A lot of watchmaking history these days comes to us in the form of marketing from big brands that are trying to part us from our money through references to heritage and provenance. There’s still a lot of real history out there, though. A ton of it, actually. And when you find it, sitting in front of you in a large wooden cabinet on the top floor of a building across from some scenic cow pastures in the Vallée de Joux, it’s nothing short of awesome. I paid a visit to the Montblanc-owned Minerva manufacture in Villeret, Switzerland, last week and found some pretty amazing stuff.
Minerva traces its origins back to 1858, when Charles Robert founded a small watch assembly in Villeret. The family company would eventually become a noted movement maker specializing in all kinds of unusual stopwatches and chronographs, specifically those for sports and scientific measurements. The company remained in family hands for almost a century before being sold to some longtime employees, whose families stayed in control until an Italian investor purchased the company in 2000 with the goal of reviving its former glory. Eventually, Richemont purchased the company in 2006 and a year later incorporated it into Montblanc, where it remains today as the brand’s high-watchmaking branch.
By staying under relatively stable control for a century and a half, Minerva was able to maintain much better archives than many of its competitors – which either fully went out of business or had to sell off machinery and components when times got tough. Which is how we have the cabinet you see here. This six-foot-tall array of 45 wooden drawers sits on the top floor of the manufacture, next to the small museum exhibit, and contains tens of thousands of original Minerva components from the 1940s and earlier.
There are chronograph levers and movement baseplates, all contained in little bags with their original handwritten labels (many dated to the early 1940s), and opening each drawer you’re not quite sure what you’ll find. The most interesting thing I found though was a cache of original grand feu enamel dials for various watches, stopwatches, and chronographs that all date to those first few decades of the 20th century. There are thousands of dials tucked into two dozen drawers or so, and most of them are still wrapped in the original brown tissue paper.
Because they’ve spent their days out of the sunlight and mostly protected from moisture and other elements, they’re still pristine. Making dials like this today would cost a small fortune, and that’s if you could even find a supplier to make them in this kind of volume.
Here’s a little look inside the Minerva archive. Enjoy.