The Beckertime Brand Series: Blancpain
While nowhere close to the likes of Rolex or Omega in the recognition stakes, Blancpain is, nevertheless, an extremely important player in the luxury watch business.
One of those names familiar more to those ‘in the know’, Blancpain can officially claim to be the oldest horology brand in existence. Its roots date back to the early part of the 18th century.
However, rather than being mired in the antiquated, the company has built a reputation as one of the most innovative marques in the business, with a collection awash in exquisitely refined movements and haute horlogerie complications.
Below, we take a look in more detail at the history of Blancpain, its most famous creations from the past and its current direction.
The brand was founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, setting up shop on the top floor of his family’s farmhouse in Villeret. The landscape around the small Swiss hamlet, nestled in the Burnese Jura mountains, has been inspiring watchmakers for centuries and is still one of the traditional bases of Switzerland’s horology industry today.
Jehan-Jacques, who would go on in later life to become mayor of the town, had previously been employed as a horse and cattle breeder as well as a school teacher before turning his hand to creating his own timepieces.
The company started producing pocket watches, becoming a bona fide family concern with Blancpain employing his wife and son, Isaac, in the production. But it was Isaac’s own son, David-Louis, who would go on to become head of the company following Jehan-Jacques death, with Isaac preferring life as a school teacher himself.
However, it would take another generation of the dynasty to turn the one-time cottage industry into a full scale manufacturing business when David-Louis’s eldest child, Frédéric-Louis Blancpain, took over.
Following the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, Frédéric-Louis introduced state-of-the-art production methods and machinery to improve productivity and enhance the quality of Blancpain’s output, drawing power from the local River Suze to generate electricity.
With this new technology, the company was able to make ultra flat movements for their pocket watches, removing the crown wheel mechanism and replacing it with a cylinder escapement. A major innovation at the time, extremely thin calibers are still a trademark of Blancpain today.
Sadly, Frédéric-Louis’s ill health meant he was compelled to turn the business over to his son, Frédéric-Emile when he was still a teenager. Yet the two would go on to work side-by-side for a number of years, and between them transformed Blancpain into the town of Villeret’s most profitable company.
It was Emile who installed the manufacturer’s first production line and built a new two-story factory to allow the concern to compete in the increasingly saturated world of watchmaking.
One of the few businesses in Villeret to survive the period, Blancpain continued to be handed down from father to son, right into the 20th century.
The Fifty Fathoms and Beyond
Having remained a family enterprise for nearly 200-years, the final Blancpain to own the company was the grandson of Frédéric-Emile who, for confusion’s sake, was named Frédéric-Emile. When he died in 1932, the business was bought out by Betty Fiechter and André Léal, both of whom had worked faithfully with Emile since 1915. By doing so, Betty, the former head of manufacturing and commercial development who had joined Blancpain as an apprentice at just 16, would become the first ever female CEO of a major Swiss watchmaker.
She too recognized the advantages of having family involved in running affairs, and her nephew, Jean-Jacques, was brought onboard as a director in 1950.
It was the two of them who recognized the significance of what was to become the most important creation in Blancpain’s history a few years later.
Although the manufacture was primarily known for their women’s watches at the time, and even introduced the first ever automatic ladies model, the Rolls, in the 1920s, the piece which truly put them on the map was a world away from that sort of daintiness.
The recently concluded World War II had initiated several new forms of combat, one of them being underwater sabotage. The effectiveness of these operations had prompted many military outfits to form dedicated frogman units, one of them being the French Ministry of Defence. The two men charged with establishing the MOD’s fledgling special forces team, Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Jean Riffaud, were in need of a reliable and robust diving watch. Unfortunately, no such thing existed which was up to the job, and so they were forced to design one themselves. Having come up with a list of requirements and a sketch, they put the concept out to tender, only to be shot down by dozens of watch brands.
Eventually, they reached Blancpain. CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter, himself a passionate Scuba diver, was the first person to show any real interest, and the upshot of their collaboration became the genesis for all modern dive watches, the Fifty Fathoms, released in 1953.
The model is one of the most important in tool watch history, and so we will dedicate an entire article to it in the next couple of weeks. But it was a significant success for Blancpain too, becoming standard issue for scores of international fighting forces and securing the company’s immediate future.
Even so, the 20th century wasn’t an easy time for Blancpain. In 1961, they became part of the SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère), along with the likes of Omega, Tissot and Lémania. As well as producing their own watches, Blancpain also built movements for the other brands in the SSIH Group—something they had been doing since the 1930s, when they survived the Great Depression by supplying calibers to Gruen, Hamilton and Elgin, among others.
The ‘70s brought the quartz crisis which devastated the traditional industry in Switzerland and prompted the SSIH to try and reorder their business around the new technology, at the expense of mechanical watches. As a result, the group sold Blancpain to the movement manufacturer Piguet, headed up by Jacques Piguet, in partnership with a former SSIH employee named Jean-Claude Biver.
Biver’s attraction to Blancpain was founded on the basis they had only ever made mechanical watches, never succumbing to the electronics fad flooding in from the East. With Blancpain SA’s fresh beginning, setting up in the village of Le Brassus, 1,000m up in the Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains, he came up with the brand’s new slogan and guiding philosophy; “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
It was actually a risky strategy at the time, betting everything on the hope that consumers would eventually tire of the perceived soullessness of battery-powered watches and return to the artistry and mystique of the mechanical.
As we know now, it paid off and Blancpain can lay claim to at least some of the credit. They focused on limited number releases of highly complicated timepieces, re-entering the market with two moonphase watches, one each for men and women, powered by the Calibre 6395, the smallest movement ever made up till that point able to display day, month, date and lunar phases.
A further triumph occurred in 1991 with the unveiling of the 1735 Grande Complication. Including a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, rattrapante chronograph and both moon phase and moon age indicators, it was the most complicated wristwatch ever made at the time. Only 30 were ever produced, spread over a near two decade period.
The following year, the SSIH bought Blancpain back, for CHF 60M. Simultaneously, the group merged with the ASUAG to become the SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries Ltd.), headed up by Nicolas G. Hayek. The conglomerate was renamed as The Swatch Group in 1998, and is still in control of Blancpain today.
Their current portfolio is split into four sectors; Women’s models, Fifty Fathoms, Villeret (where you will find the most classically styled examples, with some of the most impressive complications) and the Métiers d’Art series, a stunning collection of watches, more works of art than timepieces. Here you will find craftsman-engraved dials in porcelain or shakudō (an alloy of gold and copper), often based on renowned Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, such as Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’.
Stunning to look at and cripplingly expensive, the Métiers d’Art range is horology at its most eloquent and impressive.
That is our look at Switzerland’s oldest watchmaking maison. Blancpain is currently enjoying one of its most prosperous periods, as the demand for the very best in traditional watchmaking continues to grow day after day.
Their catalog is a treasure trove of utterly sublime pieces, the perfect blend of ultra modern technology, all with an underlying elegance nearly 300-years in the making.