Watch enthusiasts are generally aware of but a handful of countries other than Switzerland that have prominently asserted their national pride in the modern watchmaking landscape. German and Japanese watches are important and well-established, for example, and although British and American watches get some press, most remain small-scale operations.
If you stop to think about it, however, France seems well-positioned to have an impact on the world of modern watchmaking for a number of reasons. The country is a significant luxury watch market and has the economic and creative resources, background, and passion to contribute meaningfully to the industry. French watches, after all, were once a significant part of the pre-Quartz-Crisis watch industry.
While many boutique French watch companies remain relatively obscure outside of France, there are actually a number of them doing interesting things. Of course, some very significant watch brands are based in France, including Breguet, Cartier, and Bell & Ross. Further, famed fashion houses such as Hermès and Chanel also have one foot firmly in the world of legitimate, high-end watchmaking. (Van Cleef & Arpels also fits somewhere in the mix.) French watches are able to harness the country’s respected fashion and design strengths, but the country also has horological history to draw upon.
The area of Besançon borders the Swiss watchmaking region of La Chaux-de-Fonds and was once an important center of French watchmaking. It is unsurprisingly where a number of today’s modern French brands are based, many of which claim regional heritage but also benefit from the proximity to Switzerland’s resources — the very reason the government deliberately created the French watch industry there in the late 18th century.
The majority of just about all watches made today use parts from multiple countries, and the origin or nationality of any watch is in fact far from clear-cut. The brands on this list identify themselves as French and represent everything from companies with proudly in-house movements to those sourcing parts from Switzerland and East Asia, and various approaches in between. French watches don’t necessarily exhibit a certain set of national traits (like, say, many German watches often do), but range from rugged military watches to those with more of an artistic focus — and in that way, they represent the modern, diverse country exceedingly well.
Pequignet is notable for offering a pretty good value considering their in-house movements, multiple complications, and a unique design sense. Based just across the border from the epicenter of Swiss watchmaking in the French town of Morteau (in the Besançon region), the brand has been producing its own in-house movements since 2011, called the Calibre Royale. The movements boast a host of features but are designed to be thin by incorporating various complications into the mainplate. When you dig a little deeper, the movements have a lot of very thoughtful engineering details that watch lovers should appreciate. This is a serious brand worth checking out whether or not you are specifically interested in their French origin.
Dodane is a brand with some history, particularly known for its pilot watch, the Type 21 flyback chronograph developed for the French Ministry of Defense in the 1950s. Based in Besançon, the brand today makes the Type 21 as a re-issue/homage, a newer Type 23 designed for the French Air Force, as well as actual on-board chronograph instruments to be mounted in aircraft. Their chronograph watches are generally fitted with Swiss Dubois Depraz automatic movements. This is a French brand quietly specializing more or less in one kind of military-focused watch, and that gives Dodane a certain legitimacy that’s hard to beat. Did we mention that the watches are quite attractive and available to civilians as well?
ZRC is another French company with a long history of collaboration with the French military that essentially makes one kind of timepiece, which in this case is a dive watch. Based on a piece made for the French navy in the 1960s, the unique design features a 6 o’clock crown (to avoid damage and snagging during underwater operations) and an angular case shape along with other design features that make it stand out in the wider world of dive watches.
Fugue is a young and forward-thinking French watch company — there are no heritage stories or vintage styles here. Launched in 2017, the brand boasts a “modular” concept whereby the cases, dials, and straps can be easily swapped by users themselves. Fortunately, this mix-and-match concept is backed up by a solid and attractive design and well-executed details. While the company and founders are French, the movements, components, and assembly are Swiss.
Based in Morteau, Yema also has a rich history, which it has leveraged by introducing heritage models like the Yachtingraf and the affordable Superman dive watch. Yema was once a significant producer of French watches, and many of their modern watches offer strong value. Yema’s lineup includes a broad range of watches, movements, and price points.
Baltic’s production is based in Besançon, and it specializes in simple but satisfying modern watches done in vintage styles. We are on record at Gear Patrol as being highly enthusiastic about what the brand is doing. Baltic watches are equipped with Chinese and Japanese movements and assembled in France. This is a brand that offers solid values and unbeatable vintage styles.
This is probably the watch you should buy as a souvenir on your next trip to Paris. The brand makes clothing, accessories, and home goods, but also simple, attractive watches with a field/military look and a few minor stylistic variations for choice. The Merci watches are available with quartz or manually-wound Swiss mechanical movements and are made with high-quality materials. Best of all, they’re quite reasonably priced and have that certain design elegance that the French tend to do so well.