Watchmaking in France

Besançon: the next generation


May 2017

Besançon: the next generation

In a watchmaking region that has struggled since the 1990s and been severely affected by the crisis currently gripping its Swiss neighbour, several new brands have recently emerged, such as Utinam, Lornet, Humbert-Droz, and Phenomen.


he news of the compulsory liquidation of Pequignet, a cherished symbol of the region, has sent shock waves throughout the community. But the greats of yesteryear, such as Lip, Dodane, Michel Herbelin, and Saint Honoré are also attempting to reinvent themselves.

Some, like Philippe Lebru of Utinam, are seeking to make their energy infectious. To this end, the designer’s boutique is also home to other watchmakers who share his revolutionary ambitions. In particular, they aim to return the region of Franche- Comté to the forefront of innovation and style. A pipe dream?

The flashy red ‘Pop Up' clock imagined by Philippe Lebru of Utinam, revisiting an old symbol of Franche-Comté.
The flashy red ‘Pop Up’ clock imagined by Philippe Lebru of Utinam, revisiting an old symbol of Franche-Comté.

The next generation

‘Utinam ’ is Besançon’s Latin motto. It means ‘if only’, and expresses a fervent wish. Philippe Lebru chose the word to name his ultra-contemporary clock brand, 100% manufactured in Franche-Comté. In fact, it’s a fitting name, as behind his strong personality, impeccable style and thick beard is a region that wants to wake up and not just be used as a talent pool for the watchmaking industry of neighbouring Switzerland, or as a specialist in after-sales service. All the more so as numerous watchmakers in the Franche-Comté region have paid the price for the slowdown across the border. Here, it’s a question of genuine creativity.

Other big names in the region are also trying to return to their former glory, including some featured in the Utinam boutique, located opposite the Museum of Time in the centre of Besançon – such as Dodane and Lip, a symbol which has returned its assembly process to Besançon after years of Chinese production. Philippe Lebru doesn’t have their heritage, but has chosen to build on a regional symbol to offer an updated ‘retro-futurist’ version that can, unlike its older sibling, be found in the trendiest of lounges.

The designer witnessed the region’s difficulties in the 1990s, symbolised by the 1994 collapse of France Ebauches, the last major European manufacturer of watch movements outside of Switzerland. After his business studies, he gained some of his first work experience at the movement manufacturer, which he then left to start his own business, one year before its collapse. The experience has certainly left its mark.

The post-France Ebauches era

‘I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,’ stresses Philippe Lebru. ‘After leaving France Ebauches, I spent a decade designing watches for others, but I also worked in the aviation industry.’ The turning point came in 2005, when his creative agency found itself in a tough economic situation, and he was asked to design a trophy symbolising the Franche-Comté region as a prize for the four most innovative companies in the region.

It was then that he came up with the idea of reinventing the once-venerated Franche-Comté clock. His first creation, called ‘Hortence’, was impressive: brushed stainless steel, 2.2 metres tall and weighing 25 kilos, featuring an entirely suspended movement and counter weight. Elegant and stately, it was worthy of the clockmaking greats. In fact, Philippe Lebru invented and patented the self-balancing pendulum movement, which is suspended on an axis, keeping it perfectly vertically aligned. No more need for tedious adjustment to balance the movement’s position in relation to the ground. The energy stored in the mechanism is slowly released by the to-and-fro of the balance, providing a power reserve of eight days. All of the wheels and arbours are exposed and contribute to the aesthetic of the clock, which is also available as a wall clock.

The most striking of Philippe Lebru’s creations, after the romantic Hortence and cubic Lala models, is the sparkling, sixtiesstyle ‘Pop Up’ collection, which is available in a range of shades from the brightest colours to classic black and white, via shades of plum and concrete grey. The clocks cost between 3,000 and 14,000 euros, and Utinam produces between 80 and 100 each year.

Franche-Comté out to (re)conquer Japan

Philippe Lebru knows how to make the most of the region’s talent, from experienced Lip employees to the younger graduates of the Ecole d’Horlogerie de Morteau. ‘My apprentice Dylan, who I’ve been training for four years, wants to start his own watch business. It must be contagious!’ With a dozen points of sale across France, he is planning on going international. In Japan, Philippe Lebru has recently installed the largest hanging wall clock ever designed, on the front of a women’s luxury concept store in Tokyo. This monumental red, white, and stainless steel piece, named AoyAmA (‘Blue Mountain’) and hanging nine metres high, is four metres long, with a tangle of circular gears, pendulums, and wheels 2.3 metres and 1.5 metres in diameter. ‘Millions of Japanese citizens can now discover the expertise of Besançon.’

While the designer doesn’t consider himself a watchmaker in the traditional sense of the word, he wants to contribute to the watchmaking renaissance in Franche-Comté and across France. This is why his flagship store is home not only to the historical Besançon house of Dodane, with its highlyactive fifth-generation representatives Cédric and Laurent, whose chronographs are used by the French air force, but also to newcomers FOB Paris, three young Parisians whose radically avant-garde timepieces are unique in their ability to to turn into uber-trendy pocket watches.

Towards new Made in France manufacturing capabilities?

Anthony Simao, Mikael Bourgeois and Benoît Monnet, the co-founders of start-up Lornet, cooperate with a network of local suppliers.
Anthony Simao, Mikael Bourgeois and Benoît Monnet, the co-founders of start-up Lornet, cooperate with a network of local suppliers.

In autumn, the successive creation of three brands revitalised the region. First up is Lornet, which launched its first model, the LA-01, in November. The three co-founders launched their business using equity financing. ‘It’s the only watch to be developed, manufactured, and assembled in France! We source almost all of the components from the Franche-Comté region and we want to put our partners in the spotlight, as well as being transparent with our customers about where our components come from,’ explains Benoît Monnet, co-founder of Lornet.

The LA-01 by Lornet
The LA-01 by Lornet

The result? A watch Made in France priced at 5,400 euros, with a steel and aluminium barrel shape, as well as a visible mechanism stamped with the viper’s head symbol of the Besançon Observatory. Only the escapement, the barrel, and the reversers do not come from the region, where they are simply not available. Is it just a matter of time before Besançon has full manufacturing capabilities? The momentum for projects to bring about the return of Made in France movements is gathering, at Lip among others. The definitive disappearance of Pequignet, which was until now the only regional player with calibre expertise in the form of its Calibre Royal (although in a higher price range), and which still hopes to find a buyer, would leave a void. Laurent Katz, who took over the brand five years ago, spent considerable effort getting the company, founded in 1973 by Emile Pequignet , back on its feet.

Another newcomer is  Humbert-Droz, launched by the family workshops of Reparalux, a specialist in after-sales service. The brand has already designed three models, the HD1, HD2, and HD3. The Humbert-Droz family decided to move into producing finished products to celebrate its 60th anniversary in the watchmaking business. The models, with their classic design, feature automatic calibres from Swiss brand ETA but also from France Ebauches (!) and are notable for their affordable price, from 390 euros.

Last but not least from this trio of brands, hungry to restore the region’s watchmaking reputation, is Phenomen, with its avant-garde and extravagantly-styled models (see them in the Time.Keeper extraordinary watches gallery). The young brand has developed its own escapement (patent pending) in another stepping stone towards an independent watch industry in the region. The first watch designed by the four co-founders will nonetheless feature some Swiss components. The Phenomen project and first prototypes should come to life in the form of a finished model this year.

French historical brands

Michel Herbelin , the survivor

Antares by Michel Herbelin
Antares by Michel Herbelin

Michel Herbelin, founded in 1947 and with production based in France, is a rare gem: it’s the only company to have been based in Franche-Comté without interruption since it was established. It is still owned by the same family today. What’s their secret? ‘We anticipated the rise of quartz, but above all, we wanted to become a “real” brand with a strong image based around the founder,’ replies head of marketing Maxime Herbelin. ‘80% of our models are quartz, because the majority of our sales are to women.’

The two flagship models are the Newport for men and the Antarès for women. All the movements are Swiss, as Herbelin is supplied by Ronda, ETA and Sellita. The company produces between 80,000 and 90,000 pieces per year (compared with up to 300,000 in the 1960s), at an average price of between 300 and 1,000 euros. Half of its sales are within France.

Saint Honoré retreats to Switzerland

Opera by Saint-Honoré
Opera by Saint-Honoré

Unlike Herbelin, its historical neighbour in Charquemont, Saint Honoré decided to move entirely to a Swiss Made model and set up its production on the other side of the border, in La Chaux-de-Fonds. As with their neighbours, their collections are mostly for women, with prices between 400 and 2,000 francs. But there is one difference that undoubtedly explains the brand’s strategy: some 80% of its sales are outside France, where the Swiss Made label is a huge advantage in comparison.

‘We have a Parisian name but we are Swiss Made,’ emphasises Thierry Frésard, who represents the fourth generation in the family company. ‘In Charquemont, France, our historical home, we produce accessories and manage distribution for the European markets. Our best-selling model is the Opera, and our special feature is our interchangeable straps.’

Dodane : from Swiss Made to Made in France

Type 23 by Dodane
Type 23 by Dodane

Dodane, led by the sixth generation of watchmakers in the family, specialises in military and aviation watches as well as on-board chronographs for the French air force. In the company’s lifetime, it has produced up to 120,000 mechanical watches a year. Having taken a break from watchmaking between 1994 and 2001 following bankruptcy, it now produces an average of 600 per year.

Dodane released its Type 21 model in 2001. ‘At the time, the model was Swiss Made, but this didn’t really make sense to me. From 2008, we returned to a Made in France model before launching the Type 23,’ Cédric Dodane tells us. ‘Essentially, there aren’t many advantages to producing watches in France, especially if you’re looking for finance from banks, but it’s still our identity! And you can’t forget that the watch industry was French before becoming Swiss.’

‘I started from zero, from a financially ruined family that had lost its production facility. But in exchange, we gained our freedom and were no longer constrained by the need to safeguard dozens of jobs.’

Lip returns to Besançon

Nautic-Ski by Lip
Nautic-Ski by Lip

The major difference at the most famous company in the history of Besançon is that it has returned its assembly process to Besançon after years of Chinese production. Certainly, the cases are Asian and the mechanical movements are Japanese, since France has (for the time being) little to offer in these areas. To overcome the issue, Lip has started a project to resurrect a mechanical calibre that was previously in production, in collaboration with a subcontractor. ‘We are in the process of opening many points of sale, notably in Paris and the Franche-Comté region,’ explains Philippe Bérard, the new owner. Some people think that we’re moving a bit fast, with the launch of several iconic models such as the Henriette, De Gaulle, Himalaya and Nautic-Ski. It’s better to think things through a little more in the future. Overall, we have a good presence in France and significant orders from Japan.’

In 2016, Lip produced more than 30,000 watches. ‘The Henriette model in particular is a pleasant surprise. With its nostalgic name, it’s popular with hipsters. Fashionable young people are paradoxically enthusiastic about Lip’s collections. We rely a lot on nostalgia, but we have to move on.’


LE PAYS DES HORLOGERS - Jean-Pierre Viennet

Besançon: the next generation