Montblanc And UNICEF Renew Their 13-year Effort To Put All Children In School

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BY Zul Andra | Jul 18, 2017 | News

When we talk about kids not having access to education, that should not be a privilege, it should be a right,” Hugh Jackman said to over a hundred guests at the New York Public Library, an apt venue for the Montblanc for UNICEF gala in support of greater access for children to education. “Here we have something that people can own for the rest of their lives and, at the same time, give back to people who really don’t have anything.” 

Everyone in attendance, including Jackman’s fellow Montblanc ambassadors Gigi Leung and aristocrat Charlotte Casiraghi to stars such as Rami Malek and Diane Kruger, gave a rousing round of applause. 

That “something” Jackman was referring to is the latest Montblanc for UNICEF collection. Made up of limited-edition writing instruments, timepieces, accessories and leather goods, three percent of all proceeds will go to education programmes for children around the world.

When you buy into this collection, you are opening the classroom doors to children who have been denied access to an education. According to UNICEF, out of 650 million primary school-age children, approximately 59 million are affected. As Jo Bourne, UNICEF’s Associate Director and Global Chief of Education, said during the gala, “Children who have the least gain the most.” 

It’s a big ask for Montblanc and UNICEF, but for the last 13 years of their Right to Write partnership, the German luxury brand has raised over USD10 million in support of UNICEF and its literacy projects. This year, in their Passing on The Gift of Writing initiative, education projects will be focused on China, Djibouti and Brazil. 

As guests took measured steps through the exhibited collection, it was obvious that Montblanc aims to make their latest writing instruments a beacon of the fight against illiteracy. And it’s held burning bright by one of the most fundamental forms of learning: language. 

“We looked at the first steps a child takes when they learn to write,” Montblanc Creative Director, Zaim Kamal, told The Telegraph, “the first marks or symbols they recognise across six alphabets: Roman, Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Hindi, to underline that this is a global issue. Everything starts with communication; education, everything.” According to the website, Kamal also took inspiration from the Rosetta Stone housed in The British Museum where the decoding of its ancient inscriptions was one of the many cornerstones of understanding the history of our civilisation. 

The six alphabets can be found throughout the collection, from the lining of a Montblanc backpack and embossed onto the inside of a special edition of the brand’s Augmented Paper case to, of course, the Montblanc Meisterstück Writing is a Gift pen collection. UNICEF’s iconic blue also appears on the dial and the strap of two special Heritage Spirit Orbis Terrarum timepieces. 

Speaking to Nicolas Baretzki, who officially replaced Jérôme Lambert as the brand’s CEO two days before the gala on April 1, we had a sense of the immense responsibility that Montblanc and UNICEF has taken for this worthy cause. 

Nevertheless, in a world that demands greater stability, teaching the next generation to read and write, wherever they may be, is the first step towards a better future.

A word with a leader of change 

We sat down with Nicolas Baretzki, Montblanc’s CEO, at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York to discuss the brand’s social responsibilities and traditional values in an ever-changing world.

Esquire: Did you sleep well before your first public event? 

Nicolas Baretzki: [Laughs] Yes! I did. I’m lucky that I can sleep anywhere, although it could be for only a few hours.

Esquire: You officially took office as Montblanc’s CEO two days before the gala. That’s a big task. 

Nicolas Baretzki: To start with these kinds of events—a meaningful partnership with UNICEF—it felt more like a family gathering with friends of the brand. I don’t think we could have done it any better.

Esquire: Why is this partnership with UNICEF important to Montblanc? 

Nicolas Baretzki: I wish I could say that we don’t do anything with UNICEF anymore—that all children now have access to education—but we are far from reaching that status. When you talk about our partnership, when you talk about education and helping kids, and when you realise that the roots of education are the bond and the love for writing and reading, it’s so obvious. There are 60 million children who do not have access to education and, maybe because I’m a father, that speaks to me.

Esquire: Why do you think children’s access to education is still a tough subject to tackle? 

Nicolas Baretzki: I had a very interesting conversation with Jo [Bourne, UNICEF’s Associate Director and Global Chief of Education] last night. She said that the issue of children’s lack of access to education has been improving over the last 13 years. Having said that, there are the poorest parts of the world where it remains difficult to convince the children, their family and the community of the importance of education. What I like about the programme is that it’s not just about educating children, it’s about giving a meaningful one that would serve their specific needs.

Esquire: That’s a huge undertaking. 

Nicolas Baretzki: UNICEF is a huge organisation and it’s easy for us to align with the right goals. The real challenge is to execute the right thing on the ground from what has been decided. That’s why we chose concrete approaches to make sure that what we want to do in China, Djibouti and Brazil is what’s happening on the ground. We have to ensure that what’s being planned—training teachers, giving the right educational tools to the kids and helping to build important infrastructure—is what these territories will get. I have to say, it has been a rather smooth operation so far. 

Esquire: Do you need a hand? How can we help? 

Nicolas Baretzki: With this long-term partnership and the fact that our customers are already aware of the UNICEF story, I believe we’ve been very consistent with this initiative over the last 13 years. But I also believe that when we want to do something good, we must be genuine and it cannot be just another opportunistic approach. There are local activations around the world and, thanks to the Internet, we can reach out to more people to be part of this conversation. I hope that through these outreach programmes, people do come out and support the cause.

Esquire: You’ve served for other luxury brands such as Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, and you’ve been with Richemont for 23 years. Do you think it’s important for a brand to commit to a social responsibility? 

Nicolas Baretzki: Of course. What’s interesting with Montblanc is that we’ve been giving back for a long time, but when we first did it with UNICEF 13 years ago, we were outsiders to this whole concept. I’m not sure if the term “corporate social responsibility” was even popular at that time. It has always been part of our system, to give back, and maybe, through the years, it has become relevant for other luxury brands as well. It’s an old story for us, not just another marketing approach. You have to be serious about it.

Esquire: How much do you think the demand for luxury brands has shifted?

Nicolas Baretzki: Looking at Singapore, the market has changed drastically in the past 23 years. I don’t think that it’s a question of technology versus tradition. The change is when consumers are more informed about what they are buying into, thanks to the Internet. That’s the major change that I’ve seen—the need to approach our customers with what’s relevant to them, and not just a statement that’s relevant to all. After that, if you want to produce a new technology or keep to tradition, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that what you offer is consistent with who you are.

Esquire: Like Montblanc’s Augmented Paper? 

Nicolas Baretzki: When we launched it, we were caught by surprise because it was such a success and there was a shortage almost immediately. But when you think about it, we should have anticipated it because we were offering a beautiful and useful product. Maybe customers didn’t know that it was something that they wanted, but actually need. 

Esquire: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” as Henry Ford has often been attributed to have said. 

Nicolas Baretzki: I think that it’s a mix of everything. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. In my new role and in the spirit of what has been done over the last four years, we have a team that’s very close to the local market—they are not just relaxing in our headquarters in Hamburg. The guys often say that I come to Asia too often [laughs] but it’s important to always be there, to listen to our customers and retailers. We might not understand it but we will always be enriched by these interactions and, with that, we might come up with a good idea or an opportunity that we can develop. It’s how you process the information that something good might come out of it. 

Esquire: Just like your partnership with UNICEF? 

Nicolas Baretzki: Exactly.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.