There’s no denying that Switzerland is considered the watchmaking country par excellence; the same can’t be said of France. These days, you can count the number of popular French luxury watch brands on one hand. I know what you’re thinking, what about world-famous legends like Breguet and Cartier? Yes, these manufacturers may have French roots, but their manufacturing sites are primarily located in neighboring Switzerland today.
For some years now, however, the visibility and vertical integration of French brands has been on the rise. Younger brands that appeal directly to the consumer, either through social media, direct sales, crowdfunding, or pre-orders, are largely responsible for the increased visibility.
The vertical integration side of things can be credited to companies that have been around a bit longer, and have a vision of making the dream of a completely French-made watch a reality.
Now let’s move on to a few examples of each.
We’ll kick things off with a rising star: Baltic. Inspired by the world of vintage watches, industry outsider Etienne Malec founded this brand in 2017 with more than $500,000 raised through crowdfunding. The brand’s path in the years since is nothing short of spectacular.
Baltic’s recipe for success can be summed up pretty simply: They offer watches that draw on the designs of iconic historical timepieces, often combining elements from several models in a single watch. To power their watches, Baltic relies on affordable and ubiquitous movements from Swiss and Japanese companies, as well as some from China. This is nothing new in the watch industry, but Baltic is one of the most open and honest about their sourcing, which lands well with their target audience. The Chinese movements, in particular, allow the brand to offer more than yet another iteration of a neo-vintage diver – not to say that their Aquascaphe line isn’t a huge hit.
Some of the Baltic models powered by Chinese movements are particularly intriguing, including the Bicompax chronograph introduced in 2017. Its beautiful caliber ST19 is based on the historic Venus 175 from the 1940s (the design and machines for producing the movement were sold to Chinese producers decades ago). There are few competitors that can offer a hand-wound chronograph with such an attractive view through the display case back – especially not for around the $1,000 mark.
While some are still skeptical about the use of Chinese movements, the brand’s latest hit from 2021 proved not all watch enthusiasts agree. The MR01, which quite obviously takes inspiration from Patek Philippe, not only imitates the dial of its muse, but also the reverse view thanks to the caliber Hangzhou 5000A with a micro-rotor. The attractive price point and general hype around this watch helped it to sell out in all three color variants in no time at all. Various limited editions and collaborations have followed; however, the brand continues to rely on pre-orders and batch shipping for its standard models with great success.
The low level of in-house vertical integration and the dependency on Asian components make some purists shy away, but there is no denying the pricing is attractive for industry novices and the final assembly taking part in France quiets some of these concerns. In its own way, Baltic is helping to bring France and its watches back into the minds of watch connoisseurs the world over.
If you go solely on the designs, branding, and Kickstarter campaigns, you could easily mistake Yema for one of the many microbrands that have arisen in recent years. However, the brand actually has more than seventy years of history to look back on. Ownership has changed several times in that period; at one stage, the brand was even owned by Seiko.
The brand’s current direction, however, was decisively set in 2009, when the watchmaker was taken over by Montres Ambres SA from Morteau, France’s historic watchmaking center. Not long after, they launched the caliber MBP 1000, an exclusive, in-house movement that wasn’t just based on the designs of competitors. While the components themselves aren’t produced in-house or even in France, it’s still remarkable that they haven’t relied on an ébauche base. Today, the calibers 2000 and 3000 power both three-hand and GMT watches, forming the entry-point into the world of Yema. The Superman variants are the brand’s most prominent models. The Flygraf, Navygraf, and Rallygraf also deserve a mention and demonstrate that, similar to Baltic, the vintage look remains as popular as ever at Yema.
You can view the technical specs of the “standard grade” calibers 2000 and 3000 on Yema’s homepage. The movements can certainly hold their own against the typical parties in this category. In 2022, the first truly French in-house caliber CMM.20 was added to Yema’s lineup as a “manufacture grade” movement. It not only boasts a 70-hour power reserve and visually stunning micro-rotor, but can claim being built with 80% French-made components. The tried-and-tested expertise of their Swiss neighbors only comes into play for highly specialized parts like the escapement. The CMM.20 was developed by an in-house team of watchmakers and engineers with extensive industry experience, including working for the likes of Audemars Piguet.
In line with the current stainless steel sports watch on an integrated bracelet trend, the caliber will debut in the Wristmaster model, which was previously only available with the caliber 2000.
The Kickstarter campaign for the first, limited copies raised more than $2.5 million, in large part due to the attractive price of €1,499 (approx. $1,600), representing a 50% discount from the eventual retail price. Delivery is scheduled for October 2023. Not only will this model likely be a new bestseller for the brand, it will serve as a pioneering ambassador of French watchmaking depth and prowess.
In 2004, a man called Didier Leibundgut took it upon himself to correct what he saw as a deficit of genuine French watches and calibers. He left his job at Zenith and took over at the Morteau-based brand Pequignet.
The watchmaker invested heavily in R&D, machinery, and engineers, and in 2010, the fruits of their labors were presented in the Calibre Royal, an elegant automatic movement with attractive finishing and an 88-hour power reserve from a single, large barrel. The movement features an unusual subdial layout, with a small seconds at 5 o’clock and a power reserve indicator at 8. Wherever possible, the movement components were sourced from French suppliers.
Unfortunately, the Calibre Royal had a disappointing start. Due to financial difficulties, the caliber was debuted prematurely, which led to high return rates. Thus, the anticipated financial rewards never materialized. The company was taken over by private investors in 2012, but they were unable to return the watchmaker to profitability, so in 2017, four executives took the helm. It was a turbulent time for the brand, and things weren’t looking good.
However, in 2021, Pequignet came out with some very interesting news. They announced the release of the Calibre Initial, a new in-house movement that was just as modern, but significantly more affordable than the Calibre Royal. Pequignet hopes to supply this newer movement to French brands that previously had to turn to Japanese or Swiss movement suppliers. A great deal of French craftsmanship is invested in this movement; nearly all of the Calibre Initial’s components are sourced from a radius of less than 70 miles from Pequignet’s production facilities.
The movement has a more reserved look and more functional finishing than the Calibre Royal. And while its power reserve of 65 hours won’t set any records, it is a remarkable achievement given the balance frequency of 4 Hz. The Calibre Initial has successfully joined the ranks of competitors offering watchmakers real alternatives to ETA and Sellita movements without breaking the bank.
It remains to be seen whether there will be enough enthusiasm for the movement at home and abroad to set Pequignet on a path to success.
So, I hope this small sample of French brands helped prove that French watchmaking is far from dormant. While they may still play a relatively small role in the watch industry as a whole – apart from the formally French brands that actually produce their products in Switzerland – anyone who is looking for a truly French timepiece can find one today, provided you are willing to look around a bit more.