A Look At The French Watches Beating With A Swiss Heart

A Look At The French Watches Beating With A Swiss Heart

As the mystique of French watch design gains ground with enthusiasts, the creative minds behind these inspired timepieces are turning to Swiss calibres to guarantee reliability and watchmaking craftsmanship.

By Frédéric Brun

The concept of the "appellation d’origine contrôlée" is becoming increasingly important. Translating to “controlled designation of origin,” consumers are demanding traceability from industries as familiar with the concept as food to unexpected ones like healthcare. The watchmaking industry is certainly not untouched by this evermore widespread concept.

Indeed, since the 17th century, the very mention of the city of Geneva engraved on a movement's baseplate quickly became the go-to sign of quality assurance for clients, and the method of identifying counterfeits.

Labels became a necessity, especially the "Swiss Made" label. But what about on the other side of the border, in the French Jura, a watchmaking territory seemingly abandoned by the top mechanical craftsmen? Apart from the splendid Royal Calibre by Pequignet, there are virtually no quality French movements in existence.

The French Maison could easily adopt an innovative supply-side policy by motorizing other national brands. It's a situation worth watching. It will be interesting to see what happens when French watchmaking eyes its resurgence.

Going Back to the Beginning

Undergoing a “revival” for some years now, French watchmaking is still somewhat struggling. Sadly, it is due to this so-called "revival" being more of a facelift. Both young and old brands are dealing in smoke and mirrors tactics by taking Chinese parts or movements, "assembling" them in France, and proclaiming them, amid a frenzy of publicity and distracting talk of multicultural cosmopolitan collaboration, to be "Made in France."

Of course, the brands are not lying, at least, not technically. On its face, it is all totally legitimate since the labeling is based on "the place of last substantial change," like the country where the product's most recent transformation took place.

There are, luckily, some notable Maisons, driven by innovative designers, who decided to strategically focus on the benefits inherent in a timepiece borne of Franco-Swiss horological expertise.

Bell & Ross: A Shining Example

One Maison playing this particular card, proclaiming its dual nature in no uncertain terms, is Bell & Ross.

The story of Bell & Ross began in 1992 when Bruno "Bell" Belamich and Carlos "Ross" Rosillo relied on German company Sinn and its reputation for sturdiness to develop professional-quality watches designed for use in extreme conditions. Soon, elite armed forces units and experts in perilous conditions focused their attention on the young French brand. Since 2002, the La Chaux-de-Fonds site has been dedicated to the production of calibres, including self-winding movements and tourbillons.

Bell & Ross is a textbook example of the successful alliance between French creativity and Swiss watchmaking craftsmanship and set a precedent followed by many dynamic Maisons.

Reservoir: A Unique Vessel for a Triple Complication

Possessing a staggering amount of creativity, the trio of entrepreneurs heading up Reservoir (François Moreau, François-Marie Neycensas, and François Nakkachdji) has been whetting the appetite of one-of-a-kind watch enthusiasts for several seasons, taking their imaginations to new heights with a series of collections appealing to their individual passions (classic cars and automobile racing, aviation, and underwater exploration).

Drawing on the design cues and aesthetics of vintage dials, sub-dials, and counters, Reservoir's creations offer single-hand watches with a retrograde minute, hour window, and special power reserve indication employing a gauge-inspired sub-dial. The three complications are powered by a patented 124-part proprietary module made in Switzerland and grafted onto the reliable self-winding calibre ETA 2824-2.

Ushering in a new stage in its development, the French brand has just unveiled a limited edition skeletonized model, the Reservoir GT Tour Squelette, which brings the Swiss movement into plain view.

Trilobe: A New Angle on Time's Passage

The lot offered by Trilobe was one of the revelations of the 2019 Only Watch auction. Still relatively unknown, the young French brand Trilobe chose the Only Watch auction to present a spectacular unique piece from its "Les Matinaux" collection. It was a surprisingly mature move for a brand launched as recently as 2018.

Featuring sub-dials for hours, minutes, and seconds displayed using rotating rings of different diameters, the Trilobe watch both enchants and surprises.

The second collection, dubbed "Les Matinaux” Secret, allows users to personalize the dial with a representation of the night sky as visible from the date and location of their choice. A keen scholar and designer of this unusual watch, Gautier Massoneau delved deep into a study of the philosophy of time through the works of the French poet René Char.

His dream was to invent a revolutionary new time-telling system, and the fulfillment of that dream was made possible thanks to the extraordinary work of Jean-François Mojon. The famed creator of complications developed the patented X-Centric module by building substantially on the ETA 2892 automatic movement.

Michel Herbelin: The Measure of Quality

The Herbelin family, from the village of Charquemont in the Haut-Doubs region of eastern France, has handed down its love of expert craftsmanship from one generation to the next. A leading player in the area, the Michel Herbelin brand offers a variety of collections, always in tune with the spirit of the times.

With a life-long passion for the maritime world, the brand brought us its nautically inclined Newport range, which became the preferred choice of yachtsmen for several decades.

Perfectly adept at combining fashion trends, the French watchmaking workshop developed the elegant and noteworthy Inspiration 1947 collection, powered by the manual winding Sellita 11 1/2 SW216-1, a Swiss mechanical movement. One is currently owned by the President of France.

Fréret-Roy 1818: A Tribute to Individualism

Michel Fréret-Roy grew up with watchmaking in his blood. In 1997, the budding entrepreneur gave up his established career path to devote himself to traditional watchmaking. Although it was not so much a new adventure, as a return to his roots as a direct descendant of watchmaker Abraham-Henri Roy.

Originally from Couvet in the Canton of Neuchâtel, the young and innovative Abraham-Henri Roy left Switzerland in 1802 to settle in France before founding his own watchmaking workshop in 1818 in Saint Austreberthe, near Rouen.

Michel Fréret-Roy also resurrected the illustrious family name by producing a very limited series of high-end watches under the brand name Fréret-Roy 1818. They were unique watch designs fitted with Swiss movements. And operating out of the Montres & Merveilles store he opened in 2005, Michel Fréret-Roy is a determined ambassador for creative independent watchmaking.

One of its recent creations, the Cœur Ouvert Nouvelle Vague V2, is powered by the Unitas 6498 hand-wound mechanical movement. This movement is a descendent of the movements that established the manufacture's solid reputation for reliability.

(Watchonista photography by Pierre Vogel)

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