rench watchmaking was born in 13th-century Paris before putting down roots in the French-Swiss Jura region. Nowadays, French watches are known for their high quality and creative independence. In 2020, UNESCO granted worldwide recognition to French and Swiss craftsmanship in mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics by adding them to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Divers’ watches, the quintessential tool watch, were primarily developed in the 1930s in response to military requirements. Watchmakers faced considerable challenges in ensuring their mechanical watches were waterproof, corrosion-resistant and able to withstand underwater pressure. Distinctive features emerged, such as the use of large cases and highly legible dials, most commonly featuring a dark background and light hands.
The iconic rotating bezel was developed in the 1950s to measure time spent underwater, thus improving the safety of recreational diving. The necessary attributes of divers’ watches were officially specified in the 1980s by the ISO 6425 international standard. The requirements include, for instance, water resistance to a depth of 100 metres, visibility at 25 cm in total darkness, resistance to temperature changes, a measuring system to indicate diving time, and a strap offering traction strength equivalent to twenty kilos.
MILITARY AND PROFESSIONAL COLLABORATIONS
Collaborative projects between military organisations and their suppliers, including watchmakers, are typically kept confidential. One notable exception is the JB200 by Marseille-based Jacques Bianchi, which was supplied to the French navy in the 1980s. Today, this timepiece is highly sought after and occasionally reissued. The Ralf Tech brand has built its reputation by supplying various special forces units, including the French navy’s Commandos Hubert. Its WRX Electric Petrodive – designed for the eponymous underwater contractor – remains watertight to a depth of 1,000 metres. MAT Watches specialises in military watches, particularly for the French Foreign Legion and the GIGN special forces. It created its Compressor model in the colours of France’s sea rescue organisation, SNSM.
- Jacques Bianchi JB200
- Ralf Tech Petrodive
- MAT Watches SNSM Edition
FRENCH MOVEMENTS AND CONSTRUCTION
Pequignet stands out as a unique example: this French high-watchmaking brand designs and builds its own movements in-house, including the “Calibre Royal” of the Pequignet Royale Extrême 300 – highly reliable with its 88-hour power reserve. Ralf Tech utilises a Pequignet automatic mechanical movement for “The Beast”, which is watertight to a depth of 4,000 metres. Another entirely French movement is the recent automatic France Ébauches, which Akrone has earmarked for its C-02 Heritage collection, a homage to the divers’ watches of the 1950s, set for release in late 2023. The solid base models of the C-02 collection also meet the requirements of the ISO 6425 standard. Lastly, Humbert-Droz has equipped its HD9 Atlantic with the G100 movement – produced in Switzerland by its partner La Joux-Perret – but fully assembled by watchmakers in the company’s family-run workshop in Besançon, France.
- Pequignet Royale Extrême 300
- Akrone C-02 Heritage 164 Brasses
- Humbert-Droz HD9 Atlantique
In their quest for watertight performance, watchmakers successfully explored the possibilities offered by cushion-shaped cases. Herbelin, a watchmaking house founded in the French Jura region in 1947 and still independent, chose this curved case form for its Newport Diver Automatic, watertight to 300 metres. Its design reflects fashionable models produced by the company in the 1970s. Similarly, Briston opted for a cambered square for its Clubmaster Diver Pro collection, available in brushed or polished steel, or in a highly original black or brown acetate.
- Herbelin Newport Diver Automatic
- Briston Clubmaster Diver Pro
AN INTERNAL BEZEL TO MEASURE TIME
To measure time spent underwater, two “schools” employ different methods: the external bezel and the less common internal bezel. This construction offers the crucial component additional protection by preventing accidental impacts and handling. All adjustments are made using the second crown. On the Baltic Aquascaphe Dual-Crown, watertight to 200 metres, the (non-screwed) crown positioned at 2 o’clock can be used to make adjustments, even underwater. Lip made the same choice for its Nautic-Ocean – worn by renowned sailors like Eric Tabarly and the teams of Commander Jacques Cousteau. The recent 7th Continent version features a strap made from recycled plastic collected from the Mediterranean.
- Baltic Aquascaphe Dual-Crown
- Lip Nautic-Ocean
The information displayed by dive watches must be visible in the deepest, darkest depths. To achieve this, watchmakers use materials that store light and release it in darkness, with blue light luminescence being the most efficient. Morteau-based Yema coated the entire dial of its Yema Superman Maxi Dial Full Lume – which also features the YEMA2000 in-house movement – with the top-performing Super-LumiNova BGW9 Grade A coating. The pressure gauge, an essential instrument for diving, inspired Reservoir to create the daring design of the Hydrosphere Air Gauge. Its dial is fully lit in darkness, and a helium valve makes its case exceptionally technical.
- Yema Superman Maxi Dial Full Lume
- Reservoir Hydrosphère Air Gauge