The French art of watchmaking has a longstanding tradition of excellence and France’s list of masters in this field does not begin and end with Cartier. Even before the Swiss watch industry celebrated its global triumph, France was the well-known Centre of Haute Horlogerie. As thousands of Huguenots emigrated, France lost most of its gifted watchmakers - in particular to the United States and Switzerland, which eventually took over France’s lead position. And yet, France with its world-renowned brands such as Breguet and later Cartier continues to be a force to be reckoned with, both technically and commercially. In addition to some real Eight-Thousanders which have partly disappeared off today's horologic map, or at least no longer have their headquarters in France, there are also some interesting younger French watch brands. Let’s take a small journey from Charquemont, near the Swiss border, with a stop in France’s watchmaking center, Besançon and then into Paris.
7. Michel Herbelin
Charquemont. The journey begins just a few kilometers from the Swiss border in Charquemont, a village in the District of Doubs, which presides over a vast mountain plateau in the impressive Jura massif.
In 1947 Michel Herbelin founded his brand here. The most famous model of this French manufacturer is probably the Newport Yacht Club, a nautical timepiece with distinctive lugs, which was introduced in the 1980s. With their well rounded repertoire with models that are visually reminiscent of great design classics such as the Cartier Tank, Santos or Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, they fashion their own signature blend with a touch of old-school and a pinch of new designs. From the very start the compass was set to aim for producing high quality watches at an attractive price. The watches are usually equipped with quartz movements by the manufacturer Ronda or with mechanical calibers from ETA. Often their timepieces are dotted with diamonds, something quite unusual in their price range, sometimes below the 1.000 Euro mark. Michel Herbelin continues to be managed independently from Charquemont, today.
Besançon. Like Charquemont, located in Doubs district, about 80 kilometers further East lies the county seat of Besançon, known as the historical center of the French watch industry. Besançon’s fame as the Mecca of the French watch industry went so far, that it became its own brand, similar to the German Glashütte. In recent years, Besançon revives its great history as the reinstatement of some historically significant brands brings an upswing to the town.
One of these brands is Dodane. The brand was originally founded in 1857 and quickly became well known as a manufacturer of pilot watches and especially of flyback chronographs destined for military use. Not only pilot watches, but also cockpit instruments for civil and military aviation were manufactured under this brand. In 2013, the brand was revived through the personal commitment of Cédric and Laurent Dodane, fifth generation descendants, who started to produce in the tradition of their ancestors again. At the heart of today's collection are the two pilot chronographs Type 21 and Type 23, both enhanced versions of the legendary Type XX (Type 20), also onboard-chronographs remain in the brand's portfolio. At the heart are ETA-based movements with chronograph modules from Dubois Dépraz. In addition to the production of robust and easily legible timepieces in the service of aeronautics, chronometers have always been a brand focus too. Today, you can get any model certified by the Official Chronometer Testing Center in Besançon, if you wish.
5. Alain Silberstein
Besançon. We stay in Besancon. You may even call it irony, that the very center of France’s watchmaking history, with a relevant past dating back to the 16th century, brought forth a manufacturer such as Alain Silberstein.
The collections of the trained interior designer, whose passion culminated in the founding of the luxury watch brand in his name in 1990, are composed from a wild mix of shapes and patterns, combined with the four primary colors of the opposite color theory. Somehow 90s and somehow also pop art, you recognize a watch by Alain Silberstein inevitably as such. The (only seemingly) randomized interplay of all different geometric shapes stands out from the crowd. Clearly, the irreverent style extravaganza is not for everyone and watches by Alain Silberstein don’t aim to please every taste. However, the influence on watch designs over the past 20 years is irreversible. Alain Silberstein discontinued production in 2012. What is left is a watch brand, which threw quite a few conventions overboard, coined new ones and helped shape watch designs over the following years. Whether for another company or for the Alain Silberstein brand, the designer still crafts unusual watch designs with devotion - such as the MB&F "LM1 Silberstein", a special edition of the legacy machine N°1. Because designs by Alain Silberstein will probably always be re-iterations of the very unique Silberstein design formula, the brand too lives on in a way.
4. L. Leroy
Besançon. Le Roy is a big name in French horology. In the 18th century it played an important role especially in the production of marine and ship chronometers. The outstanding accuracy of the watch earned the manufacturer, which was named Le Roy after the watchmaker, numerous awards. Significant contributions were made in other areas too: With their "systeme de remontage automatique" they paved the way for the self-winding watch, which was developed just 2 years later by John Harwood. The Festina group is bringing new life to the legacy of the famed French watchmaker Basile Le Roy. The name Le Roy was changed to L. Leroy. Brand positioning draws on its corporate heritage and is placed in the high-end segment with a defining focus on manufacturing the most precise watches and Tourbillons possible. The styling, builds on the brand history as well: the nautically inspired designs feature a traditionalistic keynote reminiscent of the style language of the Baroque. Guilloche dials can be found here as well as blued hands, Breguet numerals and elaborately cut out dials.
3. Bell & Ross
Paris. From Besançon we head directly into the Seine metropolis. In the bustle of the urban lifestyles of this world city the subject of watches may not be as defining as it is in Besançon or Charquemont, where the watch industry contributes significantly to the region, but watch brands headquartered in Paris have always been internationally significant and that remains unchanged today.
The Brand Bell & Ross was founded in 1992 in Paris and that makes it one of the younger players in the watch industry. The watches look consistently like aeronautical instrument dials and that is exactly what a pilot's watch should look like. Their trademark design are the four oversized Arabic numerals on the dial, which sit on the dial like orientation points and look reminiscent of the onboard compass of a military aircraft. Simple colors and shapes outline a noticeable design choice which does not reinvent itself with every model. Persistence defines the strength of the brand. Well known personalities from film and television like Tom Hanks or Bruce Springsteen wear Bell & Ross. The brand successfully made its entrance into a market that was all but owned by Panerai at the time, the market for lifestyle watches with high quality standards. While Panerai Watches start from about 4.000 – 5.000 Euro, you can get a Bell & Ross for less than half.
Paris. Our journey takes us from a lifestyle watch brand into the ranks of the most revered industry dignities: Certainly, Breguet is a Swiss watch brand today, headquartered in the Swiss l'Abbaye and even its founder and namesake was a Helvetian Confederate. However, the years when Abraham Louis Breguet maintained an atelier in the 1st arrondissement of Paris constituted the most horologically important time period of any single watch manufacturer in the entire history of mechanical time measuring.
The impact of those years was so far-reaching and lasting, that Breguet remains also a French watch brand to some extent. But, first things first. Through contacts of his stepfather, the then 15-year-old Breguet was able to learn watchmaking in Versailles and eventually opened his first watchmaking atelier in the Quai de l'Horloge. He worked there for several decades, and this has produced a variety of groundbreaking inventions and style elements that had such far-reaching influence, that terms such as Breguet-spiral, Breguet-hands and Breguet-numerals belong to the standard nomenclature of watchmaking today. Also, the queen of mechanical complications, the Tourbillon, and the manufacture of probably the first wristwatch in history are credited to Abraham Louis Breguet. The wrist watch had been ordered for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples and younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. Anyway, almost every member of Napoleon’s clique called a Breguet pocket watch his own - not least, Napoleon himself. The who-is-who of kings, noble families and historical figures who impressed their mark upon time, relied on Breguet watches for their time telling needs. From Marie Antoinette to Alexander von Humboldt and Winston Churchill. Abraham Louis Breguet is buried at the cemetery of Père-Lachaise in Paris, by the way. You can marvel at the history of the watch brand at the Breguet Museum on the Place Vendome in the 1st arrondissement of Paris.
Paris. As one of the best-known watch manufacturers, the birthplace of iconic time pieces such as the Tank, the Santos, the Ballon Bleu or the Pasha and since its founding in 1847, continuously headquartered in Paris, Cartier is the logical number one in this collection.
While it is also famous for jewelry, Cartier was, is and always has been one of the most important watch manufacturers and it played a significant part in the development of the wristwatch and its rise to global market domination. As the world's first wristwatch goes to Breguet, the Cartier Santos is the first pilot's watch and maybe even the first commercially used wristwatch. It definitely is the watch that ushered in the great triumph of the wristwatch over the pocket watch at the beginning of the 20th century and - after initially being the ultimate go-to accessory for ladies – finally made wrist watches also the fashionable companion piece for gentlemen. Compared with other manufacturers Cartier always set itself apart from other brands with its focus on looks. This gave it a decisive advantage over other brands which dealt less with the optics and almost exclusively with functionality and accuracy. Cartier watches have always been admired by famous actors and artists: Greta Garbo and Grace Kelly had a Cartier, as well as Cary Grant and Andy Warhol.
and a half... Jaeger-LeCoultre
Paris. It is known that Jaeger-LeCoultre, one of the most important Swiss watch brands, emerged from the movement manufacturer LeCoultre and the watchmaker Jaeger from Paris, where the watches where assembled. However, the encasing role Jaeger is often credited with, does by no means give credit to its importance. For example, the Atmos, the first watch that sourced its energy from pressure differences in connection with minimal temperature fluctuations, was developed by Jaeger. The Atmos is thus - if you will - the operating mechanism, that comes closest to the myth of the perpetuum mobile, unrivaled by any other watch. The importance that was assigned to the production of small watches is also linked to Jaeger. Ultimately, this focus led to the smallest mechanical watch in history and to date. Still today the production of flat and small housings is an integral part of Jaeger-LeCoultre's DNA.