At one point, French watchmaking was good enough for Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette. As prominent as these two figures in history are the French innovations of days past relevant in modern horology.
So, why does the French legacy go almost unmentioned in contemporary times?
In this guide, we will be tracing back to the likes of Abraham Louis-Breguet and Edmond Jaeger to understand what happened. Subsequently, we discuss the top French watch brands that survived and are still kickin’ today. Furthermore, we also included some younger, bolder players looking to make their own in the global watch industry.
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Top French Watch Brands
If you want to skip directly to any of these brands, use the links above. Conversely, if you’d like to read about the legacy of watchmaking in France, continue scrolling through.
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Watchmaking History in France
The first mechanical watches are reported to have popped up around the same time, 1492 A.D., in Italy, Germany, and France. Given this, it should come as no surprise that Switzerland, geographically surrounded by all three, wears the horological crown.
Yet this wasn’t always the case. By the 18th century, Paris had become a timepiece hub. Moreover, it served as the residence of master watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine. Though his name is less known than that of his apprentice, Abraham Louis-Breguet, Lépine devised a new way of structuring watch movements that would change history.
Lépine’s flat movement architecture allowed for clock movements to significantly decrease in size, and paved the way for pocketwatches and eventually wristwatches to come into view.
Louis-Breguet would carry on his teacher’s inventive legacy. In fact, Abraham Louis-Breguet advanced the field of horology more so than any other watchmaker before or since. Also accompanying Breguet in the Paris workshop was Ferdinand Berthoud, a Swiss watchmaker renowned for producing the most accurate marine chronometers of the time.
Looking back, the potential for Abraham Louis-Breguet and the French watchmaking industry seems unlimited. However, the modern landscape is much different – so what happened?
Indeed, Breguet’s luxurious timepieces earned him an important clientele, and he did well for himself. But as a whole, France lagged behind the industrialization movement. When others embraced the future, mass production of timepieces, the French dug in their heels.
France lags behind in the global watch race
America, Switzerland, Germany, and even Russia raced ahead with reliable, interchangeable, and cheap timepieces. Seeing opportunity elsewhere, French watchmaker Edmond Jaeger in Paris resulted to importing Swiss watch movements and selling them to the French brands like Cartier.
This kind of globalization of industry would further distance French watchmakers from the front of the pack, and eventually sunset their individual legacy almost completely. Nowadays, the French influence is almost completely intertwined with the Swiss tradition, so much so that it’s almost impossible to pick them apart.
There remains possibility here for a rebirth, though. If nothing else, watches serve as an ideal medium for the expression of culture through art. Next up, we take you through our favorite French watch brands, all of which employ timepieces to bring through their French identity.
Best French Watch Brands
Cartier‘s roots trace back to the middle of the 19th century, when the first Cartier shop was opened in Paris by Louis-Francois Cartier. It would be Louis-Francois’ grandsons Louis, Pierre, and Jacques who would drive Cartier towards global recognition from their Paris, New York, and London flagships.
Throughout its centuries-long existence, Cartier would produce countless designs that would go down in history. Naturally, being a part of horological history means numerous re-editions, a tradition unbroken by Cartier.
1911 would see the launch of the eternal icon, the Santos de Cartier wristwatch. Originally designed at the request of Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont, this wristwatch would quickly become popular with regular Cartier customers.
Soon after, in 1919, the Tank was released. It goes without saying that the Tank has been one of the most influential Cartier watches ever. Worn by innumerable celebrities throughout time, it can be considered the most recognizable Cartier watches of all time.
Similar to Bvlgari, Cartier’s strategy of retailing jewelry and wristwatches simultaneously has seen the influence of one vertical over the other. Perhaps this is most evident in the fact that the Parisian watch brand never produced “tool” or functionality-oriented models until more recent times.
In addition to their success in the watch industry, Cartier has developed a reputation as “the jeweller of kings and kings of jewellers” and not by sheer luck. Notably, their high-quality and opulent jewelry creations of the early 20th century earned them numerous royal warrants, beginning with King Edward VII in 1902 and followed by the equals of Portugal and Spain, among others.
The Breguet watch brand was established in the late 18th century in Paris by Abraham Louis-Breguet himself. Almost since inception, Breguet was providing timepieces for European royalty.
The first self-winding watch is attributed to the brand, as is the invention of the perpetually romantic tourbillon complication. Similarly important in modern horology are the Breguet overcoil, the para-chute shock protection system, and the gong spring.
In addition to the myriad of technical innovations by Abrahm Louis-Breguet, the Breguet brand would remain inventive and relevant even after his death, albeit in the hands of the Englishman Edward Brown.
From 1870 until around 1970, the Brown family would keep the Breguet brand alive and well. During this time, the staple models of today would first be encountered. Among these, of course, are the Marine and Type XX Breguet models.
Not ones to discontinue Abraham’s legacy, Breguet continued introducing technological innovations after the 1999 acquisition by the Swatch Group. 2006 saw them announce the production of escapement wheel and levers in silicon. Likewise, 2010 brought the unveiling of the magnetic balance wheel pivot.
In the modern day, Breguet watches are characterized by a mix of tradition with contemporary watchmaking technology. Even those unaware of the brand’s history can appreciate the detail and high-level of construction present in every one of the French brand’s timepieces.
Bell & Ross
Since getting their start in 1992, Bell & Ross founders Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo have been designing watches around 4 core principles: Legibility, Functionality, Reliability, and Precision.
With an extensive line of sports models styled as aviation instrumentation, it’s easy to see that they’ve accomplished this objective. Moreover, the aggressive price point has ensured the success of their watches inside retailers as well.
Bell & Ross aims to serve professionals with their timepieces. Consequently, they’re not ones to shy away from reaching out to experts for input. An integral part of their creative process involves consulting with professional designers and engineers, along with master watchmakers, to ensure the functional value of each watch.
In the recent years, B&R have further pushed their boundaries into more exotic materials and sophisticated complications. As an example, we have the BR-X1 Skeleton Tourbillon Sapphire Black.
This BR-X1 has implemented both of the aforementioned characteristics, in effect making for a stunning wristwatch.
Van Cleef and Arpels Watches
Van Cleef and Arpels is based out Place Vendôme in Paris, the city where they first opened in 1896. Since then, the name has become synonymous with extravagant jewelry and timepieces of a royal pedigree.Indeed, the brand has received more recognition for their jewelry offerings than their timepieces throughout history. For instance, their expertise was requested by the Empress of Iran in 1960 in creating a crown, to which they skilfully obliged.
Yet in 1999, the brand was acquired by Richemont. Subsequently, Van Cleef and Arpels’ watch offerings would mature and expand, given that they could now implement Jaeger-LeCoultre‘s movements into their artfully decorated his & hers timepieces.
When it comes to heritage and history, these are two attributes that we may not attach to Baltic Watches. Still, the kickstarer brand’s objective of celebrating traditional French watchmaking is an honorable one, and their attractive timepieces help them even more.
Implementing vintage styling and basic complications in their models, Baltic has been able to keep their watches significantly below the $1000 mark. Unsurprisingly, this has helped their name foster a growing following in the online watch community.
Though their movements are imported Miyotas, the brand makes the effort to assemble their timepieces completely in Besançon. Obviously not a financial decision, this fact helps add some credibility to the fledgling watch brand, and will likely see them searching nationally for movements if cost eventually permits it.
Born in Besançon, Emmanuel Dietrich spent decades before going off on his own in 2009. Thereafter, Dietrich Watches has been creating watches that are unlike any other timepiece out there.
The rounded edges of their hexagonal cases are the exact opposite of the sharp angles encountered in others. Their multi-layered open dials bring a new meaning to the phrase “dial depth”. These Dietrich timepieces actually look like something off an alien-ship.
And yet it works. While unusual at first glance, the designs more intricate and appealing as you get to know them. Someone has to be willing to push the boundaries of design for progress to be made, and Dietrich has chosen to lead in this regard.
Most recently, they’ve chosen to do this with the Dietrich Perception, a $24,000 CHF boasting a relative second and wandering 24 hours complications.
A few of the brands featured on our list may be a bit controversial – what do you think? Let us know in the comments if you disagree with any of our picks. Or use the links below to jump to our other articles
- Bespoke Unit’s Top American Watch Brands
- Cartier Brand Page
- YouTube Watch Videos & Reviews
- Bespoke Unit Watches Homepage
"The history of France and watchmaking are intricately intertwined. I am excited to see how the brands highlighted here will continue to write the horological history books."Rating: 5.0★★★★★