Mumbai: Nicolas Baretzki, chief executive officer of Montblanc International, is a man who believes that fine craftsmanship is what really makes for true luxury. He loves jewellery, diamonds, watches and writing instruments with equal passion, and loves understanding the stories behind each product. This has translated well across his experience in European luxury goods maker Compagnie Financière Richemont SA—from Cartier SA to Jaeger-LeCoultre SA and Montblanc. In an interview, Baretzki speaks about the future plans of Montblanc, the world’s premier writing instruments brand. Edited excerpts:
So it’s a different world since Alfred Nehemias and August Eberstein decided to produce the first Montblanc pens 111 years ago. What is the relevance of the pen as a writing instrument today?
Often people think that because of the change to a digital world, a writing instrument becomes less and less relevant and at Montblanc we believe in exactly the opposite idea. We feel that the more the digital world grows, a writing instrument also makes that much more of a difference. I was explaining this to someone the other day that a writing instrument is not just a utilitarian object about writing, exactly like a watch is not just about telling the time, since there are so many ways to write as well as tell time today. I think both these products are about enjoying the craftsmanship, innovation, and all the stories related to various artisanal and limited editions... It is also about pleasure. It is the same pleasure I felt at rediscovering the joy of writing with a fountain pen, something I had last used in school, when I joined Montblanc. And when you start writing with a really nice, useful, soft and easy fountain pen, I think you really rediscover what it is to write.
It is interesting that you say so because apart from these classic products, you have also launched digital writing instruments and smart watches. How do you straddle both worlds?
Yes and this echoes our brand’s strategy and ethos. When you talk about innovation, it’s about projecting into the future and what can you invent next that is cool as well as useful, about functionality and lifestyle. We started off by asking why can’t we bridge the gap between analog and digital technologies? Why can’t we enjoy a beautiful object but also find use for it in the digital world. That is how we came up with the digital pen or the screen writer. However, we thought this wasn’t enough of an innovation, and so we thought about it some more and that about bridging the gap between two worlds, and that’s how we came up with the concept of augmented paper.
What excites me the most about this is that we can see so many different categories across our single brand from the classic leather-bound notebook to augmented paper and a digital pen. So you keep the pleasure of writing because it is you who are writing but you combine this with the convenience of the digital world and I think it would be foolish to ignore the way the world is going forward... We recently launched the Montblanc Summit smartwatch, which uses Google’s latest Android Wear system and combines it with Swiss watchmaking techniques and a vintage face. And in all our conversations with those who are in this space, the focus has shifted from providing information to providing service. It’s about using AI (artificial intelligence) to reach the end consumer and make it accessible and predictive. Everything is going to change in the next 5 to 10 years and as a luxury maison (house), it is important to have a clear mission and purpose of what should be our position in this changing world.
Tell us about your expansion plans in India. Have you seen growth across your products or is it focused on the writing instruments category alone?
We resumed business in India a year ago and our priority was obviously to build on our strengths, which was of course the writing instruments. What is new for us in India much more than in the past is that we will bring all the limited editions here. The fact that we have a partner like Titan, which brings all the expertise and know-how of this market and what it takes to be a specialty retailer.., allows us to be much more daring here. Now we can present the same kind of service and selections as in Paris and Hamburg to the many Montblanc collectors in the country... We have seven stand-alone boutiques across the country and a large presence in multi-brand stores.
Basically India is a very large market and Montblanc is all about reaching people and client proximity, and those are not just words but our reality. Today we have 500 boutiques across the world, more than many other maisons and brands, and the idea is to be close to our clients. In India, our strategy is not about developing fast but about having the right infrastructure and following the right modes so that we can have a presence there. We are already in five cities—Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune and Bengaluru. We will soon be opening a second boutique in Bengaluru, and we have more projects planned in Mumbai and Delhi and maybe another city as well. In our five-year plan, we had planned for about 30 boutiques in the market and I can say that 10 of these are already on track to open in the next 18 months.
What is your strategy for Montblanc’s leather accessories in India?
The Indian market is very dynamic with many contenders coming in and the lifestyle segment especially is growing fast. Maybe in the past because of the way that we were distributed, Montblanc was seen as a writing instrument company but even though it remains the main thrust, leather goods is also developing well.
And I believe that this category will be more and more relevant especially if we have the right way to display it, because of our boutique network expansion it could become one of our key categories and we bring to it our same approach of functionality and innovation—like the backpack I am carrying is functional and stylish, and the material we will be using is called extreme leather; it is a very specific leather that has been developed to resist heat, water, fire and scratches, and that means it can be used everyday even in a humid city like Mumbai and still retain its shape and quality. I feel this kind of specific solutions will help push our lifestyle category in a big way.
What allows you to extend your expertise with writing instruments to the watch category?
We were very fortunate to have acquired niche Swiss watchmakers Villeret (formerly known as Minerva) 10 years ago, and together at Le Locle, we have made our collection more vertical so that in every line we can work from the top—high-end and innovative pieces to quality watches at an entry-level price point. And this is a pretty unique position in the watchmaking world today.
How does a cricketer like AB de Villiers fit in with the Montblanc ethos?
It is always a difficult question you have to ask yourself when choosing a brand ambassador, and we always try to choose people who are close to the Montblanc spirit and with whom we can partner over a long period. AB has had a relationship with the Richemont group from South Africa and that is what we are continuing. When you talk about performance, capabilities and the capacity to innovate—this idea extends from our own maison to the way an individual plays.
For example, AB’s ability to play in different positions in cricket and having a recognized talent makes him a perfect match for us. Montblanc is not really into sports and it’s not like we have 10 brand ambassadors from the sporting world. We are usually associated with culture; however, even there we are linked to performance and achievement. What I love about AB is his individuality and personality, how he plays, and the fact that he is respected and which is why it is a global partnership with him.