What comes to mind when you think of France? Perhaps it’s rolling vineyards, the warm Mediterranean coastline, glorious cheeses, cities of culture, alpine ski resorts? Any of these would be justifiable answers but I think one of the areas in which France always has been and continues to be a world leader is luxury textiles. Whether that be catwalk fashion, Parisian boutiques or artisanal workshops. We’re focussing in on the latter by taking a closer look at the history of leather and watch strap specialists Maison Jean Rousseau.
Today Jean Rousseau has a reputation for being one of the foremost luxury watch strap makers in the entire industry. They work with the most prestigious materials, have one of the most diverse and vibrant ranges available and even supply their leather to other prestige brands because the quality is so high. However, a reputation like this isn’t built over night so how did they reach this point?
The first piece in the jigsaw is actually geography. Manufacture Jean Rousseau has its headquarters in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of France near the city of Besançon. A quick search on google maps will show you why this is significant: it’s about as close to the Swiss French border as it’s possible to be without actually being in Neuchatel. In short, Besançon is where Swiss engineering meets French artistry. And Jean Rousseau is on the front line absorbing ideas, information and techniques from all sides. For a textile brand in the watch space, there is no better location on Earth.
Location is just one part of the puzzle though and another key factor to consider is the state of the watch industry when Jean Rousseau (named after its founder) was founded back in 1954. Europe at the time was still reeling from the biggest war in history less than a decade before and the watch industry was in an interesting state of flux. Brands in the east were undergoing nationalisation while western brands had been bombed out of existence. But in the wake of that destruction there was now time for regrowth and after the austerity of war, people wanted fun and they wanted luxury items like watches. And Jean Rousseau was well placed to cater for this new demand.
Unfortunately, and this is an entirely different story that we don’t have time to cover here, the proliferation of accessible watches (especially quartz watches) in the 70s led to a crisis in the watch industry. In their history, Jean Rousseau had, up to that point, been specialising in low-mid range straps and the huge degree of competition in that sector meant that by the late 90s, the company (which had undergone several name changes by this point and was currently called COBRA) was on the edge of collapse, declaring bankruptcy in 1999.
It was at this point that the current custodians of the brand stepped in, the Bordier family. Their goal was to preserve the wealth of knowledge and traditional techniques that the company had amassed in close to 50 years of operation while finding new ways to make it a successful business. That’s where the shift from producing mid-range straps to creating stunning works of bespoke luxury happened. It also coincided with expanding the scope of the brand nationally and internationally, opening the first Atelier Jean Rousseau in Paris in 2001 before seeking to establish themselves in the UK, America and even further afield.
The new luxury direction meant the Maison took its experience in traditional leather and applied it to fresh materials and modern concepts. Taking sustainably sourced exotic skins that comply with the highest regulations from CITES and REACH and reimagining how they could be used in watch straps. Think electric blue alligator, water resistant Atlantis straps or even their adventure ready Nubuck. At the same time acknowledging that changing perceptions on the industry has led to a boom in vegan alternatives, in which Jean Rousseau is an industry leader, having recently launched their new Seaqual denim straps.
If there’s one thing above all others that Maison Jean Rousseau have learned in their near 70 year history it’s that while fashions and industries may change, what’s important through it all is the human element. Whether that be the relationship between customer and artisan or the willingness to invest in top craftspeople who spend decades perfecting their work, it’s the people who matter.
It all comes back to the brand’s name. At their lowest point they were COBRA and at their highest point they are Jean Rousseau. They’ve chosen to forego a marketable phrase in favour of emphasising the importance of an individual, a craftsman who worked with his hands in the east of France who wanted to make the best watch straps in the world – while the people in charge might be different, that dream is very much the same.
More details at Jean Rousseau.