If chronographs are a hot complication today, chronographs in a vintage package are even hotter, and if they happen to be fitted with a classic Minerva movement, we’re talking coveted collector’s piece here. Despite the cancellation of all the major watch fairs, we were able to spend some time and take photographs of the latest Montblanc Heritage Manufacture Pulsograph model, a limited edition of 100 pieces in rose gold with an evocative tobacco-brown gradient dial. So please, make yourself comfortable in that leather wingback chair by the fireplace, help yourself to a snifter and get ready to be seduced…
From pens to watches
Montblanc, the famous German manufacturer with a French name, has been making high-end writing instruments (fountain pens) since 1906. Since its introduction in 1924, Montblanc’s Mesiterstück has been the ‘star’ of the fountain pen show and was famously documented in a photograph of John F. Kennedy lending his German-made Meisterstück 149 to Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of West Germany, to sign a treaty in 1963. The kind of anecdote that pen fanatics (a similar breed to watch fanatics) revel in.
In 1997 Montblanc decided to branch out and expand its portfolio with watches. The problem was that everybody associated Montblanc with pens and watches are an entirely different beast. Montblanc even built its own manufacture in Le Locle and made its debut on the watchmaking stage in 1997 with the Meisterstück chronograph. Designed to pick up on the fountain pen’s styling, adverts of the Meisterstïck watch piggybacked on the rather lame, unrelated tag line “The Art of Writing Your Life”. Something else was needed to avoid the ambiguous overlap of watches becoming extensions of pens; something that would prove that Montblanc was going to take watchmaking seriously.
Striking out big time
To underscore the brand’s seriousness about producing watches, Montblanc (Richemont) acquired the historic Minerva watch manufacture located in the town of Villeret in 2006. Not only did Montblanc buy a legendary manufacture of similar stature to Lemania, but it also acquired Minerva’s outstanding skill in the production of high-end precision chronograph movements and its archives dating back to the foundation of Minerva in 1858. In 1909, Minerva began to specialise in stopwatch movements incarnated in the famous Calibre 19.09 followed by the even more famous Calibre 13.20 of 1920 (later renamed Calibre 13-21), its first manual-winding monopusher chronograph developed especially for wristwatches with the iconic V-shaped bridge, a column wheel and horizontal coupling.
Rechristened the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie, Montblanc was determined to prove its new-found horological might and embarked on a wild Haute Horlogerie trip producing extremely complex movements that ranged from the mind-boggling Metamorphosis chronograph with two faces unveiled at the SIHH in 2010 (followed in 2014 by the Metamorphosis II) to the monopusher Nicolas Rieussec, and from the ExoTourbillon Rattrapante all the way to a chronograph capable of measuring up to 1/1000th of a second developed with independent watchmaker Bartomeu Gomila.
The exciting fireworks of Montblanc’s horological prowess have since settled down into more wearable, attainable product lines, but the thrill of possessing a Minerva chronograph calibre, one of the most beautiful handmade chronograph movements of the past, continues to excite and generate respect among watch lovers. The Heritage line is where you’ll find these beauties, a collection inspired by Minerva wristwatches of the 1940s and 1950s. (There are also models in Montblanc’s 1858 line-up with historic Minerva movements, including this 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter based on the Minerva 16.29 calibre and this 1858 Monopusher Chronograph with calibre 13.21.)
The Heritage Pulsograph that many newcomers to the watch scene first encountered was the 2019 steel edition with its gorgeous salmon dial and equally gorgeous Minerva 13.21 chronograph movement. However, for those of you who have been following MONOCHROME for more than a decade, you will remember Frank’s coverage of the unique Vintage Pulsographe model which Montblanc donated to the Only Watch Auction of 2011. Enamoured by its classic spirit, Frank was as taken by the Minerva MB 13.21 movement, “that is so beautiful it makes every watch collector’s heart beat faster”. This model was followed in 2014 by the Meisterstück Heritage Pulsograph, slightly more restrained old-school styling and less exciting than the models mentioned above, but nevertheless a classic beauty.
Smoky brown dial and luxurious rose gold case
The 40mm case, with its monopusher at 3 o’clock and faceted horns, has not changed but is now crafted in warm 18k rose gold and is entirely polished. The novelty here is the new colour scheme of the dial. For those of you who enjoy cigars, the rich tobacco-brown background with the yellow/golden pulsograph scale might well remind you of the band fitted around the body of a Cohiba cigar.
Pulsographs, also known as doctor’s watches or pulsometers, were used in the past to measure a patient’s heart rate. The distinctive feature of pulsographs is the graduated logarithmic scale calibrated for 30 pulse beats allowing doctors to determine a pulse rate with a greater degree of accuracy and get the task done in just 30 seconds.
The vintage-inspired dial is domed and features a lovely smoked lacquered dial with plenty of different textures. The central part of the dial has a sunray finish while the two slightly sunken counters, small seconds on the left and 30-minute chronograph counter on the right, are snailed and feature white markings. Moving out to the chapter ring, you’ll notice the sandblasted texture with the applied golden dots or studs and Arabic numerals at 12 and 6 o’clock, all treated with luminescence. The dauphine-style hands also have a thin streak of luminescent material and are golden to match the case. The central chronograph hand has a red tip to match the red number 30 on the 30-minute elapsed time counter and the four 15-second/minute intervals on the white track. The original Montblanc logo from the 1930s with its historical font and outline of the Mont Blanc mountain sits just below 12 o’clock balanced with the name of the watch at 6 o’clock. For the final vintage touch, the dial is protected under a domed sapphire box crystal.
A beautiful Minerva movement
The reverse side of the watch reveals an extraordinary horological treat with its display of calibre MB M13.21, based on the historic Minerva calibre 13.20 of 1920. In keeping with the warm rose gold case, the German silver plates and bridges of the movement have been coated in rose gold creating even more contrast with the darker parts. Two distinguishing features of the Minerva movement can be spotted straight away; Minerva’s signature V-shaped bridge (patented in 1912 and described as an ‘arrow’ by the brand) engraved with the words ‘Minerva – Villeret’ and the pointy devil’s tail on the end of one of the levers.
The paragon of a classic column-wheel chronograph with a lateral clutch, the MB M13.21 is finished as a work of art, up there with the very big names in watchmaking. Completely assembled and finished by hand, this is Haute Horlogerie at its ‘hautest’: all the levers and springs feature straight graining and are manually bevelled and polished, with satin-finished sides; all the countersinks are mirror-polished; the bridges are also bevelled by hand and decorated with Geneva stripes, and the main plate features perlage. All the functional planes are individually and manually adjusted to maximize the smoothness and reliability when triggering the commands. Actuating the monopusher of the chronograph is an experience in itself, as is watching the calibre go through its motions on the caseback.
Beating at a dignified pace of 18,000vph/2.5Hz, the manual-winding movement can store approximately 55 hours of energy. The balance, and the hairspring which ends in a Philips terminal curve, are both manufactured and manually adjusted in-house.
I am having a hard time finding anything that I don’t like about this watch. With its beautiful body and beautiful soul, who could ask for more? The Havana-brown dial, the judicious dash of 1940s vintage elements without going over the top, the luxurious rose gold case and the beautiful architecture and finishes of the Minerva movement result in an extremely attractive watch, a piece that will warm collectors’ hearts.
As a parting word, I would urge Montblanc to invest in a separate website for its watches. If you visit the Montblanc website, you will see that watches are in sixth position on the main toolbar, up there with New Tech, Travel, Leather and Gifts. A dedicated Montblanc watch site, especially for watches of this calibre, would be much appreciated.
Availability and price
The tobacco-brown alligator strap comes from Richemont’s very own Pelletteria in Florence, Italy. Described as ‘sfumato’, the colour of the strap is like the dial with a lighter tone in the centre that gets darker at the edges.
Limited to 100 pieces, the Montblanc Heritage Manufacture Pulsograph (ref. 126095) retails for EUR 36,000. More details at montblanc.com.