A tech start-up founder with a Masters in engineering and a PhD in computer science and business, Dr Felix Frank Obschonka was invited to join Montblanc in 2014. His appointment as director of new technologies marked the beginning of a new chapter for the 100-year-old brand, which is synonymous with luxury writing instruments, timepieces and leather goods. Obschonka and his team have expanded Montblanc’s offering to include tech-infused notebooks, smart-watches and headphones.
‘When I joined Montblanc, our CEO was seeing a change in our customers,’ Obschonka explains. ‘He’d seen that mobile devices, connectivity and digital products were at the core of their lifestyle. Their phones, and all the technologies that go with them, were like a companion, alongside them through life. My job was to establish a department to grow this part of the business and bring out new innovations.’
Obschonka describes Montblanc’s DNA as combining craftsmanship and quality, but also performance: ‘If you look at Montblanc, it has a lot to do with functionality; our watches, our writing instruments and our leather goods – such as backpacks and wallets – they all serve a certain purpose. Whatever we do is to support the lifestyle of our customers in a functional way. That’s something we have transported into this new world of tech products, but it really builds upon this heritage that we have and the experience that we have there.’
Montblanc was founded on an innovative idea – back in 1908 – as one of the early producers of quality writing instruments with a built-in ink well that promised not to leak. Today, it’s beautiful writing instruments continue to be revered around the world for combining exquisite craftsmanship with technical superiority
There are three pillars that guide the research and development of Montblanc’s New Technologies team: ‘The first pillar is looking into our heritage – into writing, for example, where we see that digital functions can easily be added to the analogue experience that you have,’ Obschonka explains.
Montblanc’s Augmented Paper is a good example of this. ‘You still have the experience of writing with a Montblanc writing instrument on Montblanc paper, but everything you write can be transferred and translated into your digital devices,’ he says. This saves those with a preference for a traditional notebook and pen from having to type up their notes afterwards. The Montblanc Hub app takes care of that, digitalising handwriting so it can be used from there on with digital tools, such as Microsoft Office.
‘It’s a friendship between the beauty of writing and the productivity that you get in a digital lifestyle,’ says Obschonka. ‘So that’s one pillar, where we enhance the analogue experience with small digital elements.’
Montblanc’s Augmented Paper looks and feels like a traditional pen and paper, but smart technology enables handwritten notes to be transmitted to digital devices via bluetooth, offering the best of both worlds
The second pillar involves taking a cue from Montblanc’s existing range of products, to create revolutionary new models: ‘We were the first luxury brand to create a classical smart-watch,’ he says. ‘We already had watches, but it became a completely new product, with a completely new life, once we thought of it digitally. Our smart-watch line is not like a traditional watch. Of course, it tells you the time, but it does much more. It’s also a communication and fitness hub.’
Not wanting to find itself sat on the bench in the advent of the smart-watch, Obschonka tells how Montblanc looked into what might disrupt its existing watch business, and decided to create its own version to offer the tech-driven timepieces that many customers now desire.
The third pillar of Montblanc’s approach to new tech involves thinking from the perspective of customers and the demands of their lifestyle: ‘We ask ourselves – what are they expecting from luxury business lifestyle brands like Montblanc, which also focuses a lot on travel,’ he explains. ‘What are they expecting and what value could we, as Montblanc, bring to it? And the good example here is our new smart headphones, because it’s something that we never did before and it’s completely new for Montblanc.’
The MB 01 Travel Headphones are lightweight, wireless and foldable, they also feature Google Assistant. ‘We don’t have a long heritage in creating audio products,’ acknowledges Obschonka, ‘but what we bring is a lot of knowledge in terms of material and craftsmanship. We’ve innovated to bring these two words together and create something that resonates with our consumer who is looking for a stylish, very comfortable, high quality, travel headphone.’
The MB 01 Travel Headphones combine smart tech with Montblanc’s distinctive classic-contemporary style
For the modern business traveller they’re a versatile addition to a work-travel wardrobe, embodying the same aesthetics as Montblanc’s stylish leather goods and luggage collections, which strike a perfect balance of contemporary with a classic edge, and smart enough to take along to a meeting.
The more holistic lifestyle of younger generations is not overlooked by Obschonka, who describes entrepreneurs who are travelling across the globe for business and doing a lot of recreational activities at the same time. ‘Maybe they’re doing skateboarding, or skydiving,’ he says. ‘Some of our customers are quite extreme in what they’re doing, they live a life that’s very much work hard, play hard.’
This philosophy translates to the luxury echelons of smart-watches that Montblanc inhabits. ‘These customers require products that give them a notion of personality, and of having a disruptive edge,’ he explains. ‘They would not opt in for a mass product, they want to stand out. For some people the wrist is something very important. Their watches express their lifestyle.’
A lot of effort goes into the style aspect of its designs, says Obschonka: ‘Don’t get me wrong, we have the latest technology, but first we think about the fact that this is an element that lives on your wrist, and you want to have something that is truly beautiful and remarkable.’
Here is where Montblanc’s heritage really comes into play, the new technologies team working in close collaboration with the brand’s expert watchmakers in Switzerland to ensure its Swiss watchmaking codes and craftsmanship are also represented in its smart-watch range. ‘You can expect a watch case for a Montblanc smartwatch to have had the same care put into it as one of our mechanical watch cases, with elements that are hand polished, or hand satinated,’ says Obschonka.
‘The analogue experience is important to us – the tactility, the feeling that you get when writing with a Montblanc writing instrument, this is something that we really want to keep; and the same for the watches,’ he confirms. ‘Montblanc is such a beautiful brand, with such a strong heritage. To contribute to the history of Montblanc, for the future of Montblanc, is a very exciting task for me.’
Dr Felix Frank Obschonka is the director of new technologies at Montblanc; learn more about Montblanc’s smart products, writing instruments and leather goods by visiting its boutique at The Royal Exchange, or online at montblanc.com
Our Future/Craft series explores the skill and creativity that lies at the heart of modern luxury, highlighting the stories behind some of The Royal Exchange’s exceptional retailers and their approach to craftsmanship and innovation