Watch enthusiasts are generally only aware of a handful of countries other than Switzerland that have asserted their national pride in the modern watch landscape. German and Japanese watches are large and well established, for example, and while there are moves to revive the once important British and American watch industries, most remain small-scale operations.
If you think about it, however, France seems well placed to make an impact on the world of modern watchmaking for a number of reasons. The country is a major market for luxury watches and has the economic and creative resources, experience and passion to contribute significantly to the industry. French watches, after all, were once an important part of the watch industry before the Quartz Crisis.
While many French watch companies remain relatively obscure outside of France, there are actually a number that are doing some interesting things. Of course, some very important watch brands are based in France, including Breguet, Cartier and Bell & Ross. Additionally, famous fashion houses like Hermès and Chanel also have a foothold in the world of legitimate, high-end watchmaking. (Van Cleef & Arpels also fits somewhere in the mix.) French watches are able to harness the country’s respected fashion and design strengths, but the country also has a watchmaking history to draw on.
The area of Besancon borders the Swiss watchmaking region of La Chaux-de-Fonds and was once an important center of French watchmaking. Unsurprisingly, a number of today’s modern French brands are based, many of which claim regional heritage but also benefit from Switzerland’s proximity to resources – the very reason the government deliberately created the French watch industry at the end of the 18th century.
The majority of almost all watches made today use parts from multiple countries, and the origin or nationality of any watch is actually far from clear. The brands on this list identify as French and represent everything from companies proudly boasting in-house movements to those sourcing parts from Switzerland and East Asia, and various approaches in between. French watches don’t necessarily exhibit a certain set of national traits (as, say, many German watches often do), but range from rugged military watches to those with a more artistic orientation – and in this way they represent the modern, diverse country extremely well.
Pequignet is notable for offering fairly good value given their in-house movements, multiple complications, and unique sense of design. Based just across the border from the epicenter of Swiss watchmaking in the French town of Morteau (in the Besançon region), the brand has been producing its own in-house movements since 2011, called Caliber Royale. The movements feature a host of features but are designed to be slim by incorporating various complications into the mainplate. When you dig a little deeper, the movements feature a lot of very thoughtful technical details that watch enthusiasts should appreciate. It’s a serious brand worth checking out, whether or not you’re specifically interested in their French origin.
Dodane is a brand particularly known for its pilot’s watch, the Type 21 flyback chronograph developed for the French Ministry of Defense in the 1950s. Based in Besançon, the brand today manufactures the Type 21 in reissue/tribute, a new Type 23 designed for the French Air Force, as well as real on-board chronograph instruments to be mounted on planes. Their chronograph watches are usually equipped with Swiss Dubois Depraz automatic movements. This is a French brand that more or less specializes in a type of watch with a military vocation, which gives Dodane a certain legitimacy that is hard to beat. Did we mention that the watches are quite attractive and available for civilians as well?
ZRC is another French company with a long history of working with the French military that basically makes one type of watch, which in this case is a diver’s watch. Based on a piece made for the French Navy in the 1960s, the unique design includes a crown at 6 o’clock (to prevent damage and snags during underwater operations) and an angular case shape along with other features of design that set it apart in the wider world of diving watches.
Fugue is a young, forward-thinking French watch company – there are no heritage histories or vintage styles here. Launched in 2017, the brand offers a “modular” concept in which cases, dials and straps can be easily interchanged by users themselves. Thankfully, this mix-and-match concept is backed up by a solid, attractive design and well-executed details. While the company and the founders are French, the movements, components and assembly are Swiss.
Based in Morteau, Yema also has a rich history, which it has built on by introducing heritage models like the Yachtingraf, the affordable Superman diver’s watch and one of our favorite recent reissues, the Speedgraf Chronograph. Yema was once a major producer of French watches, and the modern company is going strong today with a value-driven tool-watch approach. The Yema range includes a wide range of watches, movements and prices, and even its own in-house designed and assembled movements.
Baltic production is based in Besançon and specializes in simple yet satisfying modern watches made in vintage styles. We’ve checked in to Gear Patrol as being very enthusiastic about what the brand does. Baltic watches are equipped with Chinese and Japanese movements and assembled in France. It’s a brand that offers solid values and styles with a vintage feel but without an iterated feel.
This is probably the watch you should buy as a souvenir on your next trip to Paris. The brand makes clothing, accessories and homewares, but also simple and attractive watches with a field/military look and some minor stylistic variations for choice. Merci watches are available with Swiss mechanical quartz or hand-wound movements and are made with high quality materials. Best of all, they’re fairly reasonably priced and have that certain elegance of design that the French tend to do so well.
A Parisian microbrand specializing in tool watches but with a strong sense of design, Serica offers new interpretations of classic sports watch styles. Specifically, the brand started with a field watch and its second collection, released in 2021, was a diver’s watch. They share retro vibes and moderate case diameters under 40mm, but with new designs that make them interesting, unique and worth a look.
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