Blancpain Proves That Conservative Can be "Hip"
By: Jeffrey P. Hess
Blancpain is one of those companies that, as many of the finer Swiss watch Companies oft-times do, presents its watches in the most conservative of fashion.
The company has been around in some form or another since its founding in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, and is steeped in a tradition that somehow gives it the ability to make "conservatism" hip. Don't ask me how; just go to the nearest dealer (you may have to look around as only 49 of them exist in the USA) and strap one of these "underplayed" little beauties onto your wrist.
It really does not matter which one you try on first. You may be one of the rare Type B personalities who can stop at an entry-level steel manual wind model; but you will probably end up trying on (and ultimately buying) one of the 100-hour models; or that rose gold perpetual calendar day-date beauty; or my favorite, the Villaret one-button (or mono pusher) chronograph.
These anti-hip-hop and anti-Arnold watches suggest that the wearer is one who is very secure in his masculinity and even more sure in his sense of style. "Bigger is better" has been the motto in the watch world for more than ten years. Blancpain, however, just keeps making these rather conservatively styled button-down timepieces with streamlined looks that belie the complications and extraordinary movements within.
And believe it or not, you are destined to own a Blancpain.
Yes, sooner or later even you Hummer owners will want some of your garage space back, so go empty those two garage stalls that now occupy that Hummer and that Panerai and replace them with a manly yet more stylish, graceful and normal sized gas-guzzler such as an Escalade or a Dodge Hemi product - and a couple of Blancpains. You will feel nimbler, more energetic and way more cool. Or hip. Or pimp. Or whatever it is the kids say today.
So is there "Bling-Bling" in Blancpain? No, and there doesn't need to be. The Bling is on the inside; and it is more of a "Vroom-Vroom" anyway. As my mother used to say, "Beauty is only skin deep. And it's what is inside that counts." Yes, you will forget the clean lines and almost perfect traditional outside of a Blancpain once you have an opportunity to see what is on the inside.
THE "LITTLE COMPANY THAT COULD"
More than 150 years ago, Swiss jura watchmaker Jehan-Jacques Blancpain was able to make what was inside the watch incredibly complicated and regionally desirable, specializing in pocket watches for the French, German, Italian, and Turkish markets.
The family-owned company took a "hands-on" approach to marketing its product. Whenever 72 watches were finished, the founder's son would get on his horse (some of the old time insiders at Blancpain insist it was a mule) and set off on a long and arduous journey, returning only after all of the watches were sold and paid for. The entire village was involved in this venture, sending their goods with him when he set out on his travels. Without his journeys the village would have been lost.
Most of the watches went to longtime customers in France and Germany - countries that to this day remain a stronghold for Blancpain. Upon his return, a huge "welcoming back" ceremony would be held for Young Mr. Blancpain, with the town square in the center of the sleepy village of Villaret (Vee-la-ray) serving as the site of the homecoming festivities.
After a mild celebration Mr. Blancpain would repair to a gentle hillside on the south side of the road near the quintessential mountain brook where he lived and worked (the original building still stands) and where the old Company survived for more than 170 years on the strength of fine pocket watches made in extremely limited quantities, with each quality piece made entirely by hand. The company eventually moved from Villaret to Le Brassus; however, the original factory "farm" still stands as a large private residence/mansion on the original quiet hillside spot in Villaret. Several companies have factories in Villaret today, including a facility where components are made for Cartier and Panerai, a scant 2 kilometers away from the original Blancpain "farm." Villaret. Along with Valle De Joux and Le Brassus are three of the most prominent areas in early Swiss watchmaking.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
As the world progressed from pocket watches to wristwatches in the 1920s to the 1940s, the situation at the small factory became a little tense. The company, still under the rule of the Blancpain family (Frederic Emil Blancpain), entered the wristwatch market with a vengeance, marketing the world's first automatic wristwatch using Leon Hatots technology (alongside Fortis and Harwood). The need for pocket watches was without a doubt waning as wristwatches became the norm.
With the aging of the Blancpain family and the unwillingness of Frederic Emil's daughter to take the helm, the secretary of the firm, Betty Fiechter, along with a forward-thinking accountant named Andre Leal, bought the rights to the Blancpain name. They kept the company securely afloat for more than 30 years, primarily by making small watches for some of the finest names in horology.
A need (mostly in America) for smaller sized quality ladies watches was filled by Ms. Fiechter, and millions of these tiny, rather inexpensive yet sturdy wonders were imported into the United States by hundreds of diverse companies small and large. These ebauche movements, or "blanks," often were either unmarked or marked simply "Blancpain" and occasionally with the name of their new company RAYVILLE (Villaret backwards with a more Americanized sound). Indeed, even such stalwarts of horology such as Omega and LeCoultre used the movements from Blancpain/Villaret/Rayville.
The movements won accolades for their accurate timekeeping in spite of their small size. (The miniaturization of a precise movement, the "Ladybird," was introduced in 19 56 as the smallest fine watch movement in the world!) These small movements were perfect for the design conscious American women and a good size to allow Swiss case designers free reign in their efforts to make watchcases odd or unusual. Today, Blancpain makes very small and very precise ladies automatics.
Soon it became obvious that Omega, one of Blancpain's best customers would be well-suited to buy Blancpain, and in 1969 Messrs. Biver and Piguet completed the acquisition. Betty Fiechter had held company together for more than 40 years as a family business, with her nephew and other family members helping out at a quiet farm. In the stunning reversal, a rebirth of the brand was started with the help of the Geneva powerhouse of Omega SA and two of the most knowledgeable men in the field of horology, Mr. Jacques Piguet (from the firm of Frederic Piguet) and Mr. Jean Claude Biver. A match made in Swiss Jura heaven.
The rebirth was slow for a few years until Biver bought the name from Omega and really took control of the company around 1983, when things heated up very quickly as he oversaw the production of a limited amount of the finest timepieces in the world. He continued to use the finest Piguet caliber movement and to make extremely fine watches.
One of the first big successes for Blancpain was the model that revolutionized the business in many ways and typified what was to become the signature of Blancpain - simple elegant gentlemanly style with a powerhouse under the hood. With sister company Piguet as the in-house provider of movements, the sky was the limit when it came to technical complications. Blancpain brought to market such complicated watches as the "100-hour" caliber 1150, the tourbillon, the perpetual moonphase and a host of other complicated watches in the late 80s to mid 90s.
The early tourbillons, built during the wristwatch rebirth in the late 80s and brought to market in 1990, are among my favorites and the favorites of many. A classic design on the outside with gently curving lugs and a simple yet beefy design, it quickly threw down the gauntlet for other makers who struggled to catch up. Soon, making a tourbillon was something that had to be done to prove to the world that, "We can do it too!" wisely, only a few examples were made ensuring that they would sell out quickly and become treasured additions to those watch aficionados who were lucky enough to snare one.
AFTER DINNER TREATS FOR ALL
By far the most astonishing watch that Blancpain makes, however, was unveiled earlier this year. At the last Basel Fair I was lucky enough to sit among an elite few Blancpain lovers at a private dinner, which was held upstairs at the Blancpain booth and hosted by Mr. Mark Hayek, who took from Mr. Biver the helm of the sturdy "Ship Blancpain" with a strong grip and a steady eye. Mr. Hayek is the grandson of the legendary "Big Boss" of Swiss watchmaking Nicholas Hayek. Present were a small group of about thirty collectors, dealers, watchmakers and aficionados of all kinds, many noteworthy websites ThePurists.com and TimeZone.com.
As we were served the best wine and the best food imaginable, everyone's minds were nevertheless fixated on desert; and the after-dinner treat was well served. Mr. Hayek had been very forthcoming during the dinner, answering all of our questions with a surprising level of enthusiasm and knowledge, proving that he was not one of those sit-behind-the-desk businessmen. He knew everything about the product, explaining that he designs most of them. Seconds after completing our last course, Mr. Hayek handed out white gloves to us all and began passing around for our personal inspection (and joy) one of the most complicated watches Blancpain produces.
Unveiled was the Villaret "Equation Marchante." It is similar to a sidereal time model with perpetual calendar and a retrograde moonphase. What the company refers to as, "the limited edition Le Brassus Equation Marchante; the first wristwatch to feature both an equation of time scale and a separate running equation of time hand." It is synchronized only four days a year with traditional time. True time. Precise time. A wonderful timepiece and incredibly complicated. And yes, in a conservative yet 18k gold case. Mr. Marc Junot, the genius behind Blancpain's American operations told us that this is the most exciting watch that he has been involved with in his more than 20 years in the business.
Of course, one does not have to buy a $50 thousand or $100 thousand Blancpain wristwatch. You can own a piece of horology history for less than $5 thousand. An entry-level steel Blancpain automatic will suffice for many. And as I mentioned earlier, conservatism is made hip at Blancpain and you are indeed destined to own one.
And there are other opinions as well...