For many of us, Minerva is a name that’s come to us a bit late in life. Not our lives of course – I’m still young, dammit – but in Minerva’s. That’s because most of the current discourse around the old manufacturer has been since it was bought by Montblanc. That’s not such a bad thing; with pieces like their Minerva Unveiled Secret Minerva Monopusher Chronograph and other heritage-slanted releases, Montblanc have been doing a good job keeping the name alive, but there’s a lot more to Minerva’s history than a rose-tinted nod here and there. Indeed, the story of Minerva watch movements is inextricably tied to watchmaking in Villeret as a whole.
The initial seeds of what would become Minerva were planted in 1858 as the H. & C. Robert watchmaking factory by brothers Charles-Yvan and Hyppolite Robert. There’s not much to talk about back then; it was a modest watchmaker by today’s standards and as one of the brothers passed away and Charles’ sons took over, it was renamed Robert Frères Villeret by 1878, which is really where things kick off.
Robert Frères Villeret never really made it onto a dial. Instead, the brothers Robert trademarked a number of different names for their products, each with its own logo and linked to the mothership by way of a simple, arrow symbol. These brands shared the family’s love of Greek mythology (in case the name Hyppolite was too obtuse), leveraging names like Mercure, Ariana and, of course, Minerva. For the first 15 to 20 years, this watchmaking involved casing up third party pocket watch movements. It definitely established the brothers’ manufacturer, but this kind of “etablisseur” operation just wasn’t all that exciting. So, in 1895, RFV began building their own movements, which is where Minerva as we know it starts to take shape.
The first movement in RFV and Minerva history was the 18-ligne No. 1, or the calibre 18-1 (size-number, a consistent naming scheme at the brand). After the watchmaker moved into their forever factory on Rue Principale in 1902, it was built upon with the 19-2 but it wasn’t really until 1908 that Minerva movements took off, for one specific complication: Chronographs.
First, there was the Calibre 19-9 (the ninth 19 Ligne Minerva movement if you’re following the naming scheme), which included a minute counter but no hour, establishing a Minerva signature. It was the watchmaker’s first dabbling in stopwatches and led to a specialisation that saw incredible advancements in the field. By the mid-1910s, Minerva was producing stopwatches capable of measuring to 1/100th of a second. That’s impressive on paper, but more importantly was vital to the evolution of motor racing, which was quickly getting to the point where those fractions of seconds genuinely counted.
In 1923, Minerva introduced the Calibre 13-20. Measuring in at 12 3⁄4 ligne to upset their naming scheme, it was small enough to be fitted into a wristwatch. The monopusher column-wheel chronograph caused a storm. Developed in collaboration with Dubois-Depraz (who themselves are going through a renaissance right now), it wasn’t just one of the only chronograph calibres on the market, but it was incredibly well-built for the time – enough that it was continued for decades after its initial launch. Minerva SA, Villeret – by 1929, the official name of the company as a whole – built their mechanical reputation on the Calibre 13-20 and by the 1930s were leveraging that reputation with sports timekeeping, notably at the 1936 Winter Olympics.
The next big step came in 1943 with the Calibre 10-48 and the Pythagore timepiece. The name of the watch came directly from the movement, which positioned its bridges according to the Golden Ratio, a mathematical theory of beauty proposed by Pythagoras. It was done for the beauty of the thing more than any technical reasons, which is charming as hell given that you’d need to actually open up the watch to see it. Fortunately, the Pythagore was an elegant dress watch worthy of the movement.
Over the next few decades, Minerva thrived. Able to produce whole movements, including balance springs in-house, they weathered the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and at the turn of the millennium they were still presenting new movements. They weren’t just chronographs either; two hand-wound time-only movements cropped up in 2003 and in 2005 they launched the Tourbillon Mystérieuse. This was the last timepiece launched under Minerva’s name and what a last hurrah. Built by master watchmaker Demetrio Cabiddu, the piece included a mystery dial at six o’clock balanced by a tourbillon at 12 o’clock, all in the kind of elegant 47mm case that collectors expect from independent watchmakers today.
A year later, Minerva’s own story ended. After being acquired by Richemont, the manufacturer was put under the auspices of Montblanc (though with Demetrio Cabiddu still firmly in charge) and in 2010 the Montblanc Metamorphosis was unveiled.
The Minerva name is still incredibly respected these days, and not just by Montblanc. You can get vintage Pythagores for anything from a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on year and condition, with the earlier ones actually priced a little lower. Cal.13-20 CH chronographs are a little pricier, usually well over the 3K mark for a decent example, which is unsurprising given its place in watchmaking history. Hell, I’d argue they should be a bit more expensive. Not only are they incredible vintage timepieces, the Cal.13-20 CH is one of the most influential chronographs in timekeeping history, up there with the El Primero for its impact on automotive timekeeping.
While there’s no chance of Montblanc and Minerva separating any time soon – nor, I’d argue, should they – the latter is still a name any watch aficionado should know. And hey, if it encourages more heritage pieces from Montblanc, all the better.
More details at Montblanc.
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