France was once a significant area for watchmaking, especially in the 18th and 19th century, which is widely considered the golden age of French watchmaking. That period saw the rise of famous watchmakers such as Ferdinand Berthoud, Jean-Antoine Lépine, and a young Abraham-Louis Breguet, who all set up workshops in Paris.
Paris was an important location for French watchmaking, although during the late 18th century, the French government designated Besançon, a city near the Swiss border, as the French capital of watchmaking. Most of our readers will probably have heard about the Besançon Observatory, which alongside the Neuchatel Observatory, the Geneva Observatory and Kew Observatory, assessed and rated Swiss timepiece movements for accuracy until the advent of the Quartz Crisis.
We all know major watch brands such as Cartier, Breguet, Van Cleef & Arpels, and now also Hermès and Chanel among others, all have French roots, but there are many more small scale and independent watch companies that contribute to a current revival of the French watch industry.
Here, we look at a few of them which showcase great creativity and represent a great offering at accessible price points.
Co-founded by Wilfried Buiron and Robin Tallendier, two Frenchmen with a passion for Chinese culture, Atelier Wen aims at promoting Chinese horology in the hope to change the perception that not everything made in China is cheap and unreliable.
The name of the brand comes from the French word for workshop, “Atelier” and the Chinese word for culture, “Wen,” and all aspects of the manufacturing process are conducted in China.
Their first series, called the “Porcelain Odyssey,” offers two models equipped with porcelain dials, one in blue nicknamed “Ji” and one in white nicknamed “Hao,” powered by a Liaoning Peacock SL-3006 movement.
The watches underwent thorough testing to meet the co-founders’ requirements and their ambitions go as far as having the watch chronometer certified in the future, which would be a first for a timepiece coming out of China.
At 39mm, the watches provide a case size that will fit most people and sit comfortably on the wrist. On the porcelain dials you will find evident touches of Chinese inspiration in the seconds sub-dials at 6 o’clock as well as around the dials, while the back will reveal an engraving of the Kun Peng — a mythical giant fish transforming into a great bird.
Atelier Wen aims at bringing the best of China’s watchmaking abilities to the world and their first foray into the industry sure provides a different offering than what we are used to seeing.
Here is the perfect example of friends coming together for a passion project. Serica is a new brand and the brainchild of the great people behind Les Rhabilleurs, one of the best French watch blogs out there, in collaboration with Matt Hranek via the WM Brown Project. The timepiece is a tribute to vintage American military watches and aims to bring together a clean and balanced design in a sturdy package.
The goal here was to create an affordable and reliable tool watch which could easily be worn at all times; anywhere in the world and for any activities, including swimming, without having to worry about what is on your wrist. Hence the name of their first watch is the Serica W.W.W WM Brown Edition, which stands for “Wrist. Watch. Waterproof.”
The dial is unsigned to encourage the wearer to focus solely on the design of the timepiece and to use it daily as a proper tool watch. Really playing into the military aesthetics, the dial features a 12h and 24h scale and a railroad minute track. Powering the watch is a manual wind calibre ETA 2801-2, giving the watch a power reserve of 42 hours. The watch is available in four versions, with either a black or white lacquered dial featuring either a set of broad arrow or alpha hands. There are also plenty of strap options to give enthusiasts enough choices to really personalise their timepiece.
Reservoir made its name by taking one concept and just running with it. The base idea is fairly simple; inspired by vintage measuring instruments, the watches reflect various eras of the automobile, aviation and marine universe. The watches all have a 240-degrees retrograde minute track which recalls RPM counters found on dashboards, a jumping hour aperture in the lower part of the dial which recall mileage meters, and a power reserve indicator at 6 o’clock which echoes fuel gauges.
Launched only in 2015, the brand already has three main collections, plus several sub-collections in the automobile and marine lines.
Its latest release, the Hydrosphere, is its first attempt at a true dive watch and features typical specifications like a helium escape valve and a 250m depth rating. The watch has a 45mm case size but because it doesn’t feature lugs — the Hydrosphere is made to look like scuba diving pressure gauges — it feels more like a 41mm watch on the wrist.
Reading the dive-decompression time on a retrograde minute track is possible by having a double 15-minute scale on the unidirectional bezel so one can read the decompression level before and after the return of the retrograde hand.
Up to 45 minutes, the reading zone of the decompression is read between 0 and 45. After 45 minutes, the reading zone is read in continuity with the start of the retrograde minute track when the minute hand jumps back to the start.
The French lifestyle brand March LA.B takes roots between Los Angeles and Biarritz, the French surf mecca. The watches combine elements taken from surfing, French heritage detailing and modern L.A style, all packaged in vintage aesthetics. Founder and CEO Alain Marhic followed his passion for surfing and watches to create his own label in 2008 after having a successful career at Australian surfwear brand Quicksilver.
The March LA.B Agenda is a perfect example of the design ethic which represents the brand. The angular 38mm case and sharp lugs might make you think of a vintage Tag Heuer Carrera due to its racing bi-compax dial, but the hour and minute hands definitely give a futuristic look to the dial — is anyone else reminded of the Millennium Falcon? The sub-dials form the complete calendar with the day at 9 o’clock, months at 3 o’clock and finally the date between 4 and 5 o’clock.
The watch is available in different dial colours including ocean, forest, private bordeaux and more. It’s not hard to quickly find yourself wearing a March LA.B if you are in search for a cool and affordable timepiece which represents the chill lifestyle often associated with California and surfing, while still retaining a French heritage. On top of that you can proudly carry the ‘Made in France’ label wherever you go.
Founded in 2009, Parisian concept store Merci brings together the world of fashion, design and household items paired with refreshment areas. Proceeds of the store also go towards funding educational projects and development in south-west Madagascar.
Merci released its first timepiece in 2017 called the LMM-01 (for La Montre Merci), inspired by train station clocks. It was a very affordable timepiece with a no-nonsense design and available with a quartz or mechanical movement.
Their second collection is the LMM-01 Projet Spécial, which comes in three different models; the Field Watch, the Grand Pa’ and the Railroad. The Field watch is the military- inspired and outdoor-ready timepieces you can wear anywhere. The Grand Pa’ is the older vintage-inspired watch with sword hands and small seconds at 6 o’clock. Finally the Railroad uses a double tone dial, dauphine hands and of course a railroad outer track.
Merci here provides several great designs at an affordable price. To top it all off, buying the watches will go towards a great cause. We couldn’t ask for more.
First started in 2005 as a special order of watches for police officers belonging to RAID, the special French police enforcement unit, MAT has today developed into a full fledged French independent watchmaking company, making watches springing from the Mer-Air-Terre (meaning Sea-Air-Land) elements. MAT has strong partnerships with various special forces and armies, making it a great option for anyone looking for a proper military watch used by today’s forces.
The MAT Sea Rescuers watches, SNSM edition, is one great example. The SNSM (the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer – the National Company of Sea Rescuers), a non-profit organisation aimed at saving people at sea, has aided 30,000 people in 2018, including more than 9,000 at sea. This was surely deserving of a special limited edition watch. The 42.5mm dive watch features a strong and rugged case with two screw-down crowns, one for the winding and time setting and the other for the internal rotating bezel. The watch also bears the emblem of the SNSM and a percentage of each watch sold is donated to the Sea Rescuers association, which is 80 per cent financed by private donations.