In an industry that has long timed the events of the world, the watch trade has seen many things through its centuries-long growth from timekeepers for royalty to its present state as a ubiquitous accessory on the wrists of most. While most large-scale events, such as financial crises and world wars, have struck hard at the being of the industry, whether it be negative or positive, no other moment in history comes as close to shaking the watch industry as the Quartz Crisis in the 1970s.
Like stories we tell our children about the bogeyman, the Crisis is often used as a cautionary tale, in a bid to remind the industry stakeholders that there’s always an off-chance that their jobs and brands could be phased out lest they continue innovating. When the Quartz Crisis hit, the mechanical watch world wasn’t necessarily stagnant. The automatic chronograph had just made its mark, the design language of watches was evolving, sports luxe was growing, and George Daniels was determined to prove that mechanical watches could provide the same accuracy as quartz watches. However, these innovations were progressing slowly, and in the decade that quartz watches (particularly Asian-made ones) became popular, the slow-moving mechanical watch industry saw the inevitable closing down of several Swiss houses.
Swiss watchmaker Blancpain should very much have been one of these houses. Founded in 1735, all signs pointed to its potential closure during the pre-quartz era. In 1932, Blancpain, which was owned and ran by the namesake family, was bought by two members of its staff.
Unable to use the name Blancpain, the company was rebranded to Rayville (a phonetic anagram of Villeret, the canton where the brand was founded) and kept producing timepieces, before joining the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) in the late 1950s. Rayville-Blancpain was a producer of many movements and saw its calibres utilised by several different brands under the SSIH umbrella before the Quartz Crisis hit. When the eventual onslaught of quartz watches happened, the SSIH was forced to reduce its output by half and sell off part of its assets, including Rayville-Blancpain. This was in 1983, at the height of the Crisis.
Now, who the brand was sold to, however, made all the difference. Jacques Piguet, son of Frédéric Piguet, and Jean-Claude Biver purchased the brand and reclaimed it as Blancpain SA. Biver’s strategy for Blancpain proved to be a turning point. Instead of following the trend, Biver zagged when others had zigged, proudly proclaiming, “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” Like a coat of armour, the phrase revitalised traditional mechanical watchmaking by rebranding it as an art form rather than mere production.
Going against the tide of trends allowed Blancpain to stand tall alongside a minority group of watch brands that went the anti-quartz route rather than giving in; most armed with nothing more than confidence and competence to back up a marketing message. Since that time, Blancpain has doubled down on innovation, proving that there’s more to be done in the art of mechanical watchmaking.
In 1983, it created the smallest moon phase display on a wristwatch, arguably making the complication in vogue again. Blancpain then spent the next few years living up to its slogan of “Innovation is our tradition”. It set a slew of world records of its time including the smallest minute repeater movement, thinnest self-winding chronograph, thinnest split-seconds chronograph, and the first self-winding split-seconds chronograph, all before 1990. It then introduced the “Six Masterpieces of the Watchmaker’s Art” – six timepieces with different complications, which were then compiled in the Grande Complication 1735, the second “grand complication” timepiece after IWC’s. The brand made 30 of these timepieces, priced above half a million each and sold them all out.
With the success of the modern iteration of Blancpain, the SSIH repurchased the brand in 1992, and with the purchase came the expertise of its watchmakers that could now be shared with the rest of the SSIH. Blancpain carried on doing what did it did best, producing a series of timepieces that incorporated elements from its history while always looking forward.
A Road Back to the Past
Blancpain collections such as the Le Brassus and Villeret pay tribute to the locations where the brand made its name while others such as the Fifty Fathoms (arguably the brand’s most well-known range) proved it didn’t need to look too far back to find an icon that would suit the tastes of its sportier customers. Like many other brands, Blancpain has had to toe the line between a traditional aesthetic, as it had always done with the Villeret collection, and more contemporary looks with its Léman or L-evolution models.
These days, Blancpain’s strategy has seen the Villeret collection take centre stage with the range playing host to the latest calibres and innovations from the brand. The house has symbolically intertwined the long-established traditional look of the Villeret watches with its ethos of constant innovation, a contrast by most measures, but one that truly embodies the brand’s vision.
Last year, Blancpain unveiled the Villeret Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Rétrograde, a fittingly long name for a watch with plenty to talk about. “Tourbillon Volant” refers to the flying tourbillon, “Heure Sautante” translates to jumping hours quite literally, and “Minute Rétrograde” is simply retrograde minutes. While this combination of complications is enough cause to celebrate the watch, one needs to remember that Blancpain was the first to produce a flying tourbillon on a wristwatch.
Many have argued over the patents granted to the first flying tourbillon with camps split between Alfred Helwig from Glashütte in 1920 and Robert Benson North from England in 1904, but Blancpain holds the distinction of being the first to do so in a wristwatch in 1989. Removing the upper bridge of the cage grants the wearer a full view of the rotating tourbillon, which is more aesthetically pleasing than the traditional method. In the Villeret Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Rétrograde, however, Blancpain pushes that boundary further with a clear sapphire disc taking the place of the lower bridge. This gives the illusion of the tourbillon cage, balance wheel, and escapement suspended and rotating in mid-air, even more so than other flying tourbillons. The Villeret Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Rétrograde also marks the premiere of the brand using both the jumping hours and retrograde minutes on the same watch, with an elegant, traditional twist to it.
An Anachronistic Touch
It cannot be argued that mechanical watches are anachronistic devices any longer, or not belonging to this period. The industry’s pivot into making mechanical watches an emotionally backed luxury was the cause for its prevalence through the Quartz Crisis and has since been enforced with timepieces presented as indicators of status. It has continued to forge forward with innovation holding up the fort, and Blancpain, a forerunner of that philosophy, has exemplified this through every watch it has since produced.
We’re nearing almost half a century since the Quartz Crisis, and the watch industry, particularly that of the fine watch business that Blancpain counts itself in, is doing well above what any naysayer would have thought back then. At the end of last November, it was announced that Swiss watch exports grew by seven per cent in value, and that fine watches, notably, performed above average. The Swatch Group report released at the end of January indicated that Blancpain ended 2018 with record sales and that growth ahead is predicted.
“Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be” may have just been a marketing slogan back in 1983, but after so many years, it has now become credo not just for Blancpain but also for an entire industry. The enemy has long stopped being quartz watches or the more recent arrival of smartwatches; it has always been stagnation. And the drive to be better than stagnation? Now that’s innovation.