Ever since Zaim Kamal joined Montblanc as its international creative director in 2013, the brand has seen a quiet but noticeable change. Identified primarily as makers of luxury writing instruments, and with a legacy that’s more than a century old, Montblanc’s image of being a traditional, heritage maison, has seen a certain lightening. Products introduced under Kamal had a contemporary feel – tattoo-inspired briefcases made an appearance in 2016 – and they aligned themselves to digital with the launch of augmented writing paper and wearable technology in 2015. They even diversified into luggage last year, with the launch of the #My4810 5-piece trolley line. It is all part of Kamal’s deeply thought-out strategy to make the brand more approachable to the consumer of today. Lifestyle Asia met with impeccably dressed Kamal recently to talk creativity, relevance, and the direction in which he is steering Montblanc.
What is the spirit of Montblanc’s new watches this year?
Two major directions have been shown this year. At SIHH, the first was the booth itself. It is the foot of the mountains sitting in green – the idea behind this was to reconnect with nature. We live in fast times, when everything is about quick information, and sometimes we need to step back to evaluate what we are about, reconnect with ourselves, the planet, and the world. What does this have to do with watches? It is also about measuring time. So we are using our 1858 collection, a watch from the 30s. This watch in those days was about exploration. The theme and the code fitted. So we used it as a carrier of this message to reconnect with nature.
The second, is a piece from the Montblanc Heritage collection. Again we went back to archives, and found a piece that was inspirational and fit the zeitgeist today, and could also integrate Minerva. Because Minerva is Montblanc and vice versa. So, based on that we created this watch called Heritage. Indices and figures were redrawn, so it is updated in the way we see it now. In fact, when I first saw it I said, I didn’t want to do it, it looked too vintage. But at Montblanc, we also never kill creativity. So we tried it. We don’t want to be reassured by our past, we want to be inspired by it. Then we have a Star Legacy, where we have included a Reiussec and the Timewalker. So we have concentrated on our archives to carry the main message, but we’ve got our two other product lines to accompany it.
That’s a lot, considering the trend this year is to stick to one or two collections
I’ve been with Montblanc for nearly six years now. I remember the first year when we started, in April-May, and the next SIHH when I attended, I sat next to someone at a dinner who said “A watch takes 24 months to develop, and you have done two in nine months. So how many corners did you cut?” And I replied that we didn’t cut any corners – in fact, I was pretty sure we added 24 new ones! The reason why we can do this is because it is all integrated in-house, which means when we talk to watchmakers, movement makers, we all have the same craziness, so that already raises the speed. Also because of that, we are already working on the design process and on any potential issues, so we don’t have reworks.
How challenging is to stay relevant in today’s fast-changing world while harking back to your heritage?
It’s very simple – we have a vast archive, so theoretically, we could just pick whatever we wanted. But we look at the archives, find a piece that expresses the overall topic, then we say, ok, this was designed in the 30s – how would this watch be designed today? What are the codes and expression we need to give it? So we are not looking back; we are looking at where we are coming from to know where we are going. We redraw every figure, every index, we rework everything. We rebalance the piece to fit today.
When you took over, what were the things you wanted to do and how far have you achieved them?
I wanted to add tactility. I felt we were very functional, engineered, instructional. So knowing where the world was headed, we needed something intuitive. You can have the best designed piece but if it doesn’t seem right, you are not going to use it. It’s same with a watch. When it doesn’t fit straightaway, it’s not your watch. So over the years, we have done things that are very relevant. When I said I wanted to tattoo bags [Secret Adornment, a Sfumato briefcase], they said, “Zaim, Montblanc and tattoo?” And I said, “Writing with ink on oneself – who but us?” Last year, when the trolley line was launched, and I said I wanted a street artist to use it as a canvas. This for me was tactility.
Does this have to do with your background in fashion?
It has to do with me. I am basically a person who is very tactile. Give me something and I will play with it, run my hands over it. If I see something, I have no qualms in taking it in my hands and feeling it. If you don’t connect on touch, you can’t feel the product.
You head so many verticals for Montblanc. How do you conceptualise this universe?
Funnily enough, I came trained for it. When I started out in fashion in the early 90s, there was always someone who has to do the shoes, bags, and jewellery. It wasn’t always important, and it fell on the youngest or newest person in the team to do that. So I would run around London to shoemakers, give my little design. Little by little, I learnt how to make shoes, bags, jewellery, hats, and we had to hand-stich everything. This allowed me to work in compartments.
What do you find most inspiring about the Montblanc universe?
I’ve never had so much freedom, so much opportunity to do something. Be it watches, writing instruments or leather, I have the best team and craftsmen. So I say I want this, and they may look at me sometimes and say “you are insane,” but nobody has ever told me no. No one will kill an idea – this iterative working is the beauty of Montblanc.
Smartwatches: One last year and one in 2015. What are your thoughts on smartwatches vs haute horology watches?
People always take the smartwatch out of context. It is part of strategy that was put in place in 2013. We started with a digital screen, then we went to augmented paper, then we had the add-on to the watch [E-strap], then came the smartwatch. Be it a mechanical watch, bag, or writing instrument, we have the client in mind, the perception, and what they require. If you want to be relevant today, you can’t cut out certain things otherwise you’ll lose people.
We very quickly understood that the requirements of the client and the tools of the professional are changing. So when we were designing the smartwatch, we thought about how should design it – we wanted to create a unique smartwatch and get somebody to understand how it is to wear a mechanical watch. That is why we designed it within the 1858 because if you have somebody who never wears a mechanical watch and needs this emails, he puts on the Summit, and spends time playing around with it, but the rest of the time he is wearing the watch. What does that mean? We are training someone who never wears a mechanical watch to get its beauty and feeling. And this shows us the entry and they become clients, only wearing mechanical watches.
Your personal favourite vertical?
My head works differently for different categories. For each vertical, there are pieces that come easier, and there are pieces where I struggle. But this idea of being able to try out different things is strong. So, the 1858 is very special, because it is an archival piece, it is the first time we have tried the concept of updating something, and it was a tremendous success.
All images: Courtesy brand