While Switzerland is known as the home of watchmaking, just across the Alps is another mighty watchmaking nation: France. Considering the sheer number of fashion and luxury brands based in France, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the watch industry is also thriving there – partly in thanks to those aforementioned fashion brands like Cartier and Hermès who also create iconic watches.
However, the French watchmaking scene isn’t exclusive to the big labels with vintage military brands and up and coming micros a plenty. Here are the French watch brands you need to know about in 2023.
Baltic are perhaps the most exciting microbrand in the world at the moment, let alone in France. A combination of classic designs in both dress and dive watch categories makes for an attractive range of watches that are executed with a high degree of precision. The secret to their success is their international connections, using components from across the world, such as Japan and Switzerland, to make their French watches as high quality as possible while retaining an accessible price. Their entry to the main stage of watchmaking happened in 2021 when they provided a timepiece for the iconic Only Watch auction.
While Baltic takes headlines for French micros, the most talked about high end watchmaker is undoubtedly Cartier. Founded in 1847 by Louis-Francois Cartier, the jewellery and watch specialist has been crafting exquisite works of art for over 175 years. Their signature timepiece is the Tank, a rectangular watch with typically svelte dimensions and an Art Deco dial beloved of red carpets and celebrity galas the world over. Although the bold Santos has recently received a lot of attention.
Bell & Ross
Bell & Ross bring a tool watch focus to French watchmaking, inspired by the huge variety of instruments and dials found in aircraft and vehicles. As such, the collections feature plenty of pilot’s watches, chronographs and diving watches in a mixture of square and round cases. One of the most popular designs is the BR 05, which combines the sensibilities of a pilot’s watch with a sports luxe aesthetic, featuring a cushion bezel and versions available in precious materials like gold.
Yema are an intriguing brand because on they’ve never been comfortable sitting on their laurels. There are many brands that, if they’d experienced as much success as the Yema Superman, would be content to produce the same watch for the rest of their existence. Not so Yema, who are constantly pushing themselves with in-house movements and new designs that are funded through crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is normally associated with microbrands and to see a larger brand utilise it as a method to explore experimental ideas is refreshing.
Hermès is another high end Parisian brand that has watches as but one part of a multi-facetted portfolio. Their timepieces are joined by clothes, furniture, animal accessories and more. On the watch front, their pieces range from the industrial chic H08 to the classical Slim d’Hermès to the intriguing Arceau complications. In particular, models like the Arceau de Temps Voyager feature whimsical fantasy maps with a dial that orbits the periphery of the watch – as crazy and magical as France itself.
Herbelin, formerly known as Michel Herbelin, is a French brand founded in the village of Charquemont in the Jura mountains, near the Swiss border. Perhaps there’s something in that mountain water that creates a proclivity for horology. They’re one of the premier examples of a family-run business, with modern Herbelin under the stewardship of the third generation of Herbelins since 1947. Their iconic watches, like the Newport, mix class with a sporty edge.
In 2014 Pequignet was awarded EPV certification by the French state, which denotes it as a heritage company of particular importance to artisanal and industrial craft in France. Such an award carries with it a certain amount of patriotic pride, which Pequignet are keen to display on their watches through the use of the Fleur-de-Lys, a symbol associated with the French monarchical period. However, while their branding promotes French tradition, their watches are dedicated to modern horology and advanced technology.
Le Forban Sécurité Mer
One aspect of France that is particularly famous across the world is its coastlines, from the riviera in the south to the channel in the north. It’s therefore unsurprising that France’s navy and maritime industries are well respected. Le Forban Sécurité Mer is a watch brand dedicated to providing sailors with the perfect watch for a life at sea. From military personnel to amateur enthusiasts. Le Forban’s modern watches like the Brestoise are inspired by heritage designs dating back to 1969.
MW & Co.
While France is typically associated with refinement and class, they’re also not shy of leaning into the ultra-bombastic and outlandish. MW & Co. use cutting edge techniques to create watches that wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi film, with large 46mm diameters, tube shaped lugs and perforated cases. The majority of components are also supplied directly from French companies. However, each MW & Co. watch is produced in exceptionally limited quantities, making them a rare find indeed.
Joining the list of Parisian fashion labels with a hand in the horology jar is Louis Vuitton. Interestingly, while they do have their share of bejewelled watches, they’ve also embraced watchmaking niches that you wouldn’t associate with a haute couture label – rugged dive watches, outdoor adventure tool watches and even electronic connected watches. It’s really heartening to see French fashion brands take watchmaking as seriously as they do their clothing, which is not always the case with labels from other countries.
Neucarl are a small brand from the south of France who exemplify that most French of notions, the avant-garde. While that sounds nebulous, it simply means they’re inspired by art, architecture and design at the cutting edge, that which is both beautiful and experimental. What that means for their signature collection, the Sept Mai, is a highly architectural dial with a strong segmented design and fine lines. More a piece of modern art than just a timepiece.
Dior’s watches tend to focus on a more feminine aspect with plenty of haute joillerie and gemset pieces within their collections. One of the most interesting timepieces they produce each year is their tribute to the Lunar New Year, featuring depictions of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. They’re beautifully crafted and simply stunning, for 2023 it shows a rabbit beneath a tree against a backdrop of stars.
Charlie Paris is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a brand operating in the region of Paris. Their watches are designed to offer all the style and class of French design without the price tag that can sometimes entail. As such, models like the Concordia follow classic diving watch aesthetics as perfected on the riviera in the 60s and the Initial is a dress watch as elegant as they come. Plus, through techniques such as open heart displays, they punch well above their accessible price point in terms of finishing and refinement.
Dodane has a long history of watchmaking in France, having been founded way back in 1857, although the identity of the brand really became formed in the first half of the 1900s and the days of early aviation. Dodane supplied watches to the French air force and are one of the few brands with official Nato recognition. That heritage has led to a modern collection based on military pilots watches like their Type 21 and Type 23.
Chanel is yet another example of a French luxury label tackling horology. Their signature collection is the J12, which on the surface appears to be a fairly standard designer watch. However, look closer and you’ll see a huge amount of attention to detail, as well as high tech materials and technology such as ceramic cases that prove Chanel are a key player in the watch industry to look out for.
Breguet are in an odd position for the purposes of this article, because modern Breguet is very much Swiss and the founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet, was Swiss himself. It just so happens the brand’s original base of operation was across the border in France, in Paris to be specific. Breguet is historically attributed with some of the biggest innovations in watchmaking from the tourbillon to a popular style of numerals. The modern brand continues this legacy.
Ralf Tech are a very pragmatic brand committed to doing what’s best for their watches and customers. What that means in practical terms is they produce some of their watches in France and some in Switzerland depending on which has the biggest benefits for that model. The watches themselves are inspired by the world of professional and military diving with hyper legible displays and extremely high water resistance ratings up to 3,000m.
Alain Silberstein is a famous interior decorator and designer from France who has taken to horological design with an eponymous watch brand that specialises in collaborations with other watchmakers. He brings his signature Bauhaus style to watch from the likes of MB&F, Louis Erard, Ressence and more. His most recent collaboration was a triptych with fellow French brand Bell & Ross.