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History of Minerva, from foundation to integration into Montblanc and present day

In 2007 Montblanc's watchmaking expertise was further enhanced by the creation of the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie in Villeret, in the Bernese Jura, Switzerland, a foundation dedicated to classical fine watchmaking and the upholding of traditional skills and special complications.

The Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie in Villeret. The building served as the Minerva headquarter since 1902.

This important event in the history of Montblanc followed the acquisition by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont of the Fabrique d'Horlogerie Minerva SA and its exceptional watchmaking know-how. Richemont assigned the newly acquired watch manufacture to Montblanc, one of the prestigious luxury brands it owns.

Over the last decade, Montblanc has been exploring Minerva's incredible heritage, finding inspiration in historical functions, mechanics and design codes and perpetuating 160 years of uninterrupted tradition of a manufacture famed for its exceptional handmade movements.

Villeret’s watchmaking tradition began in 1858 when brothers Charles and Hyppolite Robert founded the company "H. & C. Robert", later becoming just "C. Robert" when only Charles remained, then changing again to "Robert Frères Villeret" in 1878 when his sons Charles and Georges, and later also Yvan Robert (1840-1912), took over the leadership of the company.

The company began registering brands in 1886, starting with "Mercure", adding "Minerva" (the goddess of farming, craftsmanship and science) in 1887, and "Ariana", "Tropic", and others in 1898. Each with its own logo and products, these brands were associated to the "RFV"  logo characterized by an arrow, a symbol which became a signature of the brand. 

Initially operating as an “etablisseur” of pocket watches using movements of third parties, "Robert Frères Villeret" took part in the "Expositions universelles" in Antwerp and 1889 at the Paris World Exhibition winning medals for their watches at both exhibitions.

From 1895 "Robert Frères Villeret" began with the production of its own watch movements.

The first was the 18-ligne No. 1 movement with cylinder escapement which remained in production until 1941, as well as the No. 2 caliber 18- or 19-ligne movement with a Swiss lever escapement. 

Minerva referred to their calibres by size, in ligne, and sequence number. Therefore all calibres sized around 18 ligne would be called "Calibre 18” followed by a number. So its first calibre was known as Calibre 18-1.

The third, introduced in 1903, was Calibre 19-3 and became known for its superior finish. 

In 1902 the company moved in the buildings that are still in use today. The uninterrupted production of mechanical movements in the same location for more than a century and through the 1970s quartz crisis is definitely a rarity in the Swiss watchmaking industry.

The Robert Freres Villeret factory in 1905

In 1908 Robert Freres began with the production of chronographs and stopwatches and introduced their first chronograph movement, the Calibre 19-9.  Like most Minerva chronographs, it did not feature a chronograph hour-counter but only the minute-counter.

With the trade-mark Minerva, positioned at the top of the company's range, the company gained worldwide recognition for its precise chronometry and became a leading specialist in the fabrication of professional watches. Capable of measuring time accurately to 1/100th of a second in 1916, its mechanical stopwatches were fundamental to the evolution of modern-day motor racing.

Introduced in 1923 in Minerva-branded chronographs, the first 12 3/4- line chronograph calibre from Minerva was number 20, so it became known as Calibre 13-20. 

A column-wheel chronograph with a Breguet balance spring and 17 jewels, Calibre 13-20 was designed as a mono pusher but was available after 1940 in bi-pusher configurations with 30- or 45-minute counters. It was one of the few chronograph calibres on the market on its introduction and was developed in collaboration with Dubois-Depraz. It was remarkably well-developed for the era and continued in production for decades.

Watch enthusiasts are able to recognize Minerva's Calibre 13 by the unusual positions of the pushers: Rather than being located between the crown and lugs at 30°, they are moved toward the lugs at 37° from the crown. 

Considering the exceptional success of Minerva-branded products, in 1929 the whole company was renamed to "Minerva SA, Villeret". 

Unfortunately, in the early 1930s the world financial crisis forced the Robert family out of business and led to Minerva being taken over: in 1934, the watch engineer Jacques Pelot, working for the company since 1921, and the mechanical technician Charles Haussener became the new owners of the business. 

Their leadership brought to new successes as demonstrated by their appointment as the official time-keepers of the Olympic ski events at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936 and the introduction of several new movements. 

In 1943 Andre Frey, the nephew of Jacques Pelot, designed a remarkable movement, the Calibre 10-48 that was used for a watch model, called Pythagore. In designing this movement Frey positioned the bridges using mathematical proportions defined by the Golden Section (1.618...), the discovery of which is attributed to Pythagoras, hence the name of the watch equipped with this Calibre. The Golden Section is a proportion found frequently in nature that is often used in architecture and product design.

Minerva's Calibre 10-48 (courtesy of ornatus-mundi.ch)
and, below, one of the Pythagore watch models housing it 

It must be noted that at the time the movement was not visible but hidden in the case. Thus, the motivation to use the Golden Section for designing it was the pure pleasure of creating a better product in line with a vision that was not constrained by merely commercial issues.

Minerva vintage advertisements: in 1951 and, below, in 1956

In 1955 the shares of Jacques Pelot went over to his heir Andre Frey while, in 1960, Maurice Favre, inherited the shares of his father-in-law Charles Haussener. Frey and Favre led the company until 1989, then Jean-Jacques Frey took over the management of the company together with his father Andre Frey.

During the quartz crisis of the 1970s, when the number of Swiss watch manufacturers dropped from 1618 in 1970 to 632 in 1984, Minerva had the force to survive thanks to the recognized quality of its mechanical chronographs. The rare capability to in-house produce its own balance wheel and hairspring combined with the mastery of various timekeeping frequencies, enabled Minerva to maintain its reputation in chronometric precision among professionals and watch connoisseurs.

In 2000 the Frey family sold the company to new partners lead by Italian financier Emilio Gnutti. Together with infrastructure and machinery investments, the new organization hired new employees reinforcing a team lead by the new director, Beppe Menaldo, and a talented and respected master watchmaker, Demetrio Cabiddu which today is still the Technical Director of the Montblanc Manufacture in Villeret.

Continuing the tradition of high quality manufacture products, in 2003 Minerva presented four new calibers, two chronographs and two time-only, all of them hand-wound.

The Minerva Cal. 62-00 (Hour, Minute, Small Seconds) was a redesign of the old Calibre 48 with curved bridges design more typical of Minerva movements. Diameter: 24 mm. Parts: 162.

The Minerva Cal. 13-21 (Hour, Minute, Small Seconds with Monopusher Chronograph) was the evolution of the original Calibre 13-20 with its recognisable position of the pusher at 37° from the crown instead of the usual 30° angle. Diameter: 29.5 mm. Parts: 239.

Minerva Cal. 16-15 (Hour, Minute, Small Seconds). Diameter: 38.4 mm. Parts: 158.

The Minerva Cal. 16-29 (Hour, Minute, Small Seconds with Monopusher Chronograph) was directly inspired by the pocket watch Calibre 17-29 produced in 1929.

In 2005 Minerva presented the Tourbillon Mystérieuse with the hand-wound Calibre 65-60 with an extra-large tourbillon cage (20 mm), 280 hand-finished components and a power reserve of 100 hours.

The 47 mm rose gold case had an unusual shape with the bezel changing from convex to concave over the 360 degrees.

The watch displayed the time on a 'mysterious' dial as 6 o'clock using sapphire disks for the hours and minutes hands. The “D.C.” engraving on the back case was a tribute to Demetrio Cabiddu who created it.

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, in October 2006 the Swiss luxury goods group Richemont bought the Fabrique d'Horlogerie Minerva SA so securing an exceptional manufacture know-how.

One result of this acquisition was the partnership between Minerva and Montblanc with Minerva becoming a department of Montblanc led under the name Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie (Minerva Institute for top watchmaking art research).

Few years later, in 2010, Montblanc unveiled the Metamorphosis, the first watch developed at its Institut Minerva. Deriving its name from its unique dual function and faces, the Metamorphosis changed from a single time indication to a chronograph by moving a slide up or down.

This model was followed in 2014 by the Metamorphosis II (we wrote about it here).

More recently, in 2023,  Montblanc introduced the Unveiled Secret Minerva Monopusher Chronograph, a limited edition of 88 timepieces highlighting the revered hand-wound Minerva MB M16.29 movement, celebrated for its meticulous hand-finishing.

What sets this model apart is its unique approach of flipping the movement to display all its mechanical intricacies while the watch is worn on the wrist. While it may appear as a skeletonized movement initially, a closer look reveals the entire historic chronograph movement elegantly showcased on the dial side of the timepiece.

Today, Montblanc continues to draw inspiration from Minerva's more than 160 years of history through four fine watchmaking explorations: Star Legacy, 1858, Bohème, and Heritage. Each line seamlessly connects the past and the present through design, style, and technical innovation.

As the former home of Minerva, the Montblanc Manufacture in Villeret upholds the Manufacture’s legacy of expertise and remains committed to enriching fine Swiss watchmaking.

By Alessandro Mazzardo
Latest revision February 9, 2024.
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: History of Minerva, from foundation to integration into Montblanc and present day
History of Minerva, from foundation to integration into Montblanc and present day
History of Minerva Watches. In 2007 Montblanc's watchmaking expertise was further enhanced by the creation of the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie in Villeret, a foundation dedicated to classical fine watchmaking and the upholding of traditional skills and special complications. This important event in the history of Montblanc followed the acquisition by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont of the Fabrique d'Horlogerie Minerva SA and its exceptional watchmaking know-how. Villeret’s watchmaking tradition began in 1858 when brothers Charles and Hyppolite Robert founded the company "H. & C. Robert", later becoming just "C. Robert" when only Charles remained, then changing again to "Robert Frères Villeret" in 1878. Considering the exceptional success of Minerva-branded products, in 1929 the whole company was renamed to "Minerva SA, Villeret". Minerva Calibre 13-20; Minerva's Calibre 10-48. Minerva Pythagore. Minerva Calibre 16-29; Minerva Tourbillon Mystérieuse; Demetrio Cabiddu. History of Minerva, from its foundation to the integration into Montblanc
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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