At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was a changing place. The Industrial Revolution of the previous century had altered the way we lived forever, and manufacturing on a large scale was becoming commonplace. This background of innovation led to many new developments, including the design of the fountain pen.
Montblanc, founded in Berlin, Germany by engineer August Eberstein and banker Alfred Nehemias in 1906, changed the future of the fountain pen when it created the simplicissimus, which included a built-in inkwell. Its legacy in writing instruments is feted to this day, securing its position as innovator par excellence.
In the 21st century, when the world was yet again on the precipice of change with the advent of the digital age, Montblanc considered its DNA and innovated once more. Launched in 2016 at the maison’s birth city, Augmented Paper unites the quality, enjoyment and natural feel of a classic Montblanc writing product with the efficiency of digitalising work. With a simple press of a button, the user’s written text or sketch is translated into digital form on a smart device that features the Montblanc hub app.
The following year, the multi-dsciplinary luxury company advanced its research in the wearable tech segment — which it began with eStrap — by launching the fully fledged Android Wear 2.0 Summit smartwatch. The idea was to put Swiss style and the same design language used in Montblanc’s 1858 analogue timepiece collection into a smartwatch, and compete in the fields of quality materials and a signature style rather than going up against existing players in the smartwatch space. Five iterations have been released — inspired by Montblanc’s design heritage, the latest Summit 3 can be personalised with a range of highly detailed and easily changeable watch faces, such as the Geosphere.
In 2019, ironically just before the Covid-19 pandemic instituted a complete halt on flying, Montblanc released a third instalment of its technologically-driven series of products with the ultimate travel accessory. The wireless Smart Headphones combine contemporary technology with the company’s century-old skill base, featuring fine leather and metal sourced from the same suppliers as its peerless writing and leather instruments.
Throughout much of these explorations, Montblanc’s director of new technologies Dr Felix Obschonka was present to usher the historic house into the future. An engineer who founded his own tech start-up before joining the maison, his role is to consider customers and clients, both existing and prospective, and identify what can be done to assist their daily digital lives.
There are three pillars of the company’s foray into tech, Obschonka shares. “Digital writing, firstly, as it affects the core product of the brand,” he begins. “Second is watchmaking, where there are already five Summit models and more to come. We believe in the long-term future of smartwatches because they offer something very specific to the wearer. The final category is New Horizons, which may not connect directly to existing categories, but utilises the materials, styling, craftsmanship and design applied by Montblanc on products that our clients would want to use. For example, many of our clients travel very frequently and they asked for something that would accompany them, which is how the headphones came to be.”
Obschonka’s role is not one that exists in too many other luxury brands — how could it, when no other brand is as simultaneously forward-thinking and respecting of its history as Montblanc? Happily ensconced in the fast-paced world of technology, he joined Montblanc eight years ago from the tech world in order to bridge the brand’s DNA with burgeoning consumer needs. It was a life-changing move for him; while he was aware of the Hamburg-based company and the complexities of the luxury industry, he had never thought to be a part of it.
“Before Montblanc, my mentality was always, ‘It needs to be faster’ or ‘There needs to be a new feature’. After I joined, I recognised that a physical object has emotion. It is something we can fall in love with. People appreciate beauty. I needed to learn what this means,” he says.
But perhaps slow and fast are simply too simplistic to describe the move from tech to luxury.
“As a luxury company, Montblanc may seem slow from the outside, but this is not the case inside. To me, it is like a start-up in that there are lots of creative people who want to push the boundaries and leave their mark.”
While the Augmented Paper and Smart Headphones have amassed a healthy following, the Summit series of smartwatches are most fascinating. Obschonka agrees, saying, “For us, it was an important launch because this is a world dictated by a lot of tech companies. But we are a watchmaker. We wanted a voice in this market, to say that whatever you wear on your wrist need not only be about tech! It is also about fine Swiss watchmaking, letting users share in the rich heritage and history of the industry that we have in Montblanc. Our claim is merging the finest Swiss watchmaking with the best in modern technology.”
When asked if they are concerned about plying a space already so congested, that too with some of the world’s most successful tech companies, Obschonka has this to say: “Technology is something quite ubiquitous; a lot of products are very comparable. Purely based on tech, we aren’t that different — what’s unique at Montblanc is how we use that technology.
“Our smartwatches are fitted with features that exist in others too. You buy a Summit because it’s something so beautiful and you want to wear it. No one can have a Geosphere watch face, for example, because no one else has this sort of legitimacy.”
Try as we may, Obschonka refuses to offer up any morsels on what we might expect from Montblanc’s new technologies division next year, but he does promise that the company’s journey in melding the worlds of technology and luxury is only just beginning.
“Whatever we do, it is always about our brand’s DNA and getting the knowledge of the maison into these new areas,” he says. “It will always be about style and design, a luxury business lifestyle — something our clients can easily adapt into their everyday lives.”
This article first appeared on Dec 19, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.