I recently attended a special lunch at Le Cirque, the French restaurant at Delhi’s Leela Palace Hotel. The food was splendid, and so was the wine which, I learnt later, was chosen by my host himself. Franck Juhel, the person I was meeting, heads the German luxury pen and watchmaker Montblanc’s Middle East, Africa and India operations. He was as passionate about wine, art and shoes as he was talking about his company’s widening product portfolio (there are four main areas currently: leather goods, watches, accessories, and writing instruments).
As we traversed from amuse-bouche to petit fours and coffee, we discussed almost everything artistic and artisanal under the sun, from glaçage to Grenache, the essence of tradition, and even what millennials would kill next. The talk then veered towards business — the fickle nature of the modern consumer, about how the average buyer today avows a lot less loyalty, how the value perception of luxury seems to get redefined every few years, and how connected gadgets are changing the world.
Then came the specifics. An avid pen user and collector myself, I was keen to know how important writing instruments were in Montblanc’s current scheme of things. “Well, we are the brand with the highest belt sales among luxury brands, so those categories are growing well too”, Franck responded, “while writing instruments remains a special category and is growing in its own way.”
The advent of touchscreens has made writing with a pen on paper an increasingly obsolete task. So for Montblanc, staying relevant requires going much beyond the routine launch of limited edition pens. Their challenge has been about retaining an old generation of clients that still wish for exclusive handmade pens, while trying to attract a new generation that is more taken in by techwizardry. They did this by going back to the drawing board and reinventing the concept of writing. In Franck’s words, the idea was to “stay true to the DNA and integrate new technology into hand-crafted ware.” Montblanc had its first outing with smart technology a few years ago, with watches featuring e-straps, which allowed the wearer to incorporate newage connectivity in a classical watch. Then in 2016, it launched Augmented Paper, a notebook that transfers what you write to a connected app. It is a classic example of preserving the tradition of writing, while embracing the convenience of being able to email or forward notes.
In a similar vein is the more recent smartwatch, the Montblanc Summit. Inspired by the iconic 1858 collection, it has the look and feel of a classical luxury timepiece. Its 46mm case and bezel are made from the same materials (like titanium and steel) as the brand ’s analogue watches.
Technology, in a sense, represents the fifth arm of Montblanc’s product portfolio. Since tech is always short-lived, it regenerates and reinvents itself faster than something that is small-scale, handmade and traditional. “And yet”, Franck says, “the two can coexist; therefore one shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for the other.” Buyers today, irrespective of age, would like to possess the Villeret and also have the Summit smartwatch. They want a pen to write with, but also want to possess the ability to transfer that data online. It’s a whole new world, and Montblanc seems to be taking each step with measured meticulousness.
What hasn’t changed much is its clientele, which is still predominately male, though half the buying is apparently done by women. Other insights about trends that Franck shared include the increasing popularity of luxury backpacks, the waxing and waning popularity of watch diameters (currently in a waning phase, so small sizes are in again), and about classic being the new nouveau. It reflects in their stores, which have evolved from being just writing instrument and timepiece showcases to ‘Neo’, a universe of all things Mont Blanc. I came back from lunch feeling a renewed connection with the brand. While I may not be a devoted buyer of many of their products, I did feel the seed of desire firmly planted, one that will bud into curiosity before it finally blossoms into the next coveted acquisition.