Innovation might not be the first thing to cross one’s mind when thinking of the world’s oldest registered watch brand. Heritage, history and tradition seem better suited for a company that’s existed for almost 300 years, but Blancpain has never believed innovation to be the exclusive territory of the young and modern.
“Some are prisoners of their roots, while others believe they can innovate without any knowledge of their origins,” says Blancpain President and CEO Marc A. Hayek. “At Blancpain, there is no such ambiguity: we cultivate a profound respect for the essential tradition of watchmaking, which is precisely that of constant innovation.”
That’s because every day, in the villages of Le Sentier and Le Brassus, where Blancpain stations its workshops, its watchmakers ask themselves if a complication can be made smaller, a movement thinner, a power reserve longer, or adjustments more convenient.
Granted, those are challenges nearly all high-end watchmakers are trying to tackle, but Blancpain’s brand of innovation regularly takes it off the beaten path to give customers some truly remarkable novelties. It came up with the world’s first wristwatch to be equipped with a traditional Chinese calendar (2012), and the Carrousel Volant Une Minute is not only the world’s first flying carrousel (2008), but also the first automatic one, boasting a power reserve of 120 hours.
Thanks to modern CADD software, technology is finally able to build what watchmakers of the past could only dream of.
In the last 13 years, the manufacture has launched 37 new calibres. However, just as much R&D is dedicated to cases, dials and bracelets. Its Villeret Shakudo Ganesh – which uses the traditional Japanese technique of transforming the colour of gold and copper alloy into a nuanced black and gray hue – won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve in the Artistic Crafts category in 2015. The brand is also well-versed in gem-setting, and earned a patent for the “rail-effect” stone-setting technique in 2006.
Blancpain has by now a veritable mountain of laurels to rest on, but its mission is to continue to put out an impressive parade of timepieces that will inspire its contemporaries and enchant its wearers. The luxury consumer is a highly discerning one, which is why the brand continues to produce a large proportion of its own parts and tools, with every movement made in-house. The finishing is done exclusively by hand – even on parts that can’t be seen – and made entirely in-house.
“One of our commitments is to sustain traditional watchmaking,” explains Hayek. “This implies passing on craftsmanship expertise from one generation to the next. It is thus crucial to ensure its survival by investing in human resources, as well as in production facilities. This approach is our strength and the expression of our long-term vision, even though it goes against the tide of a certain tendency to seek immediate profit.”
Frankly, Blancpain doesn’t need quick earnings when collections like the legendary Fifty Fathoms – which launched the very first modern diving watch dating back to 1953 – keep its manufactures busy. Its latest interpretations combine the iconic Fifty Fathoms design with a range of new technical solutions and innovative materials in order to constantly push the limits and fulfil the most sophisticated demands.
It also doesn’t need a well-known legacy watch to build new ideas upon. Just last year, Blancpain released its first Villeret model with jumping hours and retrograde minutes: the Villeret Tourbillon Volant Heure Sautante Minute Retrograde. Its elegant design is elevated by a flying tourbillon at 12 o’clock, and its functionality boosted by an impressive six-day power reserve, courtesy of the richly decorated, hand-wound calibre 260 MR.
Not one to neglect its female clientele, Blancpain released the Ladybird in 1956, and it was the world’s smallest round watch with a mechanical movement at the time – a response to the era’s trend towards diminutive dimensions. The Ladybird’s evolution over the decades continued to push the envelope, contributing just as much to the watchmaking arts as its masculine siblings. When the manual winding Calibre 610 was introduced in 1993, it was the thinnest around. Two years later, its follow-up, the Calibre 615, became the smallest automatic movement in the world. The delicate watch lives on today with the Ladybird Ultraplate models, an ultra-thin version glamorised with diamonds and equipped with an automatic movement bearing a silicon balance spring.
Blancpain has positioned itself as a watchmaker that values its story to date just as much as the chapters that haven’t been written yet. “Rolling back the boundaries of possibility, experiencing real emotions, paying attention to the smallest details – all these are factors that motivate us to push ahead in our pursuit of excellence,” says Hayek. “Thus, each of our new models makes reference to the past as much as to the future, to tradition as much as to innovation.”
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