“Blancpain perpetuates its historical links with Switzerland’s oldest watchmaking tradition by making its timepieces at Le Brassus and Le Sentier, respectively a village and a hamlet in the Joux Valley. This region of the Waldensian Jura is imbued with the soul of the watchmaker’s art. Clockmaking began here in about 1740, and its workshops are still the source of 90% of the complications of Swiss mechanical watchmaking” (Blancpain website).
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit Blancpain in the Vallée de Joux (a first time for me) and I would like to share my impressions and of course a few photos with you. Due to the high number of photos (close to 100), the majority will be displayed as collages. I hope you’ll enjoy this report nonetheless.
Having started in Paudex (Lausanne), enjoying inspiring and relaxed conversations with some representatives of Blancpain about current and past timepieces, the family like atmosphere combined with strong passion for the brand became evident immediately, and it carried on in all locations. You can sense that there is more to it than simply running a business, and apart from any romanticizing the dedication to creating a beautiful timepiece appears to be the strongest driver within the Manufacture.
The journey went on from spring like weather in Lausanne to winter in the Jura within one hour 😉
I had the privilege to get a guided tour through Blancpain’s operations in Le Sentier, a location that has not been open to visitors in the past. I was asked not to take any photographs besides the samples of the work on display, though. So my report on Le Sentier will be a bit text heavy 😉
The production site in Le Sentier had been the home of Frederic Piguet before the movement manufacturer became integrated into Blancpain. Today Le Sentier is the largest Blancpain production site with 700 employees. Besides the focus on manufacturing all inhouse movements (including supplies to a few other brands) this is also the place where all models up the level of a perpetual calendar are assembled. I did not have the chance to visit the assembly ateliers, so let’s dig into the production of movements:
From massive bands of brass, gold or platinum the blanks for the main plates (or movement parts) get cut to dimensions exceeding the final size, two holes for adjusting the main plate to machines in the ongoing process get drilled, and the process of creating a fine movement starts.
Every main plate is positioned by hand into machines that make first basic adjustments to the blank, each sample gets brushed by hand prior to placing it into the machine. After a few samples being processed the specs are checked to absolute precision and if necessary the machine gets adjusted.
Between the various levels of refinement the plates get washed to remove the remains of oils used during previous processing. As the evolution of the movement continues, the machines used obviously get more complicated and precise. CNC machines are used for producing final drills and the delicate parts of any movement, followed by refining and decorating those by hand. Some complex components require up to 50 different stages from raw material to assembly, the smallest parts are 0.05(!)mm in size.
It is worth mentioning that Blancpain produces all tools for producing movement parts themselves. I had the opportunity to witness the production of tiny tools necessary for even tinier parts, the amount of precision dedicated to each step along the way is impressive. The degree of manual work is very high, working a tiny tool by hand under a microscope requires as much craft as decorating a movement part to highest standards. It therefore is no surprise that all tools ever used for any movement are stored safely for potential future use.
When it comes to decoration, every part of the movement that can be decorated is decorated, also those parts that are not visible. These standards work for every single movement, may it be the 1151 of a Bathyscaphe 38mm or the 2322 of the Le Brassus (now Villeret) Tourbillon Carrousel.
Moving on, we will now take a look at the old farmhouse in Le Brassus, where all complicated watches above a perpetual calendar and the artisan pieces are manufactured.
Le Brassus is the signature location of Blancpain, an atelier for grand complications and unique pieces as well as a showroom for the Manufacture.
It offers a very calm atmosphere, being located next to a skiing track, right at the point where the village meets the Vallèe de Joux nature. A few years back the farmhouse was completely refurbished and is now representing the brand’s aesthetics to the smallest detail.
Here are some impressions from the ateliers. Take a look at the tools used for finishing movement components, for decoration and assembly. From personal experience I can now tell you how difficult it is to even get a halfway proper perlage decoration done on a sample plate 😉
Two of the complications Blancpain is famous for are the Flying Tourbillon and the Carrousel Volant Un Minute:
Those are mesmerizing mechanisms to observe, both may have limited “legitimacy” for a wristwatch, but these two complications unveil the art of combining aesthetics and ultra precise technology in fine watchmaking.
On that note, let’s move on to another iconic complication: the Répétition Minutes.
Who could resist the crystal clear chimes of the repeater, which adds an audible sensual sensation to the visual and haptic impressions, specially when you realize how delicate the mechanism is, how much work went into producing the perfect parts and into fine adjustment. I’m afraid I may disappoint you a bit, though, since I was not able to record an audio file of the repeater, so we need to concentrate on the visual aspects…
Here is a fully decorated movement that belongs to the Le Brassus (now Villeret) line:
A way to personalize your Blancpain Répétition Minutes is to add an automaton scene on the backside. Those follow the owner’s wishes, quite often they maintain the tradition of erotic automatons.
This leads us to the artisan crafts Blancpain is famous for. The Métiers d’Art workshop realizes even the most challenging ideas, transferring scenes from mind to drawing to a piece of art applied in a fine timepiece. Whether you talk dial, case back, rotor or bridges, whether it is fine hand engraving, Cloisonné or Champlevé enamel, Shakudō or Damascening techniques, your imagination can run free…
The grande finale of my visit had to be the watches of course. It was a unique opportunity to get up close with some very special timepieces, and although photos cannot transport the depth and real character, I tried nevertheless.
You have probably already seen this one since I made a short report on it a few days ago: the iconic Blancpain 1735 Grande Complication, introduced 1999 and at the time the most complicated wristwatch in the world:
Here we have a modern Grande Complication, the Le Brassus Carrousel Répétition Minutes Chronographe Flyback:
Followed by the Le Brassus (now Villeret) Tourbillon Carrousel:
Another mind blowing beauty, the Villeret Squelete 8 Jours:
Also from the Villeret family, the Rèpètition Minutes with erotic automaton:
Here is a well know marvel, the Villeret Èquation Du Temps Marchante:
Two beautiful Villeret, the 8 Jours Manuelle with calibre 13R1 and the Carrousel Phases De Lunes:
A more modern design, the L’Evolution Tourbillon Carrousel:
And finally, the beautiful 8 Jours Grande Decoration:
Well, dear readers, you have almost made it, the report is slowly coming to an end 😉
Let me close with my personal conclusion from the visit to Paudex, Le Sentier and Le Brassus:
Blancpain adds the description Manufacture De Haute Horlogerie to their signature, and that is exactly what they are. The depths of production, the significant amount of manual work, the mastering of grand complications, the attention to every tiny detail, the artisan crafts and the family like atmosphere have left me deeply impressed beyond my (already high) expectations.
Knowing that their dedication and experience flows also into the more basic timepieces like a Fifty Fathoms or time only Villeret, and that the components within those have been produced with the same care and precision as for the highly complicated pieces, provides me with even more appreciation for those watches than I already had before.
Finally, a heartfelt “merci beaucoup” goes to everyone at Blancpain I had the pleasure to meet, and of course a “herzlichsten Dank” to Blancpain Germany for arranging and planning the visit. I have thoroughly enjoyed the exceptional hospitality and sincerely hope to visit soon again.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed this report!