Until 2006, Minerva was one of the world’s most exclusive collector brands, with in-house calibres, rigorously handmade to an extent rarely seen among elite watchmakers—with prices to match. It had a strong following of aficionados, and when it was acquired by luxury watch conglomerate Richemont six years ago, collectors feared the worst—that the workshop would become merely a production site for the group’s prestige brands, including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lange & Sohne and IWC. They were stunned when Richemont followed up a year later with the news that Minerva’s movements would be dedicated exclusively to sister brand Montblanc, known more for writing instruments than watches.
As it turns out, the Montblanc/Minerva union is the perfect marriage of co-dependence: Minerva married Montblanc for the money; Montblanc married Minerva for respectability and a good family name. Without Montblanc and its foundation of commercial-scale production and distribution, Minerva’s new $260,000 tourbillon would cost $520,000. Without Minerva, Montblanc’s watch division risks being seen as a line extension of a company whose main focus is pens. Together, they’re a great team, whose offspring include both an affordable, highly respectable Swiss watch collection under the Montblanc label (prices begin at $2,300) and an elite artisanal collection that is co-branded Montblanc/Villeret 1858 (Villeret being the town where Minerva was founded in 1858), priced between $45,000 and $260,000. The name Minerva now applies only to movements, but to an aficionado, the movement is everything.
Minerva was founded in the Jura, a famous Swiss watchmaking district, where many of the country’s prestige brands still operate. It specialized in chronographs and still produces modern versions of its original manual-wound calibres using a mix of old-world and state-of-the-art machinery. Every component is angled and bevelled by hand, each one taking anywhere between five and ten hours to finish. Master watchmaker Dimitri Cabbidu, Minerva’s technical director, cites a recent study published by Italian watch magazine L’Orlogio that ranked brands according to the most time on average spent making a single watch. The Montblanc/Villeret 1858 brand came out on top.
Since the merger, the star introduction has been the $340,000 Tourbillon Bi-cylindrique (pictured above), a pitch aimed squarely at winning back the affection of collectors. It is fitted with not one but two hairsprings, one beating inside the other, which improves accuracy. Hours and minutes are told in the “mystérieuses” method: the hands seem to float in space, thanks to a system of sapphire glass discs. The double-loop bridge alone takes 50 hours to hand-finish, including a final polish using the soft stem of the gentiane, a flower that grows in the nearby hills. It doesn’t get much more artisanal than that. “We decided to make watches for collectors,” says Cabbidu, “and when you make watches for collectors, they have to be special.”