Blancpain (Est. 1735) Now nearing 300 years old, Blancpain SA designs, manufactures, distributes, and sells luxury Swiss watches. In its current incarnation, it is a subsidiary of the Swatch Group and, along with Breguet and Vacheron Constantin, is one of the oldest surviving watch-making establishments and has numerous watch-making technologies to its credit.
On its current website, the company describes its beginnings and history:
“At the beginning of the 18th century, Jehan-Jacques Blancpain perceived [the] potential in a completely new business activity: watchmaking. In 1735, he founded the Blancpain brand, setting up his first workshop on the upper floor of his house at Villeret, in present-day Bernese Jura. By recording his name in the official property register of the municipality of Villeret, this pioneer … created an establishment which is now the world’s oldest watchmaking brand.
“Blancpain watches enjoyed great success from the earliest years and the heirs of Jehan-Jacques Blancpain perpetuated his expertise. In 1815, Frédéric-Louis Blancpain, the great-grandson of Jehan-Jacques [and then] head of the family business…modernized production methods and transformed the traditional craft workshop into an industrial undertaking capable of serial production. By replacing the crown-wheel mechanism with a cylinder escapement, Frédéric-Louis introduced a major innovation into the watchmaking world.
“By the middle of the 19th century the House of Blancpain had become the most substantial enterprise in Villeret. In the second half of the 19th century, as industrialization took hold, the prices of watchmaking products were falling and many workshops … close[d]. In 1865 Blancpain built a two-story factory by the River Suze and made use of water power to supply the electricity needed for its production processes. By modernizing its methods and concentrating on [a] top-of-range products, Blancpain become one of the few watchmaking firms to survive in Villeret.”
In 1926, the firm entered into partnership with John Harwood and began selling the first automatic wristwatch. Four years later, Blancpain adapted this system to small-sized watches and launched the rectangular Rolls, by Léon Hatot, which became the world’s first ladies’ automatic watch.
In 1932, family management of Blancpain that had lasted for over two centuries ended. When Frédéric-Emile Blancpain died, his only daughter, Berthe-Nellie, chose not to go into watchmaking. The following year, two members of the staff who had been closest to Frédéric-Emile, Betty Fiechter and André Léal, bought the business.
With no members of the Blancpain family in control, the two associates were obliged by the laws of the time to change the company name. The firm then officially became Rayville S.A., succ. de Blancpain, “Rayville” being a phonetic anagram of Villeret.
Despite the name change, the firm’s identity was perpetuated and the characteristics of the brand were preserved. Betty Fiechter remained director of Blancpain until 1950, when her nephew, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, joined the operation.
At the end of the 1950s, Rayville-Blancpain produced more than 100,000 watches per year. To make it possible to meet a continually growing demand, the firm became part of the SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère), the Swiss company for the watch industry where it joined well-known brands that included Omega, Tissot and Lemania. In 1971, production exceeded 220,000 watches.
During the 1970s, the watchmaking industry entered a period of crisis: Quartz watches were revolutionizing the industry. In addition, the fall of the dollar against the Swiss franc reduced transatlantic exports. This was compounded by the 1973 oil crisis that led to a world-wide recession.
The SSIH reduced its output by half and had to sell off part of its assets. In January 1983, it sold the Rayville-Blancpain name to Jacques Piguet, son of Frédéric Piguet, and then director of Piguet, and Jean-Claude Biver, who was at that time employed by SSIH. The company set up production at Le Brassus, in the Joux Valley, and from then on traded under the name of Blancpain SA.
Among the firm’s most popular creations is the Fifty Fathoms, launched in 1953 and produced at the request of the “Combat Swimmers” of the French navy who needed a reliable watch for their underwater operations.
The project was completed through the oversight of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, then CEO of Blancpain. Worn by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, among others, the Fifty Fathoms became the reference standard for diving watches. Three years later, Rayville-Blancpain repeated their success with the Ladybird, a model equipped with the smallest round automatic movement of the time.
The relocation to the Joux Valley was, both literally and figuratively, a new beginning for Blancpain. Until then, many of the movements made by the firm were concealed in the watches of other brands and relegated the name Blancpain to a secondary role.
It was in the new location that the company decided to retain exclusive possession of its expertise. While some specialists predicted the end of traditional watches because of the advent of the quartz movement, Blancpain re-committed itself to the production of “grande complication” watches.
From the 1980’s on, Blancpain produced watches in the traditional style and spirit of those that Jehan-Jacques Blancpain and his successors had made more than two centuries earlier and miles away. The “new” Blancpain devoted itself to the revival of mechanical watchmaking. By returning to the past to bring back to life the beginnings of watchmaking as it had been practiced in the remote farms of the Jura, Blancpain led the way to restoration of both the culture and the art of traditional watchmaking.
In 2002, Marc A. Hayek became Chairman and CEO of Blancpain and brought a bold, new vision to the company. Considerable investments were made and the Research and Development department was strengthened and encouraged to move forward with old, but revitalized ideas.
The number of world premieres and patents grew with an impressive display of new movements. In 2008, Blancpain revived the Karrusel, a complication forgotten for over a century, and incorporated it into a wristwatch for the first time.
Drawing on its history, Blancpain’s new management readjusted the focus of its collections to express the brand’s generic values. The Fifty Fathoms was revived, the Villeret collection reinterpreted, and the new, avant-garde L-evolution collection launched.
The finest example of the “resurgent” expertise was symbolized by the 1735. This timepiece, the most complicated in the world when it was first presented, brought together the greatest watchmaking complications: minute repetition, tourbillon, perpetual date, moon phase calendar, and flyback chronograph. Even for a master-watchmaker, it will take a full year to assemble this watch.
In 2010, the company’s site in Le Brassus verticalized production with the acquisition of the Frédéric Piguet company, which, by then, was already producing movements and components for Blancpain. This purchase gave Blancpain a new production site in the Joux Valley.
Over the past decade, the site in Le Brassus has launched 32 new watch calibres that now equip the finest creations in its collections. For example, in 2014, the firm launched four new calibres including the F385, 5939A, 225L, and 242.
In 2015, having launched its first retail London location in late 2014, Blancpain released a new high-complication timepiece for its L-Evolution collection. This timepiece unites both the tourbillon and carrousel complications into a single movement, a combination from Blancpain’s past that had seemingly outlived its use and desirability.
The Blancpain L-Evolution Tourbillon Carrousel is a modern take on the dual regulator with an openwork movement. Both the tourbillon and the carrousel are individually powered by their own barrels, and each is visible within the asymmetrical dial.
This unique timepiece is finely crafted with a frosted finish plus a NAC coating (a galvanic process that bestows a dark color on the bridges and base plate). The open worked movement, constructed on multiple levels, gives the timepiece its special appeal and a sense of dynamism throughout the design.
The blend between the tourbillon and the carrousel precipitated the caliber 2322V2. The movement of the Tourbillon Carrousel is equipped with two differentials, one designed to combine the information from the two complications in order to average the two running rates and the second to produce the power reserve indication shown at the back of the watch.
The watch’s case is in platinum with a diameter of 47.40 mm and is fitted with an integrated black alligator strap. Limited to just 50 pieces, the Blancpain L-Evolution Tourbillon Carrousel timepiece comes with a price tag of $373,130.
Blancpain is also well-known for sponsoring numerous Motorsport programs including the Blancpain Endurance Series, Blancpain Sprint Series, Blancpain GT Series, Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo series, ADAC GT Masters, and Reiter Engineering’s GT1 and GT3 cars.
A Blancpain watch is more than just a technical achievement. It is also treasured as an object of grace and a timepiece that instills an emotional response for the wearer.