The Banner of Villeret

by Carlos Perez

November 11, 2002

“…Yes our collection has become a little bit
too large and we need to focus again and focus to our
roots. In that sense I share your opinion concerning
the classique line which is also my favorite, except
the fact that I would like it to be of a larger
dimension (36 or 38, even 40 mm). This evolution has
already started…”

— Jean-Claude Biver to the author, June 22, 2000

Every brand is based in a myth, where whatever
underlying truths supporting it are played up and spun
for maximum effect. Brand exists to sell the myth as
much as the product, and in the world of luxury the
product is just a curio without the context of brand to
provide meaning and identity – an identity which we as
consumers make a part of ourselves.

Just
as every brand represents an idea, so should any
product line be defined and held together by a central
idea spun off from the greater brand identity. Perhaps
more so than any other watch manufacturer in the
lineage of mechanical watchmaking, the modern
post-quartz Blancpain was consciously founded upon a
purist vision: The ancient tradition made manifest
through a heritage continued not of direct patrimony,
but of the entire then-dying heritage of a
centuries-old tradition of craft. The ancient
sensibility clarified, and perfected.

The result of this initial zealot’s dream is shown
left, now known as the “Six
Masterpieces
,” if they can still claim to be
known. These six archetypes of fine watchmaking,
originally available only in 34mm gold cases with white
dials, represented the purest classicism while
advancing the art of watchmaking. This line of
classiques was expanded by other models and variations,
new case metals and dial colours, but it was the
purchase of the young Blancpain by SMH which laid the
original dream to rest. In the interim Blancpain became
a brand largely of sports watches, endless minor
limited editions, and unlimited complication cocktails.

If one may draw upon the cliché image of light
breaking through clouds, Blancpain has recently
introduced a collection of wristwatches which evoke the
spirit upon which the new company was founded, without
repeating their works of the past. The collection bears
the appellation “Villeret,” though it is the
only one of the three major Blancpain collections not
named for the primary place of its manufacture. Indeed
the modern Blancpain has never set foot in Villeret
proper, and is actually based in Lausanne, Le Brassus,
and Paudex.

But perhaps more importantly, Villeret is a spiritual
motif of the Blancpain brand image. If the complicated
“Le Brassus” collection rightly represents
the exclusive works produced at their farmhouse in Le
Brassus, then the Villeret collection is what
represents the legend – the idea of Blancpain; a myth
centered upon the village of Villeret, based loosely upon
the murky history of the original company. This ‘return
to its roots’ is perhaps but a single step, raising not
only a new standard for the brand, but hopefully a
reawakening of the spirit of the new house.

I.

While at first glance the Villeret family appears to
follow the thought of IWC’s famous Portuguese
wristwatches – which are pocket watch calibre based -
the Villeret’s actually harken back further to the idea
of adapted wristlet watches; in essence pocket watches
slightly modified for wrist wear. In this case, the
basis of the Villeret design is Blancpain’s little
known calibre 15 ultrathin pocket watch (shown below
right). It is not an aesthetic based in the greater
heritage of pocket watches, but in the post-Deco form
of the 20th century pocket watch. Simple, extra-flat,
with applied roman numerals. The Villeret’s domed
case-back is a touch which evokes the sensibility of a
19th century pocket watch, unlike the completely modern
ref. 0015, which has a flat case-back.

The
premiere watch of the Villeret collection is most
directly evocative of these concepts, reduced to the
barest simplicity, devoid of even the slightest
ornament (shown below). Here even the word
“automatic” has been swept away. The
proportions of dial and case are striking, and subtly
different than its 34mm and 44mm cousins. Though 40mm
in diameter, the time-only Villeret is a mere 8.8mm
thick despite the domed case-back. Its 22mm lug width
maintains classic wristwatch proportions rather than
early wristlet proportions. The 40mm cases are made
only in either red or white gold, the vogue for which
has apparently precluded the use of golden gold.

One point of controversy that plagues much of the
Villeret collection is the use of standard 11 ½”’
(25.6mm) wristwatch calibres in the larger 40mm wide
cases; in the case of the time-only Villeret, the
Frederic Piguet automatic calibre 11.51 with 100 hour
power reserve. Yet this is a size disparity common to
instrument watches in general, and to most of the
present oversized wristwatch fad. What separates
Villeret from the bulk of this trend is that the
Villeret watches are not simply standard wristwatches
magnified, or crudely bulked up, but wholly redesigned
at this larger size, evoking a sensibility only
preceded by the extremely rare IWC Portofino Moonphase,
though in a smaller more accessible package.

While the 40mm time-only watch is the foundation of the
Villeret line, and the template upon which all Villeret
models are designed, there are three variants directly
derived from it which use the same base calibre. First
amongst them is a Reserve de Marche model (shown at
top), which features the novel and elegant usage of
Roman numerals for its four-day power reserve display.
It is, I believe, the first 115x-based power reserve
watch with automatic winding. The last variant in the
40mm case was recently introduced at the Basel Fair
2002, which features a 30-second retrograde seconds
display, positioned at 6 o’clock where standard
subseconds would otherwise be placed. These two
variants demonstrate another principle which guides the
collection: no more than one complication is showcased
in any specific model, emphasis on
“showcased.”

The last two 115x based variants feature a smaller 38mm
case. The obligatory ‘big-date’ model is available in
both red and white gold like its larger cousins. The
other is a simple time-only model with center-seconds.
This odd man out is made only in yellow gold. Like the
other models it is available with either an opaline or
galvanic blue dial, the latter producing the very
unusual combination of yellow gold with a blue dial – a
particular favourite of mine. On the whole it’s smaller
scale, different base colouring, and central seconds
makes it both the most conventional and yet the most
atypical offering in the Villeret collection.

II.


The next base model in the Collection Villeret is a two
register automatic chronograph, naturally fitted with
the superlative calibre 1188. Coupled with the 40mm
Villeret case, this complicated model is less evocative
of the old pocket watch aesthetic, as pocket
chronographs would typically have their registers at
the 12 and 6 o’clock positions (see IWC’s Portuguese
chronographs). Rather it is a proper incarnation of the
classic gentleman’s chronograph wristwatch.

Of all the Villeret collection, this is the only
instance where I would say that this larger version is
an outright improvement over its 34mm classique
predecessor, rather than an evolutionary supplement.
Throughout the history of wristwatches chronographs
have primarily used 12”’ movements which are
technically suited to 32mm cases, yet as instrument
watches – even in gentlemen’s variants – they have
generally been 36mm in diameter or larger, for balance
and simple legibility. This was true even when the
standard men’s wristwatch size was 30mm to 34mm. The
classique 34mm chronograph with its very crowded dial (rattrapante
shown above left) is a clear demonstration of the
problem. The Villeret’s 40mm case is perhaps a bit
larger than absolutely necessary, but on the whole an
improvement.

Furthermore, the 40mm Villeret chronograph is the first
chronograph-only watch from Blancpain without a date
guichet in regular production – something that has been a
painful blight
especially upon the more classically styled models.
Here also the omission of the subseconds display at 6
o’clock gives the watch the classical two-register
aesthetic, while maintaining the functionality of both
the 30 minute and 12 hour registers. The calibre 118x’s
vertical clutch allows the use of the chronograph
seconds hand as a constant-on central seconds hand
without additional load or wear on the movement.

Alas, the obligatory big-date has manifested itself
here as well in the only Villeret chronograph variant.
Its 38mm case might be considered a more appropriate
size for a chronograph of gentle, rather than
instrument design.

III.

The third base model of the Collection Villeret is the
first of two haute horlogerie offerings. Using the
dazzling and exclusive Frederic Piguet calibre 25, it
is in essence a 12% magnification of the 34mm 8-day
tourbillon from the Six Masterpieces into a 38mm case.
While still a beautiful piece, I feel that this
represents a lost opportunity to pare down the original
tourbillon watch design. I would have like to have seen
this variant without the date function, and the word
“tourbillon” on the dial is as usual an
unpleasant stain. As yet there are no variants, but as
it is the non-quickset date which makes the manually
wound tourbillon calibre 23 a hassle to some, a
hand-wound variant should obviously be divested of this
unnecessary encumbrance.

IV.

The last base model is the Villeret minute repeater,
which like the 8-day tourbillon follows the template of
the Six Masterpieces repeater but in a 38mm case. Like
its predecessor it would appear to be a simple
subsidiary seconds watch due to its hidden repeater
slide, but for the words “repetition minutes”
written in script on its dial. Yet even with this
unnecessary literature on its dial, it is still the
purest Villeret next to the time-only 40mm automatic.

The Collection Villeret as it stands is an excellent
beginning which has not yet exploited its full
potential, or engaged in the full pursuit of
simplicity. The most obvious omission is a non-quantieme
moonphase watch, preferably in the larger 40mm case.
But most egregious is the complete shut-out of
hand-winding. No doubt this has been driven by the
general market preference for automatics, but in this
passion of mechanical watchmaking, it is the hand-wound
watch which is the purest, most classical, and most
intimate form of the mechanical watch – much unlike the
quartz-like autonomy of automatics.

The greatest opportunity lost by this exclusion lies
with the little seen calibre 15, Frederic Piguet’s 15
¾ ligne ultrathin hand-wound pocket watch movement. In
20 jewels and five bridges it is a classical
watchmaking masterpiece. Already fitted standard with
Kif and Duofix shock protection, it is ready and
waiting for usage in a 40mm Villeret handwind with
subsidiary seconds. Further, such a watch would provide
the basis for the ultimate Blancpain “Hunter”
and “Half-hunter” wristwatches. Alas, what
should have been the primary basic movement of the
Villeret collection languishes in the obscurity of a
few pocket watches.

Of course the most horologically important omission
from the Blancpain collection (and all other Swatch
Group properties) is a clockwatch.
The Villeret collection would be the perfect platform
for an extra-flat Full Strike clockwatch, or even a
simpler Quarter or Hour Striker.

As in most forms of manufacturing business, change
comes slowly in the world of watchmaking. The new
products of today began with a vision years in the
past. Over the past year or two Blancpain has purged
nearly 78% of its SKUs, to less than 300 models and
variants total, organizing a once impossible portfolio
of disparate watches into three families. Perhaps the
most significant change of this period is a change in
executive leadership. While co-founder and former CEO
of Blancpain is still in the employ of the Swatch
Group, and a consultant to Blancpain, the brand is now
headed by Marc Hayek, a scion of Swatch’s ruling Hayek
family.

The loss of essential identity which spurred these
sweeping changes now appears to have been rediscovered.
As a part of the extended Six Masterpieces family, the
Collection Villeret brings us back to the reason why
the new house of Blancpain was founded in the early
1980s. They are the antithesis of the “fruit
salad” or “complication cocktail”
mentality of the past several years – though a market
still served by Blancpain’s 42mm Le Brassus family. In
theme, the Villeret collection does not primarily focus
on a return to the complication of the founding
Masterpieces, but moves forward to a new, more
egalitarian simplicity, and the barest purity of design
and presence.


Thanks to Magnus Bosse


Image Credits

Blancpain Villeret watches courtesy of Blancpain,
SA.

Blancpain Six Masterpieces and Jubilee courtesy of Antiquorum

Blancpain pocket watch ref. 0015 by Gisbert
Joseph


Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2002

All Rights Reserved

 
© 2012 Bourne In Time Inc.