The watch world was in a very, very different state 35 years ago. It was a low point, with many a maison having shut their doors throughout the quartz crisis and before the first stirrings of the modern horological renaissance. There were a few cool designs coming out, but serious watchmaking was having a hard time. It’s into this dubious market that Frederique Constant launched in 1988.
It was a bold move and one that likely raised a few eyebrows. But founders Aletta and Peter Stas weren’t your usual entrepreneurial watchmaking couple. For one, they weren’t Swiss but Dutch. For another, they lived in Hong Kong. They weren’t exactly the traditional figures behind a fledgling maison – which in all honesty, is probably how they, more than the local Swiss watchmakers, saw an opportunity.
As I said, quartz watches were everywhere and they were cheap. At the same time, the watchmakers that had survived the crisis were the ones operating in the rarefied, collector-centric end of the scale. There just wasn’t really anything in-between. Accessible watchmaking is a nice buzzword these days, but in the 80s it was a revolutionary concept. That said, it was an easier concept to grasp than build and it took the duo four years to make it a tangible, on-wrist reality with 1992’s 18th Century Collection.
It’s not hard to see the through-line from the 18th Century Collection to today. Elegant, streamlined and with a few complications (most notably a moon phase), they’re easily recognisable as Frederique Constant watches for more than the name on the dial. The same goes for their next big release, a watch that’s still a mainstay of their collection: the 1994 Heart Beat.
Defined by a dial-side opening to allow a glimpse of the balance spring underneath, the Heart Beat helped illustrate what fine watchmaking was all about. Unfortunately, Frederique Constant’s relative inexperience came into play here: they didn’t patent the technique. If you ever wondered why there are so many open-heart timepieces, now you know. Still, the brand continued to produce accessible watches, well-finished and using stock movements to keep costs down. That was until the brand hit its biggest milestone on its 10th anniversary in 2004.
Most watchmakers are more likely to design timepieces rather than build them from scratch, especially the movements. There’s a little disingenuity there, a double standard that evidently didn’t sit well with Frederique Constant. So, after a decade of producing watches, it used its birthday as the perfect opportunity to become a true watchmaker with the in-house FC-910.
The importance of the FC-910 calibre to the brand can’t be understated. It made them a complete oddity, an independent, accessible watchmaker that nonetheless had the design and manufacturing skills to bring everything in-house. At the time it was an unheard of combination and even these days it’s seriously impressive.
Of course, bringing everything in-house requires a bit more space than just case assembly, and so Frederique Constant joined the big leagues in 2006 by opening a shiny new, state-of-the-art manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates. To put that into context, they’re down the road from Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Harry Winston, not a bad group to rub bricks-and-mortar shoulders with.
As if to hammer home its unique set of watchmaking skills, back in 2008 Frederique Constant also produced one of the world’s most accessible Swiss tourbillons in the FC-980 calibre, which also happened to be the world’s first calibre of its type with a silicon escapement. It was just the start of course, and over the last 15-odd years, Frederique Constant has produced around 30 different in-house movements.
While the brand’s independence is no longer a thing – they’re now part of Citizen Group, sitting alongside a superb roster of like-minded brands – that emphasis on affordable Swiss watchmaking, backed by in-house mechanics, is still very much defining Frederique Constant’s approach. Indeed, to celebrate its 35th anniversary, it caught lightning in a bottle and released a gorgeous new version of its tourbillon: the Classic Tourbillon Manufacture.
An incredibly handsome, distinctly classical watch, the Classic Tourbillon Manufacture is in many ways the culmination of three and a half decades of experience. A delicately sized dress watch with an open heart (which as we’ve already spoken about, is a Frederique Constant signature), manufacture movement and the kind of classical good looks you’d expect from a Swiss maison with a far longer heritage, we adored it when we reviewed it back in June (which you can read here). Best of all though, it’s accessible. Not impulse-buy, genuinely inexpensive accessible (after all, that’s what Citizen do), but for £12,750, this level of watchmaking is a staggering rarity.
Thirty-five years is a blink of an eye compared to some watch manufactures – including those sharing the air of Plan-les-Ouates – but for Frederique Constant it’s been long enough to build a brand, build a movement, build a manufacture and build its own unique approach to Swiss watchmaking. God only knows what it can do by the grand old age of 70.
More details at Frederique Constant.