In the Rockefeller Center’s famed Rainbow Room, high above the Manhattan skyline, Hugh Jackman is giving a speech. The Hollywood actor and Montblanc ambassador apologises in advance for all the name-dropping, but he has an anecdote about the Rainbow Room that he’d like to share. Years earlier, while shooting one of his first films, Jackman received a piece of advice from one of his co-stars, a Mr John Travolta. Travolta had a tradition: he would take his wife to the Rainbow Room every year for their anniversary, for a spot of dinner and a spot of dancing. He highly recommended that Jackman do the same. Unbeknown to his wife, Jackman had booked a table at the illustrious rooftop restaurant, but on the evening in question, he ended up working late into the night. They never did make it to the Rainbow Room.
There is a sweet symmetry to the fact that this speech occurs just a few days before Jackman and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, are due to celebrate 20 years of marriage, but we are in New York to mark an altogether different kind of anniversary – Montblanc’s 110th year in existence.
It makes perfect sense that we are celebrating this anniversary in this city. “One of the elements that is very important to the maison and that is fundamental to this anniversary, is the concept of pioneering,” Jerome Lambert, the chief executive of Montblanc, tells me earlier in the day, during a one-on-one interview within the sumptuous confines of The Pierre hotel, a historic New York landmark overlooking Central Park. “One hundred and ten years ago, the founders of the maison took a boat and came to America, and witnessed the progress of America at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. They came home to Hamburg with a lot of dreams and ideas, and that’s what they incorporated into the DNA of the maison.”
Tonight's guest list is star-studded, to be sure – there's Jackman and his wife, but also actress Kate Bosworth, Charlotte Casiraghi of Monaco, socialite Olivia Palermo and her husband, Johannes Huebl, Matthew Morrison of Glee fame, and a smattering of Victoria's Secret models, among the 110 attendees – but the real guest of honour lies encased in a glass box, framed against the glittering lights of New York's skyscrapers. The Ultimate Serpent Limited Edition 1 is a Montblanc masterpiece – an unashamedly showy showcase of the brand's prowess when it comes to writing instruments.
“Tonight is the one and only presentation of the Serpent 1, which is an amazing writing instrument that, besides being very impressive aesthetically, has the impressive price tag of €1.2 million [almost Dh5m],” says Lambert. “It’s a unique presentation because it has already been sold, so the owner has allowed us to present it once, and then it will disappear into his collection.”
The solid-rose-gold fountain pen consists of a barrel and cap made from 1,950 dark blue sapphires, crowned with a 6.2-carat diamond in the shape of the Montblanc emblem. Snaking its way up the barrel and emerging at the clip is a serpent, crafted from 153 individually cut and shaped diamonds, with two rubies for eyes.
The pen sets the tone for Montblanc’s 110th Anniversary collection, which is defined by the serpent motif. It is to be found emblazoned on leather goods, crowning pen clips and cuff links in the Rouge & Noir collection, and curling itself around the dial of the Villeret Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique 110 Years Anniversary Limited Edition. The new wristwatch features an in-house one-minute tourbillon, a double cylindrical balance spring and the maison’s Heures Mystérieuses display. A three-dimensional, hand-engraved, anthracite serpent is integrated into the bezel, while the tourbillon, measuring 18.4mm in diameter, occupies the top half of the watch’s face. A closer look reveals an unusual set of regate-shaped hands that are not attached in the centre, but appear to float above the subdial.
These new products are unveiled in a separate room at the venue, which, in keeping with the name of the new collection, Rouge & Noir, has been transformed into an art-deco-style jazz venue, complete with dramatic red walls and live music courtesy of the Chris Norton band. Six stations, where guests can discover different elements of the Montblanc portfolio, which extends far beyond the world-famous pens to include leather goods, timepieces and other men’s accessories, are dotted around the room.
“When we decided to celebrate our anniversary, we wanted to not only celebrate the founders of our house, but also the era in which it was founded,” Zain Kamal, Montblanc’s creative director, tells me. “The first part of the 20th century was explosive – there were things happening in art, in design, in technology and in the sciences, and people were pushing boundaries everywhere. This was a very potent time.
“When we looked into the archives, we found a writing instrument with a serpent, and we wanted to see where that would take us. Looking at the era itself, we found that the serpent was used in many ways. It was a very potent symbol of speed, power, virility, courage and also intelligence. So we decided to use the serpent as an overarching motif. We started with the writing instrument – but we didn’t want to recreate something. We wanted to take the inspiration and modernise it, make it something future-forward. You don’t celebrate pioneering spirit by rehashing something. Each category needed a different interpretation of the serpent, and we were very clear that we wanted the serpent to be on every category.”
This cross-category approach, where a single motif runs across Montblanc’s various product segments, is quite a radical step for the maison and, hopefully, a sign of things to come. The new collection is also a culmination of Kamal’s three years as creative director of the brand. In the new collection, his attempts to keep things fresh are evident everywhere – in the grey and black palette of the timepiece, in the tarnished metal of the serpent as it sits in the dial, in the boldness of the writing instruments, and in the hand-painting and embossing of the leather goods.
“For me, design is a never-ending process of making something good, even better,” he says. “There is no such thing as a good design. There is a good design solution for that moment. Because design never stops. A designer is a technician who applies artistic tools, in combination with techniques, technology and craftsmanship, to create products that trigger desire and emotion, but at the same time are well-made, well-thought-out and have longevity.”
He recalls a lesson learnt from his first employer, Vivienne Westwood. “You have to always design for the field you are in. When you are designing clothes, you must make things that people want to wear to look beautiful. It’s the same at Montblanc – you have to always remember why you are doing it. If you design for the critic and for Instagram, rather than the wearer, it might be everywhere, but are people going to use it?”
Does he ever feel constrained by the fact that, in the case of the pens and watches at least, he is working with the smallest of canvases – and has to adhere to the codes of a house that has been around for over a century?
“There are no constraints,” he says, defiantly. “If you think of the three values from our heritage: craftsmanship, excellence and innovation, that means we are always pushing ourselves. You always take something and do it really well – and then you look at it again and try to make it better. You are constantly being pushed to be creative. In terms of size, the smaller and more in detail you go, the more creative you can be, and the more choices you have. But you also have to be very confident about the choices you make.”
There is always the risk, when celebrating an anniversary, that brands look backwards, rather than forwards – and become weighed down by their heritage, rather than focusing on remaining modern and relevant. This risk is, of course, heightened when brands choose to look to their archives for inspiration. But 110 years after its launch, Montblanc is managing to strike a fine balance between the past, the present and the future.
“Of course there is always that risk,” Lambert concedes. “But I think it’s very much a question of the creative energy that a maison has. When you see the Serpent 1 or the Villeret Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique 110 Years Anniversary Limited Edition, you should experience the emotion of discovering something for the first time.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 12.