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Review: Patek Philippe 5170J vs Montblanc 111626

If you’re just getting started with photography, you buy a Canon, or a Nikon. Hi-fi, something from Naim. A Porsche will most likely be your first sporty set of wheels. Brand recognition, heritage, market stability, resale prices, broad appeal, etcetera, etcetera. The list of reasons why all these companies are great places to put your money—and they are, everybody knows it—goes on and on. That’s why they’re the norm. For some people, however, normal is just too … normal. For some people, the interesting, the esoteric, the stuff that can only be found wide of the beaten path—that’s where the real gold lies. Question is, when it comes to a proper, hand-wound chronograph with all the bells and whistles—is a pen company that bit too far?

The hand-wound chronograph is a rite of passage for all the best watchmakers, a chance to show off what it’s really made of. All those exposed levers and wheels, all normally hidden under bridges and rotor weights, laid bare in a network of visually satisfying craftsmanship. Only the best need apply; we’re talking A. Lange & Söhne, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet—and of course, Patek Philippe.

The 5170J is a prime example of a hand wound chronograph made to perfection

The 5170J is a prime example of a hand wound chronograph made to perfection

This 5170J is a stunning demonstration of what happens when the most skilled people in the world do something without constraint, where engineering boarders the realms of art. Even the most die-hard, forward-thinking, Tesla-driving tech-head can’t look at this and not get lost in its intricacy.

What really makes these works stand out, though, is their ability to withstand scrutiny. There aren’t many affordable manual chronographs out there, but find one—like Omega’s Speedmaster sapphire sandwich—and lay it side-by-side with this, dig out a loupe and get stuck in, and the differences are staggering. Where a skilled human hand—many, actually—gets to spend hour upon hour shaving metal away microns at a time, the results are sublime.

But, of course, you have to pay for it. A 5170J like this costs nearly £60,000. For most, the 5170J may as well have been launched into space in the glove compartment of Musk’s Tesla for all the difference it would make to the likelihood of turning ownership into a reality.

So, if a pen company wanted to establish itself as a legitimate rival to the very best watchmakers in the world, it would have to match their offerings—or at least get very close—but it could never ask for the same money. Sounds ridiculous, a pipe dream too wild for even the most hard-core of opium-smoking literati, but it’s true—and here’s the Montblanc Heritage Spirit Pulsograph to prove it.

The expertly crafted calibre is on full display through a crystal caseback

The expertly crafted calibre is on full display through a crystal caseback

This may present a more confusing notion than a vegan dairy farmer, and the road to now is a strange and convoluted one, but the result—well, it speaks for itself. Those who are no strangers to Montblanc’s wristwatch offerings will know that the brand has been offering what could loosely be termed ‘fashion’ watches for some time, alongside more pricier options around the £3-5,000 mark, that all draw inspiration from Swiss watchmaking as a collective.

It was in the mid-2000s that things took a turn for the interesting. Richemont, the parent company that owns Montblanc, as well as A. Lange & Söhne, Vacheron Constantin, IWC, Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre and so on, added another watchmaker to its menagerie. Only this time, it was a brand that no one had ever heard of, because the quartz crisis had all but wiped it off the face of the Earth. I’m talking about Minerva.

This wasn’t just a random impulse purchase from Richemont—there was method behind the apparent madness. Minerva has a history of producing fine, precision chronograph mechanisms, and all the traditional plans, parts, tools and equipment still remained at the facility Minerva had occupied since 1887.

Can Montblanc's Heritage Spirit Pulsograph match the Patek Philippe?

Can Montblanc's Heritage Spirit Pulsograph match the Patek Philippe?

But if you search for Minerva now, you won’t find it as a brand selling watches—in fact, you’ll find very little about it at all. Look closer at the dial of this Pulsograph and the next clue becomes apparent. Nestled between the ‘MB’, for Montblanc, and the calibre reference number is a cursive ‘M’. It’s the ‘M’ from the Minerva logo.

This is where it gets weird, but bear with it: Richemont gave Minerva to Montblanc. Minerva could have simply been absorbed by one of the bigger Richemont brands like Panerai or IWC, but you’ll be glad that it didn’t, because flip the Pulsometer over and the name ‘Minerva’ stands proud. You won’t see Montblanc branding anywhere on the movement.

It’s marketing genius: trying to re-establish Minerva as a brand in its own right, although preferable, would have most likely ended in failure; giving it to a well-established brand would have resulted in the name Minerva disappearing forever; letting Montblanc dip its toes into the upper echelon of watchmaking, however, gives both brands a chance to make something of it.

Based closely on the classic 1940s Minerva calibre 13-20 CH—remember the calibre reference on the Pulsometer’s dial, 13.21?—this is a manual-wind monopusher chronograph that ticks all the high-end boxes. Column wheel? Check. Horizontal clutch? Check? In-house screwed balance and balance spring? Check. Big, lazy beat ticking at a classic 18,000 vph? Check. Hand-finished components that are grained, bevelled and polished to the same level as the Patek Philippe? Check and check.

Montblanc's secret weapon, the Minvera 13.21, comes very close to Patek Philippe's mastery

Montblanc's secret weapon, the Minvera 13.21, comes very close to Patek Philippe's mastery

Here’s the best bit, the part we’ve all been waiting for: the Pulsometer costs less than half what the 5170J does. A three-year-old one enters the same ballpark ceramic Daytonas are currently to be found in. If you like the esoteric, want quality but aren’t fussed about the mainstream, this Montblanc should be a serious consideration.

Of course, the Patek Philippe still has a few tricks up its sleeve: the winding action is smoother, for instance. It’s a pinch smaller than the Montblanc in height and width. The faster beat offers a smoother chronograph sweep. There’s a trick mechanism for an instantaneous chronograph minute hand tick. And, most importantly, it’s made by Patek Philippe. You can’t deny the importance of that, whether you agree with it or not. This is a brand that carved the niche Montblanc and Minerva are currently trying to occupy; without Patek Philippe, without the 5170J, there could be no Pulsometer. Consider this: if you’re someone who likes cameras, but loves photography, likes hi-fi but loves music, likes cars but loves driving, this Pulsometer could be for you. People who like watches will have probably never heard of Minerva, and will most likely think you’ve gone mad for spending all that money on a watch made by ‘that pen company’, but the people who love watchmaking, they’ll know. And, most importantly, you’ll know. Park the Morgan on the drive, warm up your Simaudio Moon amp, check the time on your Montblanc Pulsometer, and all will be well.

Looking for a Patek Philippe watch? Click here to shop now

Looking for a Montblanc watch? Click here to shop now