Montblanc has been making a name for itself over the last few years primarily through the rapid introduction of very classically oriented, but at the same time, very (relatively) affordable watches. Its ability and willingness to present even traditionally very expensive high complications, like the perpetual calendar, at very affordable prices, has done a great deal to earn the company good will, and dispel some of the skepticism many felt about what, historically, was exclusively a pen company, creating watch collections. Montblanc’s entry level watches may routinely make headlines, but the company also continues to createhaute horlogerie and concept timepieces, and the latest – the TimeWalker Pythagore Ultra-Light Concept – is a new watch that resurrects a movement design dating from 1943. It’s a movement which many of us still remember as something of an insider’s favorite in the 1990s: the Minerva caliber 48, which was used in the Minerva Pythagore. Never has the name “TimeWalker” seemed more apt.
The Pythagore Ultra-Light Concept was created to honor Montblanc ambassador and world badminton champion Lin Dan. Badminton isn’t a sport with a lot of traction in the U.S., but though you probably associate badminton more with summer afternoons and backyard barbecues than professional competitive sports, Lin Dan is undoubtedly an elite athlete, dubbed “Super Dan” by one of his opponents in 2004. Some aspects of the design of the Pythagore Ultra-Light Concept are intended to reflect his career, including the use of red to encircle the dial (which has been considered a lucky color in Chinese culture for centuries) as well as the five stars at eight o’clock, which represent the five most important tournaments of badminton’s Grand Slam. The technical message from this watch is connected to some degree with the sport as well: it’s one of the lightest watches ever made, coming in at 14.88 grams.
For comparison, the lightest tourbillon that Richard Mille’s made for Rafael Nadal, the RM27-01 tourbillon, weighs 19 grams (of course, the latter is considerably more complicated). Montblanc’s achieved this through the use, throughout the watch, of extremely strong, rigid, but lightweight materials. The movement, caliber MB 62.48, is made of titanium (both the five bridges, as well as the mainplate) and there’s no conventional dial. The case makes use of DLC (diamond-like carbon) over titanium for the horns, and most of the rest of the case, including the case middle, bezel, and case back, are made from a composite material called ITR²®Kevlar®/Carbon.
The letters ITR² stand for Innovative Technique Revolutionary Resin, and if you find that a little hyperbolic, you can’t blame Montblanc for that. A little digging reveals that the material was developed, and named, by a company you’ve probably never heard of (I hadn’t) called Injector S.A. The basic material, as far as I can make out from the Injector S.A. website, is an industrial resin, in a proprietary formulation – understandably, Injector S.A. is a little vague on specifics – that can be combined with either ceramic material, or carbon (in which case it turns either white or black, respectively). It has been used once or twice in watches before to a very limited degree, but Montblanc makes very extensive use of it in the Pythagore Ultra-Light Concept, and in, as far as I can tell, a new formulation, using Kevlar fibers and carbon nanotubes to create a material four times lighter than titanium, hypoallergenic, and extremely tough.
“When we reflect on the head watchmaker still working part-time well into his 70s, the beautiful French girl fitting and adjusting hairsprings by hand, the two full-time watchmakers and the local women and men who would come in part time to mind the machines or assemble movements, the shortcomings in execution are poignant signs of the last days of a long-held family business.”
– Purists.com, Pythagore Review by John Davis
There was for me a genuine moment of emotion when I saw the movement, though. It’s been given a very major redesign, but caliber MB 62.48 is, in terms of basic movement architecture, identical to a movement I’m reasonably sure almost no one except a few horological lifers like me remembers: the Minerva caliber 48. The caliber 48 was designed in 1943 by Andres Frey and was manufactured for a surprisingly long time; production ceased in 2000 (well before the company was acquired by Richemont and Montblanc). The layout of the bridges and their proportions to each other were supposedly inspired by the Pythagorean Golden Ratio, and so the watch it was used in was called the Pythagore. The Pythagore had a reputation for offering high quality hand-finishing and general horological excellence at a fraction of the cost of haute horlogerie from other famous makers, and became a sort of cult classic. By the late 1990s, Minerva was reduced to a skeleton crew, but a lot of us still clung to the cult classic narrative, and it was with some sadness and disillusionment that many of us read John Davis’ review on the Purists.com (now PuristsPro) which concluded, rather mournfully:
“There is still a great deal of charm for me in these watches, despite their many shortcomings. While they do not enjoy even the quality control and execution of mass-produced ETA movements encased and labelled by Brand X, they likewise do not suffer the ubiquity and anonymity either. There is something very human about the watches made by Minerva at that time. When we reflect on the head watchmaker still working part-time well into his 70s, the beautiful French girl fitting and adjusting hairsprings by hand, the two full-time watchmakers and the local women and men who would come in part time to mind the machines or assemble movements, the shortcomings in execution are poignant signs of the last days of a long-held family business.” (Full review here.)
That was years ago; Davis’ review was written in 2002. Of course the new movement, MB 62.48, is different in almost every respect that matters from a performance standpoint, from the Minerva caliber 48; it’s bigger (caliber 48 was 23.6 mm in diameter, MB 62.48 is 31.6 mm in diameter) for one thing. MB 62.48 has a lovely swan’s neck regulator; the power reserve for the latter is 50 hours vs. 45 hours for caliber 48; MB 62.45 has shock protection on both the escape wheel jewel and the balance pivots, and so on. But the overall outline is there, and both movements beat at the same frequency; 18,000 vph. Interestingly enough, the flat balance spring for MB 62.48 now has, according to Montblanc, a Phillips terminal curve. The absence of a dogleg terminal curve was something Davis mentions in his 2002 review as contributing to the tendency for the caliber 48 to show large positional errors; so the MB 62.48 should perform significantly better (in fact it’s a technically superior movement in almost every way that matters).
As many of you will probably know, the word “nostalgia” is put together from two Greek roots: nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain (a classical education is still good for something, apparently). What you might not know, and what’s very apropos in this case, is that the word was coined in the 17th century, to describe the homesickness of Swiss mercenaries. Seeing this watch made me feel a keen sense of nostalgia for the Minerva caliber 48 and the original Pythagore, but it was also a reminder that for watch guys of my generation, the appeal of the Pythagore was based to a certain degree on something that never really existed in the first place. Mechanical watchmaking has a lot of nostalgia underlying its appeal in general. Badly faded, oxidized, and chemically unstable dials (I’m looking at you, “tropical”) wouldn’t be so appealing if it didn’t. But seeing this watch made me look forwards, as well as backwards, in time, and hope that this new movement will find its way into more than just a unique piece. This movement, at this diameter, in steel, in an updated steel Pythagore case, would be a watch to remember.
The Montblanc TimeWalker Pythagore Ultra-Light Concept: movement, Montblanc caliber MB 62.48, 31.6 mm x 3.9 mm, 50-hour power reserve, 18,000 vph. Flat balance spring with Phillips terminal curve. Plates and bridges in titanium; shock protection on the balance and escape wheel pivots. Case, DLC-coated titanium, ITR² Kevlar/Carbon, 40 mm x 9.7 mm. Total weight, 14.88 grams. Strap, black nylon with calfskin lining. Certified, MB 500 Hour Laboratory test.
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