Blancpain is one of the oldest Swiss watch brands but it was on the verge of death before being taken over by Jean-Claude Biver. This was of course before Biver’s purchase of Hublot, and before Blancpain he was at Omega. Biver is said to have pretty much saved Blancpain (just as he did with Hublot) – a good thing because today, despite the brand’s literal English translation of “white bread,” very few boring things are going on inside the manufacture.
Biver sold Blancpain to the Swatch Group a few years ago. The brand’s CEO right now is Marc Hayek, one of (the late and regrettably lost) Nicolas Hayek’s sons. His rule of the brand has taken it into a series of different directions, and Blancpain has a few distinct personalities as a watch maker. Those personalities include being a classic watch maker, a complicated watch maker, and dive watch maker, a racing watch maker, and a contemporary high-end complex avant garde watch maker. They also have adopted a mechanism similar to the tourbillon called the carrousel. Why? I hear it is because they feel too many people are making tourbillon based movements and they wanted to be different. It is a small distinction, but yet another angle to the brand’s personality. Oh, and they make extremely well-made and high quality animated erotic watches. Yes, you surely should not forget those.
Most high-end brands with ties to the 18th century are pretty serious, but Blancpain seems to have a bit of a sense of humor – or at least a sense of adventure. Making erotic watches using world-class engraver talent to carve miniature nudes copulating is just the beginning. They also do things like partner with famous chefs and of course, supercar maker Lamborghini. It is worth mentioning that viewing a 200,000 Swiss Franc erotic minute repeater watch in a small mountain town in Switzerland with their conservative inhabitants is amusing, to say the least.
On this trip Blancpain invited me inside of their highest-end manufacture to look at their items of haute horlogerie and watch making art. There is another arm to Blancpain that is the Manufacture Blancpain – once known as Frederic Piguet. This watch movement manufacture was/is supplying high-end more mass produced movements for the top brands in the Swatch Group. These include Breguet, Omega, Jaquet Droz, and Glashutte Original. According to Blancpain these manufactures are each going to be making more and more movements in-house (as they already each do make at least some movements in-house). We will see how that goes in a few years. Currently, the Blancpain name will be associated with the both the movements inside Blancpain watches and others movements that are made available to a few other Swatch Group brands.
The place I visited was a smaller facility compared to the larger Manufacture Blancpain that was down the road. At the “HH manufacture” Blancpain produces its most complicated watches and also houses artisans that engrave and otherwise decorate their watches. I was most impressed by a friendly French woman who was their top master engraver. Recently awarded by the French government for her talents, she produces work that is quite literally incredible.
Movement decoration and engraving is a big deal at Blancpain. This year they announced a new collection of limited edition pieces with city scenes engraved on the movement surface. A few watches (each totally unique) will be engraved for Blancpain boutiques around the world. I sat with Blancpain’s engravers and designers as they looked at photographs of cities for inspiration. One gentleman was looking at pictures of buildings in New York City. He uses these to create drawings of proposed scenes that might make their way on to watches. The drawings are handed to Mr. Hayek who makes the final decision on what drawings will be realized in engraved form. It is a tough decision as each engraved scene takes hundreds of hours to hand-engrave under a microscope on the movement surfaces and bridges. It is trying work and the people at Blancpain are some of the best.
It goes without saying that Blancpain offers personalized service for their wealthiest clients. Mostly coming from Asia, Blancpain works with people to engrave everything from dogs to grandmothers on movements and automatic rotors. It isn’t cheap, but for discerning clients it is worth the expense and waiting period.
Blancpain isn’t open much to the media but they do invite clients and customers to the manufacture regularly. People in Asia especially feel that it is important to buy your Swiss watch while actually in Switzerland. It also gives Blancpain a nice opportunity to show off just how long it takes for them to build their most complex creations. One such model is known as the 1735. It was the most complex wrist watch in the world for its time and only something like 30 were ever made. The model came out in the mid 1990s and only recently did Blancpain build the last piece. Only one or two people at Blancpain can assemble the million dollar watch, which can take a whole year to put together.
Using sapphire bridges, and a case made out of both gold and sapphire crystal, the Blancpain Carrousel Sapphire watch is a beautiful example of the brand’s focus on both traditional watch making and modern approaches to aesthetics and luxury. The design allows for a wonderful view of the minimalist movement. At the heart of these complex watches is art and complication. The manufacture itself contains copious amounts of wood-lined walls and scenic views through its windows. It is an ideal location to make a traditional Swiss timepiece. More so than even other similarly priced brands, effort is placed on having the watch makers themselves really feel enveloped in the brand’s theme. It is a nice effect as many manufactures are quite industrial in feel and don’t appear to be very connected to that brand’s marketing image.
Most of the time spent on these watch movements involves finishing, decoration, and testing. It is surprising to me each time I hear how a movement is completely assembled and tested… and then disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled before delivery to the customer. There is a mode the Swiss have for making timepieces that is inherently time consuming and expensive. Some call it luxury, but the Swiss simply have their protocol and national pride.
Blancpain has impressive capabilities as a traditional watchmaker and seemingly aims to compete with brands like Vacheron Constantin – Though Vacheron doesn’t have nearly as an impressive a sport watch collection. I will leave a discussion on Blancpain’s diver watches for another time. When I think of Blancpain’s haute horlogerie face I now mostly think of the dedicated individuals at the manufacture working hard to put the small movements together and decorating the watches both inside and out beautifully.