Certainly one of forerunners in the world of horology, the Blancpain manufacture has its’ beginnings some three centuries ago when in 1735 Jehan-Jacques Blancpain began to produce pocketwatches for the gentry from his workbench in his own house in Villeret, a small town located in the Jura valley in Switzerland.
A pioneer then, whose devotion to perfection led him to establish one of the corner stones upon which the brand (which would carry his name hundreds of years after his time had passed) would become synonymous with – the continuous refinement of the complication movement.
The passing of years and the expanding demand for these magnificent new timepieces had the Patrons’ thoughts turning to the matter of succession. The obvious choice, his son Isaac, although qualified in the craft, was more keen to pursue his teaching career and it fell in turn to his son, David-Louis to pick up the mantle and bring the family business forward to the next generation. With his experience gained while selling his grandfathers’ wares in the larger market towns in neighbouring France and Germany, David-Louis became the first in what would become a long line of successors in the Blancpain family dynasty.
Each generation brought about new vision for the now respected Blancpain manufacture, with emphasis placed on the betterment of the manufacturing process and the refinement of machining and plant. Blancpain was no longer a craft watchmaker, like so many of its’ contemporaries, it was now reaching out in terms of productivity, distribution and ambition.
The completion of a new production facility in the last years of the 1890s, built by the banks of the river Suze, and drawing its’ electric power from the flowing waters, saw Blancpain the manufacture ready to meet the growing demand of the new century, and develop new innovations.
At the helm for this new era was Frédéric-Emile Blancpain, the seventh generation of the Blancpain family manufacture. It was under his direction that the manufacture for the first time produced an automatic wristwatch – the Léon Hatot ‘Rolls’, so named after the revolutionary rolling movement whose mobility within the case provided the winding.
As a family company however, this would be one of the last landmarks overseen by a member of the famous Blancpain name, as Frédéric-Emile met an untimely demise in 1932, and without an heir to assume responsibilities, the continuity of the Blancpain brand was taken over by Betty Fiechter and André Léal, who had been close to the late Frédéric-Emile and following his death had acquired the company assets from his only daughter, Berthe-Nellie. In deference to the great name, the pair picked up production under the new “Rayville Ltd. Successors to Blancpain”.
It was under the Rayville – Blancpain banner that the manufacture moved towards the company we recognise now, with signature pieces such as the Fifty-Fathoms automatic divers watch making their debuts. Indeed the Fifty Fathoms popularity as a military timepiece and the endorsement of legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in the Palme d’Or-winning ‘World of Silence’ propelled the manufacture through the 1950s and 1960s, although it must be said that sales were quite restricted as production rarely exceeded a few thousand pieces each year.
As the 1960s drew to an end, Rayville – Blancpain sought the added marketing punch which the industry holding company SSIH appeared to be able to provide, and so an alliance with the large organisation was formed.
A further milestone was passed when in 1969 the Blancpain brand was acquired by the Omega watch company.
However, soon after this, in 1971, a silent revolution was starting its inexorable growth, and it was this, the advent of the quartz movement and the space-age digital displays, which would render the traditional craft and image of the mechanical watch as seemingly out of touch, antiquated and mostly ‘uncool’. In these buzzing times of endless technological breakthrough, the products of the old world were quickly passed over in favour of those of the new world.
Within a couple of years, the Rayville – Blancpain manufacture was dormant, unable to devise a marketing counter to the quartz invasion and unwilling to conform by joining the revolution, to this day reiterating the adage that “Blancpain has never created a quartz movement, and never will”. For the next decade, this prestigious name, along with many like it, disappeared from the thoughts and minds of most….
……but not all. Thankfully there were still a small number of devotees who, in reaction to the direction this once-proud, centuries old tradition of watchmaking was going, stepped in to halt the spiralling demise of the great names of Blancpain and others.
Step forward Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet. Two men with a vast combined experience encapsulating all areas of the industry from manufacture (Piguet) to high-profile marketing and international distribution (Biver). Convinced that unless the rot was stopped, then the skills of the traditional watchmaker would soon disappear, and with their numbers now dwindling by the year, the two men took possession of the Blancpain brand from Omega, where Bivet had risen to vice president before departing to breathe life back into the memory of Blancpain.
The first Blancpain timepiece in a generation – featuring day, date, month and moonphase – was released in 1983 from the new (to Blancpain) facility in the village of Le Brassus, and a slow but focussed path back to prominence had begun.
Under the new patronage and true to the founders’ own ethos, Blancpain were never to be distracted by following the fickle trends of fashion, and manufacture was concentrated purely on classic complex complication timepieces. Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguets’ shared vision was to produce pieces whose value would primarily be recognised by the connoisseur, who would appreciate the level of technical accomplishment and artistry of the finish of the mechnical movement within.
One challenge for the new Blancpain was to manufacture a series of movements reflecting each of the highest levels required of the Master Watchmaker. Known as ‘The Six Masterpieces’, these were;
- The Ultra-Slim movement
- The Perpetual Calendar movement
- The Full Calendar with Moon Phase movement
- The Rattrapante (Split seconds) Chronograph movement
- The Tourbillon movement
- The Minute Repeater movement
At a time when most would have found it hard to justify the expenditure required to create such elaborate Masterpiece movements, Blancpain unveiled the six pieces in identical round cases in 1990, underlining the policy of focusing on the watchmakers skills and ability, rather than embellishing an inexpensive outsourced movement with a lavishly bejewelled watchcase.
To cap these achievements Blancpain then presented the most complex complication ever seen. The ‘1735’ (in homage to the year Blancpain himself had begun manufacturing movement components) contained no less a feat than incorporating all six of the Masterpiece complications in one watch! To add to the mystique of this Grande Complication only thirty pieces would be made – at a rate of one per year!
In 1992, Blancpain again found itself in new hands. Having been revived by Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet over the previous ten years, the famous brand was acquired by Nicolas Hayek, owner of the ever-expanding Swatch group, in whose possession it remains, although now under direction of Marc Hayek.
The Blancpain manufacture has constantly continued in its’ pursuit of horologic excellence, unveiling new movements on a regular basis, each one refining the art to new and previously unheralded levels. Every year marking another ‘first’ in the world of horology.
The people behind the Blancpain manufacture have worked hard at re-establishing the importance of the mechanical complication as central to the Swiss watchmaking industry, employing the traditional skills of the master watchmaker. Only around ten thousand pieces leave the manufacture each year.
Blancpain has never been one of the mass-volume manufactures, and for a very simple reason: it has never wanted to be. Much better to establish a reputation as an artist than a painter.
Universally acknowledged as one of the true forefathers of the industry, Blancpain are a manufacture for the connoisseur, loved for the technical excellence encased within as much as for the enduring aesthetics as it moves majestically through another century.