Montblanc Zero tolerance in Le Locle
While quality control is mandatory in the watch industry, at Montblanc it is almost a creed. We take a look at the testing secrets of a brand practising zero tolerance.
Upon his arrival at the head of the brand, the new Montblanc CEO Jérôme Lambert admitted his astonishment at the quality controls performed by Montblanc Watches. Had he understated the rigorous approach of the Hamburg-based brand? Probably not, but the Montblanc testing criteria are indeed especially demanding.
Naturally, like any other brand, Montblanc aims for zero flaws. This a matter of preserving its image as well as its budget, since a timepiece exempt from any defects represents one less to be dealt with under guarantee.
One operation = one step
Montblanc is a standout brand. It is a full-fledged Manufacture that has its own calibres, such as the MB R 100 and 200 housed in the Rieussec models. It also has those resulting from its acquisition of Minerva in 2007. Alongside this, the brand makes marginal use of some Sellita or ETA-type external movements for ranges such as the Star or TimeWalker collections.
While the calibres are thus all very different at Montblanc, the goal pursued is the same for all of them. The in-house policy therefore applies to all movements: a test is performed after each operation. As soon as the hands are fitted, Montblanc checks their smooth rotation and the changes of the dial indications. The minute the baseplate is drilled, each hole is individually measured twice. As far as external movements are concerned, despite their reputation for reliability, Montblanc also examines them one be one to ensure their dimensions and their appearance meet its standards.
Above and beyond this, Montblanc even checks some machines each time they begin running again. “This is for example done with the one serving to apply oil to certain movement parts”, explains the head of the relevant unit in Le Locle. “We developed it ourselves, so we know it very well. Despite this, each time we set it running after a standby period, we ensure that its performances are satisfactory: that it is indeed applying in the right place the appropriate amount of oil with the appropriate dispersion and the correct degree of viscosity.“
The last distinctive Montblanc factor in this respect is that these tests are conducted directly by the corresponding operators. Each workstation (assembly, casing-up, dial-fitting, hand-fitting, etc.) is thus equipped with its own screen plus its own software, and is responsible for pinpointing every surplus or missing micron. So is that enough? Not for Montblanc, since at the end of the assembly chain, each watch undergoes a last control outside of the chain – “to ensure that the previous stages are not both judge and jury”, quips the foreman in charge of this side of operations.
The special case of the Rieussec
Watch industry testing procedures are fairly standardised and apply to most three-hand timepieces – and thus not to the Nicolas Rieussec chronograph!
This stellar model in the Montblanc collection is mainly based on disc-based displays, so what difference does that make in terms of quality control? All the difference in the world!
First of all, the presence of a multiple superimposed discs is a challenge in itself, as the Manufacture points out: “They are hand-fitted and their parallelism is determined by infinitely small tolerances. Any skewing would impair the running of the discs above and below, as well as result in significant loss in the chronograph timing”. Montblanc therefore implements even stricter testing on these specific elements.
Finally, the absence of a central hand has another direct consequence, by making it impossible to apply for COSC certification on this watch.
From the COSC to a full 500 hours
The Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) takes photos at regular intervals of the central hand passing a given point – generally the central hand of the would-be chronometer watch moving past noon. Without this point of reference, a watch cannot hope to earn the COSC certification, which is why the Rieussec model is not eligible.
In order to offer comparable guarantees of chronometer-worthy precision timekeeping, Montblanc has thus developed its own tests and the in-house chronometric controls are also well above the prevailing standards.
Montblanc explains its approach in these terms: “One of the flaws in these standards is that they apply only to the bare movement, whereas we consider that fitting the dial, hands and even the case may modify the precision of a movement. We thus perform the tests on the movement alone and on the finished watch”.
This test, or rather this battery of tests, lasts more than 500 hours. Visual controls and rating controls are conducted in all positions; the overall running of the movements with functions activated and deactivated is also examined, along with water resistance and all other relevant factors! Each Manufacture-made or in-house assembled watch is submitted to this set of tests, the only exception being the small number of models sourced from Minerva, which undergo their own specific tests in Villeret.
Not for the faint-hearted
There is a last type of test to be undergone by components aspiring to enter the Montblanc collections. It is demurely called “qualification”, but is in fact tantamount to horological torture! The goal is to test resistance in beyond-normal conditions.
“This is my latest toy”, says the man responsible for these tests, with a knowing smile. “It allows me to test water-tightness/air-tightness using helium, of which the particles are infinitely finer and thus penetrate more effectively than water”.
He also has a whole battery of equally stringent tests, including a cage featuring hyper-exposure to ultra-violet rays to test strap fading; or a tensiometer that stretches these straps to extremes in order to define a breaking point. Not to mention the famous crash tests in which a watch is dropped from a certain height onto a wooden base. “People simply don’t realise the amount of shocks sustained by our watches”, he points out. “Applause represents anything from 5 to 20 Gs. An accidental knock against a piece of furniture can amount to 300 Gs and a one-metre drop onto a wooden floor may mean 5000 Gs”. So is that a lot, Mr watch doctor? “Playing golf involves no more than 20Gs”. A word to the wise...
More pictures available in the slideshow: click on the large image on top of the page.