In luxury brands, CEOs are often perceived and received in the afterglow of their predecessors. To be sure, it is a numbers game — as always — but to follow in the footsteps of an industry giant is always going to be tough. Instead of an afterglow, there will always be a giant shadow. Such was the case for Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki, who stepped in for Jerome Lambert in 2017. We remarked on this fact in our last interview with him, one year after he took over. At that time, he presented himself as a cool and collected chap, noting that he had worked with Lambert for 15 years, the last five at Montblanc where he was VP of sales. The bottom line seemed to be that if there was someone at Montblanc best suited for the role of CEO, it had to be Baretzki. Lambert had moved on at that time to take over as CEO of the Richemont Group, the parent organisation of Montblanc, so Baretzki certainly had his blessing, if such a thing is required in contemporary times.
When Baretzki took the top job at Montblanc, continuity was the order of the day. It was a brand on the move, already getting attention for its bold integration of the revered Minerva manufacture in Villeret with its own much newer operation in Le Locle. Baretzki had no intention of changing course, stating that he fully supported the direction of Lambert. In 2020, continuity is being tested in ways no one would have imagined — even in December, 2019, the world had no idea what was coming.
At that time, as far as watchmaking goes, the attention was on narrow matters such as the Watches & Wonders (W&W) fair, BaselWorld, and the industrial practices of Swatch Group. The next time we saw Baretzki was during his videostreamed presentation for W&W, as he addressed both the challenge of presenting new luxury products and the difficulties imposed on everyone resulting from the global pandemic. Once more, Baretzki appeared cool and collected, if a little sombre. Unlike some brands, also revealing novelties via video presentation, Montblanc had opted to address the pandemic directly, not only with words but also actions. While it might have seemed a little risky, it fit in perfectly with Baretzki’s understanding of Montblanc as a brand of culture and substance. There was no way this brand could either remain aloof, or address the world from the CEO’s home.
In this interview, also conducted remotely, we addressed the strange situation we are all in, and Montblanc’s decisions there as well as previous year’s novelties. We began, of course, at the beginning, talking a little about that presentation…
Like some CEOs this year for W&W, you opened your virtual address with a note about the global situation at this time. Why did you choose that direction, and why organise it in the interview format?
In these unprecedented times we are all facing, we have to be agile and interact with our clients in a different way, adapting to the situation the best we can. We are excited about the line-up of new watches we are introducing this year, and we thought about how we can present them in a way that is meaningful but also engaging for our clients. The interview format was the best way for us to have that emotional connection with our audience, presenting our novelties to key-clients and press in a way that can be perceived as more of a dynamic conversation than just a product presentation.
Related to the above, do luxury brands really need to say anything about the pandemic, given that the relevance is not quite there, unlike with say climate change?
The pandemic has a significant impact on all aspects of life and business around the world, causing disruption for customers, retailers, employees and suppliers, not just for the luxury industry but for every organization. I think with all the changes that had to be made due to this extraordinary situation – for example closed stores in many markets – brands and companies are obliged to communicate about this matter. We are all in this together; the situation is challenging for many industries around the world, making it relevant to communicate transparently about it.
This turn of events has certainly shaken us in ways (that made us) reflect on where our priorities lie. It has also enabled us to be agile in times of need. Seeing how many peers in our industry have stepped up to support our communities at best of their capacities (is inspiring). I think more so than that, we have found new ways to communicate with our consumers, working to adapt to their current needs and each individual’s situation.
With frequent hand-washing on the cards for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for a generation, the importance of a wristwatch with a metal bracelet will be felt keenly. That is the position of our magazine, at least! This is especially relevant to Montblanc because you have a great new bracelet. Tell us about why you decided on this moment to introduce this?
That is a very good question. When we developed this bracelet, we had in mind that it would be a useful development in markets like Singapore with hot and humid weather but we had certainly not in mind that it could also be useful for many other markets impacted by Covid-19 and strengthened hygiene measures!
Our 1858 line is a reinterpretation of the legendary Minerva watches from the 1920s and 30s. These watches were conceived to withstand extreme conditions – perfect for military use and exploration. We want the design to capture the spirit of mountain exploration of times past in a modern way, expressing the deep trend of (going) back to nature and outdoor adventure. If you are familiar with our 1858 line, the colour green and materials were directly inspired to express the deep trend of (going) back to nature and outdoor adventure. This year we further explore and conquer a different territory, taking inspiration (from) the colours of glaciers and ice that ranges from the purest white to deepest shades of blue.
With that in mind, we decided to introduce titanium grade 5 on the bezel and a new bi-metal bracelet, featuring a stunning titanium and steel execution on the new 1858 Geosphere model. This is a very interesting new feature for us. We all know how difficult it is to create new bracelets, (and) this year our designers really outperformed.
Of all things, why a bi-metallic bracelet with steel and titanium? In other words, why not the typical mono-metal bracelet?
Our key-principle is to always push the boundaries of our product development, craftsmanship and use of materials. So the new bi-metallic bracelet was the next strategic step for us within our 1858 product line. We all know how difficult it is to develop a new bracelet, for this design we really wanted to achieve something distinctive that perfectly fit with the overall appeal of the watch. Featuring steel and titanium together turned out to be a quite beautiful element in our watch and we could not be prouder of the result!
Now on the matter of straps, we are planning to address the issue of exotic leathers and how that will change the business. What’s your perspective, given that Montblanc has a leather goods business too?
This is definitely a very relevant question due to how sustainability has been developing in the world of luxury and how the luxury industry has been answering those main concerns. At Montblanc this is a very important topic for us, which is why you can see that within our collections we are working to innovate our offering. (We are doing this) by finding new materials that can be equally luxurious and more innovative. A big example is within our 1858 collection, having first launched our 1858 Geosphere Green sporting a NATO strap. We created and handcrafted (this) in collaboration with a traditional weaving manufacture located in France that has been in production for over 150 years. These straps are refined, robust, durable and very comfortable on the wrist. The same can be said of us introducing our first bi-metal bracelet strap this year.
It is also a question of creativity and rethinking how you develop something more sustainable. We all know how difficult it is to come up with a new bracelet models and (specifically to find) perfect substitutes to leather. I can assure you, we are continuously working on this and (are) certainly finding creative ways to leverage aspirational new developments.
Turning to the collection overall, we missed anything on a smartwatch in the introduction of your video presentation. What’s the story with the Summit watch now?
For us, W&W is a podium for (the) fine watchmaking segment therefore we have presented all key pieces that should have been launched at W&W at Geneva.
Since you are asking, new tech is (the) fourth pillar of Montblanc that has indeed great novelties such as the new MB 01 headphones that has been receiving a lot of amazing reviews!
In February, we had the chance to introduce our Summit2+ collection – the first luxury smartwatch that can directly activate cellular connectivity right in the Wear OS by Google app on Android smartphones. The new wearable enhances its owner’s luxury business lifestyle by staying connected at all times, even when the owner is away from his or her smartphone. With a built-in speaker, Summit 2+ allows the owner direct access to services such as phone calls or the Google Assistant.
As the leader of a brand with a prominent watch business, you look at all sorts of data regarding what people want out of a Montblanc watch, and what people want out of watches overall. Do you think there is a case to be made for people wearing two watches, as long as one is a wearable smart device and the other a traditional timekeeper?
In principle, we should never oppose the digital and analogue worlds. Both have very good reasons to develop. It is good to have two distinct watches with very different functionalities. It may seem unconventional for a Maison that has established its position as a traditional watchmaker to introduce smartwatches into its offering, but it actually reinforces our view that watches are very important to our customer. In today’s digital world they want connected technology but also value the feel and look of traditional watches. We want to give them the option to choose a watch that appeals to their different needs. Both have a role to play, and find themselves as a central focus for our customers. We have many clients who own both and make use of them for different occasions. These two worlds do not compete, but rather complement one another.