Like Phoenix from the ashes - the astonishing rebirth of Minerva SA, Villeret

by Magnus Bosse, May 2005

Part 4

4. Interview with Beppe Menaldo, CEO of Minerva S.A.

Certainly, the (recent) history of Minerva S.A. is one of the most disputed ones in the watch industry. As already laid out in the introductory chapter, the change of ownership in 2000, along with the subsequent turnaround of the philosophy of the company, caused much stirr. Mr. Beppe Menaldo, CEO of Minerva ever since, gives highly interesting insights in the recent years and Minerva's current state. The interview was conducted at the Minerva Manufacture in Villeret, Switzerland on 7 February 2005.


Magnus Bosse (MB): : Mr Menaldo, first of all I want to thank you for taking your precious time to make my visit here so fruitful!
Beppe Menaldo (BM): I wish to make some initial comments about how Minerva was treated by the internet watch community after Mr. Gnutti bought the company. Much things have been said about me, Beppe Menaldo, or Mr. Gnutti, which were simply not true. We had basically two possibilities to react: the one was, to actively engage ourselves, and the other was to leave it like it was. At the end, I decided not to act and to ignore all the [**peep!**] which was written at that time.
I want the people to know that we came to Minerva SA to create something beautiful, something authentic. And this is what we want to communicate with this interview, and I’m happy top learn that you are actually intending to write an authentic article, not a horror-story, but also not a marketing pamphlet, about us.

MB: Thanks a lot. I prepared a few question that I like to pose.
BM: Well, I hope I'll have an answer to all of them…

MB: Mr. Menaldo, could you describe the moment when the Frey family decided to sell Minerva? How was the contact to you and Mr. Gnutti established? What made him interested in Minerva?
BM: It came totally unintended and completely by chance! I had contact to Mr. Frey since quite a time. One day, he proposed a collaboration with the aim to relaunch the brand, but he never became very specifc with the project. It was about August or September 2000, when we had a telephone call, I was in Milano at that time. I had the impression that he had some underground reasons not to go on with the relaunch project, and I asked the decisive question totally out of the blue: “Do you want to sell Minerva?” – Mr. Frey answered quite frankly: “Why not?”! So since that moment I was in a deep shit: I simply didn’t know what to say because I really did not expect that! A few seconds later I had to take up the ball and asked for his price. He gave me a number, and on that basis I spoke with Minerva’s retailer in Brescia about the situation, and this man was a good friend of Mr. Gnutti. At that time I didn’t know Mr. Gnutti at all. As you can see, neither Mr. Gnutti nor me are in the business of buying and selling companies. I never did it in the past and I don’t know if I will ever do this again (laughs!).
I worked in the watchmaking business for 38 years. I was in charge for Blancpain in Italy, and before that for Breguet...

MB: … so you know Mr. Jean-Claude Biver…
BM: … yes, I know him very well: in a good way and in a bad way! A very special person, that’s the minimum to say about him!

MB: What was your impression when you came to Minerva? Did you want to relaunch Minerva as a Haute Horlogerie manufacture from the beginning? Or did you chose this way later after you arrived?

BM: Before we came to Minerva, we heared many beautiful and encuraging things about this company. Last but not least, this watch brand was cherished by collectors. But the real situation was a nothing less than a catastrophy: Already at that time the bright shine was not entirely immaculate. There was literally no capacity of production at all! For example, the platines of the Calibre 48 they assembled then were actually produced some 50 years ago! But the image Minerva had in the watch aficionado’s community still was that of an true manufacture!
During the course of my life, I came in intensive contact to some of the finest watch companies on the planet. I learned how to take care of brands of such a class. And I can guarantee you that I cannot take care of low range product. Therefore, our intention from the beginning was to produce authentical Minerva movements of highest quality. This was actually my personal intention, and not the idea of our financier, Mr. Gnutti.
To address that, we had to start nearly from scratch: First, we had to establish not only the technical, but also the human basis for a successfull Haute Horlogerie manufacture, that means to attract highly skilled watchmakers to work with us. By chance, and this was also only possible due to my own personal history, we could meet extremely competent people, amongst them Mr. Cabiddu, now head of the technical departement of Minerva. With his help, we were able to develop a technical and aesthetical concept of the new Minerva watches, and this includes the construction of completely new calibres of highest quality and with perfect finish. Mr. Calibre (Menaldo laughs!), sorry!, of course Mr. Cabiddu, is one of the few very highly skilled contemporary watchmakers in the world. For example, he worked together with Gerald Genta (the man!), and constructed and created Grande Sonnerie Minute Repeaters from scratch. I’m really happy and delighted to start into this adventure together with him!

MB: So, the first result was, as it was widely precieved, the huge increase of the prices. Could you explain a little bit what the new watches have that the older were lacking?
BM: We have to ask ourselves: What does the term Haute Horlogerie mean? And we have to agree on the tenor of the term Manufacture. If we agree that these do mean to buy movements, encase them and to sell them, then almost all Swiss watchmaking companies are manufactures! But if we choose a very strict and narrow definition, then only very, very few companies are left. Minerva today does not use a single movement supplied from outside! Additionally, all other components are truely Swiss Made and are of exquisite quality. Take for example our new sapphire crystals: it is as expensive to manufacture as many complete movements of our competitors (or even 10 times the price of an ETA 2824!).
If you visit the well-known watch ateliers specialised in constructing movements, you will spot calibres developed for many renowned brands – but you will never find a Minerva movement there! So, if one wants to compare prices, then one has to compare apples and apples, and not apples and oranges. This important to consider!
Demetrio Cabiddu (joins the discussion): Furthermore, we are producing only very small quantities, so the price per watch has to be much higher. For these new pieces, we took an inspiration from the movements produced by Minerva in the 1920s, at a time Minerva was owned by the Robert family (remark: the Robert family owned Minerva until they sold it to André Frey in 1940). We designed and industrialised these four movements (remark: Calibres 62-00, 13-21, 16-15 and 16-29) completely new from scratch, so that in fact, although the construction looks similar to older ones, there is no interchangeability of the parts. They are our genuine in-house movements and are characterised by several Minerva innovations (remark: see article chapter 2). Even the screws are different! In consequence, these movements are not something we simply took from the past and updated it a bit. And we of course have other calibres under development.

MB: Please explain to me the concept of the new Minerva watches! For some brands it is the design, for others a certain technical characteristic like the 3/4 plate. How would you describe the “new” Minerva?

BM: Beautiful question! You have already seen the finished watches. We will not invent the wheel for a second time.
Minerva watches will always be classical watches. We would like establish a culture in a way that when people are purchasing a Minerva watch, they will of course be attracted by the aesthetics, but they will also cherish the movement as well as the vivid heart of a typical Minerva watch. We are well aware that this is quite difficult to achieve, but this is our dream, our imagination, our driving force. That is the reason why we developed the secret, romantical system to open the case-back (demonstrates it with his own Minerva 16-29): If you are in the mood, you can have a look at the movement, but if you don’t want so, you can keep it closed and secret.
According to my estimation, this is of course not a very innovative or exciting strategy. We simply try to be coherent with what we are. It’s a difference to purchase any given companies which use the same movements, or to start entirely from scratch and try to do as much as possible on your own. The decisive factor is authenticity!

MB: So Minerva will not be the pacemaker for novel technologies?
BM: We are faithfull to the traditional, real watchmaking arts. But this does not exclude innovation. We are aiming at the true connaisseur of fine watchmaking art who appreciates a company's identity. We do not want to copy what already existed in the past. Sure, we want to add more complications to our collection, but we do not aim for ‘me-too’ movements. We always want to add new ideas to a complication.
Just to give you an example, we developed our own balance wheel and springs. This of course to gain independence from the large conglomerates. Monopolies are like dictatorships to me: they can decide upon life or death of a watch company.

MB: I already heard that you are going to introduce a new automatic movement. Could you give us any hints?
BM: Yes, we are going further in that direction, but we are not happy with what we created so far. We have to work harder on this movement.

MB: I nearly nowhere can see Minerva watches in the shops. What are your plans to distribute your products?
BM: Honestly, our distribution network basically does not exist. First, we wanted to demonstrate that we are able to fullfill our claims to produce movements of the highest finesse on the market. But I personally never was involved in the fabrication. So we had to prove ourselves that we can do this. And we did! And then we decided to develop not only a single movement, but to create a collection of four. But only now we can go and try to convince dealers and clients.
That’s the reason why there was this silence about Minerva for this apparently long time. But if you look closely, the few years that passed until now are actually a short time for the immense work and challenges we mastered. People who know about the difficulties associated with true watchmaking art can appreciate it: the creation of four different movements in this short time like we did it – that’s quite an achievement. Additionally, we nearly finished the work on the Tourbillon Mysterièuse, an unique Tourbillon watch with mystical, excentric time display.
To summarise, we faced two challenges: first, to create and to produce exceptional watches, and second, to communicate this achievements, to market the watches so to speak. The first one we accomplished, the second one we will! This last aspect is immensely important, just think about admirable watch brands, which desperately failed to communicate the excellency of their watches and consequently could not sell.

MB: How many watches do you produce each year?
BM: We produce between 600 and 700 pieces/year. Please keep in mind that amongst this there is not a single one that is not a 100% Minerva! We are working with the ideal, that first there is an idea, then a concept and a prototype, and finally the small-scale production of watches in finest execution. All of these steps are entirely performed under this very roof. To my knowledge there is not a single brand which tries to ensure that all these steps are carried out within their own walls. Except Minerva, or course, and perhaps Jaeger-LeCoultre or Glashütte Original. Even not Patek Philippe – think of their Chronograph movement!

MB: Its amazing that the people in your manufacture are so young!
BM: Well, we like the young people. Additionally, it is absolutely not easy to find skilled people for these challenges here in Villeret. People who know about Haute Horlogerie and its history. Young people, however, are extremely eager to learn, and it is a great joy to perpetuate the knowledge of finest watchmaking to them.

MB: Mr. Menaldo, do you have any message for the watch conaisseurs on the internet fora?
BM: There is one aspect that is close to my heart: I would like the term “truth” to be more respected in the watchmaking business. And I would like that – despite the respect I have for marketing – the product, the work of the fantastic people, the watches, would enjoy more attention. There are always a lot of ‘”small Menaldos” and “big Bivers” around who will do a lot of high-class and luxury events et cetera, but it is people like Demetrio Cabiddu and others skilled watchmakers, who are the people who really work hard for the advancement of watchmaking art.
The uniformisation of the watchmaking scene, which is to a high degree a result of the mergers and acquisitions we wittnessed the recent years, brings about the danger that we are loosing a significant part of our culture in terms of watchmaking arts. This for me seems to be very dangerous.
I also like to see more seriousness about the term “Swiss Made”. I myself are Italian. I live there, and I have deep respect towards this country. In the watchmaking industry, even in the highest segment, much components are used which directly or indirectly stem from Asia. This is non-loyal competition. It is pretty easy to produce a dial in China. But we pay actually for dials, hands, sapphire crystals and cases “made in Switzerland”, so the consumer price naturally is different. You also do not compare Pizza to Foie Gras.
In this respect, I see a great contribution for the members of the internet watch fora like or in communicating authentic, genuine watchmaking art. At least this is what I wish for!

MB: Thank you very much for your time, for the fascinating visit and for the highly interesting interview!
My pleasure! Thank you as well!



I want to thank the team of Minerva S.A. in Villeret for their generosity to accept me as a visitor. I especially want to thank Mr. Beppe Menaldo, CEO of Minerva, and Mr. Demetrio Cabiddu, head of the technical department, for their precious time.
A very special 'thank you' goes to Mr. Jacques Villiers of Minerva S.A. in Villeret for guiding me through the manufacture, for translating conversation and for providing me with infos and images as well as to Ms. Katherine Huguenin for arranging my visit.

Part 1 - The Introduction
Part 2 - Watchmaking at Minerva today
Part 3 - The current collection
Part 4 - The Interview with Minerva's CEO, Beppe Menaldo
Magnus Bosse © Mai 2005 Last update 10 December 2006
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