quiet town in France’s Haut-Doubs region, virtually within sight of Switzerland and its thriving watchmaking valleys, Morteau came to horology in the mid-1700s under the établissage system. Watch production became gradually more industrialised up to the late 1800s with the opening of factories turning out movement blanks and finished watch. But then it all but vanished, under the pressure of the quartz crisis, compounded by the gradual decline of France’s watch industry.
In and around Morteau, only a dozen or so companies remain (among them notably Pequignet), most of which manufacture or assemble parts for the Swiss watch industry. This horological tropism remains strong nonetheless: each day, almost two-thirds of the local population crosses the border into Switzerland to work in the neighbouring country’s manufactures. Watchmaking is and always has been the region’s lifeblood, an integral part of its deepest identity and a vital contributor to the prosperity of many of its inhabitants.
Of France’s five écoles d’horlogerie or watchmaking schools, in Paris, Bordeaux, Rennes, Marseille-Nice and Morteau, the programme at Lycée Edgar Faure stands apart not only for the school’s location, in a region that has such a strong connection with the industry, or because of its proximity with Switzerland – where 80% of its students will ultimately work – but also in the light of other crucial factors.
As Florence Burger, the school’s highly persuasive principal, explains, “the region’s ties to the industry and the vicinity of Swiss and French watch companies are only part of it. The expertise of our teaching staff counts for a lot. They are experienced, skilled professionals who believe knowledge should be passed down. We strive to maintain the highest standard of excellence. This implies substantial investments, in people as well as in our impressive fleet of machinery which, as you’ll see, is almost on a par with that of a complete manufacture.”
Horology, jewellery, microtechnology and machining side by side
There is another important reason why the programme at Morteau is so attractive. Of the lycée’s current 1,300 students, 200 are enrolled in watchmaking, 200 study jewellery and – critically – 200 are training in microtechnology and machining. Together, these specialisms cover virtually every one of the skills required to understand and learn the full range of competencies a watchmaker must have. Not forgetting that all students follow a general academic programme as well. A typical day can include classes in art, philosophy and history alongside 3D modelling and movement construction.
“Today’s jobs require cross-disciplinarity, hence we provide technical, artistic and general academic teaching that doesn’t pigeonhole students but instead encourages essential crossovers between different practices and subjects. Our students leave here with a thirst for knowledge and lifelong learning. Watchmaking is a vast discipline,” Florence Burger insists.
A broad outlook
It’s a sentiment echoed by David Grandvuillemin, assistant director for the school’s professional and technical programmes. “We encourage the different classes to cooperate and work together. We want the watchmaking students to go see their colleagues in machining and ask them to make parts which they will then assemble. Or take the watch they’re working on to a jewellery student for gem-setting.”
The region’s past and its horological “DNA” bring an additional dimension to teaching at the school. Traditional hand tools, the kind the students’ grandfathers would have kept on their workbenches, sit alongside the latest CNC machines, laser machines and a ceramic kiln. The mathematical mysteries of construction unfold in three dimensions on a computer screen, across from a young man hand-chamfering a bridge. Next door, in the machining workshop, students are using Tornos lathes, those indefatigable masterworks of twentieth-century precision mechanics.
It’s a word we didn’t hear during our visit but the strength of the Morteau model probably lies with its humanism: before learning how, the first question has to be why. Why learn what we are learning?
Their own watch
In their final year, after passing their baccalaureate, students who have opted for the full seven-year curriculum are given the ambitious assignment to imagine, design, manufacture and build from scratch their own complication watch.
“It broadens their horizons and changes their attitude towards work,” says Thierry Ducret, a watchmaker and Meilleur Ouvrier de France who has been teaching at the school for more than two decades. “They’re putting themselves on the line but it also means they can express themselves creatively with absolute freedom.” The only limitation is the theme, which is the same for everyone, for example a chiming watch, a calendar watch or automatic winding.
- Victor Monin
- Ann Noir
- Théo Levaltier
- Robin Lonchampt
- Eve Albanesi
- Alexandre Hazemann
“No-one asks an engineering student to build a rocket or a locomotive, and here we are asking our students to make a watch!” smiles Florence Burger. “It’s not something you see everywhere. In practical terms, a watch they designed and built themselves is the best calling card a new graduate can have. It can open doors just about anywhere.”
“You never stop learning”
The results speak for themselves. It’s no coincidence that most of the promising young watchmakers we interviewed for these pages studied in Morteau. The cross-disciplinary approach appears suited to a generation of digital natives who also appreciate traditional craftsmanship (as witnessed by their love of vintage), keep an eye on their socials and crave independence. This wish to go it alone – almost unthinkable a few dozen years ago, outside of a handful of pioneers who are held up as examples by today’s aspiring young watchmakers (Vianney Halter is frequently mentioned) – is now attainable thanks to the evolution of the market and collecting, where the trend is now for beautifully finished, handcrafted complication watches, produced in very small quantities.
This is also a generation bonded by social media, and this too encourages dreams of independence as it enables these young watchmakers to compare experiences, share thoughts and ideas, and support each other. Not forgetting that, in this instantaneous age, it has become just as easy (if not easier) for an independent watchmaker to find customers on the other side of the world as to sell to someone a couple of streets away.
In addition to the talent and dedication of the school’s teaching staff, and the quality of its equipment, there is also the question of students’ individual motivation. And there is no doubting that they are extremely motivated.
”I have to make them go home. It’s the end of the school day and they’re still at their benches, working,” says Thierry Ducret. “They arrive early or want to come in at weekends or during the holidays, but there are safety rules because of the machines. Sometimes we have to curb their enthusiasm.”
With its employment prospects and also – most of all – creative potential, watchmaking attracts many young men… and more and more young women. There are almost as many girls as boys in the current first-year intake, which is a notable development for what has always been a male-dominated profession.
A range of qualifications
Lycée Edgar Faure is a state school, funded mainly by the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, the French State and local authorities. It maintains regular partnerships with independent watchmakers and big-name brands. The watchmaking programme prepares students for a range of qualifications, from the basic Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) to the prestigious Diplôme National des Métiers d’Art et du Design (DNMADE) and, between the two, the Brevet de Technicien Supérieur en Horlogerie (BTS) and the Brevet des Métiers d’Art (BMA). A student’s progress through the different levels can take up to seven years and includes internships with “virtually all the major watch groups”.
The DNMADE, which is the most coveted diploma, takes up the final three years. During the first year, the young watchmaker makes a case for the movement of their choice, from conception to design to construction. There are no specifications and all levels of difficulty are accepted. Second-year requirements are more precise, when students will be asked to work on the escapement, power reserve or any complication. In the third and final year, they must design and manufacture their own watch, in its entirety and on a theme in relation with their year’s patron, which can be an individual or a company. Two recent examples are a chiming mechanism (the patron was movement-maker La Joux-Perret) and automatic winding (with Olivier Mory as patron). Needless to say, students are expected to work to the highest standard of excellence.
We can only applaud the quality of teaching at Morteau and admire the enthusiasm and determination of the young men and women taking their first steps in their chosen career. Lycée Edgard Faure is, without doubt, a vibrant breeding ground for a promising new wave of watchmakers.