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A man looks at a Montblanc watch, part of Switzerland-based luxury goods holding company Richemont. Picture: AFP

In Numbers: Luxury goods in Africa

Figures and percentages reflecting luxury goods in Africa
Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/HE LILI

Behind Richemont's slide

Luxury Goods: Not the time to splash

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FM Edition:

Let’s be clear about it. In today’s connected world, you don’t need a watch. If you want to know what time it is you look at your iPhone.”

Choice words from the boss of a luxury house that sells, among other things, timepieces. Then again, what Montblanc, the 110-year-old “maison” owned by luxury goods conglomerate Richemont peddles, transcends the act of time-telling. It is a purveyor of craftsmanship, quality and even legacy — qualities not easily replaced by digitisation and, more specifically, wearable technology.

Eric Vergnes, president of Montblanc Middle East, Africa and India, says the Montblanc watch buyer or the watch buyer of any luxury mechanical timepiece is pursuing different motivations — be it recognition or status or simply the love of design.

“If you wear a beautiful, finely crafted watch it’s not to read the time, it’s because you’re looking for something else. Whereas with an Apple Watch or any other smartwatch it could be seen as a geek accessory ... it’s more about functionality. This could be the same person or two different people but both watches are aimed at two completely different philosophies of life,” he says in an interview at Johannesburg’s Saxon hotel.

High-end watches hold their value reasonably well, making them an investment — much like art, fine wine or classic cars.

And though it would seem that makers of Swiss timepieces have very little to fear, not since the quartz crisis of the 1980s — when most global watch production moved from Switzerland to Asia — has a movement brought such disquietude to the industry.

“It’s an interesting time,” says Vergnes, in SA for the opening of a flagship boutique in Sandton City. “It’s difficult to predict what the future of connected watches vs traditional watches will be and whether it really is a battle. Maybe, because at the end of the day we have only one wrist to wear a watch on. We cannot be blind to what is happening.”

The 119m² Sandton boutique was created by French designer and interiors architect Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance and is Montblanc’s first neo-concept boutique in the region. It allows for diversification through leather goods, eyewear, fragrance — aimed at capturing younger, less flush but progressive consumers. It’s a bridge between tradition and modernity.

The brand is mostly known for its writing instruments — the Montblanc imprimatur is most often seen peeking out of the pocket of a bespoke shirt.

Montblanc has been repositioned in terms of its non-pen products, with average selling-price being brought down, so there is an effort to attract younger customers, says analyst Jon Cox of Swiss firm Kepler Cheuvreux.

The new design has dedicated areas within the space for the three core categories in Montblanc’s portfolio: writing instruments, watches and jewellery and leather goods.

 According to Luca Solca, the head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas, the brand’s new expansion plans were consistent with a strategy of having Montblanc focus more on accessible luxury consumers.

“I estimate over half of [Montblanc’s] sales are nonwriting instruments, with around a quarter watches and jewellery and a quarter leather and other accessories,” Cox says.

Montblanc’s total sales are estimated to be around €800m, contributing around €80m operating profit, or roughly 5% of Richemont.

 In SA, where the brand’s first boutique opened in 2002, close to 40% of customers are women. “We are a brand whose DNA is more masculine,” says Vergnes. “But I think women consider Montblanc as a gift option. In a world where everything is becoming more digital, what has more value, receiving an e-mail from your loved one or receiving a beautiful handwritten letter?”

 Collectors are an important demand reservoir for pens, Solca says. For 2016, Montblanc’s Writers Edition pen collection pays homage to the Bard with the ultra-limited guilloche and lacquer fountain pen William Shakespeare Limited Edition 1597, and the black-and-white resin collection called the Writers Edition William Shakespeare.

 Though the demise of the pen has been greatly exaggerated, a growing number of people take notes on their smartphones and tablets. Enter Montblanc Augmented Paper — users write with a smart pen on coded paper that can be transcribed.

Writing, it would seem, is unlikely to ever become obsolete.