On my wishlist for further exploration, a visit to the Vintage Atelier at Blancpain in Le Brassus was very high up… and now I had the chance to meet with the team that takes care of all Blancpain timepieces prior to 1981.
Located in the old farmhouse in Le Brassus, the heart of the Valleè de Joux, the Vintage Atelier occupies only one room with 4 watchmaker workplaces, but it has the opportunity to reach out to all Blancpain facilities and crafts as well as to traditional parts manufacturers which in most cases already built the original pieces of the vintage timepieces!
Before we take a closer look it is essential to understand the ethics of how Blancpain deals with the timepieces brought in by collectors:
The Blancpain Vintage Atelier has created themselves an ethics charter that consists of five key elements to be followed in each and every restoration and service of a vintage Blancpain, Rolls or Harwood timepiece: a balanced and senseful scope of works to be done, all works to be reversible if at all possible, all works documented properly to achieve full traceability, all works to be detectable and obviously the end result being driven by technical and aesthetic aspects of the original state of the watch.
How serious Blancpain is with taking care of the vintage marvels of collectors is proven by the fact that – contrary to some other watch manufacturers – the ownership rights of the collectors are highest priority. This can be visible in two examples:
If a collector wishes to preserve the radium or tritium luminous material on dial and hands, Blancpain is absolutely fine with that. Either those parts are not touched at all, or the luminous material is treated with an invisible lacquer to keep it from further disintegration. If the client wishes to exchange the radium or tritium against Luminova, the Atelier will match the Luminova to fit both color and texture of the previous state.
Here is a dial where the radium has been carefully removed only at the center of numerals, all the patina has been preserved, an absolutely astonishing work!
The second example is how the Atelier deals with non-original watches that are sent in for restoration or service. If a watch is found to be not original, may it be wrong case material, wrong printing or engravings, wrong movement – the watch will be sent back to the owner explaining why Blancpain refuses to service the watch. Only if that particular watch shows up for sale somewhere, the legal department of the Swatch Group will demand the withdrawal of the sale.
The Vintage Atelier spends a lot of time in building their own knowledge and adding to their impressive inventory of original parts. Since 2011 and with even more manpower since 2015, the research has been conducted with a lot of success, and in case there are blank spots, the quest for knowledge on each timepiece continues.
For that reason it is understandable, that the restoration or service starts with an investigation period of probably 3 months for each watch. The Atelier has developed a method to inspect the movement of any watch without opening the case to detect wrong movements immediately – a very costly and very impressive method that is still in further development and therefore cannot be shared through photos. However, I have seen it with my own eyes and I can only applaud the team for what they have accomplished!
In order to check case material, prints and engravings other high tech tests are performed to validate the authenticity of each timepiece. With all this work to be done, a time frame of 3 months prior to even generating a proposal to the client seems appropriate, even more so since this work and the proposal (which can take another three months) are free of charge for the client!
Once the customer has agreed to the proposal, the service or restoration will take approximately 6 months, so that from start to end the collector will have to allow one year until the timepiece is back.
The restoration itself is done with help of the same machines that helped producing the watch in the first place whenever possible. For that reason Blancpain does not only collect knowledge and parts but also machines and tools used for the original watches. And of course only original parts are used, the inventory built up by the Atelier over the past years is like heaven for any vintage Blancpain enthusiast:
Even the heat blueing of hands or screws is done the traditional way:
Here we see two machines used at the Atelier: an old timing machine and a triple watch winder, that operates with high speed to build up the full power reserve as quick as possible.
Back to the watches sent in for service or restoration: All works are documented for the client, with the restored watch he or she will receive a small booklet with a photo documentation of the service and data about the technical performance of the movement.
Here is an examplary documentation:
Now, vintage Blancpain reaches far beyond the Fifty Fathoms, Bathyscaphe or Air Command. A lot older but and often even more challenging when it comes to preserving heritage in the right and sensible way, here are some Ladybird timepieces that underwent restoration in the Atelier:
Let’s take a closer look at this Rolls, that belongs to Blancpain’s own collection. Acquired in an auction a few years back it underwent very sensitive restoration, no case polish, the majority of works were focussed on the exceptional movement with its even more outstanding winding process.
A surprise to me was this coin watch, since I have not previously seen that from Blancpain. Since the case was heavily distorted and no polish work can be done on a coin building the watch case, the Vintage Atelier started the search for the exact same coin from the same year to build a new case. I would consider that true commitment!
As an average the Atelier receives around 30 watches a month, another average shows around 40% of the incoming watches belonging to the Fifty Fathoms and derivatives, another 40% are Ladybird timepieces that often require strong jewelry based skills besides the pure horological work.
I was curious to learn how many of the vintage dive watches are legit and how many are not authentic. It’s probably no surprise that around 30% of the Fifty Fathoms, Air Command and Bathyscaphe marvels do not pass the tests and are sent back to their owners. This of course only happens when there is certainty in the assessment, since the knowledge of the Vintage Atelier is substantial but cannot be 100%.
Here are some other pieces that underwent restoration at the Blancpain Vintage Atelier:
My personal conclusion from the visit is that Blancpain treats it’s horological heritage and the beloved pieces sent in by collectors from all over the world with utmost respect, based on an everlasting quest to fill even the smallest gaps of knowledge and strong customer centric ethics. The Vintage Atelier of Blancpain is not a profit center, it is pure dedication starting with the commitment at the very top of the organization and finding its daily proof with the small team taking good care of the watches they love as if they were their own. And actually the Atelier Manager wears his very own vintage FF 😉
I hope you enjoyed this report, I personally am grateful for having had the opportunity to take a closer look at the Vintage Atelier and I would like to send them a heartfelt „merci beaucoup”. I had the chance to see a few customer watches, but I of course took no photos of those. But the memory will stick with me nonetheless!
Fifty Fathoms OC III on vintage timing machine