblanc in Paris, where all the Montblanc high jewellery pieces are created and at the same time, artisans from Hamburg may provide their expertise to the team in Paris.

It takes up to two years for an artisan fountain pen to be created, from design sketches, the plastic print model (the mock up), to the final touches. Each such artisan pen is produced in a limited edition, usually in a number which is related to the person it is dedicated, in most cases, the age when the respective personality died. Prices range from 10.000 to 200.000 euros and in some cases limited editions are sold out before they reach the stores. There are collectors who are fervently pursuing every such creation. In a recent auction of such a limited edition pen, a collector sold his Lorenzo di Medici artisan limited edition fountain (launched 1992) more than ten times what he actually paid for it, but such auctions are rare, as collectors are truly passionate.

Wearing soft white gloves in the inspiring Artisan Atelier, I held in my hands the only remaining piece of limited edition dedicated to Gustave Eiffel, Statue of Liberty, Charlie Chaplin, Gaudi, Prince Rainier III or Pablo Picasso (launched earlier this year), each a masterpiece reflecting Montblanc’s DNA – ultimate level of craftsmanship and the most exclusive materials. The creative process is most impressive, the Montblanc artisans researching every single defining elements of one’s personality, almost like a lifetime introspective and then selecting only a few elements to be recreated on the actual pen.

The most vivid Artisan Edition was the one Montblanc dedicated to controversial Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Inspired by her work and her life, the fountain pen’s design features a cobalt blue body reminiscent of the Casa Azul, or Blue House, where the artist was born. An openwork cap in champagne gold has a leafy, organic design borrowed from some of her paintings.  A pronounced V-shaped clip, evoking her signature eyebrows, is accented at its end by a heart-shaped ruby symbolizing her passion and pain. And the 18k gold tip is engraved with a self-portrait. The limited edition is comprised of 70 pens, one for each page of her diary, whose famous final entry reads, “I’m happy to be leaving and I hope never to return.”

The limited edition artisan fountain pens have been crucial to maintaining Montblanc’s positioning as a luxury brand and the strict policy of never making any exceptions of producing an extra item of a limited edition has also been beneficial on the long term. It not only creates desirability but it also emphasizes what a true luxury brand stands for – creativity, craftsmanship, raw materials of exceptional quality and rarity and most of all it fuels the credibility and reputation of the brand.

Considering Montblanc’s presence in several product categories, I was eager to understand Mr Bethge’s position on diversification. He said: Credibility is essential when expanding a luxury brand into different product categories. I don’t like the word diversification. I believe such extensions have to be natural, have to be embraced by the brand. In our case for instance, the development from fountain pens to watches was based on our expertise in fine mechanics and our total believe in manufacturing competence, which resulted in our two watch manufactures in Switzerland.

And indeed, Montblanc’s launch into watches is a proud achievement of Montblanc and during our interview he explained ”When we had our first press conference SIHH to launch our first collection of watches, the entire watch industry considered our move as a mockery and I remember a journalist even asking whether our watches  run on ink. Our approach was a sensible and cautious one, of course benefiting from the expertize of our parent company, Richemont, which has this amazing expertize in luxury watches”.

Instead of having Montblanc watches manufactured by one of Richemont Group ‘s established watchmaker companies, Montblanc made a strategic move a few years ago acquiring the historic chronograph watch manufacturer named Minerva in Switzerland. Montblanc incorporated the famous watch maker into the brand as the place where their highest-end watches would be made. Maintaining traditional manufacturing techniques, the Montblanc location in Switzerland produces timepieces using historic machinery and carefully honed skilled human labor. The result is timepieces with not only a friendly vintage charm, but also those with beautifully produced, hand assembled and decorated mechanical movements.

Speaking about the success of the launch into watches, Mr Bethge said it was the Rieussec Collection which established Montblanc as a credible watch maker. Montblanc’s Rieussec watch is the first mechanical movement manufactured in Montblanc’s own workshops in Le Locle, Switzerland, taking its inspiration from Nicolas Rieussec’s 1821 invention of the world’s first chronograph. And Mr Bethge proudly showed me the very first chronograph of Nicolas Rieussec, adding Unfortunately, this is a replica. The original showed up at an auction many years ago but since, we have been unable to trace it…If ever you hear about it, call me and I shall buy it, he added with a smile. Speaking about the Rieussec, Mr Bethge said It is a watch that has it all – a unique movement and with it a recognizable design, incredible craftsmanship as well as a beautiful story. It is a watch which people are proud to wear and it will always be recognized.

Much like in the case of its fountain pens, Montblanc did not sit on its laurels with its watches collection and pursued its quest for perfection, through innovation and ultimate craftsmanship. At this year’s edition of the SIHH event in Geneva, Switzerland, Montblanc presented the Vintage Tachydate from the Montblanc Collection Villeret 1858, with an exquisite Montblanc Calibre MB M16.32. This is the first time that Montblanc presented a timepiece with a date indication in the Montblanc Collection Villeret 1858. While it is a minor touch, incorporating a date function into the Montblanc Villeret 1858 watch look is meaningful addition to the design. Doing so the traditional way to indicate a date with a hand versus disc and window helps retain the natural look of the dial and allows it fit into the rest of the collection seamlessly.

When I asked about his views on the fact that consumers nowadays are using modern technology to communicate and less writing using a fountain pen, Mr Bethge said: ”For us, making people rediscover writing is both a challenge and an opportunity. Our projects with UNICEF to promote literacy around the world as well as projects such as the John Lennon Tour Bus, which toured America to discover new musical talent have achieved long term awareness for writing. The emotional aspect of writing, the power of a signature, or taking time for a handwritten note to somebody we treasure or love, conveying the message to this person you are important to me, is essential for our approach and despite the growing use of technology, our writing instruments division has been growing and today represents almost 50% of our entire turnover. The decision of my predecessor, Norbert Platt to discontinue the lower priced range of products was also crucial in positioning Montblanc as a luxury brand. Today, our entry level is the iconic Meisterstück. We don’t compromise, only the best quality”.

Every year since 1992, the Montblanc Cultural Foundation, has been presenting the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage award. This internationally renowned award is bestowed on celebrities from artistic and cultural worlds, whose personal commitment is made, mostly away from the spotlight and the public eye.

Innovation is of utmost importance for Montblanc, not only in terms of products but aslso in terms of service. During my visit at the headquarters I had the opportunity to try out Montblanc’s bespoke nib service a computerized system which analyzes the writing patterns of a consumer to the smallest details. This way, Montblanc customers can choose the ideal nib which fits the writing. . Other services include personalization of the nib and online customer assistance on the brand’s Facebook page.

Lutz Bethge, CEO Montblanc International

An exclusive interview with Mr Lutz Bethge, CEO, Montblanc at the company’s Head Quarters in Hamburg by Oliver Petcu